Jazz not a popular music genre in Kenya

Monday, April 26th, 2021 00:00 |

Jazz is not a popular music genre in Kenya, but its acceptance has changed for the better in the last few years. But as the world gears itself up to mark the International Jazz Day, efforts to make it a preferred genre for the masses hang in the balance, writes Allan Adalla 

Allan Adalla @allan_adalla

For 10 years now, the music world has celebrated the International Jazz Day on every April 30.

The day was declared so by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in 2011 to highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the world.

Unfortunately, for the second year running, jazz lovers will this Friday mark the biggest day on jazz calendar virtually, thanks to Covid-19.

The pandemic has been a huge blow to the music sector, especially the artistes that depended on performing to a live physical audience.

Jazz originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans in Louisiana, USA, in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, with its roots in blues and ragtime. 

Since the 1920s jazz age, it has been recognised as a major form of musical expression in traditional and popular music, linked by the common bonds of African-American and European-American musical parentage.

Eddie Grey, one of Kenya’s most renowned jazz artistes and guitarists, says that the jazz fraternity is wounded by the fact that, for the second time, the artistes will have to perform without a live audience.

“As everything goes virtual due to the pandemic, it is a challenge for us since some of us who were used to getting the energy from a live audience are now missing out on it.

I always compare music to sports where you need to draw the vigour from the fans in order to know whether you are doing good or not,” he tells Spice.

The roots

Eddie drew the passion for jazz aged just five years, as his dad had a collection of jazz vinyl records at home.

He later pursued music in university. “I got inspired into jazz by the likes of Hugh Masekela, Black Mambazo, Manu Dibango and Moses Taiwa Molelekwa,” he adds.

Nairobi School played a big part for Tim Riungu, a jazz saxophonist, in becoming a jazz artiste. The school has had a vibrant music programme for many years and has produced many successful jazz musicians.

“It is in Nairobi School that I got the chance to be up-close with the brass instruments. I started playing the trombone in the school brass band then graduated to the saxophone, a course that I later pursued in the university,” he says.

He adds, “We were in the same band in high school with Aron ‘Krucial Keys’ Rimbui, Jacob Asiyo, Chris Adwar and Zack Amunga among others. That was in the early to the mid 90s.

Later, Edward Parsin also joined. We all got the same music background there,” Tim narrates, while advising parents to always engage their children on what they love as early as they realise their passions.

Locally, Safaricom—through its former chief executive officer the late Bob Collymore— introduced the Safaricom International Jazz Festival in 2014 up until 2019.

The festival popularised the jazz genre in Kenya and made people change their perceptions about it, Collymore himself being a staunch fan of jazz.

He brought various initiatives to nurture and popularise the jazz culture in the country, among them the Ghetto Classics programme, a community programme that started in 2010 and involves promoting music to children in different slums of Nairobi, with its base in Korogocho.

The programme aims to provide music education to the young for opportunities to better themselves and their community.

Joseph Omondi, a former student of the Ghetto Classics programme and is now a saxophone, piano and recorder tutor for the project, says Safaricom Jazz Festival played a big part in his career.

“I got to interact with many jazz artistes both local and international. Various students have also gone abroad to study music and they are now earning through jazz and this has indeed broken the stereotype that this music genre is for the wealthy,” he intimates.

In doubt

Swahili jazz artiste Juma Tutu doubts if Bob’s legacy will continue. He feels that there is no one now on the frontline to support the events. “The future of jazz is unpredictable in Kenya since the person that used to promote it unconditionally is no longer there.

The radio stations are also treating Kenyan jazz as inferior and instead prefer the international version of it; it is a big problem,” he tells Spice.

Tutu found himself in love with jazz at a young age. He says he wanted to make the music appeal to the context where he was living and that is why he started doing jazz in Kiswahili.

He chose the genre since he felt like it was a form of therapy for him and for the listeners. But why did he choose a different genre from his younger sister Nyota Ndogo, you may ask?

“It is because of the influence and the generations. I was brought up when live music was most popular but for her, she came to the limelight when genge was the popular music,” he says.

On the stereotype that jazz is for the rich, Juma says he doesn’t believe so, but many jazz artistes are not necessarily affluent as compared to the ones listening to the genre. He adds that in music, what matters is the influence, as it doesn’t respect class.

Riungu adds that what has led to the stagnation of jazz popularity in Kenya, unlike other genres such as hip-hop, is the fact that people gravitate to what sounds familiar.

“When we are young, our music taste is also young, but when we become old, our taste matures and that’s why jazz music is mostly listened to by adults of above 35 years of age.

People that come to my events are so mature and loyal since they are past the age of experimenting unlike the young fans,” he says in conclusion. 

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