Kenyan musicians will be part of a global community of artists and fans celebrating the International Jazz Day this Sunday. This is the sixth annual International Jazz Day organised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
The day highlights the power of jazz as a force for freedom and creativity, intercultural dialogue and unity between people from different parts of the world.
It is celebrated through jazz performances, jam sessions, master classes and outreach programmes taking place in more than 190 countries on all continents. Last year, President Barack Obama hosted the International Jazz Day concert at the White House with a show by more than 60 artists, including Aretha Franklin, Lee Ritenour and South African legend Hugh Masekela.
This year’s All-Star Concert featuring jazz icons like Herbie Hancock, Marcus Miller, Quincy Jones, Richard Bona and artists representing 14 countries will take place in Havana, Cuba this weekend. The event will also be streamed live on the UNESCO website.
In Nairobi, the event has for the first time been co-opted into the Safaricom International Jazz Festival series and will be celebrated with a Kenyan All Stars performance.
The concert will include some of Kenya’s finest jazz acts, Jacob and Kavutha Asiyo, Nairobi Horns Project, Eddie Grey, Victor Bitok and Shamsi Music. Others on the bill are James Gogo, Juma Tutu, Edward Parseen with Different Faces and Afro Sync.
What has been a low-key occasion in Kenya has been transformed into a huge celebration of the growing influence of the genre in the country.
“Artists have taken it upon themselves to develop their brands and to elevate the interest in jazz among music fans,” says Tim Riungu, saxophonist with Afro Sync.
In 2015, his band was selected to perform at the Safaricom International Jazz Festival from an audition of up to 60 bands. “The support from Safaricom has given the musicians more muscle and a platform to perform their music,” says Riungu.
He adds, “A lot more people in Kenya today are conscious of jazz thanks to the massive publicity from the festival events that run throughout the year.”
The opportunity to perform alongside jazz greats like Kirk Whalum and Gerald Albright as his band did in 2015 was a professional highlight for Riungu.
“One of the high points in my life was playing on the same show as two of the saxophonists who have been very influential in my own playing of the instrument.”
Afro Sync is a five-piece outfit that began in 2015 when a group of musicians who used to jam every Sunday night at a pub in Lavington formed a full time band.
“Besides the need to earn a living as musicians, it is the creative ideas that cemented us together,” says Riungu.
Their sound synchronises straight-ahead jazz, Latin rhythms, with various African sounds. Afro Sync even incorporated a nyatiti player in their repertoire, a fusion that according to Riungu always brought the house down wherever they performed.
A year ago, Victor Muli, an alumnus of Berklee School of Music in the US, joined the group and his vocal talents have added a soulful edge to the style of the band.
The International Jazz Day concert will be the first time that Afro Sync presents a set of their original compositions, songs that they are ready to record for their debut album.
“What we release from the studio sessions will be very different from what our fans are used to hearing at our shows,” explains Riungu.
One of these songs is “Utakatifu” is written by the band’s bassist Uledi Dzidze, a veteran musician who has played in bands in Mombasa, Nairobi and Dubai.
“This is a composition that takes us to a very spiritual zone and there are other tracks that are less intense.”
Proceeds from the ticket sales of the International Jazz Festival concert will benefit the Ghetto Classics, the music education project for children in Korogocho and surrounding areas of Nairobi.
“In the same way that I had the privilege of being exposed to musical instruments at an early age, in years to come, these children will make fantastic musicians,” says Riungu.