How Nairobi Horns hit the right keys in just six months

Nairobi Horns Project perform at the Michael Joseph Centre last year. PHOTO | COURTESY
Nairobi Horns Project perform at the Michael Joseph Centre last year. PHOTO | COURTESY 

When the Nairobi Horns Project (NHP) was invited to audition for the Safaricom International Jazz Festival last year, they made a deliberate effort to go all out and impress the selection panel with their image and music.

“We dressed the part, made sure our sound was great and we played out hearts out before the panel,” saxophonist Joseph Rabai recalls. “You can imagine how thrilled we were when the email arrived announcing that we had been picked to perform at the event.”

It has been an extraordinary period for the band that was formed just six months ago.

Last August, NHP gave a high-energy performance during the Safaricom Jazz Festival at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi, a show that was headlined by South African legend Hugh Masekela. They also performed at during the last Mashujaa Day celebrations and at the State House garden party. In December, they launched their Extended Play (EP) Kipepeo at a sold-out concert at the Michael Joseph Centre. 

Now, the highly rated trio of Mackinlay Mutsembi on trumpet, saxophonist Rabai Mokua and Victor Kinama on trombone is primed to build on that success in 2017.

Rabai studied music at Jether House of Music in Karen before working as a session musician with various bands and playing on the third season of the Coke Studio TV show. Kinama is a relatively new to the performance circuit in Nairobi but his skill and dexterity on the trombone draws wild applause whenever the group is on stage.

Project management

Mutsembi, who is also a project management consultant, has played as a full time musician for just two years. His first major experience was playing harmonica and trumpet for a tour to the Netherlands and Denmark by the Kenyan theatre production Out of Africa in 2012 and after that he returned to his office job for another eight months.

It was while playing trumpet on the first season of Coke Studio that an idea struck him: “ I thought, “hmmm…may be you can actually have a horns section as a service for hire to other bands’’. The first version of the group that comprised Mutsembi along two saxophonists, Michael Olatunji and Noah Saha, played as the horn section on the second season of Coke Studio.

The current line up came together to support the Cameroonian musician Frank Biyong during his show at the Choices Club in Nairobi last year. Soon after they performed as the horns section for Sauti Sol during the launch of the album, To live and die in Africa, backed June Gachui during her Twenty Years album concert and played countless studio sessions for other musicians.

“We were like maybe we should compose our music because Rabai had been composing his own music, I had my horn patterns and so what we needed was a band playing other instruments to support the horn section,” says Mutsembi.

Eventually they put together an impressive band: Amani Baya on drums, Kasiva Mutua on percussions, Moise Basinza playing bass, guitarists Newman Owuor and Jack Muguna and George Nyoro on keyboards. “These are musicians with different backgrounds and influences and so they bring the juice to our sound,” says Rabai.

NHP has just released their first recording in a four track Extended Play (EP) called Kipepeo launched in December at a sold out concert at the Michael Joseph Centre in Nairobi.

Mutsembi wrote the first track titled Mr. Masekela long before he even dreamed of sharing a stage with the great South African trumpeter. The inspiration came to him two years ago while he was doing regular gigs at Distant Relatives in Kilifi, and a huge portrait of Masekela, would be brought on stage any time he was playing.

“I had not even listened to much of his music until this moment and so I decided one day, ‘why not write a song,’ he says. It was such a blessing to be on stage with the man himself at our first big performance last year.”

Kipepeo, influenced by a strong Latin trumpet flavour was not part of the songs planned for the album until the day before the group started the recording sessions. The melody came to Mutsembi while he was heading home from a gig at 4am, he sang it into his phone and was in the studio the next morning with a whole new song.

Mola is a serene contemplative rhythm that Rabai describes as a song that he wrote to “connect with God” and has had an immediate impact with their fans.

The last song on the EP is Dance like your life depends on it that starts with a deceptive mellow horn before kicking into a groovy rhythm with a bass line inspired by the chirping sound of a bird.

NHP is also working on Modern Kenya Classics which is a project containing Kenyan hit songs from the last 10 to 15 years, played with a jazzy twist. The first song from that project is Shake your bam bam by Sauti Sol, which you can hear on the group’s You Tube channel.

There is a preview of the songs from Kipepeo on the group’s Soundcloud page and the EP is available via their website and on iTunes.