- Among the features in Wandiri Karimi’s pleasantly fizzy demeanour, none sticks out quite like her guileless, contagious laugh.
- The director of Kenya Conservatoire of Music says her life is orbiting a jubilating space at the moment, an admission that is, by many yards, uncommon during this Covid-19 season.
- When she joined the prestigious music school as its director in 2016, this wasn’t just a career move for Karimi. She was “going back home” to an institution she had joined as a six-year-old girl.
Among the features in Wandiri Karimi’s pleasantly fizzy demeanour, none sticks out quite like her guileless, contagious laugh. The director of Kenya Conservatoire of Music says her life is orbiting a jubilating space at the moment, an admission that is, by many yards, uncommon during this Covid-19 season. She just turned 40.
When she joined the prestigious music school as its director in 2016, this wasn’t just a career move for Karimi. She was “going back home” to an institution she had joined as a six-year-old girl.
“It was a special moment for me,” she says with an explosion of nostalgic glee. “I wanted to have conversations about music and performing arts education, especially by involving young people in our projects.”
Didn’t she feel intimidated by the institution’s 76-year history?
Not at all, she says, noting that her parents taught her integrity, industry, and compassion, values that have been handy in her role.
“My parents were always present during my performances. They provided emotional and material support that I needed to pursue my interests,” she narrates.
There’s something wonderfully heartening about how Karimi sees and interprets her world through music. She’s sentimental about music: not in a melancholic way, but an intimately practical sense. Her life is intricately plotted as though in musical notes.
Being born in a family that supported art education was her best gift, she tells me. ‘‘I was allowed to think around things in a creative way. I studied law out of choice, hoping to use it to do what I’m passionate about.’’
Karimi has been an active musician and guitarist since her twenties, with performances during concerts, auditions, TV shows, workshops and festivals in several countries.
She says learning music is incremental and, more than two decades later, she’s still learning it. ‘‘I can play acoustics, electric and classical guitars. I’m also learning bass guitar.’’
Four years ago, she founded the Women’s Orchestra, a community of women in performing arts from diverse backgrounds. This outfit mentors performers throughout the year with presentations during the International Women’s Day.
I wonder what song speaks to her 2020. ‘‘Brighter Day by Sauti Sol,’’ she erupts, explaining that music has been her healing potion this year. ‘‘It was scary at the beginning of the pandemic. But in the grand scheme of things, people are discovering new things about themselves and spending more time with family now than before.’’
She tells me that if Covid-19 had happened when she was 20, her outlook would be different. ‘‘I choose to look at it through the lens of the opportunities this period has yielded. Creatives have had more time to work on their crafts. I’ve also written more songs in the last few months than I’d done in the last five years.”
That and gratitude, which has been her way of unlocking cheer during this dark, agonising time. ‘‘I’m now less grumpy about things that may not be working’’.
On her genre preferences, she says: ‘‘I listen to all types of music. My space right now though is Afrocentric music and especially from our region. It speaks to me in a spiritual way about who we are.’’
An intellectual property (IP) lawyer and consultant, Karimi is a member of the Copyright Tribunal. Having been in the industry for more than three decades, she’s witnessed firsthand its transformation.
Does the local music scene inspire her?
‘‘We didn’t have many options in the 1990s. My playlist today’s full of songs from East Africa. We have more offerings in both urbane and vernacular music.’’
Collaborations with other institutions on multiple music projects, music tours to schools and working with a supportive team have been the highlights of her tenure so far.
Is Kenya Conservatoire of Music a good employer? ‘‘That’s for sure. A good student comes from a good teacher. Our teachers in different departments are so passionate about what they do. They own the process.’’
Would she have the same sentiments if she were among the more than 35 teaching staff at the school?
‘‘I’ve been a teacher here; so, yes.’’
With Covid-19 usurping nearly all human activity the world over, music training hasn’t been spared either. For the school of music, this is the first time they’ve done online music classes, ‘‘a possibility we’d never thought of’’.
When I ask her what she’s fallen out of love with in recent years, her demeanour contours. ‘‘Nothing,’’ she says with strenuous finality. ‘‘I’m doing more music, reading and working out the same way I’ve been doing for years. Even during lockdown, I tried not to disrupt my life so much.’’
Her universe is aligning, both professionally and socially. ‘‘At this stage in my life, I’m finding myself doing things that I enjoy more without trying so hard.’’
Is it luck, I wonder loudly, to which she quotes Chris Rock. ‘‘I don’t have a job: I have a career. Not everyone gets to do what they love.’’ Her metric of success? Being in the spaces that she wants to be and doing what she’s passionate about.
‘‘This way, I listen to the universe about new opportunities and the need to move on when some doors close.’’ How philosophical, I observe. ‘‘My father (Jesse Mugambi) is a professor of philosophy, so it’s not a choice,’’ she says whooping with laughter.
Besides music, I’m curious to understand what stimulates her. For the mother of two sons aged 10 and seven, family is priceless. ‘‘My sons glean lessons from the life I lead. There’s a glow that comes from knowing you’ve a responsibility to create a better world for your children.’’
For 18 months now, fitness has been a part of her lifestyle, with ‘‘obvious results’’. She says she’s happier and more fulfilled now. ‘‘The routine has also made me more disciplined in other areas of life.”
Music training, I remind her, is an expensive affair, and often a preserve of the elite. She doesn’t deny. After all, she’s where she is owing to the music programmes she went through as a child.
What then is she doing to change this exclusivity, if at all?
‘‘During our Kenya School Concert Tour, we visited different counties including Siaya where students with no music training or facilities at all were able to learn about performing arts,’’ she recounts. ‘‘As an institution, we’re in discussions with partners to develop programmes that target children from all backgrounds, not just the elite.’’
The new Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC), she notes, is an equaliser and a new dawn for Kenyan learners, especially those with musical and other talents.
‘‘If implemented properly, with the right partnerships, it will allow our children to gain from the same instrument support that we’ve been providing to schools.’’
Everything she has done so far is worth its weight in gold, she tells me. So, what does she see looking into the next 10 years? ‘‘I’ll be 50,’’ she says after momentary consideration. “I see women in their 20s and 30s actively participating in performing arts and having robust careers.”
She regrets that few women are able to sustain their careers in the creative space after 30, even fewer beyond 35. ‘‘In 10 years, we shouldn’t talk about harassment or the unfortunate things that happen to women in the industry. It should be a liberating space for all.’’