Last week on Thursday evening, I had the pleasure of attending a Christmas jam featuring the Kenya Schools’ Concert Tour Team, Redfourth Chorus at the Legato Getaways, No 157 James Gichuru Road. The invitation was courtesy of the internationally acclaimed opera singer Rhoda Ondeng Wilhelmsen.
I first met Rhoda in 1964 at Thogoto Junior School when we were both less than 10 years old. What impressed me most about Rhoda was her beautiful soprano singing voice; it was like the voice of a lark announcing a new dawn.
It did not take long before our headmistress, Fanny Cluness, a fastidious Scottish missionary, noticed Rhoda’s special gift, writing in one of her first reports that Rhoda had a “strong” voice for her age.
Ms Cluness coached Rhoda and by the end of 1964, Rhoda performed her first public solo during the school’s annual Carol service in which I, not being so musically gifted, played the role of a shepherd boy. Rhoda was to play a leading role in subsequent Carol services.
I remember this time very well as my family had just moved to a coffee farm known as Karugu Estate in Ruiru.
My father had purchased the farm with 25 acres of coffee from a Mr Bockett who was the manager of the nearby 569-acre Ruiru Mills Estate. Apparently Bockett had established Karugu Estate as a mini-model coffee farm complete with a pulping factory, fermentation tanks, drying tables, ventilated stores, overhead irrigation, a tractor and a delightful two-and-a-half-bedroom bungalow.
The house was served by a party-line and our telephone number was Ruiru 6Y9 identified by two long rings and a short one.
There was no dial face and to call the operator one had to turn the crank handle several times. The party-line provided for a great deal of mischief as you could eavesdrop on other peoples’ conversations who shared the same line.
Returning to Rhoda’s story, in 1973, while barely 16 years old as a student at Limuru Girls’ School, she sang her inaugural operatic leading role in Kenya’s first ever Kenyan opera, “Ondieki the Fisherman”, composed by an English teacher and ex-Oxford Chorister Francis William Chandler.
The production had been commissioned by the headmistress as the show piece for a new library, which was to be officially opened by the late president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
After university, in the early 1980s Rhoda worked as an anthropologist in Southern Sudan where she learned a lot about the shared human spirit, which can at best transcend cultural and many other barriers.
Nevertheless, her spirit was still in the world of music. As fate would have it, during her stay in Southern Sudan, she met her future husband who was from Norway.
Rhoda and her husband established their home in Norway from where she launched her operatic career and today she is a household name in Europe.
Four decades later in 2012, Rhoda, with the help of former students of Limuru Girls’ School, produced “Ondieki the Fisherman” to a Nairobi audience which packed the Braeburn theatre for four nights running.
It was after this production that Rhoda began to ponder that someday in the future, Kenyans, of all walks of life, would be able to gather and watch a Kenyan opera (or operas from other nations) at the nearest venue whether in a formal theatre or under a mango tree.
However, it quickly dawned on her that music is not in the curriculum of most public schools and is deemed to be the preserve of the wealthy or privileged and in any case, there are very few trained music teachers in Kenya.
Rhoda, not being one to be put off easily, appreciates that had it not been for the exposure and opportunities that she received at an early age, she would have languished with a gift unexplored and undeveloped.
She wants to give back to society by enriching amateur and professional singers with the techniques to guarantee a rewarding singing career and practice.
All of this requires money and it is towards this end that Rhoda established Baraka Opera Trust in 2014 to raise funds and oversee the management of her vision.
The Christmas jam last Thursday was organised by the Baraka Opera Trust and the Kenya Conservatoire of Music to support the Kenya School Concert Tour Project.
So far, a number of institutions and individuals have indicated their support including: the Norwegian State Opera and Ballet, The Grass Company, Kenya Ltd, Kenya Conservatoire of Music, Tom Gravlie and Gudrun Glett.
The Redfourth Chorus is a pool of young musical talent which Rhoda, through the Kenya School Concert Tour Project, intends to use to tour all primary schools in Kenya to tap and promote young children who are musically gifted.
Rhoda is a firm believer that music cuts across gender, tribe, class and is therefore a great unifying force.
What a wonderful way to give back after more than 50 years to see a new generation enjoy the same exposure and opportunities.