Two Kenyan bands have an opportunity to showcase their talents during this week’s Safaricom International Jazz Festival that began at the Uhuru Gardens Grounds last night.
Guitarist Kato Change and the Ad Hoc Band are sharing the stage with five-time American Grammy Award winner Diane Reeves who is the headline act during the festival whose second concert is at Hell’s Gate National Park in Naivasha tomorrow.
While Kato is an experienced musician who has played professionally for more than a decade, Ad Hoc is a group of six young musicians who, as their name suggests, started out playing unofficially before forming the band just over a year ago.
Four of the band’s musicians played together in the Starehe Boys School music ensemble and later met female bassist Tunu Jumwa and drummer John Musembi while studying music at Kenyatta University.
“Our intention was to play for specific shows only but later we decided to stick together and to retain the name Ad Hoc as a reminder of our journey,” explains Musembi.
This was the second time for the band to audition for a slot at the Jazz Festival after an unsuccessful attempt last year.
“That first audition taught us that there are other elements, dance, food, costume, that make music an experience and we factored those into our presentation this year,’’ says keyboardist and composer Dan Abissi.
Performing at the festival has been a dream for the band and the opportunity has made the group work even harder on the quality of their music. “If we can keep this trajectory even beyond the festival then that guarantees our music will be of highest standards,” says Abissi.
Ad Hoc has been mentored by the band Shamsi Music, which has been one of the success stories from the Safaricom Jazz festival in recent years. “We are looking up to them because they have used the platform of the festival to release their album, and have toured in the country and elsewhere in Africa.
The production of Ad Hoc’s debut album is in progress and among the favourites to expect at their performance are a rendition of the gospel song “Kwake Yesu” and “Herua” based on a traditional song from the Giriama, both arranged by the band’s saxophonist Sam Mutuku.
Other songs are “Entabanana” a song with roots in the Gusii community arranged by Abissi and a reworking of the timeless “Malaika.”
“We are taking these original songs and adding some funk, jazz and other contemporary musical elements that can make these sounds connect with diverse audiences,” says Abissi.
For Kato Change, this was also a second attempt at the Safaricom International Jazz Festival. “I auditioned two years ago and they got back to me saying ‘sorry you didn’t make the cut’,” he says. “For me, that was just an opportunity to come back even stronger before the audition panel and I did so successfully this year.”
It is still rare in Kenya for an instrumentalist to break out as solo artist, but Kato has defied that trend. He started playing music professionally after school just over a decade ago when he joined Maia van Lekow’s band, and later as a member of the group Ma3.
He has played with the house band on TV programs, like The Patricia Show, Tusker Project Fame, and has been lead guitarist for the last five seasons of Coke Studio. On the latter, he played alongside top international acts like King Sunny Ade, Salif Keita, Trey Songz and NeYo.
Kato has just returned from Brazil where he was on tour for a month with Brazilian musician Luedji Luna. He met Luna while attending an Artist residency in Sacatar in 2017 and she has invited him back to Brazil twice, for the recording of her album and subsequently for the promotional tour across Brazil.
“I have played many genres, from rock in my teenage days to hip hop but I am essentially an African guitarist that fuses various genres and the most consistent of these has been jazz, “ he explains.
The self-taught instrumentalist first learnt the guitar by taking lessons online and has improved his skills through his interactions with musicians, both in Kenya and around the world.
His debut album “The Change Experience” was released at the end of 2015 and reflects his diverse influences from acoustic guitar pieces to straight ahead jazz and even a taste of house and dance music. For the past year he has been working on a hip-hop recording influenced by African music and jazz along with a guitar album.
“I have recorded almost 60 songs and will then divide it into 12 songs for each album to be released in 2019.
Change is playing at the Safaricom Jazz Festival with a five-piece band consisting bassist Radanz “Danz” Nirina, Moses Njoroge on keys, Idd Aziz on percussions, and Christian Kibamba, a drummer originally from Burundi.