“There is a very beautiful feeling playing in an orchestra that consists of only women musicians,” says Ugandan trumpet player Elle Uwase. “I can’t explain what exactly, but it is a special feeling.”
The musician was describing the emotions of her second chance playing as a visiting artist with the African Women’s Orchestra during two concerts in Nairobi this week to celebrate International Women’s Day.
Since 2017, the orchestra has performed an annual concert to celebrate the occasion bringing together the best of traditional and contemporary music from Kenya and around the world.
Uwase first played with the ensemble in 2019 and jumped at the opportunity to return to Nairobi as a guest musician with the orchestra this year.
Her experience is an inspiration to other female musicians because, against the norm, she started playing brass instruments 11 years ago.
“I picked the trumpet because of its beautiful sound and I wanted to show the boys, as the only girl in the group I belonged to at the time, that I could also play this instrument,” she says.
The African Women’s Orchestra is a collective of talented female musicians dedicated to celebrating the power of music and highlighting the stories of African women like Uwase.
In 2016, guitarist Wandiri Karimi and Keziah Ntwiga, at the time the only female classical conductor in Kenya, created an all-woman orchestra.
“Keziah and I wanted to create a safe space for women from all walks of life to celebrate and be celebrated through the arts,” says Wandiri who is an expert on Intellectual Property, and served as director of Kenya Conservatoire of Music for six years until August 2022.
“I was tired of being seen as odd and told things like “Oh you play nicely for a girl.” We wanted to create an opportunity where female musicians can just play without being singled out.”
She has observed a steady increase in the number of girls registering for music classes and there are many more opportunities available as different groups are creating experiences that cater to specific audiences.
“It gives me great satisfaction to see how many young women are taking up instruments and sticking to playing them,” says Wandiri.
“Our whole mission was to create such a platform and I am happy we are achieving it. I dream that we can do this for women not just in Nairobi or Kenya but throughout the continent.”
They begin seeking out partner performers every October for the concerts the following year, and this year the orchestra is performing with the Redfourth Chorus Girls choir.
The first of two performances was on the eve of International Women’s Day, March 8 and will be followed by the Concert Weekend this Saturday at the Karen Blixen Museum with 40 orchestra members and 17 choir members and a host of talented female artists including Mayonde, Prisca Ojwang, and Motra Drummers.
“It is such an adventure and we are always evolving because each year we have players composers and arrangers going to study and new faces joining us,” says concert conductor Keziah Ntwiga.
“It is also a very dynamic group and we get musicians of all ages, from the 20s and 30s, to the 40s and 50s and last year we even had a 69-year-old musician. The repertoire is not just classical, but is very diversified and eclectic.”
Afropop singer and songwriter Mayonde is performing three songs from her discography: Still I Rise, Find Us a Way, originally featured in the Netflix film Kati Kati and a classical interpretation of her club banger Nairobi.
“I worked with a German orchestra on Find Us a Way so this is not a new experience for me to be working with classical musicians, but I am still enjoying it,” says Mayonde.
The orchestra is performing a selection of the very best of their repertoire from their seven-year history, including familiar songs like Nkosi Sikeleli Afrika and The Prayer and some new pieces.
One of those new pieces is Mviringo written by cellist Josephine ‘Jozie” Dindi, a member of the orchestra who also plays in the popular rock band Murfy’s Flaw for their 2018 Nataka Sitaki.
“The song was written out of my frustration with the cyclic nature of Kenyan politics where every five years new leaders are promising to change your lives. So, I gave it to Keziah and her classical arrangement is beautiful,” says Dindi.
Motra Drummers, an all-female percussion band add a different dimension to the concert with their vibrant interpretations of timeless Kenyan songs like Jamriambo, Disco Chakacha and Kata.
“We are building a network and supporting careers in music from conductors, section leaders, and players and we have that channel to learn and share knowledge,” says Keziah.