Out to Africa

Acces – Music in Africa and MediaSoundHamburg in Nairobi

by Stephan Eicke

When I mentioned to my doctor I would be going to Africa, a smile appeared on her face, a smile so bright it showed her remarkably white teeth. “Whereabouts in Africa?” “Nairobi,” I answered, and could see her face drop. “Oh.”

When I mentioned to a friend I would be going to Nairobi, he described the city in derogatory terms and recommended instead to go see the countryside in Kenya, or – even better, travel to South Africa and spend some time in nature. They are people who appreciate beauty, who go on vacation to relax, to be pampered, to marvel at nature’s astonishing delights. Having been to Nairobi now, I can understand why this city offers little appeal to them. Nairobi can make it difficult for people who appreciate beauty and glamour. Nairobi is not that. Nairobi is too rich in its culture, tradition and history for that. In some ways, the city – a metropolis of over three million citizens – is rather similar to London, where I live, in the sense that you can walk down a street lined with high trees, green bushes and expensive mansions before turning around a corner and suddenly being faced with human misery, poverty and suffering. It is exactly these opposites that make Nairobi (and London, for that matter) the fascinating place it is. Another obvious similarity between the Kenyan capital and the British capital is that by having seen only them, you can’t possibly claim to know the country, or even have a sense of what the surrounding cities and villages are like. Nairobi and London are their own microcosms, vibrant with life, exhilarating and exhausting to equal degrees.

First things first: I had been invited to give a class on Composing For Film at the second “Acces – Music in Africa” conference. While the first conference had taken place in Senegal in 2017, this year’s event was to be staged in Nairobi, Kenya with the support of Siemens Foundation and Goethe Institute, among others. My dear friend Achim Esser-Mamat of “MediaSoundHamburg”, fascinated by the work of Siemens Foundation, had gotten in touch with its representative Jens Cording who in turn had gotten him in touch with Eddie Hatitye from “Acces”. (The Siemens Foundation has worked long and hard to give musicians in poorer countries such as Kenya chances to make their works public and bring an awareness to African music. For example, they sponsored South Sudanese musicians by handing them 15.000 €. For that money, the musicians were free to stage concerts, which they duly did – ten concerts, to be exact since concerts in South Sudan can’t be advertised and don’t take place in large arenas but in small, intimate living rooms instead. Otherwise their concerts will be targeted by terrorists who will shoot everybody dead.)

A deal was struck: “MediaSoundHamburg” became partner of “Acces”, offering a talented student from Kenya a scholarship (which went to Alice Ragoi, a singer and composer), which meant attending “MediaSound” the following year. In turn, “Acces” would invite a speaker associated with “MediaSound” and advertise for the event. Since Achim’s speaker of choice had gracefully turned down the offer of giving a class in Nairobi because the class itself didn’t come with a fee but was to be given “pro bono”, I was the next logical choice to ask. I have known and loved Achim for close to ten years and attended his annual “MediaSound” events in Hamburg Blankenese with great joy. Because Achim and his family had grown close to my heart, to give a class in Nairobi as a representative for “MediaSound” was an offer I couldn’t possibly turn down – despite the fact that I loath traveling like a dog loathes his baths.

Kenyans all have a calmness around them that is deeply admirable, if it doesn’t increase your stress level to completely new heights, for if you want something urgently, you better be patient. Kenyans do take their time. None of the events and classes, forums and workshops we attended started at the time they were advertised.

When things had to be fixed, they did get fixed, but not a single soul seemed to be in any hurry at all. I think we Europeans have a lot to learn from this laid back attitude, even if it takes some getting used to. Often classes started nearly an hour late, but that was simply the way it was.

What is the point of running around like the roadrunner? We have all the time in the world. You can’t help but getting in this ZEN mode yourself, and it is probably the main reason for why a stay in Kenya is so deeply relaxing, no matter how hectic your actual schedule is. If everybody around is at peace with themselves, how can you keep up the attitude of a permanently stressed individual, juggling many things at the same time? You learn to sit back, watch and enjoy yourself. Whether you want it or not. The ZEN attitude goes hand in hand with another observation that became plainly evident within a few minutes after we had touched ground in Nairobi: everybody is as kind as the next man. Kenyans are friendly, open and kindhearted people who would never hesitate a second to offer you their help. I have to confess that my initial thought was they expect some financial rewards for their offered support – and this might very well be true, but it doesn’t change the fact in the slightest that anyone coming to Kenya can rely on the kindness of strangers. How wonderful they are – and how wonderfully sharp and humorous.

The organizers behind “Acces” had assembled a colorful cast of speakers from all over the world, all of whom were in Nairobi sharing their wisdom “pro bono”, since African participants could attend the various workshops, forums and classes for free.

“Acces” isn’t so much about making money but more about sharing information and enabling aspiring artists to make it, to branch out after getting insights from colleagues in the Western World.

A couple of Kenyan attendees had already made it big, though. Artists such as Eric Wainaina and Mr Eazi had been booked for inspirational speeches, to show the participants of this year’s event that they can become just as successful as them – you simply have to dream big and work hard. Well, it wasn’t the only reason Eric Wainaina had been booked to attend “Acces”: on the opening night he also received the “Music in Africa” award for his musical achievements. Indeed, his achievements are quite impressive. Born in Kenya, he founded an A cappella group, moved to the US to study at Berklee College of Music. He majored in songwriting and record engineering and graduated with honors. That was just the beginning. His song “Kenya Only” became the unofficial national anthem. His first solo album remains one of the highest-selling solo albums in Kenya. He played at the UN headquarters in New York in 2002. He was commissioned to write the UN-MDG anthem at the closing ceremony of the FIFA World Cup in 2010. He wrote “Tinga Tinga Tales”, which is the first Kenyan musical performed on Broadway.

But what does it say about the Kenyan citizens when the Kenyan music they love most doesn’t sound Kenyan but is instead a Western pop song with all its cliches and references, as Wainaina’s music is? I guess it’s about the smallest common denominator, really. Simple, catchy tunes, similar to the ones that top the charts in the US all the time appeal to everybody. Traditional African music is much different from that. The rhythms are complex, the melodies not ear worms immediately. Listening to African music requires attention (what a terrible generalization), as we were to find out in the course of the opening night. While the turnout was not as big as expected (the organizers had collected around 700 registrations, but only about half of the people turned up – probably the biggest hang-up of offering concerts and events for free), the evening celebrations were a revelation to our Western ears. The line-up was a fantastic artistic success, since the audiences got to hear traditional African music in its various stages of development. The evening started with a performance from Johnstone Mukabi and the Omutibo Stars Band, an old-fashioned group that entertained its listeners with their voices, guitars and an old glass bottle which provided the percussion part. Everything was delightfully stripped back, naked and bare. Speaking of which, the lyrics were allegedly just as old-fashioned as the music, leading my neighbor to the left to wonder out loud whether sexist texts that portrayed women as playthings for men were really appropriate for a performance in 2018. However anti-feminist the texts were (and I have no idea since I don’t speak Kiswahili), it was important to have that particular band on stage, since their opening act was to show the progression African music has undergone. After the old geezers had left the stage, the music played by the following bands got consequently more progressive, inventive and “modern”, culminating in a half hour concert by Eric Wainaina. There were concerts every evening, but I deem the opening night the perfect showcase of African music since it gave the best possible overview (I think) of African music and its development.

There were all sorts of other events in the course of the next few days as well. In particular there was a networking session set up in a huge tent just next to the National Theatre which served as the main place for the various activities of “Acces” in 2018. Aspiring musicians could meet supposedly influential colleagues, producers and managers from the Western World to “speed date”, basically. Allegedly it was quite chaotic – as speed dating is, I suppose. Not that I have ever attended a speed dating session, or a speed networking session, for that matter. Ugh, networking!

Among the various panels, workshops and presentations were “Music Production Essentials”, “Royalty Collection – Africa’s Biggest Enemy?” (royalties are still very much a foreign word for most aspiring artists and in Africa generally, but we are getting there, slowly, slowly), “Music Education in Africa & Africa in Music Education”, and of course there was my workshop, “Composing for Film”, on the 17th of November. I had struggled to develop my powerpoint presentation in the preceding weeks, for I had no idea what my audience would be. I was sure there would be many people there who had had no attraction pole to film music at all, because I knew that Nollywood (the domineering force in the African film community) rarely employs original film music but simply puts pre-existing songs and instrumental pieces under the scenes without properly licensing them first. Therefore I needed to talk about what film music does in the first place. And what then? There would also be talented musicians and producers in the audience who already knew a little bit and were looking forward to exploring music production more. How does one write music to picture? I thought I had found a solution for everything: I showed brief clips that showcased what film music can do (provide mood, emotion, back story to the characters in the movie) and then ventured off into music production. What tools does a film composer usually need in order to make his compositions heard and convince the directors and producers? But of course it would be foolish to do all of that without explaining how the film industry works as a whole. Therefore I did what I always like to do: make the aspiring composers aware of the pitfalls they might encounter in their field. Temp tracks, increasing time pressure, test screenings, and such.

The big advantage of presenting your workshop on the last day is that you have the opportunity to get immersed in your surroundings and develop a feeling for how people tick. I had already experienced how wonderfully kind Kenyans are and was not concerned that they would rip me to pieces and leave the workshop in droves in the middle of it. And they didn’t.

“Acces” was more inspiring for me than it could have possibly been for any of the people attending my workshop. The people were wonderful and the music was marvelous. Unfortunately, African music isn’t traditionally written down, so there is very little material a composer can study when they want to write African-inspired music. Instead, music is learned by listening to other artists closely and improvising together. God, how I would love to study their complex rhythms!

I arrived back home in London on the evening of the 20th of November, and felt truly grateful for the experience I was able to make. What a fantastic city, what gorgeous people, what adorable encounters! Nairobi is a city so rich in contradictions and culture that I wouldn’t hesitate a second if I was asked to come back. There is still so much to explore.



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