Shamsi Music and The Limericks, two of Kenya’s leading jazz bands, share insights on their journeys including sharing the stage with renowned international artists.
They spoke to Nation.co.ke
“I grew up with an older brother who absolutely loved jazz music and played the piano and bass guitar.
I would copy almost everything he did, and so naturally I’d listen to jazz music with him and watch jazz shows that would air on Metro TV.
I grew to love the art form and especially the music of Kirk Whalum,” says Laka Nyagah Waithaka of Shamsi Music, which prides itself in creating refreshing and inspiring Kenyan music.
Later in 2014, after teaming up with Paul Mbithi for a benefit concert, they explored the possibility of starting a jazz band that would create a Kenyan sound, and that is how Shamsi music came to be.
The Limericks band was born out of slightly different circumstances.
“I have always loved jazz. For me, it is the truest form of music; music in its purest, rawest and most-genuine form,” says Ken Mwara, The Limericks band leader and music director.
“The Limericks is a group of extremely passionate, fun-loving, musical geniuses whom I had the pleasure of bringing together through a journey that has spanned the last decade and onto such a big stage as The Safaricom International Jazz Festival.
I first met Fafa (our lead singer) who’d just come down from Madagascar and was looking to do something in the local jazz scene, then Danz (bassist also from Madagascar), Richie our internationally acclaimed drummer who’s Kenyan and finally Buula (alto-sax maestro from Uganda) three years ago making up what’s popularly known as ‘The United Nations of Jazz Bands,” he further explains.
According to the artists, jazz music is thriving in Kenya. Besides the increase in the number of bands playing jazz, learning institutions are also taking up the art form.
“The jazz scene in Kenya is coming to birth. There’s a lot of support from the general public, and more companies are interested in supporting the art form and the artists financially.
There’s also been a surge in the number of artists playing jazz music. Even in schools like Kenyatta University, students are beginning to form jazz bands and explore the art form beyond what they learn in class.
All these are positive growth points,” says Laka Nyagah, the experienced saxophone player, who also assists in management of Shamsi Music band.
Mr Mwara of The Limericks band concurs with him.
“The Kenyan jazz scene has changed remarkably over the last decade. Most notably is that jazz musicians can now solely make a living off their talent and concentrate on bettering themselves even as they get paid.
This means we now have an emergence of more professional jazz musicians as there is a market demand for their art,” he says.
The artists have been privileged enough to play at some of the most prestigious events in the country and beyond. Shamsi music became the first Safaricom International Jazz Festival (SIJF) export after they were selected to play at Jazzy Koum Ben in Mali, while Limericks band has also made its milestones playing in different events in the region.
“Playing events like SIJF, Jazzy Koum Ben (Mali), Sauti za Busara (Zanzibar), and Bayimba Festival (Uganda) has been some of the greatest experiences in life, especially so because I’m doing it with my band brothers.
Music is a universal language and it’s always a delight to see people get the music, even in foreign lands, and groove to it. It always feels like we’re bringing the world together a little bit more at every show,” says Laka.
“It has been absolutely life changing! Imagine spending a week with the greats - chilling with them, getting to know them better, kicking-it with them, jamming and finally opening for them! I’m talking Alune Wade, the late great Brah Hugh Masekela, Leo Genovese, Kirk Whalum, Rick Braun and their amazing band members individually… It’s one thing to know Norman Brown, but it’s another for Norman Brown to know you,” adds Mwara.
The two are quick to point out that jazz music, like any other genres of music is for all, and not as preconceived in some circles to be of a certain class.
“I think Safaricom has done a remarkable job in demystifying this perception. I watched the attendance demographic at this last Safaricom International Jazz Day gig on Labour Day and it was amazing to see the masses of young, hip, people from all walks of life grooving to Nairobi Horns Project and Jacob & Kavutha. This just goes to prove that the jazz culture has completely been changed in Nairobi.” Mr. Mwara notes.
“Jazz is about free expression. So how can we classify free expression or put it in a box? Over the years, jazz has morphed to fit the cultural context within which it plays. South African jazz carries a South African identity. Cuban Jazz carries a Cuban identity that’s quite different that the one of New Orleans. So in Kenya we should be going after creating jazz music with a Kenyan identity.”says Laka.
I feel like with most other genres of music, Jazz is coming to Africa. Same case for jazz music in Kenya, people are appreciating more the African sounds, melodies and rhythms as infused in mainstream jazz music. Hence a shift to a more ‘Africanised’ (if I can use that word) Jazz sound! Mwara adds.
The two artists conclude by encouraging their fans and people to continue appreciating this genre of music.
“People should listen to jazz because it is perhaps the only music that chronicles our story as a people in a timeless manner. People should also listen to Kenyan jazz and support the artists because without local support there would be no foundation for us to grow,” says Laka.
“To the fans, it’s a big thank you for always holding our hand! I think Kenya has one of the best receptive audiences in the world. To those still shying away, I’d ask them to give it a try - Once you go Jazz, you’ll never go back!” concludes Mwara.