It was an awesome phenomenon. Escape: The Musical is a fabulous expression of soulful Kenyan genius. And I don’t use that word lightly or hyperbolically since I recently had the privilege of watching several scenes from the musical at Alliance Francaise.
I saw a stage filled with individuals who had not only mastered their musical instrument, be it a traditional Kalimba, acoustic guitar, lyrical voice, or electronic keyboard that could create practically any sort of sound, beat or rhythm of your choice.
It also included the composer herself, Lydia Akwabi, who had collaborated with Eric Wainaina to create an exquisite musical score, sung by a dazzling chorus featuring Liboi, Ngartia, Timothy Arinaitwe and occasionally, the man who plays Jamo, the escapee and spoken word rapper, Vincent Ngugi.
But ultimately, it was Eric whose musical performance ignited the rhythmic vibrancy that set the musical aflame with passion and a beautiful purpose.
A part of that purpose was to show how dazzling Kenyans’ notion of musicals can be as it transcends the sounds of Western ones which cannot be easily compared with Kenyans’ soulful sounds, spiced up with Sheng, Kiswahili, KiMeru, and English, the languages that permeate the Nairobi-based musical.
But another part of the purpose of presenting Escape: The Musical when it is incomplete (but nonetheless replete with a captivating story and breath-taking sounds) was marketing and fund-raising (to spell it out plainly).
Sitawa Namwali, the award-winning poet, playwright, and performer is also the founder-mother and producer of Escape: The Musical. She has also taken on the van guard role of fund-raiser for her show. “Musicals are expensive to produce,” she told the BD Life last weekend after her solo-fund-raising performance at Cheche Bookstore and Café.
“We don’t need that much more since so much work has already been done, but more funds are still required to take us over the finish line,” she added.
The show itself came out of another brilliant initiative purposed by Eric Wainaina and Sheba Hirst which was and still is the Nairobi Musical Theatre Initiative (NMTI). NMTI has served as a seed bed for playwrights like Sitawa, Aleya Hassan, and another dozen other writers working with composers and musicians to create new musicals that were strictly Kenyan.
Sitawa’s show has been greatly assisted by Trust for Indigenous Culture and Health (TICAH) which has played a major role in helping the show to progress and develop. But as Sitawa explained just before several scenes from the actual story came alive and these creatives began to sing and rap as if their lives depended on it. (And in a sense, they do.)
For Sitawa wasn’t shy about explaining that the group welcomed support for their worthy cause, knowing that art and culture have the means of changing society.
“But what was refreshing about working with TICAH,” Sitawa explained, “was that they didn’t step in at the last minutes to suggest that we add a bit in the show about the donor’s pet issue.”
Not wishing to offend anyone, the playwright spoke with confidence about the show she was about to share with friends and prospective project supporters at Alliance.
“Can anyone take a guess at how much a musical can cost to make?” she asked a full house of creatives and donors who in the past had expressed their support of the arts as change agents worthy of public and private support.
From the audience, Sitawa received shout-outs suggesting everything from Sh200,000 to Sh20 million. And the latter figure she said was still a fraction of the cost of making a high-quality musical which Escape: The Musical clearly revealed itself to potentially be.
Looking at and listening to several scenes from the story itself, showed that anyone supporting the show’s completion wouldn’t regret so doing.
In fact, Sitawa was so brazen as to ask everyone who could to sign up outside and indicate what you can bring to become one of the contributors.
Personally, I admire her style since she knows herself and what she and this beautiful assembly of creatives are capable of doing artistically.
For that reason alone, she is shameless in asking for help from people and organisations that understand the beauty of Escape: The Musical.
She and her team are not beggars as we saw when the backers of the evening’s event, TICAH’s Eric Manya and Susanne Mieko both testified how happy they were to include the musical among its finest projects.
Sitawa reciprocated by thanking them for their support as it’s exemplary.