When I was younger, way younger, a couple of decades ago, I was quite the precocious pre-teen. Or at least, I like to tell myself that, because everyone likes to look back on their childhood and think that they were the king of the hill, top of the pops. Isn’t that exactly what our parents used to tell us – for some of us, still do? ‘When I was your age, I was always number 1.’ Because obviously there must have been 700 number 1s considering the frequency with which I hear this statement. ‘You should be thankful that there is a bus picking you up every day! In my day, we had to walk hundreds of kilometres just to see one teacher – and that was all before 5 am!’ Well Dad, thank God for the invention of the wheel. ‘You know, Abi, by the time I was your age, I was married with four children…’ This one is self explanatory and still raw so I’ll move right along.

When I say I was precocious, it’s mostly because I feel like I was a lot smarter then than I am now, and that’s the truth. Granted, I didn’t speak as many languages as I do now, but there were lots of cool things I used to do that I thought were cool then and still think are cool now, but don’t do now. One of those things was playing piano. I used to love playing the piano! I would feel like a young Beethoven  – the musician, not the dog – prodigious, weighty and self important with my inherent talent, sitting up there pounding out Swan something from the Grade 1 piano book.

My piano teacher, Yohannes, wasn’t necessarily taking me as seriously as I was taking myself. Even then he would tell me that I shouldn’t be able to play piano because my fingers were too fat. For the record, my fingers still are fat. Luckily, I have a thick hide and a long memory, so I took what he told me and proceeded to play at my first recital the month after. When I stopped piano lessons, something happened – I lost the need to be consistent, and to keep playing, and basically stagnated at the level I was until eventually, most of the skill left me completely. Even now, when I am at KNT and I walk by the Conservatoire, I always wonder, could this have been me? If I hadn’t been such a lazy angsty teenager, uninterested in the world outside of Godzilla on STV and Sweet Valley High, where would I be now?

Maybe I would have been a Simon Kariuki, meeting people like Kirk Whalum at Safaricom Jazz this year. I had never heard about Kirk Whalum before Safaricom Jazz, even though he played one of my favourite saxophone solos from one of my favourite musician’s songs (the solo I speak of is the one from I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston, who I also happen to be born on the same day as, but that’s neither here nor there). So I had heard his work but never met the man, because as it happens with musical masterpieces, the behind the scenes cast is rarely brought to the fore.

Simon is one of those behind the scenes guys, the people doing the work to make the masterpiece. He is the 30 year old manager of Ghetto Classics in Korogocho, and like me, he also started playing instruments as a teenager, although a slightly older one. ‘I started out as a student at Ghetto Classics, and then, I suppose, organically became a manager.’ He started out his journey at the end of 2008, towards the beginning of 2009, around the time he finished with his high school examinations. Much like me, adole ilikuwa inamsumbua. (LOL I kid. Why were we told that so often?) Whereas my mini rebellions started after my introduction to classical music, his started before.

Simon was a member of St. John’s Catholic Church, and one day they were introduced to Elizabeth Njoroge, who is the founder and director of  Ghetto Classics. They were told that she wanted to start a classical music program. ‘We were very green,’ he remembers. ‘This was a new genre of music we were not used to, a whole new culture outside of that which we already knew,  like reggae, hip hop or traditional music.’ Simon talks about having never listened to classical music except in the movies, a la a rousing soundtrack in James Bond and such things. He would hear the music, like the violins, and never know that it was a violin playing. ‘I thought that music was only for Western people.’

And because of this attitude, the whole classical music was weird for him at first. When Elizabeth started out the program, there weren’t that many people who were willing to come to the class from Korogocho. Initially, she had to give them the incentive of soda for everyone who came for the class to get them to stay. ‘We thought it was very boring,’ says Simon, laughing. ‘I was actually very irregular. I dropped out and came back, dropped out and came back, many times. Not just because it was boring, but also because it was challenging.’ The music was strange. They were occupied with the business of life in a community that was peppered with crime. They felt self conscious playing things they had never seen before, and, there weren’t a lot of instruments either. Classical music was not high on their list of priorities.

Eventually, however, through Elizabeth’s perseverance and  a little bit of exposure, Simon came around to the idea that this, in fact, was a good idea. ‘I met artists who had made it out of their situations, made lives for themselves, through classical music and jazz, which are related. It took me understanding, on my side, that I could transform my life in a  positive manner. So I decided to learn.’ And learn he did. Elizabeth took him to a  local university, where he graduated with a BA in Music. ‘For me classical and jazz music transformed my life. It has impact in our society. Whatever we’re doing on the ground, makes some sort of difference.’

The society he speaks of is the community around Korogocho, which can sometimes be a little difficult to work with. ‘We get resistance from schools here sometimes. They don’t always understand the bigger picture, that it is a process and the transformation can’t happen haraka haraka. It isn’t something that is going to take two months.’ Apparently as soon as they see the sponsorship banners, things can go a little left. On top of that, now that Simon has graduated and is making a career for himself in Music Development – more behind the scenes work – it gets difficult to figure out who is going to take over after him. ‘Music is a tool to navigate towards other things. I miss performances a lot. I wanted to record one of Kirk’s songs but I was so busy. Every time someone wants to record, I’m busy. When people are in studio, I’m up and down. But what I need to do right now is nurture more people who can take on my responsibilities with Ghetto Classics. If I get a scholarship, for example, I wouldn’t decline it, and someone would have to continue the program, understand community and challenges. It isn’t easy.’

See how he refers to Kirk so easily by his first name? That could have been me, hehe. And of course because I’m fixated on my one degree of separation to the wonderful Whitney, I ask him towards the end of our conversation what it was like to meet this great artist. ‘It was amazing to see him. He motivated me a lot. And you know, he even quoted me, in some of the interviews of his I read online, on how music has managed to change the perception of people. I felt good because I realized that we have power, regardless of where we’re coming from.’ 

Sometime we listen to music just for entertainment, but there is that time when music become a route to escape. When you want to get away. From people, or even from yourself. Music makes you forget, even if for a fleeting moment, everything that is wrong. Those are the moments when words fail but songs speaks everything you wanted to say. But for Simon and the other Ghetto Classics students, music (jazz, especially) offers them all that and more. It also gives them a second chance at life, for some, and for others, a proper one.

Some would say that is a beautiful thing.

And I would agree with them.

Cover image source: Pro Audio Land


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