Everyone has a secret life that they always thought they could have. If they weren’t living the life they were living in right now. If circumstances had gone differently, you know what I mean? Like if your parents hadn’t said you absolutely must do engineering. Or if at some point during your high school education, before they cancelled Woodwork, you had picked up a semblance of talent. I’ve always known what my secret life would be. You could call it secret, or you could call it the thing I know I would be in a parallel universe. Somewhere, in a galaxy far far away, there very well might be a version of this Abigail who is what this Abigail never could figure out how to be.
The reason I could never figure out how this person was meant to be is because I have kind of always been a writer. As soon as I learnt how to read, I started to write. There was little space for anything else. I drew and illustrated my first book at the precocious age of five, with my best friend, Chipo. It was an alphabet book and it was, as anyone with a proper head would expect, terrible. We drew on white pieces of paper and then stuck them on bright blue harder paper that we must have most certainly stolen from school. But, it was published – and I use this term published rather loosely here, because what I mean is that we bound the pieces of manila paper together and presented them to the adults in charge as a completed project to be proud of. I quote this story often. I remember it with fondness, often.
But somehow, somewhere, I always thought that I could be able to be a singer.
I know how obvious that sounds, because who doesn’t want to be a singer, you know? And there are a lot of things that could have led me down that path. For one, I grew up Adventist. Adventists, I’ve always thought, have a particular gift for music, and I think it is because we are surrounded by it from a very early age. Music is a strong ministry and to be honest, Adventists do music really well. I learnt how to harmonize almost as soon as I started going to church (from the womb, obviously), and to this day it comes easily to me. They you can always tell who the Adventists are at the club because they’re constantly harmonizing all the jams. Those people have never lied, fam.
Then, there was the fact that it is an easy switch from writer of alphabet books and novellas to songwriter. Though I find songwriting very hard, in my youth, I would attempt it often. But looking back, so many of my songs sounded like reinterpretations of the soundtracks of the Disney movies and watched and loved so well. There was one that sounded exactly like Kiss The Girl from The Little Mermaid. I remember performing it in front of my mother. She was so proud, Lord love her. Little did she know that her baby starlet was a chronic thief of intellectual property. Even though the baby starlet didn’t know what Copyright was at the time, or even how to say it correctly.
In high school, I was in my school choir, and because I am who I am as a person, forced a title for myself in said choir so that I could feel a little more important than I actually was; Voice Practice Coordinator. What I lacked in title, though, I made up for in enthusiasm. When high school ended, I basically forced my friends at church into a singing group, and we called it – completely unironically – Harmony.
Those were some of the best times of my life, I think. I hadn’t suffered from heartbreak yet – ha! – and I hadn’t joined campus. Saturday afternoons were filled with leisurely practice sessions where I sang better than I have ever sang in my life – thanks to Kim and Mike, who were generally in charge of which voices went where and did what. They’re musical geniuses, if I’m being frank. And yes, I had forced them into the group – but I think we were all pretty happy.
Eventually Harmony disbanded, for a couple of reasons. One was, two of the members wanted to pursue solo careers. Meshack – who co-wrote Weche Tek by Dela – and Dela herself. I mean, after hearing Paukwa, I was glad to see her go, but still pretty torn up about it when it actually happened. Linda went back to school, and then there were three.
At some point, I wanted to be in a band that wasn’t singing in church only. And so I started looking for a band to be in. As you can imagine, that didn’t go very well with my SDA mother. My father never heard about this part of my post-teenage years, and I’m sure he would keel over in shock if he did, which is why he was never told. I remember finding these guys who used to practice at Alliance and going up to them to ask if they needed a lead singer. Fortunately at the time, their lead singer was being quite the contrarian diva at the time, so they took me on for the times that the singer would be acting temperamental and not show up.
They gave me a CD with songs they often played and told me to practice. I distinctly remember being too lazy to practice. The lead singer problem did lead to me often praying that she would not show up. I would cross my fingers that she would get too big for her britches and then make a dramatic exit like Mariah Carey with the whole I-can’t-sing-under-these-conditions tantrum, and then I would step in, humble but still confident, wowing audiences with my masterful ad libs- with the demure air of someone who is definitely going to be a cover star…and the rest, would be history.
Even though I had the whole story myopically written in my head, as you can seem here were several plot-holes in this sequence; like my laziness, and also considering that to this day, my ad libbing is still atrociously bad.
This new band would sing at Havana on Saturday nights. Havana, the one on Electric Avenue that apparently has good food that I’ve never tasted? That one. It was dark and smoky, a bit like the Havana itself after the fall of night. And the crowd wasn’t the type who particularly appreciated music, which is what I noticed the first time I nervously walked in. The lead singer had thrown a fit (YES! My plan was working!) and I was called upon at the last minute to go fill in. Not the whole night, mind you, but just a bit, for them to test me out, so that the bar owners didn’t think they had brought no singers at all. I walked into the bar and sat down, wondering how I was going to get home and wondering what I was going to tell my mother when I did. If I ordered a drink, would they ask for my freshly-minted ID? What is someone saw me in a bar, ordering drinks by myself? I was like ok maybe I should just leave because I was clearly in over my head and there was only so much Snake I could play on this Nokia 1100 – but then John, the band leader, called me up to sing.
I wasn’t ready but I stood on, wobbly knees notwithstanding. You see, people don’t know this about me, but I’m actually quite shy. And I suffer from the kind of stomach churning right before getting on a stage that is fondly known as stage fright. Even as I sing, I’m singing with nerves. That night was no different. Luckily the band sang in a bit of a corner at the entrance, so the patrons couldn’t directly see me, even though my microphone was right at the front. All I really wanted to do was sing, and not even an uninterested audience or wobbly knees were going to stop me. Mostly.
The first song I ever did was L-O-V-E by Nat King Cole – one of my all time favourites, even before I joined a band, ever. Followed by the mildly difficult What’s Love Got To Do With It by Tina Turner. I say difficult because I started singing it ok, and then right in the middle of the song, there’s a bit of a transposition – she changes key and goes into a lower, then higher key, and I forgot that there was that bit in the middle. My voice did that thing where it dies because it is fully aware that you are not a soprano, but I powered through to the end. I almost choked and I was a bit mortified. And no, there was no standing ovation, like in the movies when the heroine gets through a difficult scene in Act Two. But I still came back the next week. Until my mother told me I was forbidden to sing to drunkards every weekend after that, so that ended my short-lived bar belting career.
Then there was Wooden Table, the third band by now, and the biggest one I had been in. We had more instruments – two acoustic guitarists, a drummer (our first drummer never showed up for practice, it was a disaster) and a bass guitarist, and, a pianist. I felt on top of the world. But then – and this is a common narrative, it would seem – people branched away from this band to launch their own thing as well. It’s like I’m the Good Luck Chuck of successful musical careers, apparently. The way church choirs are for all great R&B singers.
After this, there were one or two stints of backup singing, like the CATSI concert for Patricia Kihoro when she still used to perform Amarula (such a good song. I still miss it.). There was a little songwriting. Theme song performances for the TV shows I’d written. But it wasn’t wholehearted enough to turn into anything, I guess, because, as I said, I’ve always been a writer. I even went for auditions for something – where I sang Eric Clapton’s Change the World and they asked me to be a little more contemporary. What can I say, I’m an old soul.
Sometimes, you have to make a choice and figure out where you’re going to direct your energies. If I were younger, and still in my maybe I can do both careers phase, I’m sure I would have gone for the Twaweza Live auditions. You know that community engagement program that Safaricom is doing, but in the form of a talent search across Kenya in an ambitious seven month long project? That one.
That’s what I would have gone for. I would have looked at the judges and immediately wanted to perform for them. You know how everyone secretly believes that they’re the winning act, they’re what the judges are looking for? Those ones of you’ve believed that as soon as you walk in, they will most assuredly hand you the golden ticket or whatever and the Simon Cowell of the judges will say something like “I’ve never seen anything like you, with such spirit and verve, not since the Spice Girls” and you’ll cry as the crowd cheers your name? Yeah, that’s me. I watched the auditions that kina Fena did in Mombasa, and they were so lit! There was a DJ there, DJ Quest, who took the crowd by storm. And as always there were just a few entrants to make you shake your head in disbelief because they clearly have no friends to tell them to never sing again (like my friends told me about my spoken word performances…). And since it is all over Kenya, I’m sure they’d get to me somehow. They’re trying to engage communities, after all.
It feels like a great time to be a young artist, or a young player in the creative industry who has a talent – because that means that it is entirely possible that Safaricom can find you and be that launching pad for your career. Maybe if Twaweza Live had been around when I was starting out, I would have learnt the skills necessary to pursue all the aspects of my creativity that I wanted to, seeing as they are also doing SKIZA boot camps during the talent searches and community engagements to teach Kenyan musicians how to make money from their music, and keep track of their earned revenue. Of course I’d have to make the money first…
Or maybe, if I had stuck to doing what I was already doing, I would have been a moderately established artist, then Safaricom would have asked me to perform in one of the live music concerts. Twaweza Live is going to be choosing local acts to do these concerts, and maybe I would have made the cut. As is evidenced by this entire story, I dream rather big. Maybe they would have been wowed by…my ad libs, and I would have had the chance to get on stage in front of hundreds of people, with my stage fright roiling in my gut and my ears pounding with the noise of the people below.
Then maybe I would take to the stage, and grab the microphone, and, maybe, in a galaxy far far away, I would have been proud of me.