In a week where conversations in Nairobi have been dominated by debates on rescuing the planet from the existential threat of climate change, a musician whose songs are inspired by the beauty of nature staged an audacious cross-cultural collaboration in the city.
Swedish musician and composer Ingrid Schyborger combined her double bass with the nyatiti played by Kenyan vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Makadem, for a concert-themed 'Music in a Chaotic World, Nairobi' on Wednesday night.
“The two instruments have a similar sound even though the double bass produces a deeper rhythm,” explained Schyborger in an interview just before getting on stage at the Alliance Francaise Gardens.
“I have seen Makadem play the nyatiti a few times during my visits to Nairobi and so when I reached out to him for a collaboration, he was very excited. After a few rehearsals, we just connected musically.”
The concert began with the Swedish musician playing four songs accompanied by guitar, percussion and drum set. She then invited Makadem on stage where he switched to playing special arrangements of his popular songs including Mganga Mkuu, Obong’o Bless Me and Kisumu Bound Bus, for this setup.
Schyborger graduated from the prestigious Manhattan School of Music in New York in May this year with a Master’s Degree in Jazz Double Bass.
The 24-year-old applied to the school which has produced some of her idols including Linda May Han Oh, the Australian jazz bassist and composer who she also engaged as a private tutor.
“I started by playing cello and electric bass and so the transition to double bass was easy,” she says. She has been playing the double bass since the age of 17 after falling in love with jazz after attending a music camp at 16. “This is a wide genre and my style doesn’t quite fit in any category but I would say it is closer to modern jazz,” she says.
Schyborger draws inspiration for her music from nature. “As a child, I spent a lot of time outdoors, in the forests, and now you can see the impact of climate change as the trees have been cut. We are suffering the effects of pollution and even the snow that we had in Sweden is disappearing,” she says.
The earth is blessed with the natural sound of music and Schyborger has been recording the sounds of birds singing, which she then translates into music for string arrangement.
In her new project which is writing music for string orchestra, she has found inspiration in the images of trees. “I live close to Arboretum in Nairobi and I take walks in the park and Karura and even Lumakanda in Western Kenya,” says Schyborger.
“Some of the species of birds produce music notes than can be transcribed into melodies,” she explains. “I sit on the piano, pick notes and transpose them.”
Originally from Stockholm, Sweden, Schyborger grew up surrounded by musical instruments and was playing the piano by the age of four. She studied classical cello for a year and switched to the electric and upright bass after hearing Swedish maestros like Anders Jormin and Martin Sjostedt and American jazz double bass icons like Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Percy Heath and Walter Page.
Schyborger studied for her undergraduate degree at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm with some of the country’s top instructors and then was admitted to the prestigious Manhattan School of Music for her Master’s degree.
“It is a very intense programme at the highest standards of music and of course, there was a whole culture change with the shift to the bustling atmosphere of New York,” she says.
“Some of the bassists that I admire are alumni of the institution so that made the connection very special. While studying, Schyborger has been working on her own recording projects and collaborating with other acts on their albums and EPs.
After a large number of forest fires occurred throughout Sweden during a summer of above-average hot temperatures in 2018, she composed music for The Fire Project the following year.
The Humane Strings in 2021 was a recital integrating a jazz quartet and a string quartet and illustrating how the double bass can be used in melodies and voicings.
Schyborger’s debut album 'In Love with the World' which has been two years in the making is currently in the mixing and mastering stage, scheduled for release in 2024.
The purpose of her music, she explains, is a journey through different landscapes while exploring what it means to be a human being living on earth.
That is why the collaboration of Western jazz and traditional African instrumentation, which coincided with the Africa Climate Summit, was a powerful representation of the possibilities that exist when communities move beyond existing barriers towards partnerships in seeking solutions to the world’s challenges.