Society & Success

Musician sets the tone for Kenyan style of jazz

Christine Kamau is a Kenyan Afro-Jazz trumpeter and composer. Photo/Courtesy
Christine Kamau is a Kenyan Afro-Jazz trumpeter and composer. Photo/Courtesy 

Christine Kamau is part of the wave of Kenyan musicians dedicating themselves to playing jazz. In the last three years, she has been on stage playing for a growing number of Kenyan jazz enthusiasts.

“I am a vibrant young Kenyan who is enjoying life and doing what I love most. As a musician, I am an instrumentalist. I play the trumpet, the saxophone and a bit of keyboard,” she says.

Her desire is to grow a local appreciation for this music genre and prove to the sceptics that women can do jazz.

In April 2012, she released her first album This is for You, an eight-track and purely instrumental jazz. It took one and half years to put the band together, record and master to get it ready.

Recorded at the Rafiki Studios, mixed and mastered by Romeo Kouemeni and with her mother as co-executive producer, the album “offers an easy listening experience the music being a fusion of jazz with elements of benga and rhumba.”

“Now that I have done my album, I want to expose more people to it and instrumental jazz music. I found that people who listen to jazz are open to things that are different and new.”

One of the tracks, Conversations, was inspired by the busy bus stops in the evening when Nairobi workers are rushing back home.

The noise, car horns and raving engines made her write a piece of work that is calming, relaxing and can help them to listen and think. “It is meant to inspire you and relax your nerves,” says Ms Kamau.

Since its release, she has done concerts including Blankets and Wine, Jazz Under the Stars, Sierra Ladies of Jazz and the Afro-jazz Concert Series. 

Conversations and This is for You are getting local radio airplay, which, she says, is helping to change Kenyans’ perceptions about jazz.

Ms Kamau says when people think of jazz they assume the hotel or bar music playing in background. They also do not expect jazz written in a Kenyan style.

“It’s growing. In the beginning, I could count maybe five people who are really serious jazz players but last year, I got to meet new people, like Kato, who is only 22 on the guitar and he is really good. There is even a group called Jazz Girls that started last year and they had a concert,” she says.

She performs with other people to be exposed to other musical talents.

Isaac Khakula (bass guitar), Ken Simiyu (keyboard), Daniel Macharia (drums), Emmanuel Kute (flute and alto saxophone) and Matthew Makumi (guitar) make her team.

Ms Kamau grew up in Nakuru and when she showed interest in music, her parents enrolled her in the then Real Music School at 11 years to study music theory and classical piano.

She later picked up the trumpet at The Kenya Conservatoire of Music, under the guardianship of Kagema Gichuhi.

Playing in The Kenya Conservatoire of Music Orchestra — she still does — attracted her to jazz as well as her classical music background.

Being in the environment of many instruments, creating harmonic music together opened her mind to the possibilities of instrumentals.

As she explored deeper into her love for African jazz, she discovered African horn players like Hugh Masekele, Jonas Gwangwa, Moses Khumalo and Ratau Mike.

Inspired by the exposure to their music and becoming appreciative of their fusion of jazz with distinctive South African grooves, Ms Kamau began to write and arrange her own music. 

“I love the sound of the trumpet. I love the challenge it takes to play it. There is no instrument that sounds that distinctive. It makes the hairs in the back of my neck stand,” she says. In seven of the eight tracks, she plays the trumpet.

Perhaps banking on the saying, practice makes perfect, Ms Kamau is always learning and practising.

Five hours a day, is dedicated to the trumpet, she told the Business Daily. Moving from the trumpet to the saxophone was not so hard, she says, because the basic fundamentals of blowing and notes are the same.

She has taken up singing lessons. It was a natural progression, as she found her audience looking forward to hear her sing. She is also looking to add a bit of singing in her next album.

This year, her aspiration is to hold and participate in more concerts in Kenya to define her sound more before looking to play in other African countries.

“I didn’t enter music as a career I just found myself part of it even before I was 11. It’s everything. It’s my source of income. When I am disheartened, it’s my source of inspiration. When I am inspired, I am inspired to write music.”

mwikalilati@gmail.com