In a room on the first floor of the Kenya Cultural Centre in Nairobi is a wooden cupboard with an old file stacked with yellowing papers. The centre has stood the test of time, traversing the colonial era to the post-colonial age and still going strong.
The papers in near-tatters bear words keyed in with old typewriter. The words chronicle the journey of the Kenya Conservatoire of Music, which recently marked 75 years since its inception.
The short-haired bespectacled director of the conservatoire, Wandiri Karimi, knows and values the history and thus limits the handling of the file to herself. She meticulously flips through the papers one by one, producing a rhythmic sound. The shades change from yellow to white as the director moves from decades-old pages to the latest developments.
Within the space, only one language is spoken; music. At the corner of her office are two African drums that give a symbolic décor and drive the point home on conservatoire’s embrace of African music amid its classical roots.
As documented in the file, the colonial-laced expedition started with training on pure classical musicbut has since accommodated African tunes to produce hybrids that echo with all generations. It is at the conservatoire that music, dance and instruments from western and African gallons pour into one reservoir to produce a rich taste that excites the ears and eyes of music lovers.
While the world might be separated into isolated cultures standing apart like ghostly islands or patches of different colours on a fabric, music converges them all, says Karimi as she flips into newer pages on modern training at her centre.
Thus, for centuries, the conservatoire has played a role in shaping talents that troop to the centre to learn how to play classical instruments, classical dances such as ballet, and singing.
That was in the ideal past, which some still stick to, with the centre generously serving them. The current generation, stuck between the western and African worlds, opts for an intermediate artistic centre. At this point the institution gradually made adjustments and incorporated African tunes with jazz, rhumba and other genres.
“Having a talent is not enough. The talent has to be shaped and that is what we do,” Karimi says.
She adds, “Music has a way of making you blossom as a human being. Music is like storytelling. Music is a language and musicians are storytellers. You use instruments to tell your stories.”
Walking along the corridor on the ground floor where training rooms and a dance training hall are located, one can hear sweet variety of tunes from different instruments.
At the violin training room, we meet Betty Wanjiru, who is learning how to play a violin with the assistance of her teacher Timothy Muritu.
They are both standing facing each other and glancing at a paper on a table with musical directions on the tune to play.
“It is a wonderful experience here where we speak music. I have been training here since 2016 and I have engaged with several students,” says Muritu.
At other rooms, teachers are either training some learners or preparing for a class. Inspirational quotes on music from great artistes of all time are printed and pinned to the walls of the training rooms.
Beside the students currently training are several names of accomplished artistes who have benefited from the teachings at the conservatoire. There are files with student records consisting of big names of performers in the music industry.
The artistes, whom we contacted, poured praises at the institution as the best in enriching one’s musicalcareer.
Among them are Phy Mwihaki Ng’etich popularly known by her stage name Phy. The musician is popular for her song ‘Taboo’ (Taabu) which has over one million views on YouTube.
Through her producer and manager Tim Rimbui, Phy says the conservatoire shaped her destiny in music.
“The conservatoire gave her tools to learn how to read and write music. It formalised her music training and it was at the facility where she learned acoustic guitar,” said Rimbui.
Sauti Soul’s afro-pop band guitarist Polycarp Otieno also features on the list of big names from the conservatoire. Our attempt to reach him was unsuccessful since he was out of the country by the time of going to press.
The institution will come in handy for students with the implementation of the new Competency Based Curriculum.
Karimi says her institution is ready to work with the government to ensure music is successfully taught in schools and beyond.
As an institution in itself, it can take its massive ability to teach music to schools and students can further their studies in music at the conservatoire.
Already, it is moving ahead of time and is now working with other partners to experiment and prepare learners to appreciate art, especially music.
Together with Baraka Opera Trust and other partners, they have visited some private schools in Nairobi in an exercise dubbed ‘Kenya Schools Concert Tour’.
They engaged learners in a 30-minute lesson on how they envision music will be taught according to the curriculum.
“In the concert tour, we offer administrative support but our teachers are also directly involved,” says Karimi.
Karimi says children should be taught to be good audiences to create a community enjoying a healthy relationship with art.
“Art needs to be experienced and learned. It is a lifelong thing. Even if a child doesn’t do music, we want them to learn to appreciate art and consequently support artists,” says the director who is a trained lawyer.
But appreciation of art needs to go beyond school even to parents and the community in entirety, says Karimi.
Recently, the conservatoire and other partners took musicians from Nairobi to Siaya County for an event.
At the event, the visiting musicians performed in unity with artistes from Siaya where they celebrated the opening of Randago Musical Orchard, much to the appreciation of the locals.
And as she shelves the old file into the cupboard, Karimi concludes, “The new curriculum has music but it will only be successful if implemented the right way.”
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