Against the backdrop of the sunshine by the shores of Lake Victoria, Kisumu’s biggest performance stage was officially launched last Sunday by an exciting showcase that featured the region’s top artists, from contemporary dancers to a nyatiti player and an Afropop band.
“This place was just bush and stones when we started building it about 10 years ago and we would meet under a tree, get some guitars and play some music,” says Jagpal Sandhu, the founder of the Dunga Hill Camp, a scenic performance venue that attracts Kisumu’s cosmopolitan crowd.
Sondhu and a group of musicians first erected a small stage, which they moved a few times before the construction of the magnificent stage overlooking the lake, started at the beginning of 2022.
“When we came to identify this venue, the stage was there,” says Beth Achitsa, co-ordinator of Creative Arts Spaces in Kenya (CASIK), pointing at a spot underneath the trees that dot the grounds. “Now, we return and you can see the Sh3.3 million worth of equipment has transformed the place,” she says
This is the latest cultural setup to benefit from CASIK, a project that supports professional training of artists, installation of sound equipment in five performance venues across the country, and eventually a national tour which begins next month by the groups representing these spaces.
Two of the country’s most experienced musicians have returned to their roots in Kisumu and are mentoring a new generation of artists from the lake region.
Veteran guitarist and producer Dave “Mobb” Otieno, a one-time member of Them Mushrooms, and a long-time lead guitarist for Suzanna Owiyo, and Isaac Gem, who is best remembered for collaborating with Ayub Ogada on the last album by the legendary musician, are on the vanguard of the current rejuvenation of Kisumu’s music scene.
Gem who has opened a recording studio in Nyahera, Kisumu, has been training the musicians on songwriting and arrangement and setting up and maintenance of equipment, describes the investment from the French government as a godsend.
“Sh3.3 million has been spent on artistes who have previously not been performing their songs, but now they are inspired to create original music,” he says. This is the only venue in Kisumu that embraces local talent,” says Gem.
“The pandemic gave me time to reflect and decide to return home to share all that I have learned in 40 years playing music around the world,” says Otieno.
Both Otieno and Gem agree that the investment in skills and equipment means that Kisumu can now develop a scene that is big enough to sustain the abundant talent from the region and that artists from the region do not have to relocate to Nairobi to pursue their ambitions.
“We want to step back and then allow the young artistes to design their future. We are not telling them where to go, but just guiding them,” says Otieno.
One of the promising new artists is Stanley “Apesi” Otieno, whose performance drew a huge reaction from the audience. “Initially it was difficult for people to connect to my sound but with time they have come to love it,” says the artist who describes his style as a modern take on benga.
“Music is very universal and as long as you have a good melody then everyone can vibe to it so my advice to artists is to make sure we maintain the culture because it is easier to sell your own culture than that of someone else,” says Apesi who is booked for shows in the Netherlands next month.
He says artists from Kisumu have to work thrice as hard as their counterparts from elsewhere in the country due to limited opportunities, and so he wants to be an example by showing that you can succeed in music with determination and professional support.
“I am so excited to have an opportunity to be among the first acts on this stage and this will open the doors for our community of artists," says 23-year-old nyatiti player, Kent Mugenda.
Pretty Lodenye and Diana Odhiambo of Kisumu’s only contemporary dance group, YAWA, an acronym for Youths Accosted with Arts, Dance Company say their performances have been limited by the size of stages that cannot accommodate full dance movement.
“People are showing a greater appreciation of dance, rather than in the past when we would hear people say ‘what is that you are doing? Is it witchcraft?’” says Pretty.
Jagpal is upbeat that in five years Kisumu, with its abundant talent, ideal location, and audience, will once again become the hub of art and culture in East Africa.
“Kisumu will become the venue for cultural tourism in East Africa. Let’s focus on our talent and that will bring people to the lakeside," he says.