- Away from music, Keziah is an aviation engineer and an AUVSI Top Level II certified remote pilot.
- She also volunteers in different STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programmes.
- She has been mentored by the top musical talent in the world, including Baltimore Symphony conductor Jonathan Rush.
In the quiet of twilight, at an arena in Nairobi, symphonies fill the air as trombones rumble. The enchanting sound of the cello tears through the stage and as it fades, the oompah of the tuba takes charge in a flattering fluidity of musical bliss.
This is at the Women’s Orchestra in Nairobi, where women converge for music performances.
BDLife spoke to Masala Sefu, Jenny Wafula, Meble Birengo, and Keziah Ntwiga, professional music artistes who play various musical instruments in different bands and orchestras. Some of them are music tutors at premier schools in Kenya. To the quartet, music is as much a passion and livelihood as it is a tool for social change. If you separated her from the cello, which she plays, you would have robbed Masala of half of her voice.
“I’ve played the cello for 10 years and it is now part of me,” says Masala, a performance cellist for the Nairobi String Quartet.
She is also a cello tutor at the Kenya Conservatoire of Music, Peponi Senior School, The International School of Kenya (ISK) as well as the Safaricom Youth Orchestra.
She loves to play in “chamber ensembles and enjoys discovering varieties of music in different parts of the world.”
Under her belt are international performances, including with The Cello Ensemble Freude, The Dalminer Orchestra and The Orchestra of Pavia in Italy.
“For me, music has been a way of finding a connection with other people, exploring similarities and smoothing out differences,” says Masala, who trained for the cello in Crema, Italy.
If she could be a musical instrument, Masala would be an ukulele. “It makes me happy and reminds me of sunflowers and beautiful memories. Have you ever heard an ukulele being played in heavy dark sombre music?”
For 13 years now, the violin has been Keziah’s closest friend. Whenever she holds one, it elicits different emotions, depending on the music. Grandeur and glory. Patriotism and thankfulness. Freedom or coldness.
“These emotions inspire the possibility of sharing my story and perspective based on my understanding of the music,” she says.
Away from music, Keziah is an aviation engineer and an AUVSI Top Level II certified remote pilot. She also volunteers in different STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) programmes.
She has been mentored by the top musical talent in the world, including Baltimore Symphony conductor Jonathan Rush from whom “I learnt the importance of fluidity and dexterity” and Dr Julie Yu-Oppenheim, the co-director of the choral studies at the University of Kansas, in the US, who taught her how to conduct a mixed ensemble. “From Spanish classical guitarist Rafael Sarralet, I learnt about freedom of expression and control as an orchestra conductor,” she says.
Meble is a conductor, a Mezzo soprano singer, a choreographer and a trombonist. She is also a brass band trainer and plays with various Salvation Army bands. Meble is a member of the Nairobi Central Temple Band.
Professionally, Meble is a technical development consultant. Music though has been her centre, having grown up in a musical family. Her father is a pastor at the Salvation Army.
Music, she says, amplifies her voice as a woman, to pursue justice for all.
For Jenny, a full-time musician, a classical music teacher and a tuba player, music is “a powerful tool that brings people together in a community” because “everybody [usually] has a role to play.”
Jenny also plays in the Women’s Orchestra, a community of women in the performing arts from diverse backgrounds.
If the Scotswoman is driven by music, perhaps nothing captures it better than her passion for teaching it at different levels and contexts.
“I’m a tutor at the Safaricom Youth Orchestra, the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya and the Nairobi Children’s Orchestra,” says the graduate of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, Scotland.
Jenny is also involved in Muziki Changa, a programme that brings music to preschool children.
Music training in Kenya has long been an exclusive affair, only accessible to children from privileged backgrounds. Jenny sees it as a failure of policy.
“Music hasn’t been in the curriculum for a long time in Kenya. Music should be a standard part of everybody’s education,” she says. But this is gradually changing, with various music initiatives emerging to promote different genres, at different levels.
For instance, Elizabeth Njoroge’s Ghetto Classics was founded in 2009 in Nairobi’s Korogocho, an exclusive classical music outfit that gives children in slums exposure to music.
To Keziah, investing in young people means “perpetuity and growth of music standards that should outlive us.” “My life is a sum of personal investments by others, from monetary, time and mentorship,” she says, noting that she is where she is today because others believed in her.
Through her work in conducting, music composition and arrangement, Keziah says younger musicians are stepping up and honing their skills.
“With the right support for young musicians, we need not worry about the loss of good [music] culture.”
Meble is passionate about the place of women in society. This year, she is taking a sabbatical from her job to work at the International Social Justice Commission (ISJC) as a special intern for impact measurement.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day was #ChoosetoChallenge. Sexism is Meble’s emphatic response to what she is challenging. Why so? Women’s role in society, while prominent, rarely gets highlighted, she argues.
“When you look around, critical institutions such as community-based programmes and families and which have the greatest impact on society, are run by women.” Yet the significance of what these women do is barely recognised, a situation she insists must change.
For Jenny, it is stereotyping in music. The tuba, which she plays, is an instrument that is mostly associated with men.
“It’s a large instrument, and it’s rare to find a woman playing it. People imagine you can’t hold it properly or fill it with air,” she says giggly. Away from music, Jenny says she is confronting the stereotype that women “should be quiet.”
“This is why we don’t have as many confident women like men who are willing to put themselves forward to push for what they want.”
Each of these women has memorable performances. For Masala, it was playing under Polish music composer and conductor Radzimir Debski, popularly known as Jimek at the Safaricom Jazz Festival in 2019.
For Keziah, it was at the promulgation of the New Constitution in 2010 at Uhuru Park.
“It was history-making kind of special,” she reminisces.
Keziah also conducted in 2017 at the first all-female orchestra in Kenya.
“Five years on, we continue to learn, to grow, and to tailor the International Women’s Day concert season for women to share their love for music and the performing arts.”
Covid-19 did not just make concerts and performances impossible to organise. It also threw music training off-balance. For Masala and her students, this meant making multiple adjustments, including lessons on video.
“The cello is a very technical instrument that demands a lot in posturing and technique. Unless you’re there to physically guide your learners, it is difficult to teach certain techniques,”she says.
Even so, she had to make things work. After all, it is music that saw her through the pandemic.
“I had to learn how to position the camera, and to explain concepts in a way I’d never imagined I’d ever have to do.”
On what they are celebrating this year, the four women are in concurrence: surviving Covid-19. To Jenny, the loss of music was her biggest cause of suffering last year.
“There might have been a loss of work and income, but as a musician, being unable to play affected me both emotionally and spiritually.”
What kept her going was “finding ways to make music” and keeping her craft alive learning new skills.
Adds Masala: “For many months in 2020, we played in our houses alone. Being able to play in the orchestra again is what I’m celebrating.”
Meble says the pandemic has been an opportunity to write music “with an overarching theme for hope and healing” for women who faced job losses to domestic violence during the lockdown.
Lessons from music? “That we are all similar across cultures,” Masala says, “and music highlights these similarities.”
Music has also addressed her limitations and anxieties.
“It has taught me to be empathetic to those around me. As a teacher, I have to be patient and to appreciate that everyone learns or does things differently.” The more you learn in music, the more you discover you do not know,” she adds.
A lot is changing in the local music landscape. When Masala joined the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya, she was the only cellist.
“I had to push myself harder because there was no one else to help me play my part in the orchestra. Last week, we had 12 cellists on stage.”
That is not all. More than 100 cellists in Kenya are expected to converge later this year for a “cellobration” concert.
Often, women leaders are considered to be those in the corporate world and whose roles are more visible. Yet many more are instigating change away from mainstream spaces in the arts, education and even in community work.
Meble sees it as bias. “This has to do with the limited visibility that arts, in general, have in our society.”
Even as the world empowers women, she argues there is a need to interrogate the abilities of women and to boost them in those areas.
“Find out who is good at what. Even in professional circles, different people bring different competencies. Harness these instead of focusing too much on the core professional skills.”