The most annoying thing about being a Kenyan Jazz musician, according to 33-year-old Edward Parseen, is the “elitist misconception” that is often associated with the genre.
“What most people tend to forget is that Jazz music originated from Negro spirituals, which were songs of hope and a source of inspiration for black people during the era of slavery,” he explains, perturbed that not many know this.
“Look at New Orleans and Soweto, which are global Jazz hubs. What is elitist about them?”
Twelve years since he became a professional jazzman, the singer and instrumentalist has built a consummate career by staging world class performances at home and abroad. His collective, Edward Parseen and The Different Faces Band, is a common
feature in Nairobi’s exclusive venues. In addition to playing regular nights at some of the city’s most premium entertainment spots, the group also puts on periodic concerts in conjunction with other Jazz musicians.
“We’ve done a few tours in Europe and also get invited to work on musicals and theatre projects from time to time,” he adds.
In 2009, for instance, Parseen graced The Royal Carre and Utrecht Netherlands festivals in Amsterdam before taking part in the Daughters of Africa Tour in the same year. Locally, he has performed at the Jazz Under The Stars concert, as well as the 2014
Samosa Festival. Parseen also featured in The Phantom of The Opera and Joseph & The Amazing Dream Coat musicals.
With such a profile, it hardly comes as a surprise that Parseen has featured in nearly every edition of the Safaricom Jazz series, since the festival’s inception in 2014.
Parseen’s grandfather was a traditional horn player, while his younger sister, Esther Nashipai, is also a professional classical music performer with the Safaricom choir and the Nairobi Chamber Chorus.
After high school, Parseen, who comes from Narok, joined Kenyatta University to study for a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music Performance. He graduated in 2007.
CRUCIAL TOOLS FROM DEGREE
“The degree was helpful because it started me off with some crucial tools most musicians may not have. By the time I was starting, I not only knew how to compose, transcribe and perform music, but I was also familiar with the business aspects of the industry, which shortened the process for me.”
Parseen’s first permanent gig was at the (then) newly opened Brew Bistro Lounge on Ngong’ Road, which was a pioneering move in itself.
“We were the first to do live Thursday night shows, which now feature prominently in Nairobi’s nightlife,” he points out. He would later join Jazz veteran, Jacob Asiyo, as an instrumentalist and backup singer before eventually launching his solo act.
Today, Parseen and his four-man band are esteemed members of Nairobi’s growing Jazz circle.
Parseen is a recognisable face now, going by the number of fans who come up to him for selfies - he is still trying to wrap his head around all the attention.
While his collaborations with the likes of Nameless have done well to endear him to female and male listeners here at home, traditional Jazzists frown on this, arguing that it soils the largely conservative
genre. But Parseen believes it is this diversity that gives modern Jazz its contemporary appeal.
“The important thing is to understand the rules of the music before attempting to bend or break them,” he advises.
“There’s a certain standard of Jazz that only exists on the African continent, and that’s what we are keen to maintain and develop here.”
Parseen is determined to pass on this legacy to younger generations by nurturing young talents, whom he frequently shares the stage with.
“Kenyan musicians have a habit of closing off their ‘turf’ to upcoming artists, but I find this to be detrimental to our long-term growth. There are many young guys who are doing their thing and doing it
well. Muema Nzomo, Don Ouko and Joseph Rabai are some of the most impressive ones among those I have worked with.”
With emerging platforms such as the Safaricom Jazz Festival adding to the expanding circuit of regional and continent-wide avenues, the field has never been more promising.
“For a long time, South Africa, Morocco and Tunisia, have been the only major performance spaces available because they host established festivals such as Cape Town Jazz and Selam,” explains Parseen,
expressing confidence that “if they keep bringing quality African and international acts like Jonathan Butler and Jimmy Dludlu, Safaricom Jazz will change that, and eventually, Nairobi will become a global
Jazz stopover.” In the meantime, Parseen is happy to carry the diplomatic burden of winning over the naysayers in his mission to shake off the elitist tag.
“Quite frankly, I don’t mind it because it forces them to pay us more.”