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Musician with a heart of gold

By | Mar 11th 2012 | 5 min read

Kanjii Mbugua, the talented founder and CEO of Kijiji Entertainment, has helped boost careers of some of the well-known names in the music industry. He spoke to PETER MUIRURI

For Kanjii Mbugua, creativity is his second nature.

An accomplished musician with over ten albums to his name, Kanjii, 32, has toured the world with the group Milele, bagging several awards in the process.

He has the unique ability of turning failure to success, thanks to the liberal style of upbringing that his parents adopted.

Kanjii with his son Benga and daughter Selah. Photo: Martin Mukangu/Standard

For a start, Kanjii’s first interests lay in sports where he learnt to play lawn tennis from a tender age with the aim of making the sport his lifelong career. This was no surprise considering that he comes from a talented family where his father, Bedan Mbugua, was already an accomplished tennis player and his eldest sister, Wanjiru, was also a seasoned tennis player who was ranked among the top cream in the country and seeded internationally.

But Kanjii also dislikes failure.

Singing career

"For reasons unknown to me, I started to perform so poorly that I lost in several tournaments. I remember going to my father in tears looking for emotional support. I made the decision to quit tennis and try my hands at basketball reasoning that it’s better to lose in team sports than individually," says Kanjii.

By the time he was through with his primary schooling at Makini School in Nairobi, Kanjii, the last born in a family of three, had already made up his mind to pursue basketball by enrolling in Nyeri Baptist School, an institution that was excelling in the sport.

With the goal of one day playing in the NBA, Kanjii captained his school’s basketball team to the provincials, but only after losing did he again realise that his future lay elsewhere — in music.

His break would come after high school when he was selected as Kenya’s representative, among other youths from 50 countries, in the World Vision Youth Ambassadors, a programme that aimed at training and building cohesion and conflict resolution across the nations.

Using music, art and other social forums, Kanjii and his group toured diverse countries such as the US, Japan, Germany, Netherlands, Taiwan and Guatemala among others for three and a half months. But the tour also revealed something else.

"I was surprised to meet professional musicians who actually went to school to study only music. Previously, it never occurred to me that one can study music at college level to the point of acquiring a Masters degree. I came back home from the tour with the same burning desire to excel in music," says Kanjii.

True to his aspirations, the ever-versatile Kanjii, then aged 19, left for Biola University, USA, to study vocal performance for two years.

He would later do a one-year course in specialised music and piano lessons at the Musicians Institute in California before heading to Dallas, Texas, for another one-year course in audio engineering and music business.

What was his impression of the music industry in the US?

Popularising jazz

"The level of excellence in music is so high in the US that we need ages to catch up. However, it proved to me that if others can excel in music, we too can if only we use their standards as a mirror of where we want our music to be," says Kanjii.

And so when he came back to Kenya in early 2003, Kanjii set up Kijiji Entertainment as a music distribution business, a platform for circulating other people’s music.

This, however, did not seem to be the pinnacle he was aiming for and he closed shop shortly after. After setting up a studio, he later teamed up with jazz gurus Aaron Rimbui and Joseph Hellon with a view to popularising jazz. Three years later, the studio too, had to close down so the group could concentrate on other unexplored opportunities.

As an entertainment agency, Kijiji Entertainment is a one-stop shop for producing memorable events with an emotional and cultural dimension. They offer their services during company product launches, festivals and award ceremonies in addition to theatrical productions. Some of the group’s television products are aired through pay channels, Zuku and M-Net.

But Kanjii is not done yet.

"Apart from developing great mass entertainment products, I am currently in the process of repackaging the older religious hymns to give them a fresh look."

He looks forward to the time when his outfit will become a global source of entertainment material such a Walt Disney and MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) among others.

In his endeavour to reach the stars, Kanjii is all praise for his wife, Mwendwa, the beautiful woman he met in El Paso, Texas, where she had gone on a music tour. An accomplished musician in her own right, Mwendwa is the group’s communications manager.

"She is beautiful both inside and outside. She is caring and wise. I have greatly benefited from her wise counsel," says the father of two; four year-old daughter Selah and the two year-old boy, Benga.

Kanjii decries the declining family values that are paradoxically waning due to many couples enhancing their careers. Success, he says, should not just be defined by one’s financial standing but also by the family values.

"If you spend all your life looking for money instead of building a lasting relationship with your wife, who will you hang out with in your 70s when the children have moved out?" poses Kanjii.

To prevent such a scenario, Kanjii has a dinner date with his wife every Monday. In addition, his family must eat together at least three times a week. On occasion, Kanjii takes his daughter out with him for a chat.

He is optimistic that the local entertainment industry has the potential to feed one’s family if given the proper attention from all stakeholders.

In his career, Kanjii has bagged several awards including the Groove Award Male Artist of the Year 2008 and the 2009 Best Live Music Performer of the Year.

Interestingly, he rarely listens to music in his spare time choosing instead to watch movies or read exceptional autobiographies. He is currently reading The Sacrifice of Africa by Emmanuel Katongole.

He also actively participates in the Spread the Love community projects initiated by Kijiji Entertainment whereby they urge the country’s middle class to actively make a change through community-based projects.

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