Music

Pharmacist tunes poor children ears to classical music

GhettoClassics

Elizabeth Njoroge, the founder of Ghetto Classics music education programme in Nairobi's Korogocho. PHOTO | POOL

Summary

  • Today, Ghetto Classics, the flagship project of the Art of Music Foundation where Elizabeth is a director, is hardly the modest outfit she assembled 11 years ago.
  • There is currently more than 1,500 youth in the programme, drawn from across the country.
  • Thanks to a donation by a former German ambassador to Kenya, Ghetto Classics now has its equipment, from trombones, cellos to violins.

Elizabeth Njoroge, the founder of Ghetto Classics music education programme, did not picture where the enterprise she set up in 2009 in Nairobi’s Korogocho slum would be in a decade.

What she was clear about though was that music education would disentangle slum youth from poverty and other social ills.

To start, she had no more than a dream and about a dozen youngsters hungry to learn. Not even equipment. That she hoped to use classical music to transform lives made her task even more daunting.

“I had to convince people to take a chance in us,” Elizabeth says with a mixture of relief and triumph. “Thankfully sponsors invested in our vision.”

Today, Ghetto Classics, the flagship project of the Art of Music Foundation where Elizabeth is a director, is hardly the modest outfit she assembled 11 years ago. There is currently more than 1,500 youth in the programme, drawn from across the country.

Thanks to a donation by a former German ambassador to Kenya, Ghetto Classics now has its equipment, from trombones, cellos to violins. Their highlights include performing for, among other dignitaries, Pope Francis when he toured the country in 2015.

In 2010, the National Youth Orchestra of Kenya was formed as a social integration and leadership musical programme. Students from public and private secondary schools, colleges, and universities constitute its membership.

When Safaricom International Jazz Festival adopted Ghetto Classics in 2014, its fortunes turned a corner. Twelve years later, Elizabeth could not be prouder of her decision to invest in was seemingly an overly ambitious cause.

“We’ve changed the lives of hundreds of children. We’ve been on international tours to New York and Poland where our members played alongside professional classical music artistes,” she says. Elizabeth studied biochemistry at McMaster University in Canada and later pharmacy at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. For several years, she worked as a pharmacist in the UK.

“I’ve loved music all my life. But it's during my time in the UK that I developed a particular interest in classical music,” she says.

Music is now her centre, and everything in her life orbits around it. Elizabeth though sees this journey as a break from a pharmacy, a break that has transcended seasons, with multiple milestones and restored destinies along the way.

Ghetto Classics operates in community centres and schools, targeting teens and young adults, including street children, all who now have something to hope for.

What kind of feeling does watching the teens engrossed in music inspire in her? “Pride and beauty,” she says, suddenly emotional. “It touches me to see them play, make jokes and bond. It's overwhelming to see them happy.”

On expansion prospects, she says: “We aren’t trying to become a giant brand.” Isn’t it a paradox for an outfit that's growing by the day? “We’re looking to be a forceful movement in society. A force for positive change.”

She sees music as a fibre that unites people and influences their psyche. “Art is what makes us human,” she says. “Music is the balm of the soul. Without it, life would be unbearable.”

To what extent has Ghetto Classics realised this vision? “There has been a big shift compared to when we started. The youngsters’ attitude towards music has changed. We’ve created a new generation of musicians,” Elizabeth says.

“I constantly remind the teens that whatever they do and wherever the music takes them, they're doing so on behalf of their community. This has cultivated in them discipline, leadership, teamwork and a sense of responsibility.”

How different would she have fared had she remained in pharmacy? “I wish life wasn’t about either or,”she says. “Even from a medical background, gravitating toward music wasn’t a hard choice for me. Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for instance, is a gifted pianist.”

Musically speaking, Elizabeth is in an enviable place, although, she tells me, people still call her for medical advice.

A few hours after this interview on Saturday last week, she performed at ‘Kenya ni Yetu’, a high-powered concert that she and other artistes and corporates had organised.

‘Kenya ni Yetu’ was the first virtual music concert in the country, with performances from notable artistes and bands such as Suzanna Owiyo, Sauti Sol and Hart the Band.

“It’s a moment of reflection for our country,” she tells me on the rationale behind the long-overdue concert. “It’s time to listen to each other on what’s important, a reminder that we're one.”

When I ask her what music has done for her, Elizabeth erupts with cheer. “Foremost, I live off music. The foundation pays me a decent salary. I've also travelled a lot thanks to music.”

At this time of Covid-19, Ghetto Classics’ priority has shifted to more urgent and intimate needs for the children, most of them who come from poor slum families.

“Some of them can’t afford food. We’ve been trying to assist where we can. Where disputes arise between them and their parents, we intervene,” she says, adding that the new environment has forced the brand to rethink its strategy for relevance and impact.

A colleague describes her as “professionally astute” and “with a flawless technical ability.” I wonder what this journey has taught her.

“That I’m resilient, passionate about what I do, and a solution finder in sometimes hopeless situations. Even when I’m beaten down, I'm able to rise again.”

Whenever Ghetto Classics is mentioned, her name features predominantly. Elizabeth admits that she was more protective of the outfit when she started.

“We’re more institutionalised than before. We now have a board of trustees who manage our affairs. The First Lady Margaret Kenyatta is our patron,” she says, adding with a vigorous laugh, “I’m more open now.” “With support from the First Lady’s office, we hope to initiate more long-term projects within the communities we serve,” she says.

On continuity, Elizabeth believes Ghetto Classics “would be fine” upon her departure because “we now have systems in place.”

Life’s thrills

She’s a family woman, with a “feisty, artistic and stubborn'' seven-year-old daughter named Wanjiku, who she says has taught her patience and grace.

“We’re currently reading the Harry Potter series together. I didn’t realise what a wonderful series it is.”

As she turns 50 in a few weeks, Elizabeth believes that this milestone could not have been marked better than by “having lived and continuing to live my purpose.” I ask what thrills her at this stage in life.

“Using my gifts of music and even medicine to pull other people up every day. I’m a socialist, and I like to listen to and to care for others. That way, I get more from life.”

Away from music, Elizabeth is a bookworm. She describes her literary disposition as a “mishmash” noting that while she’s an entrepreneur, business literature has never quite struck a chord with her.

“I love people stories instead, both fiction and non-fiction, to understand their psychology and learn how they deal with adversity.''

Other than literature, she is a recent convert to podcasts.

Her musical ear is eclectic, with a particular preference for jazz and roots reggae. An ideal hangout with friends entails “having some wine while listening to good music. I’d love to go on a wine tour.”

Does she envision an end to her break from pharmacy? “I don't think so. I’m 100 percent focused on music.”