Kenyan musicians on Saturday refused to perform at the ongoing Smithsonian Folklore Festival in Washington DC to protest alleged breach of contract by the ministry of Culture and Arts.
Thousands of American and foreign guests, who spent over seven hours waiting for the artistes and ministry officials to resolve their differences, were left disappointed after the two sides failed to agree.
Being a weekend, the turnout was larger than weekdays — with Kenya attracting more visitors than China at this year’s event at The National Mall.
The over 40 artistes refused to belt tunes for seven performances that were scheduled to go down at Ngoma Stage from 11am to 8pm.
Instead, they prepared a joint statement, took to the stage and read it in turns to the chagrin of the ministry officials.
In the statement, the group demanded full payment of their daily allowances and half payment for the 10-day festival, and that Cabinet Secretary Hassan Wario commits in writing to the date he will clear the balance.
They accused the ministry of dishonouring the contract they signed in Nairobi before flying to United States.
In the agreement, they were to get a daily allowance of Sh5,100 ($60) and Sh63,750 ($750) each as half payment. The other half, they told Nation, was to be paid at the end of the event.
“Every artiste you see here is a master of their craft who now stands slapped in the face by the Government of Kenya,” their statement read in part.
“We want to expose this type of corruption and the systemic rot that keep good people down.”
Some artistes accused ministry officials of failing to plan well for the event, with others expressing fears of losing their cash if they performed without the ministry first committing to pay.
“I feel hurt, I feel disrespected, I feel let down by my government and they should do better. They have done this before with the sports people but this time they targeted people who are intelligent… I want to be respected,” Linda Muthama, who performs with Ultimate Band back in Kenya, told Nation.
Efforts by the Smithsonian Institute officials, the organisers of the event, to have the two sides stop washing their dirty linen in public did not bear fruit.
A call from Manoah Esipisu, President Uhuru Kenyatta's spokesman, to musician Suzanna Owiyo did not help matters either.
Festival director Sabrina Lynn Motley took to the stage at a 20-minute interval to urge guests to be patient. At last, she let go and declared the stage closed while advising the audience to visit other Kenyan stands which were not affected by the boycott.
The grandstanding and the eventual call-off of the event left guests, some of whom had come to scout for talent, in utter shock.
“I have never seen something like this,” Mr Mark Miller,60, from Chervil, Maryland, who has been volunteering with the Smithsonian for the last 32 years said.
“There have been other logistical problems like musicians missing flights but not work stoppage.”
Some Kenyans living and working in the US, who had come with relatives, friends and neighbours, were openly upset by the sight of idle drums, guitars, pianos, nyatiti and percussions at the over 1,000-person-capacity stage.
“We have been here for over three hours. The only performance we watched was Musaimo but just as he was ‘nicing’ it up, it got cut and they started to read the statement,” Caroline Karemu, a Kirinyaga resident who lives in Washington DC said.
Later in the day, Dr Wario and acting Kenyan Ambassador to the US Jean Kamau said the artistes had been paid five-day allowances (last Wednesday to Sunday) totalling to Sh34,000 ($400).
Dr Wario blamed the embarrassing spectacle on “budgetary issues” and “challenges in wiring funds” from Nairobi to Washington DC through the embassy.
He said he met all the participants in the event on Friday evening and explained the situation, promising to pay the rest of the demanded cash next week.
“Yes, the artistes were told other things before but I asked them if they wanted the truth or a superficial story. They said they wanted the truth and the truth was that the money we had was just enough to pay per diem for five days,” he said, adding that he had apologised to them in advance.
Without giving details, he also linked to the bad show to politics, saying “there could be three to five inciters in the group”.
He hit out at the artistes’ move to stick to their contracts, saying, “the biggest agreement is that we’re all Kenyans. We came here to showcase Kenya.”
“I told these guys there is no way the government will run away from you, the whole of Kenya cannot run away from you, you will be paid your money,” he said.
By the end of Saturday, it was not clear whether the Smithsonian would reschedule the missed performances.
“This (boycott) has never happened before, so I don’t know,” spokeswoman Amy Kehs told the Nation.
The Smithsonian Festival is an annual 10-day event that draws over 1.5 million visitors to the heart of the US political capital.
It will run from June 25 to 29 and July 2 to 6. Kenya is the fifth African country to be featured in the festival.