This is the unlikely story of a boy who grew up in rural Kenya, lived rough in the streets of Nairobi, was rescued and sent to a rehabilitation home where he met the musician who would be his teacher and mentor.
Martin Murimi adopted the stage name Papillon, French for butterfly, because he compares his experiences to the transformation of the caterpillar to a butterfly.
Born and raised in Mbeere, he came to Nairobi as a 14-year-old for his high school in 2003 but instead dropped out and became what he calls a “street hustler”.
“I sold tea and snacks and worked as a cobbler in Kawangware,” he says.
In 2005, one of his customers offered to take him to the Amref Child In Need Project in Dagoretti and it was here that he resumed his education by joining Mutuini High School in the same area. Every Friday, internationally-renowned nyatiti player Ayub Ogada would perform for the children at the home and this left a lasting impression on the young lad.
“I was persistent and eventually Ayub gave me his number,” recalls Papillon. Meanwhile he joined a music group called the Juakali Drummers that comprised children from the Amref project.
“We created our own instruments with the available material, drums, tubes, cans, metal, paper and glass.”
Through support by Amref Italy, a jazz artist from Rome, Giovanni Lo Cascio came to train the group and in 2009, he organised their trip to Italy. Papillon was among a few members of the group that won a scholarship to study music for eight months in Rome. “I perfected my skill at playing the percussions but it was also a great to share experiences with students from across the world,” he says.
When he returned to Kenya, he joined the Amref project as an art tutor and also managed the group now known as Slum Drummers.
This was the time to call up Ayub, eight years after taking his number.
“I introduced myself as the young boy from Amref who had been fascinated by his music and Ayub immediately invited me to his place in Mlolongo to work on some music with him.”
He accompanied Ayub for a show at the Railway Museum and after a week they performed together again at the Murumbi Gallery during a show organised by African Heritage founder Alan Donovan. “I was given the role of playing the drums as fashion models walked down the runway.”
This experience introduced Papillon to a rich legacy of musicians associated with Mr Donovan’s brand that started with the African Heritage Band, where Ayub (then known as Job Seda) began his career in 1979.
To help Papillon establish his own career, Ayub passed over some of his own shows to the young musician. He also introduced him to the Indian tabla player Prasad Velankar. Prasad who had been playing alongside Ayub recalls that meeting at a concert at Alliance Francaise in 2009 when Papillon first approached him.
“I told him ‘If I can perform with your teacher, then I would be happy to play with you too ’,” says Prasad. Papillon now performs accompanied by three musicians, guitarist Sewe Dickson Oteng, Paul Shiundu on keyboards and Prasad playing a two-piece Indian drum set (tabla).
Prasad explains that the experience of working with Ayub means he can now synchronise the rhythm of his tabla to the groove of the nyatiti and other stringed African instruments.
When he performed at the International School of Kenya (ISK) last week, Papillon showcased a range of his own percussions creations, including an innovative 10 stringed harp that he calls kiveo (Mbeere for “gift) and a tubaphone.
The production of Papillon’s debut album, which is set for release in August, is taking place both in Kenya and the US.
“The album has 10 songs and the main instrument has a similar number of strings,” he says. It is hardly surprising that his first single is called “Ayubu” which is a dedication to his musical and spiritual mentor. “Ayub Ogada taught me good music while I learnt good morals and spirituality from the Biblical prophet Job (Ayub)”.
Two other songs that he performed during the concert at ISK, “Mucii” and “Nafsi” will also be on the upcoming album.