There are combinations of names that just seem to agree with instruments: Kenny G. Ayub Ogada. Chris Bittok.
You just cannot picture a name combination of Jackson Biko playing a piano any less than a man with the names Chris Bittok being a quantity surveyor. (Maybe a wheat farmer, might be a great fit.)
Chris Bittok is saxophonist extraordinaire. He is done nothing else — not counting short stints in information technology, radio presenter, production — in his adult life but play the saxophone.
Even though he insists that playing the saxophone is not necessarily jazz music, his name is synonymous to the burgeoning jazz scene in Kenya.
He was part of the initial cast of the inaugural Safaricom International Jazz festival in 2014 and is currently embarking on making a solo album.
He recently met JACKSON BIKO at the Aksum Bar, Serena Hotel for tea on a cold morning to talk about music.
Do you have to have strong lungs to be a sax-maestro?
It helps. One of the little known things about me is that I swam for the Kenya amateurs team in high school. I could hold my breath for a couple of lengths under water and that is an advantage in playing the sax. Although there’s more to holding a deep breath, there’s still the technical aspects of blowing a saxophone. I consider myself still on a journey. I’m no maestro.
You can’t really master a saxophone. For instance, it took me a while to learn about circular breathing when playing the sax, which is something Kenny G does. You inhale with your nose then you trap some air in your mouth but as you are blowing out, you continue inhaling. So, it enables you to hold a knot like for an indefinite length of time.
You could have picked anything, drum, guitar … what drew you to a sax?
I have an elder brother who I looked up to. My parents were always like 'why can’t you be like this?'. (Chuckles) And so I took up most things he would be engaged in, like swimming. He played the sax before he left the country for further studies and I picked it as well. When he came back for his holidays and heard me play he said, “You deserve this more than me.”
When did you know that you were really good at it?
The most affirming thing was when my elder brother told me I was good it. Of course after that, even when I was in high school I would be invited to play at gigs in churches and alongside other artistes back then.
Did your parents just accept you being a musician without a fight?
My parents are both deceased now. My dad was a pilot and mom always dabbled in some business or the other. My dad passed on when I was 13 years old so he didn’t witness my artistic journey but my mom did and initially she dissuaded me. She preferred gospel music not this “music for the devil.” (Laughs) She was averse to me playing in nightclubs but then she started coming around when I started performing at corporate events and getting positive attention. Before she passed on, she would be seated in front during my concerts.
Does playing a sax sustain you or do you have to do other things to maintain your lifestyle?
Yes. Pretty much. On occasion I double into voice-overs. But to get where you make peace with being a musician and going at it full throttle comes after a lot of back and forth and complementing music with other pursuits. I’m in media and entertainment, which means I don’t limit myself. I have a unit, Spot on Live Entertainment Solutions, that can represent me for gigs.
What dreams are you chasing at 41?
(Pause) That’s a loaded one. (Long pause). Well, definitely to get behind the scenes more in the music industry. I want to create a learning centre, a cradle with facilities that will develop the next generation of musicians that will help them not to go through the same trial and error that we went through. So, whether it’s facilities to record, student facilities to actually learn and pick up different instruments as well as provide opportunities and platforms for them to develop and showcase their talents. A school of performing arts of sorts.
Do you consider yourself a successful musician?
No. I wouldn’t say that. I mean it depends. There are different measures of success, in terms of financial independence and the masterly of the instruments …(Trails off) I’m still on that journey. Success has such a finality to it that it gives you the impression you’re ready to hang it up and go sailing.
What’s your fear?
(Thinking) Leaving the book of my life unfinished. (Pause) Not living up to my God-given potential and having my time cut short — a premature ending.
So, if your life was cut short now, what would you regret?
Not taking bigger risks and letting some fears of judgement get in the way of attempting a lot of things.
So, if you’re to be given courage now, what would you do?
I would record more … because there’s always the fear of criticism, fear of performance or the need to. You feel that it’s not quite ready yet, this album is not quite ready yet. There’s more you can do as opposed to just letting it out. Of holding yourself back and lacking the courage to even make mistakes. There is always that thing in you to first seek perfection but perfection doesn’t exist.
When you called me for this interview, one of the things I thought of was how I have been in this industry for decades.
I thought that I will be measured against that time and perhaps not show much for it because the expectation is that by now I should be touring the world. Yet a lot of people don’t realise that even just getting to where I am now and inspiring other younger artistes is also an achievement.
What is defining your early 40s now? Are you happy?
Happiness is a decision and it’s something that I’ve struggled with over time, especially when I was approaching 40 because shortfalls suddenly become bigger. That was a scary time. (Chuckles) Because you’re self evaluating, beating yourself up over some of the things that you feel that you could have done that you haven’t accomplished and then after that, you just sort of pick yourself up and realise the need to reinvent or just to get back into the grind and get a fresh perspective.
Divorced, no children.
So doctors have friends who want free diagnosis. Pharmacists prescribe drugs for friends over the phone. Painters have friends who tell them, “you just give me this one painting?”
Do musicians like you have friends who say, “Chris, si you just come and play at my daughter’s birthday party?” and not pay you?
We all have plenty of those. (Laughs). There’s always the exposure angle, like “I’m gonna be having some very big guests and there will be a lot of work that will come out of this.
It’s good exposure.” You just have to get to a point where you say, ‘there’s a reason why you called me and if it's worth your time, it should be worth mine as well. Unless I decide to do it as a gift.’