Performing Arts

How violinist turned shunned instrument into money maker


Chilumo Mbwana. PHOTO | POOL

At 29, affable Chilumo Mbwana is a man fully conscious and confident of his extraordinary talent.

Mbwana isn’t one to waste words, he loves details and neither does he waste any describing the music he plays and how he makes money from it, albeit the genre isn’t popular in Kenya.

“I don’t know why the majority of Kenyans associate violin music with the elite and rich. Yes, there is still an elitist classist kind of association with violin. However, we need to have more people enroll for lessons because this is a misconception. I am working hard to demystify it. It’s not cheap but it's affordable.” Mbwana tells me as he packs his instrument of trade.

He has just finished playing at an evening gig at the five-star Nairobi Kempinski.

Chilumo prefers the moniker ‘super violinist’ because he believes there is no other person who plays violin better than him in the country.

Sincere and earnest in his conversation, ‘super violinist’ is now finding himself at the top of the nation’s few known favourite maestros. Years invested with tutors, mentors, masterclasses and self are paying off. He is not only a violinist but also a teacher of the same with some of his students almost twice his age.

“I have been tutoring the violin to learners of all ages for years now and it is one of the best moments of my career. It's never too late to start. My oldest student is 52 years old,” he states.

A parley with Chilumo awakens the kind of attention that moves a mind to think for itself.

Whether one agrees with his views or not, he admits to have attained a level in his life he must call out what isn’t right in regards to his genre.

“It's only in Kenya where performing artists will refuse to work with a violinist simply because it's not part of the mainstream band instruments. Most of the live performances use the same old school mainstream band instruments. No uniqueness in terms of sound, especially for slow lovey-dovey and heart break songs which would be more effective with an experienced violinist laying lines in the song.”

His assertion to this is artists like Nyashinski, Bahati, Rufftone, Mercy Masika just to mention a few.

“For the few artists I've had the pleasure of playing for, the difference is huge and everyone notices and feels it. I hope more and more creatives will be open to using the violin.”

Even as local artists continue to figure out if there is really a need to have a violinist on their live sets or recording , Chilumo has already established a market that sees tremendous value in his craft.

“I mostly play for weddings and corporate events and the quotation ranges from Sh30,000 to over Sh100,000 depending on various factors such as duration of play, the location and choice of music and number of songs.”

But that’s not all, there is also a special rate card for the lovers.

“For studio sessions, the rates normally go between Sh10,000 and Sh30,000 depending on the factors aforementioned. The same rates apply for those who hire me to play on their date nights, engagement proposals and even apologies.”

He recalls this particular date night in 2019 he played a matchmaker to a heavily heartbroken woman.

“This night really stood out for me. A young guy hired me to perform for his girlfriend as an apology. I don’t know what he had done. I appeared as a surprise guest on their date as they were having dinner. When I started playing, the girlfriend broke into tears then they started getting closer and I was left a little confused wondering if I should stop or continue. It was emotional yet fulfilling. I hope they are still together,” Chilumo beams.

He fell in love with violin while in form two when a visiting South Korean teacher played the instrument at his school.

“She lit the flame in me because when I listened to her play, I felt that was the most beautiful sound I have ever heard.”

When he sat for his final secondary examinations, he wanted to own a violin but his parents were not for the idea. He postponed his dream until four years later when he was able to acquire one from proceeds of the various blue collar jobs he was engaged in over the period.

“A decent violin costs Sh20,000 but just like any other item you can get one for up to Sh1 million and that depends on your bragging rights but technically the functionality is the same.”

Besides the instrument, learning to play violin is neither cheap nor expensive.

It will cost one an average of Sh10,000 a month to learn how to string the tiny Italian instrument discovered in 1525.

“The cost is affected depending on how fast you want to learn and how consistent you are. Generally, the lessons are quite expensive but it depends with what it is you’re trying to achieve.

This is because so much goes into learning and it depends on individuality, focus and effort.

“It is difficult to give a definitive answer on how long one can take to master the instrument. However, I would say depending on how much lessons you get and time you invest into practicing, six months to a year would be ideal.”

Unlike a guitar, or any string instrument, violin is very technical.

“I must say violin is quite difficult, very technical, I mean you have to master bowing, fingering and reading.”

Chilumo’s preferred style of play is classical temporary but he doesn’t shy away from trying out different genres.

On this night, he opened his performance with Grammy winning tune Volare, an Italian up-tempo classical, combining with his guitarist to bring out some Spanish Flamenco type of play.

He then followed by Elvis Presley I can’t Fall In Love released in 1961. It was the last song the King of Rock and Roll performed live before his death in August 1977. Chilumo would go on to deliver facets of genres from Kothbiro, a benga tune by the late Ayub Ogada to Mugithi, Classical and soul.

He tells me of unwritten rule in this genre.

“Every violinist has had to play Johanna Pachelbel’s Canon in D’ also known as the wedding song. It’s the most famous violin tune. The most requested song all over the world. I have played it over 100 times. It’s in my fingertips, I can string it even in my sleep.”

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