Taxes on pianos, violins and saxophones to kill budding music talents

Ghetto Classics

Ghetto Classics at the Kenyan Jazz All Stars Edition at the Carnivore Gardens hosted by Safaricom Limited to commemorate the International Jazz Day.

Photo credit: Pool

Four years ago, when Kenya zero-rated the cost of pianos, trumpets, tambourines and saxophones, teachers say they became easily accessible and affordable in Kenyan schools. Learning music stopped being a preserve of the very rich children as they could access donations and buy one or two instruments.

Dr Duncan Wambugu, a music scholar, and one of Kenya’s foremost conductors, says the early philosophers, from Pluto to Confucius, recognised the importance of learning a musical instrument.

“Playing an instrument requires commitment to learning, dedication to rehearsing, patience to master, and stamina to perform,” explains Dr Wambugu, who teaches at Kenyatta University’s Department of Music and Dance.

“If half of us could play an instrument, the world would be a much better and richer place for us all,” says Dr Wambugu, who has been part of the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) Music and Dance panel since 2021.

The tax exemption granted by law in 2019 on musical instruments imported or purchased locally for use by educational institutions, ensures the instruments are more accessible for learners to develop these innate skills.

Music transformed the life of Phebian Omollo, 22, who started playing the trumpet at Ghetto Classics, the music education programme in the slums of Korogocho in Nairobi, a decade ago.

Because there were so few, but in recent years, the waiver on taxation has eased the process of importing instruments, such as a whole container of violins, trombones, saxophones, and accessories, that was donated by the Belgian pianist Jeff Neve last year,” he says.

From slums to careers

Mr Omollo is now a tutor at Ghetto Classics in Mukuru kwa Reuben and Korogocho in Nairobi and has witnessed children from the slums gain confidence in their personalities and begin to focus a lot more clearly on their career paths while acquiring music education.

“The learning of music has grown significantly in the last few years, but just as with everything else, you need resources—the actual instruments—to develop,” says classical violinist and music instructor Ken Mwiti.

He adds, “The students can then turn music theory into practice and those who enjoy playing their instruments can then take it further as a hobby or a career and that boosts the creative industry.”

“Access to instruments is critical for learners, especially within the CBC,” says Wandiri Karimi, founder of the Women’s Orchestra and director of the Kenya Conservatoire of Music 2016–2022.


An orchestra performance at the Muthaiga Country Club in Nairobi on March 8, 2023.

Photo credit: Pool

Nearly impossible to afford

Ms Wandiri says musical instruments are expensive, and many education institutions struggle to provide adequate resources for their students.

“If we remove the tax exemption as proposed in the Finance Bill 2024, then we risk making it nearly impossible for schools to afford these essential tools, thereby limiting access for students who may have a passion and talent for music.”

Levi Wataka, a musical director of Nairobi Children’s Orchestra, explains that the move to a competency-based curriculum, despite the many teething problems was part of a process of providing wholesome education for Kenyan youth.

The place of music

According to Mr Wataka, a renowned performance conductor who also teaches music at the Peponi House Preparatory School in Nairobi, music educators work with the formal and informal education systems and communities to enrich lives with the practice of music for music’s sake.

“Whereas a small number of Kenyans use music as a sole economic instrument, as opposed to mechanics, lawyers, and accountants, all of us benefit from the extra layer of cultural, economic, and cultural heritage that derives from collective musical practice,” says Mr Wataka.

“The necessary positive impact of such collective participation is almost the direct antidote against anti-social behaviour,” he adds.

Mr Wataka says Ghetto Classics, the National Youth Orchestra, the Kenyan Conservatoire of Music, and the Permanent Presidential Music Commission are practical examples of the intangible value of instrumental music in quality education.

The success stories

Teddy Otieno, a finalist in the current season of the United Kingdom (UK) TV show, The Pianist, whose story was featured in the BDLife on May 10, 2024, is an illustration of the transformational power of music.

“The young man started playing instruments in Korogocho and is now mentored by Lang Lang, one of the world’s finest pianists,” says Mr Wataka.

“This is all the more reason why the tax exemption on the manufacture and importation of musical instruments and equipment for educational use should be upheld.”

Some of those who support music education in schools say that even with the tax exemption on musical instruments for educational institutions, the whole process of seeking a waiver was cumbersome because only the Cabinet Secretary for Education can issue the recommendation letter.

The policy conflicts

“Removing the waiver would be a contradiction of the CBC which is about encouraging the development of the performing arts and music in particular,” says Moses Watatua, chair trustee and director of Harmony Kenya Foundation.

The foundation, which started 10 years ago, has supported over 1,000 students through music programmes in various public schools.

In April this year, the Old Cambrian Society (Nairobi School Alumni) donated Sh109,000 toward the servicing of 60 musical instruments at the school.

A former student at SA Joytown School, which caters for learners living with disabilities, Kelvin Macharia, who is studying music at the University of Nottingham, UK, has been raising funds for the programme, offering music lessons and donating instruments.

The struggling programmes

“We are struggling to keep music programmes running due to the expenses incurred in the purchase, repair and importation of free donations,” says Mr Watatua.

Singer, and songwriter, Olivia Ambani, who is working with the project Harmony Kenya to promote the learning of music in public schools, agrees that many schools are struggling to keep their music departments afloat. “When I look at my own career as an artist, I would not be where I am if the schools that I attended did not have access to musical instruments,” she says.

Alex Waweru, a classical musician and piano retailer in Nairobi, also traces his connection with music to exposure in school.

“I loved music and I worked hard on it. Little did I know that music education would shape my future,” he recalls.

“Before I joined university, I was earning Sh2,500 per week training young pianists, and when I relocated to Nairobi in 2012, that gradually increased to Sh30,000 weekly.” He was able to pay his tuition fees at the Technical University of Kenya and those opportunities have been his motivation to equip learners with pianos.

Through Nakestra Music, Mr Waweru partnered with a Chinese-based manufacturer to provide high-end pianos and entry-level digital pianos at a fraction of the cost.

The retail tax implication

“Is that not the whole essence of education, and specifically CBC?” He poses. Even with the tax exemption in force, pianos can be quite costly, with digital pianos starting from Sh130,000, while the price of uprights ranges from Sh250,000 up to Sh2 million for a new grand piano.

He says with the current VAT exemption, schools arrange payment plans to make it easier to acquire new digital pianos or preowned pianos. “Without the waiver, we might find it hard to give people instruments with flexible payment plans,” he warns.

Dr Wambugu concludes: “We are focusing on building the creative economy in Kenya and playing instruments is a key factor in content creation and income opportunities. But it has to start somewhere, which is in our schools.”

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