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Discovering, Mentoring, and Networking Upcoming Artists at the Kenya National Theatre by Lucy Karaya

Kenya National Theatre (KNT) which is under the management of the Kenya Cultural Centre (KCC) was the starting point of most artists in Kenya. Some of them have acknowledged this. Felix Odiwour Akodhe popularly known as Jalang’o asserts that the national theatre holds a very significant part in his life.  Through his YouTube channel, Jalango TV, he claims that his first office was at the Ukumbi Mdogo which is one of the spaces offered at the Centre.

Most importantly, he mentions the Performance After Lunch (PAL) program that takes place at the Center. The program is popularly known as PAL Live. All upcoming artists are allowed to participate. They are not charged to participate and free lunch is also offered.  Through the program, the artists are discovered, mentored, and networked for better placement in the art industry. Odiwour says that he used to participate in this program 20 years ago and could meet other artists such as Hart the Band who have also received valuable recognition in the art industry.

Odiwour has encouraged artists to come back to the national theatre and make sure it works for them. PAL Live is a special and great opportunity that artists can utilize as a step towards getting a better placement in the industry. Odiwour has shown that perseverance and finding one’s purpose in the industry is rewarding.

JABALI AFRIKA: FROM HUMBLE KENYA NATIONAL THEATRE TO THE GRAAMMYS (BY Jacqueline Mahugu the Standard)

The saying, “If you can dream it, you can do it” is one that a Kenyan Band, Jabali Africa can relate to.

They have done the country proud after being nominated for Best Children’s Music Album category for their collective One Tribe Collect, All One Tribe at this year’s Grammy Awards.

Their nomination to the hallowed ceremony was a moment that came full circle from their appearance on a children’s show back in 1996 before they got their first big break in the US, where they are now based.

The band, composed of Joseck Asikoye, Justo Asikoye and Dumisizwe Bhembem, first landed in the US on June 12, 1995, after doing a tour of 30 cities in Europe with African Heritage Festival Tour before going off by themselves to do a tour organised by their late brother Luke Asikoye – he passed on in June 2021.

They had an 8-month working visa doing shows, but when they were booked for more shows, they renewed the visa.

The first show was on the Reggae Sunsplash tour, after which they got onto one of the world’s most critically acclaimed and beloved children’s shows, Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood, quite by chance.

Joseck Asikoye, who was also admitted to the Recording Academy Class of 2021 as the voting member at the Grammys, told The Standard that they were performing on a different show the day it happened, in 1996.

He would fax their schedules, their money would be transferred into accounts, so they would tour without meeting their agent face to face.

Six months down the line, they met, and the rest is history.

Jabali would do a lot of college tours, about 200 a year.

They would be in Kenya in December every year before they had to start touring in Mid-Jan every year.

The touring circuit meant it made the most sense to live in the US, so that is where they have been based since.

Jabali Afrika started out at the Kenya National Theatre, before some members of the troupe, including brothers Joseck and Justo Asikoye, broke out to do their own thing.

 Their foundation was as a percussion group, playing traditional instruments, although at first, the only instruments they could afford were drums.

They were intent on proving that African instruments were just as good as western.

In fact, Justo explains, the guitar evolved from the African Harp.

 “Let’s prove to these guys that our music is not inferior, and we’re going to play it through our instruments,” Justo recalls the band deciding.

They were inspired by the percussive band from Ghana – Osibisa.

Jabali went on to win the Best Traditional Adaptation award in Kenya in December 1994 in Nairobi’s National Talent Search (Star Search). 

They were then invited to headline the African Heritage Festival tour of Germany and Austria in 1995. Mister Rogers then came along in 1996.

Their albums have been well-loved both abroad and at home, with hits such as Aoko and albums such as Journey cementing themselves in the annals of Kenya’s most loved works.

With exposure to many different artistes, styles and cultures, the band has experimented and blended with other sounds but remains true to its African sound and beginnings.

“In any song that Jabali Afrika touches, our roots have to be in there,” says Joseck.

That is what has given them an edge over others, yet that is also the hurdle faced by many other artistes at home.

“We need to change this mentality that anything that is traditional or anything that is cultural is not good enough for the main stage,” Joseck explains.

He gives a story of how when they performed at some venues, they would be placed at the entrance while a cover band was onstage.

“If I stand with a guitar even in church, I will look cool. But, if I come with a Nyatiti in church, they’ll tell me I’m a sorcerer. We need to change those mentalities,” he says.

“I cannot compete with an American to be an American. Even when people like (Hugh) Masekela and Miriam Makeba, when they came in with their music they fused it with their own stuff,” adds Justo.

Their formula has proven to be true, earning them a place in the Grammys.

Of the album that won them the spot, Joseck says; “All One tribe amplifies black and who we are. African music and our diverse cultural heritage as well as the depth of the roots we are grounded on.” 

As they reach the highest honours of music, home is where their hearts are.

Justo says; “Even if I went down to the ground, I cannot forget the streets of Nairobi. These are the streets that made us.”

SAUTI TETEZI FESTIVAL BY LUCY KARAYA

On 17th March 2022 PAWA 254 held its Sauti Tetezi festival at the Kenya National Theatre. The festival was a culmination of the Sauti Tetezi Project a one-year project funded by the United States Embassy in Kenya Department of Public Affairs. The project being an integrated arts and budget tracking project with its’ main aim being to enhance participation of Kenyan youth in Accountability and Governance processes.

The Leaders and members of civil societies and social justice centers filled the auditorium and were very passionate about enhancing social accountability among the youths.

During the opening ceremony Mr. Michael Owino, the programs manager at PAWA 254 asserted that the festival is a bitter-sweet moment. Sweet in that they had achieved what was set out in the project while it was bitter since the project was coming to an end.

Consequently, he called for partnership from the government and civil society organizations so as to continue influencing and impacting society positively for the achievement of the desired social change.  

The head of business unit, Njeri Mwangi highlighted the third verse of the National Anthem when encouraging everyone to take up the role of building the country together. She noted that art is at the frontier of driving social change hence should be significantly used for that purpose. Christopher Machin, US embassy Cultural Affairs Attaché also emphasized art as being at the frontier of bringing social change and it is the reason the US embassy funded the project. A key element that came out of the festival is the need for having voices that advocate and support the voices of defenders.

Among the performances included a spoken word piece inspiring youth for social change by Kijana Mtanashati who happens to be an artist nurtured by the Kenya Cultural Centre’s Performance After Lunch (PAL) program. A program set to discover, mentor, and network upcoming artists from all walks of life for better placement in the art industry. Through this event, artists are given a chance to air their views and opinions on issues of social change through different forms of art.

The climax of the festival was awarding of Naajibika winners and the launch of the Sauti Tetezi album. The Sauti Tetezi album is a spoken word album encouraging active citizenship and good governance.  Naajibika (citizen responsibility) Awards is one strategy through which PAWA254 under the Sauti Tetezi Project sought to enhance youth participation in Governance and Social Accountability processes in Kenya. The awards were meant to recognize individuals and groups taking part in promoting social accountability. In the group category, Githurai Social Justice Centre were in the second runners up, Wahenga Organization were in the first runners up and the winners were Kayole Community Justice Center. In the individual category, 1st runners up position was given to Alphonce Genga comrade of Githurai Social Justice Centre (GSJC) and the winner was Hesbon Bahati, one of the founders of Mukuru Community Justice.

PERFORMING ARTS CONFERENCE BY LUCY KARAYA

Kenya Cultural Centre incorporating Kenya National Theatre (KCC/NT) held its first performing arts conference from 22nd to 24th February 2022 at KCC/NTs’ main auditorium. It was officially opened by the Principal Secretary, State Department for Culture and Heritage, Ms. Josephta Mukobe, with the assistance of Mr. Michael Pundo, CEO of Kenya Cultural Centre incorporating Kenya National Theatre, and Prof. Emily Akuno, the chairperson of the conference.

Representing Amb. (Dr) Amina Mohamed, EGH, CAV, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage, Ms. Josephta showed appreciation to the Kenya Cultural Centre for organizing the conference stating that it will aid in passing knowledge from generation to generation that which would be helpful for the industry and the society at large. Further, she highlighted that she is proud and happy to see KCC fulfilling its mandate through the conference

In his speech the CEO informed the audience that KCC is turning 70 years, and that the conference will enhance KCC’s aim of inspiring cultural connections.  He highlighted that over the years KCC has emerged strongly from the social disruptions it has faced. Moreover, he mentioned that being the first performing arts conference, a journey has just begun and as such he invites partners, institutions of higher learning, embassies, and government agencies for a more successful subsequent conference.

Conversely, Prof Akuno provided a background of the conference and highlighted the major stakeholders as; academia who would provide the knowledge, practitioners who would apply the knowledge, and governance who would use the knowledge to develop policies to support art in the country.

With the conference theme being on decolonization, intercultural collaboration, and social disruption; Paper presentations, keynote addresses, panel discussions, and performances focused on the theme. Key issues that came up from the conference

KENYA THEATRE AWARDS BY MALOWA HILDA

On 17th February 2022 Kenya Theatre Awards (KTA) premiered their performance at Kenya National Theatre auditorium with the outside entrance being a abuzz with the newest set of notable honor to be extended to the upcoming local theatre industry.

The theatre was filled with leading local luminaries like Sitawa Namwali, Nice Githinji, John Sibi-Okumu, Paul Ogola, Wakio Nzenge, among others all of whom had been nominated in any one of the 28 categories of awards. Also present were theatre lovers who had actively taken part in voting most probably among the 46,893 who voted for nominees of their choice.

 

Among the attendees included representatives of foreign embassies, Kenyan universities and even government officials, like Professor Lagat, Director of Culture to who at one point were asked to present trophies to the winners. Speaking during the awards the chairperson of Kenya Theatre Awards, Mr Benson Ngobia challenged the producers and actors to start their shows on time a challenge which he notes has made a majority of theatre audience to prefer film over theatre.

In his remarks the Kenya Cultural Centre CEO , Michael Pundo thanked all fortaking their time to attend and participate in the awards notably to all actors and actresses who appeared in the stage.Further he encouraged artist tobe more serious and have creative productions that will attract more audience, “Having better and creative productions enable us ask audience to visit and fill our theatres.”

Among the big and notable winners of the night included Nick Ndeda, Wakio Mzenge, Nice Githinji, Liquid Arts Entertainment, KCA University and Millaz Productions with the most feted shows being Subira (the Musical), Blackout, Breathe III and Simba Bazenga (the Musical).Truly it was an event to attend.

TOTAL DESTRUCTION BY MARGARETA WA GACHERU PhD

First-time playwright Christine Yohannes took an original approach to her production which was staged at the Kenya Cultural Centre.

Ironically entitled ‘Total Distraction’, the show is all about a classic story that is unfortunately universal. It’s about a young woman who has been betrayed by a Casanova whose specialty is cheating every beautiful woman he can find. He first seduces her with sweet assurances of her being his only one, after which he dumps her. In this case, Majida (Sheila Kariuki) has been impregnated by Alandre (Ephantus Kuria) and at eight months, she is close to having the child.

But Majida has no thought for what will become of the child if its mother goes to jail for life. She is only intent on bumping off Alandre for having ruined her life. She is out for revenge, and it’s apparent that she believes she will ‘reclaim her power’ after having lost it due to the duplicity and dishonesty of Alandre.

The story is spiced up by the inclusion first of Alandre’s former financee Clare (Jean Gloria) who takes her time trying to convince Majida she would be making a huge mistake by killing the guy.

The other woman who plays her part in actually amping up Majida’s desire to finish the guy is Mila (Faith Wambui). She is Alandre’s current girl friend who seems well aware of her boyfriend’s cruel technique of collecting women for sexual partnership only to dump them once they make demands, like be faithful, honest, responsible, and caring. Mila apparently knows he is a Casanova, but doesn’t mind playing with his fire.

Having introduced a narration technique in the play brings in confusion among audience especially with the narrator (Peace Khamuli, Sharon Gathigia) sitting at the front of the stage with script in hand and reading all the playwright’s explanatory notes which are normally read, digested by the cast, and dramatized without need for anyone sharing those notes with the audience, especially simultaneously with the performance.

Perhaps the playwright felt the actors wouldn’t be able to convey the full development of her characters. Perhaps she felt the audience would be lost without having the full text of the play disclosed to them. Perhaps it was meant to be a courtesy so we would understand the depth of her characters’ feelings. Especially Majida’s who was so angry about Alandre’s getting off scot-free after having ruined her life that she was prepared to sacrifice her own.

In the end, we might assume that ‘Total Distraction’ ends as a cliff-hanger since the lights go out, and then three gunshots go off. Yet we can be pretty assured that Majida shot the guy in the end. What is peculiar is that at that point, the narrator should have been speaking, and telling us what the playwright really intended to have happen in those last few moments. Instead, I believe the narrator was silent. When we might have needed her most to clarify what actually happened to Alandre and whether the writer wanted us to feel that Majida had ‘reclaimed her power’ by destroying his.

Either way, we must congratulate Christine for her courage to try something new.