“It really annoys me when people say you can’t make a living through art, whether that’s music, writing, dancing or anything else. Why can’t you?” Christine Kamau asks in a candid interview about her life as a jazz artiste.
Christine is a classically trained musician who plays a variety of instruments and writes her own music.
Having travelled the continent showcasing her talent, she speaks with clarity and depth about the inner workings of the niche jazz market in Kenya and her own experience and learning as she makes a living off it.
I’m going to ask you that question that annoys you: how possible is it to live comfortably off music in Kenya?
I get passionate about this question because I think it’s precisely the reason many artistes are intimidated about going out there and growing their craft.
Music is like any other business. You can succeed at it or you can fail, both possibilities exist. The difference is in how you monetise your talent, consistently improve your skill and how you market yourself.
If you get these things right, there is no reason you can’t lead an exemplary life as a musician. Many have done it.
Jazz is arguably a relatively new genre in Kenya. What made you choose this as the music you want to pursue?
I didn’t always want to pursue jazz. Originally, I was more interested in classical piano. But then I started listening to legendary musicians like Hugh Masekela.
What got me was jazz’s versatility to fuse African sounds with modern beats. Jazz can accommodate other genres to give you Afrojazz, Cubanjazz, Ethiojazz, Trapjazz. I immediately thought this is what I’d like to do; represent being authentically Kenyan, without ignoring the fact that our culture has changed and transformed over time.
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Tell us about your album: This is for You.
The album has eight tracks and is dedicated to being uniquely African. It took me two years to put it together, and it was inspired by life and conversation. I love taking in my surroundings, watching what people are doing, what’s affecting them, how they react to it, what they say about it; you know, life happening. So I take this and turn it into music.
What are some of the songs in the album that have inspired you the most?
I can’t really single out a song because they all have their own character. For example ‘Nakuru Sunshine’ pays homage to the town I grew up in, ‘Baba Africa’ is a tribute to Hugh Masekela and ‘African People’ is a celebration of our wide and vast culture. Every song means something different. I hope that’s how the album continues to be received.
With jazz being such a niche market, how did you break in?
My very first big concert was in 2012 when I played at the Sierra Jazz Festival at the Bomas of Kenya. It was amazing because I opened for Incognito, a renowned UK-based Acidjazz group. To share a stage with these icons and be appreciated by the audience meant the world to me.
How did you go from local events to international performances?
The jazz world is very close-knit. Organisers know each other, artistes know each other and even fans know each other. It’s very relational. For instance, when I performed in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, I got the gig because the organisers there were trying to get artistes from all over Africa but had failed to secure any from East Africa. They then reached out to East African event organisers who reached out to East African musicians.
I sent my links to the contact person and was picked from a number of people who’d applied. That felt good.
Through similar hook-ups, I’ve played in Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Rwanda and other places. With jazz, if you’re good, professional, market yourself and keep fine-tuning your music, you’ll get gigs.
Why would international organisers fail to secure artistes from East African for their concerts?
Let me speak specifically about Kenya. I think the biggest issue is that the Kenyan society constantly questions the value of our own artistes.
When a Kenyan artiste makes it somewhere, we’re shocked. Why? We’re never shocked that music is being played in clubs around the world, why are we shocked when it’s Kenyan?
The truth is, for many artistes, we’ve been so downplayed that we’ve believed the story that it’s virtually impossible to make it out there. So we sit around commiserating and complaining about things not working, which inevitably just diminishes expectations and the initiative to market music internationally.
What’s the solution?
Have a plan! Know where you want to perform and proactively pursue those international opportunities. The Internet has created an online market where musicians can connect directly with fans, bookers, festivals and events.
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We need to realise that complaining makes you blind to opportunities. I’m often asked what challenges I’ve encountered as a musician, and honestly it takes me a while to get those answers because I don’t focus on them.
You can either sit and tweet about your setbacks, or you can ask yourself how to overcome them. I choose the latter.
How did you cultivate this mindset?
Because I don’t have a Plan B. I picked music, I was trained in music, I chose it as my career path. For me, it’s do-or-die and I don’t plan on dying in the water. It’s that simple.
Life delivers to you the level of your expectations. In jazz there’s the saying, ‘practice for the gig that you hope for, not the one you have today’.
What’s your dream gig?
I’m not really sure. I’m at the point where I consider all performances big ones because I’m building my name. If I’m called for a local event, I’ll go; if I get a huge concert in South Africa, I’d be ecstatic.
What I do wish for is a change of climate for artistes in this country. Internationally, governments promote creatives because they recognise it’s creatives who essentially preserve our cultures because they sing, act, dance, paint and write about them. It’s creatives who promote the identity of a people.
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I’ve been sponsored by a Danish organisation to represent Kenya in Cameroon – the irony is astounding. Why can’t Kenya promote Kenyans to go out there and sell who we are?
Is there a market for this? Is the world interested in what we have to say?
The thing about being Kenyan is that our music doesn’t have a definitive sound because we have a great diversity of traditional sounds that are distinct from each other.
I’ve heard people say that when a Kenyan is coming on stage, you don’t know what to expect. Sometimes that’s touted as a bad thing, but it’s not.
What it means to me is that every Kenyan artiste has a chance to create a sound that’s uniquely theirs; there’s no box we’ve been put in. We can determine how to play around with our sound.
I think it’s a really good time to be a Kenyan musician. As a whole, I strongly believe that Africa is the last musical frontier.