It has been eight years since American vocalist, composer ethnomusicologist and broadcaster Heather Maxwell visited Nairobi, and so her return last week proved to be an opportunity to appreciate the city’s thriving culture and the ecosystem that supports it.
“I was struck by just how smoother things were from the last time I was here,” says Maxwell who spent the week interviewing artists for her Voice of America (VOA) radio and TV show.
“The city is just so advanced technologically, for example, uber was efficient, so was money exchange and the warmth and generosity of the people.”
Maxwell is the voice and face behind Music Time in Africa, the longest-running show on VOA to Africa, started in 1965 by the iconic Leo Sarkisian. The native of Flint, Michigan, who first studied music at the University of Michigan, and later at the University of Ghana has been presenting the weekly show since 2012.
The format features the latest music releases from around the continent, in-depth interviews, reviews and live performances by African musicians.
Maxwell who served with the US Peace Corps in Mali and plays balafon among other West African instruments, also visits different parts of the continent regularly, collecting stories and music from musicians and performing and collaborating with them.
During her last visit to Nairobi, for instance, she recorded the song Abiro, with singer and guitarist Winyo, whose video is available on her YouTube channel and audio on Apple Music
During her trip to Nairobi last week, Maxwell interviewed a diverse group of artists who represent different eras and styles of music. “The artists were articulate, savvy, talented and connected to the global music industry,” she says. “For example, during my interview with the teenage rapper Trio Mio, he and I did a livestream on Instagram which he posted and that drew several thousand views in just a day.”
The teenage rapper also debuted his new song Same Block with American rapper Wiz Khalifa during the interview. During Maxwell’s interview with country musician Sir Elvis, with whom she sang along to some classics, she was struck by just how popular the traditional sound of the genre remains in Kenya.
Muthoni Drummer Queen shared her experience of curating the popular Blankets and Wine festival and a discussion on the creative sector that she and a select group of Kenyan artists had with Britain’s King Charles III in Nairobi.
Maxwell also interviewed Nikita Kering whose music career has risen remarkably since making her debut as a 16-year high school student, and the legendary Kenyan hip-hop group Kalamashaka; who reunited this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop and have recorded two new singles.
“They all seemed proud of what they were doing and they feel it is important,” she reflects on the conversations. “A lot of times you don’t get that vibe from artists across the board. Some artists are less hopeful but those I met in Nairobi seemed capable of creating space in the city where they are successful. Each one has their own fan base which shows how diverse the Nairobi audience is.”
Maxwell and her colleague Roger Muntu from VOA French to Africa also enjoyed a taste of the Nairobi nightlife by broadcasting from one of the city’s popular venues for live music. “We went out to the Geco Café and it was fantastic,” recalls Heather. “I wanted to return to that space every night after the first time there, the live music, and décor with the bikes, the people were fun and modern, it was just awesome.”
There were some familiar faces on stage last Friday night as Jabali Afrika, whom she knows from their many years based just outside Washington D.C, played a set amid the heavy downpour.
After leaving Nairobi, Maxwell headed to Tanzania where she was a guest performer, accompanied by the Mopao Swahili Jazz band, a popular ensemble based in Dar es Salaam. She was looking forward to a night of “fun on stage” with a repertoire that travels from American jazz standards like Fly Me To The Moon, straight-ahead jazz, bluesy tunes, her own compositions and a rendition of the classic Malaika.
“The music will be a journey and celebration of collaboration between American and East African ensemble,” she said in a WhatsApp voice note before the concert.
This week she has also been a guest at the 6th Music in Africa ACCES Conference where she was in conversation with the popular South African artist Sho Modjozi.
All the while, she carries fond memories of her trip to Kenya and her encounters with the people in Nairobi and the city’s vibrant music and culture. “I really hope it is not another 8 years until I come back there,” she concludes.