The foyer of the Galleria Mall in Nairobi is adorned with festive colours, a giant Christmas tree spectacularly lit up.
The sweet sound of an orchestra charmingly playing carols draws families from their Sunday shopping or lunch, mobile phone in hand, recording videos of the musicians while singing along to the familiar festive favourites.
“No matter what you have been through during the year, once you get here, then it is time to celebrate and there is no better way to do it than with music,” says Susan Sawe whose soprano electrified the afternoon performance.
The traditional carols are the soundtrack to the festivities and the joy is palpable on the faces of people who seem delighted to soak up the atmosphere of the season.
“When you set the mood early, like the 12 days of Christmas, then that builds the momentum and people get in the spirit of the season,” says Sawe.
The performance is an annual Christmas celebration by the Nairobi Philharmonic Orchestra with singers from the Lux Aeterna (Latin for eternal light) Chorale.
The orchestra is a string ensemble, violin, cello and viola, with the addition of trumpet, flute and a pianist, who as the conductor Anthony Mwangi explains, “changes the colour of the sound’ and keeps the orchestra in pitch.
Sawe who sings soprano is one of four soloists, along with alto, tenor and bass voices.
“This is our busiest time of the year, but it's so fulfilling to be here in the company of people, many of whom have just randomly stumbled on this show while going about their Sunday lunch or shopping," she says.
In keeping with their packed festive diary, the ensemble performed the Advent carol service at the German Embassy last Sunday.
On Christmas Eve, they will bring the festive cheer to a community home for the elderly in Nairobi and then sing carols at various locations within the Nairobi city centre.
Anthony Mwangi who has conducted the Christmas performance for two seasons says the carols are nostalgic and that is why his group aims to share the music with people in as many locations as possible during this season.
Sometimes they improvise the traditional arrangement of the song to create a connection with their audience.
“We would repeat the first verse of a popular carol, rather than go to the second verse so that we can invite people to sing along, and that is the beauty of this music,” says Mwangi.
Sawe says she enjoys seeing the audience, which she refers to as the ‘congregation’, join in singing their favourite carols.
“I encouraged them and they obliged so that turned out beautifully.”
Her favourites in the repertoire this year have been 'Oh Holy Night and While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks.
“The descant in While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks is so powerful you feel like you are there between the shepherds and their sheep,” she says.
The descant is an improvised superimposed counterpoint to the melody sung typically by some or all of the sopranos which are the highest voices that naturally lend to volume and dominance
Mwangi explains that classical singers prefer to use the power of their voices, without amplification, because one is then able to appreciate the timber of the vocals.
Sawe is amused to hear the conductor’s remarks: “Thank God for our lungs and the acoustics of this venue which was perfect for the performance.”
The planning for the Christmas carols begins when the music notes are sent out to the group for the singers and players to study on their own time and the group then holds one combined rehearsal before the performance.
“There is a whole range of carols but we obviously select those that resonate with the majority of people so that whoever watches us can be involved,” says Mwangi.
The first half consists of favourites like Once in Royal’s David’s City, O Come O Come Emmanuel, Angels We Have Heard on High, We Three Kings, What Child Is This, O Come All Ye Faithful and Silent Night.
After the intermission, the ensembles return with Deck the Hall, Away in a Manger, Joy To The World, The First Noel, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks, Hark the Herald Angels and a thumping climax of We Wish You A Merry Christmas.
“In a typical concert setting the audience would be listening quietly and only applaud at the end of each song,” says Mwangi. “The beauty of setting up in a public space is that everyone is free to join in the performance of their favourite carol and that makes it so engaging and fun.”