The Safaricom Jazz journey and the impact of the international artists on the Kenyan music scene

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This year, Safaricom Jazz will be celebrating its 6th anniversary since inception. The journey started out back in 2013 when the Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore asked Elizabeth Njoroge the founder of Ghetto Classics to form the Safaricom Youth Orchestra. The orchestra was meant to bring together kids from privileged backgrounds with those from the Ghetto Classics. The following year Safaricom started the Safaricom International Jazz Festival in which all proceeds from the ticket sales were to be donated to the Ghetto Classics programme. This is where our story begins.

Before the inception of Safaricom Jazz, there used to be a relatively small jazz audience. However, the festival changed the game forever in this our country when they started bringing in celebrated international artists. Who not only made individuals like me who had a passing interest in jazz actually grow to love it. They also made the local artists up their game after sharing the stage with internationally acclaimed artists like late Hugh MasekelaRichard BonaJonathan ButlerSalif KeitaAlune Wade among others. I mean who wouldn’t bring their A game when faced with greatness?

The inaugural Safaricom Jazz Festival was held at the Ngong Racecourse on the 24th of February 2014, it appears that being the first festival the organizers had not anticipated a big crowd hence the choice of location. However, the turnout was pretty good, it appears that Kenyans had been longing for such a festival. The main act on this day was Richard Bona from Cameroon who is a Grammy Award winning jazz bassist. Other international acts were The Nile Project (Nile Basin), Rhythm Junks (Belgium) and Yuval Cohen (Israel). They were supported by Kenyan acts like Jacob and Kavutha Asiyo, Aaron Rimbui and Eddie Grey.

In September, Kunle Ayo from Nigeria was in town for the Safaricom Jazz Lounge which went down at the Carnovore. Kavutha and Jacob Asiyo were the curtain raisers during this event where Kunle performed original compositions as well as renditions of popular songs from Nigeria.

In December 2014, Jimmy Dludlu was in town for the last jazz festival of the year. This time it was held at the Kasarani indoor arena. The curtan raisers for the night were the Swahili Jazz band who did not disappoint with their Swahili flavored music. Jimmy Dludlu was next on stage and he did not disappoint with his mad guitar skills. He at some point even came off the stage to join the audience who were dancing. He also played the national anthem which made the crowd love him even more.

In February 2015, Jonathan Butler a South African singer-songwriter and guitarist was in town for the Safaricom International Jazz Festival. The festival took place at the Ngong Race Course and the supporting acts included Swahili Jazz Band, Isaiah Kutumwa (Uganda), Soweto Kinch (UK), Nicolas Kummet Voices (Belgium), Tomer Bar Trio (Israel), Ack Van Rooyen & Juraj Stanik (Netherlands). There was also a special performance by Jimmy Dludlu.

In August 2015, Salif Keita from Mali also known as the Golden Voice of Africa was in town for the Safaricom Jazz Lounge. The event kicked off with a super energetic show from James Gogo and the Gogo Simo band. Keita took to the stage and he electrified the crowd with with his songs such as Mandjou, Yamore, Tekere, Africa and others.

In December 2015, we had A Gospel according to jazz with Kirk Whalum. This particular show was held at the carnivore. Other than the main act, there was Norman Brown, multiple Grammy Award Nominee Gerald Albright and Shelea Frazier. The Kenyan acts included Edward Parseen and the Different Faces Band and AfroSync. Other than the main acts, Edward Parseen and his band brought the house down.

February 2016, this time around Bradford Marsalis was the headliner from the U.S.  Other acts were the likes of Jef Neve (Belgium), Maya Belsitzman and Matan Ephrat (Israel), Sons of Kemet (UK), Siya Makuzeni (South Africa) and Kunle Ayo (Nigeria). Kenya was represented by the Afrosync Band, Edward Parseen and the Different Faces Band and The Safaricom Youth Orchestra. There was the hypnotizing jazz by Maya Belsitxman and Matan Ephrat  while Jef Neve Trio was a bit soothing. Siya Makuzeni engaged in what seemed like a tribal dance all that was missing was a bonfire and feathers on our heads. Sons of Kemet had people dancing the whole time they performed. The main act came in later than expected so some people had started leaving but he still rocked the show.

August 2016, this time the Safaricom Jazz Lounge was held at the Uhuru Gardens with Hugh Masekela as the headliner. He was supported by Kenyan acts like Nairobi Horns Project and Mwai & The Truth. Despite his old age, Masekela who was known for songs such as the anti-apartheid anthem ‘Bring Home Nelson Mandela’, Grazing in the grass and Stimela. Produced an energetic performance which wowed the crowd.

November 2016, this time it was Robert Fonseca a Cuban pianist and Fatoumata Diawara from Mali who were the headliners. Shamsi Music, the prolific Kenyan afro-jazz band were the support act. Fatoumata started her set slowly but within no time she had let down her dreadlock and started dancing, boy can she dance. Soon she had everyone up on their feet dancing. Roberto on the other hand played piano so effortlessly and threw in theatrics here and there to spice up his performance.

February 2017, the headliner was David Sanborn with the supporting acts being, Taxi Wars – Belgium The Hazelnuts – Israel, Arun Ghosh – UK, Bokani Dyer – South Africa, Ray Lema – Democratic Republic of Congo, Saka Saka Band – Democratic Republic of Congo. Kenyan acts were Shamsi Music, Nairobi Horns Project and Mwai and The Truth. The Kenyan acts Shamsi music had everyone on their feet dancing and singing along to tunes of covers which consisted of afro-jazz and an extra dash of contemporary classics like Ni Murata. Nairobi Horns on the other hand had the fans screaming at the top of their lungs when they started performed a mash up set consisting of songs like the legendary classic Boomba Train by the late E-sir, Kookoo by Elani Music and Nyashinki’s Mungu Pekee. David Sanborn Backed up by his amazing band, they had revelers on their feet singing along to songs from some of his renowned albums ‘Time in the river’, and a very special performance of ‘The Dream’.

February 2018, the headliner for the jazz festival were the American trio of Kirk Whalum, Norman Brown and Rick Braun. Supporting acts were the Betty Bears from Israel, Lean from Belgium, Joya Wendt from Germany, Gloria Bosman from South Africa and our very own Mambo Tribe and Limericks. Mambo Rick’s fusion of coastal beats with jazz was really fun and set the stage for an evening of dancing. My favorite performance was from Jojo Wendt, the highlight of his set being the jazz rendition of ‘flight of the bumblebee’, which is considered one of the most difficult pieces of music. The headliners, Braun-Whalum-Brown (BWB) got on stage at about 7pm and performed until 9pm. They did a lot of pop classic renditions like Micheal Jackson’s ‘Billy Jean’ and pieces from the ‘The Bodyguard’ movie which they helped to score. Femme fusion and the Limericks also gave killer performances. To cap the show was an amazing fireworks display which I thoroughly enjoyed.

The pairing of the international acts with Kenyan jazz artists was a genius move by Safaricom. This is because enabled the Kenyan acts to interact with and learn from the very best of Jazz internationally. It has also helped them network. This is why it is every Kenyan jazz musician dream to be able to play at the Safaricom Jazz Festival. Since the festival came into being it is clear to see that the quality of jazz in the country has improved greatly.

All the proceeds of the Safaricom jazz festivals go towards funding Ghetto Classics which is a programme that aims to change the lives of children in the disadvantaged parts of our country. So far, the jazz festival has been able to contribute over Ksh. 60 Million towards this project and has been able to touch the lives of over 1,400 children in Nairobi and Mombasa. Other than funding, the international acts like Branford Marsalis, Kirk Whalum and Salif Keïta among others have given lessons to the children from Ghetto Classics thus inspiring them to achieve greatness. Sometimes in life when you are down, you just need someone to give you hope for a better tomorrow and this is what these acts have done for the children at Ghetto Classics over the years.

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