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Beauty of music is in fusion of instruments

Arts and Culture
 Mackinlay Mutsembi [Instagram]

If you are a lover of music in Nairobi, chances are you have been to a performance that features Mackinlay Mutsembi in some capacity. You might have watched the Nairobi Horns project, an ensemble of three horn players accompanied by an electrifying band, playing uptempo Jazz and Jazz Fusion.

Or perhaps you have frequented Geco café on Mbaazi Avenue on Tuesdays, where that same band performs under the name Mackinlay and Friends, playing anything and everything from Jazz, Jazz Fusion, Reggae, and Benga.

Here in the artsy restaurant, which one journalist described as “slithering with goof vibes”, you can listen to the band cover everything from the Bee Gees and Bob Marley to Nameless and Jill Scott and be guaranteed a good time.

“I always wanted to play, top energy, and have a nice party,” says Mustembi  “That is one of my guiding principles - every day we need to have a nice party on stage. And different genres have different ways of throwing the party; the way you throw a Reggae party may not be the way you throw a Jazz party, but the energy is the same, I think.”

The energy in the performances by these ensembles is truly delightful, and no matter what genre they play, you will definitely be hard-pressed to stay in your seat.

After all, Mustembi rightly states that “at the end of the day, music is music, when you are consuming music you do not think I am listening to this genre, either you like the music you are listening to or you do not.”

From his beginnings as a euphonium player in the salvation army band as a teenager, Mutsembi has honed his craft to become one of the most skilled and versatile instrumentalists in the country.

The trumpet is not usually considered a leading instrument outside of Classical and Jazz music, which is played in large orchestras and Jazz ensembles.

Outside of these genres, the saxophone is usually favoured by contemporary pop bands as a more versatile instrument with a more attractive sound.

Mutsembi says at the beginning of his playing career in the 90s, “people thought the trumpet was an inferior instrument because we had not heard people play at a certain level.”

He subsequently filled the void that existed within the music industry for highly skilled brass instrumentalists. 

He says his overall aim was to “get the trumpet sound into as many spaces as possible and to make sure that we have a lot more people playing this instrument. I have tried to put it in House music, in Hip Hop, that is why we play a lot of genres.”

But Mutsembi is also more than just a trumpet player and performer - he is also a talented composer, a music producer, and a creative entrepreneur.

He says one of his idols was Quincy Jones, whom he admired for his versatility; “I like how he has been able to do many things, with his music, not having any boundaries creatively.”

Jones was not only a trumpeter but a composer and even wrote for Frank Sinatra in 1958. Similarly, Mutsembi writes most of the music you hear at a Nairobi Horns or Mackinlay and Friends concert.

“I write for Nairobi Horns. The music that Nairobi Horns has played and recorded is 95 per cent my compositions,” says Mutsembi, which is no small feat considering the different parts and harmonies played by each individual instrument.

Indeed, the performances of Nairobi Horns and Mackinlay and Friends are layered and technically complex, and it is an impressive skill set to be able to write down and theoretically weave all the distinct sounds and tangents of the different instruments into a harmonious piece.

As a session musician, composer, and producer, Mutsembi and his trumpet have featured on some of Kenya’s acclaimed artistes, including Sauti Sol, Okello Max, and Jua Kali.

 Mackinlay Mutsembi has worked with some of Kenya's top artistes.

He also produces Nairobi Horn’s albums and is also an executive producer of the LiveRoom KE, an online video series that takes you into the studio to hear and see the creative process of popular recording artistes.

Many potential musicians out there may be discouraged from following their dreams of becoming full-time creatives, but Mutsembi’s career proves that with passion and determination, it is possible.

“The other area for me is producing concerts, creating those platforms for more people to perform. There is a limit to how much you can humanly perform as an individual, but if you create these platforms many more people get to perform, and you still have something to do with it,” he says.

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