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Safaricom Youth Orchestra – meet young jazz, classical music players

By Harriet James
Monday, September 28th, 2020
Michelle Okuya.
In summary

The Safaricom Youth Orchestra has and continues to raise a generation of young jazz and classical music players. Harriet James speaks to two of such musicians whose career they owe to the orchestra. 

When 23-year-old Kevin Ooko Obara joined the Safaricom Ghetto Classics at the age of 13 in 2012, he was serving as an altar boy at the St John’s Catholic Church in Nairobi’s Korogocho slums.

But one day he was told by a friend there was a chance for him to join the Ghetto Classics.

“He told me there was a position for someone to play the tuber and that’s what I began playing ever since,” he tells Spice, adding that being in the group has assisted him grow his music career.

Since its inception in February 2014, the Safaricom International Jazz Festival has evolved into a celebration of live music that not only entertain its audience, but also supports young people earn a living.

It has brought about and nurtured gifted young people in Kenyan jazz scene including Kevin, making the genre more accessible to fans and bringing together music lovers for a good cause.

The profits made from these events go towards supporting the Ghetto Classics, a non-profit, community-based programme that seeks to transform the lives of youth from underprivileged backgrounds by introducing them to jazz and classical music.

Life was not a cup of tea for Kevin who had to take care of his family even as he played in the band.

His parents divorced when he was just six years old in 2002, and that led them to a life of struggle.

Being uneducated, the only job that his mother could find was in a flower farm as a casual labourer.

Unfortunately, his mother had an accident that made her not to work anymore. They were residing in Juja then.

“As a result, my elder siblings stepped to take care of themselves and some left the house and others slept in the streets to fend for themselves.

Personally, I stayed with my mum and she opted to move to Nairobi to see whether she couldn’t find a job,” he says.

New twists

The mother moved to Nairobi in 2006. She lived with a relative in Korogocho where she began brewing and selling chang’aa and sending cash to her children for food.

Soon, she brought them to Nairobi and they lived in the slum where crime, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse thrive.

It was a harsh place to live. At some point, he met a missionary called Sister Lydia Badella.

“I was taken to Daniel Komboni Primary School and taken straight to Standard 3, even without any other basic school experience.

It was tough as I wasn’t understanding anything, but I was really determined to at least study,” he says.

Lydia set up her own school and Kevin transferred to study there in 2009. He was were taken to catechism classes and Kevin was baptised, a point at which he began going to church at St John’s Catholic Church.

In that same year, his mother was seriously injured in a mugging incident and someone had to step up to take care of the home.

“That’s when I joined the garbage collection business during the weekends and during weekdays I would go to school and also be in the band.

I then talked to Ghetto Classics founder Elizabeth Njoroge and explained to her my woes and she began to pay our house rent.

I stopped collecting the garbage and focused on music and studies,” he recalls.

In 2016, Kevin finished high school and also graduated from the orchestra. He began working as an usher in the group.

He desired to build his career in repairing music instruments and in 2017, he discussed this passion with Elizabeth who later on took him to the International School of Kenya where he learnt about instruments through a facilitator who was visiting the country from the Colorado Institute of Music Technology.

Part of his job was to organise Skype lessons for children in Korogocho with teachers in Germany.

“One of the teachers was working for an organisation called Chances for Kids. She told me they wanted to find someone who could help the organisation with instruments repairs.

She told me to prepare my documents so that I could travel to Germany but I didn’t have the papers.

I had done my primary and high schools without a birth certificate and it took me two years to just look for the papers,” he intimates.

Though challenging, he managed to find his papers and travelled to Germany to learn how to repair instruments.

He also joined a band during the three months and with the cash he received, he bought land and settled his mother in the upcountry.

He also opened a workshop for repairing instruments in Nairobi that is picking up well.

Musical ambitions

For Michelle Akwe Okuya, being in the academy for six years between (2013-2019) not only grew her skills in violin, but she has started an orchestra at Strathmore University, the first in the campus.

“With music I’ve gotten to play in so many concerts including thrice in the Safaricom Jazz Festival.

I love jazz and hopefully that’s the path that I will take music wise. Playing at the jazz festival was awesome because we were there as an orchestra,” she says.

The second born in a family of three, she started playing the violin at the age of seven while studying at Cavina School.

“I began playing in church with my elder brother who is two years older and then I played it too in my primary school.

I won a couple of competitions, and at around 12 years of age, I applied to join the Kenya National Youth Orchestra, but they said I was too young to join.

I joined a year later and then the Safaricom Youth Orchestra where I was part of the first class,” she says.

In high school at St Andrews Turi where she played cello up to Grade Five and at Safaricom too, she learnt how to play the viola.

Being with the late Bob Collymore and the children really assisted her to learn and unleash her capacity as a leader and creator of her own destiny.

She adds, “It was like a hub where we were immersed in music. The place did not only challenge me musically, but also socially because I mingled with a wide variety of people.”