Wandiri Karimi, Grade Eight guitarist
She is the director of the Kenya Music Conservatoire, a guitarist, and co-founder of the International Women’s Day concert where the audience enjoys music from an all-female orchestra, and she is an intellectual property lawyer to boot.
There are eight grades in classical guitar assessment and she is a grade eight classical guitarist, the highest level. She can play any piece of guitar music placed before her. In an interview with Eve, she said that when she first started playing the guitar, she would always be the only female guitarist on stage.
“That was a struggle,” she says. “The number of times I heard, ‘You play well for a girl’! (laughs). That was a consistent conversation and when you keep hearing, ‘for a girl’, you start doubting yourself. Does that mean that I am not good enough? Does that mean that my gender makes me have a different measure of skill?”
Wandiri got her start as a very young girl in the 1980s. A charity called Kenya Music Trust started a programme that targeted public school-going children aiming to find talent in places where people could not afford to get into music programmes.
Her brothers were recipients of the scholarship programme, learning to play the recorder and learning staff music in general. While her brothers were learning, she ended up in a class and did the Grade One exam at six years old, and passed the exam. That is how she got into music, with her parents, also interested in the arts, encouraging her.
At about 14, her dad and second-born brother were walking by a music shop and her brother bought her a guitar, which she has to this day.
“I carried the guitar to school through all my high school days because I could read music by then. I studied music in high school but then because I could read, I taught myself piano and guitar using a book,” she says.
“I did not have formal lessons for guitar until I was in university. So I started my lessons at 22. Of course, I had that advantage of having read music and played music for a long time, but I started my lessons at 22 and started doing exams then,” she says.
When she started, she says that she had to think carefully about the places she played in, because the way female musicians are viewed is very different.
“That was part of the reason for founding the Women’s Day Concert and having women on stage in that space. We call it a safe space because we are around women. No one is questioning you about where you are going, who you are with,” she says.
“You feel safe in the space because you are not being harassed. You know for us, harassment is something we go through every day of our lives when we get out of the house. More so when we are trying to share something with the world. It is not as glamourous as people say. If you see it and you hear the stories of what happened to women in our space, it is not pleasant.”
Kasiva Mutua, percussionist and drummer
It is not often that you see a Kenyan instrumentalist have 126,000 followers on Instagram, but Kasiva Mutua one of Kenya’s leading percussionists and drummers, does. She is also the only woman doing so professionally in Kenya. When Yo-Yo Ma, one of the most celebrated classical musicians and winner of 19 Grammy Awards was in Kenya recently, Kasiva was one of the musicians he made music with, a testament to the calibre of artiste that she is.
You might have seen her in her signature style - drumsticks in her natural hair when performing. That is her brand, born of necessity, where she would be surrounded by a lot of things in concerts and they would be easy to pull out when necessary. But there is a twist and a deeper meaning as with all things Kasiva.
“It is also sort of a rebellious way to say that I am a hand drummer and not a stick drummer. They form an X. But still, people realise quickly that I am a drummer when they see the sticks. Interestingly, people see it that way, while I see it the other way,” she told The Standard in an interview.
Kasiva hears sounds differently. While you hear a cough, she hears a beat, something that is almost unbelievable until you hear her replicate it on a drum or other percussive instrument.
“The environment inspires a lot of the creations that I make,” she said. “From textures, sounds, and melodies, I tend to be a very observant person.”
She was named a Ted Global Fellow in 2017. In her Ted talk, she said that as a child she would spend hours listening to a beetle rolling a huge ball of dung.
“And while at it, I hear a variety of environmental sounds. With the keenest of ears, I would hear family chatter, laughter, the wind howling, and even crickets chirping. All these sounds crisscrossed into each other and I would hear rhythm in between. Then I would beat my plate with my spoon and my chest with my tiny hands, trying to recreate what I was hearing,” she said.
“I have been beating the same plates, shakers, drums, pans and so much more ever since becoming a professional drummer and percussionist,” she said.
Today, she has many drums and various percussive instruments, many of which she makes herself when she is looking for a specific sound. Her first EP, Ngewa, helps you experience the world as she hears it. She has been criticised for playing drums as a woman, but she remains unfazed because after all, playing them is her safe space. Once the beating of her drum starts, all is forgotten.
Christine Kamau, Trumpeter, composer, and performing artiste
Horns (trumpets, saxophones, trombones) tend to be played by the boys, but for Christine Kamau, those wind instruments are her jam. She plays them all, and for the alto saxophone and trombone, she was self-taught.
She has been described as having ‘a wide-eared approach to Jazz, paying attention to various styles without losing the Jazz tonality.’
“I love instrumental music and Jazz music speaks through improvisation. It speaks through people expressing their ideas through music. And that is what being a jazz musician is. Capturing people’s emotions,” she said in an interview with KTN.
Christine started with classical piano lessons at 11, while living in Nakuru where she was born. She then went to The Kenya Conservatoire of Music, where she picked up the trumpet, taught by Kagema Gichuhi.
Music was always in her blood, which her music teacher noticed early on. “My music teacher noticed I had talent because every time he would play the piano, I would stand there and just stare at him. So he recommended to my parents and said, ‘Why don’t you enrol her in proper music lessons, because she seems to be very interested?’ That Is how I ended up starting on classical music,” she said.
She was also the music prefect in Limuru Girls and when she was not accepted by Kenyatta University to study music, she studied Communication at Daystar University but found her way back to music. She started her band in 2011 and recorded her debut album, This is for You, in 2012.
“As most musicians do these days, I also study on Youtube as well, just looking at videos and seeing what they are doing and trying to copy that,” she said in an interview with KTN. “The world has changed. We do not live in a time where you can say, ‘Oh I did not go to school to study this therefore I cannot do it or I am not empowered. There is so much information out there. The power is always in your hands to do what you want to do.”
Christine has had many accolades as a result of her work. In April this year, she toured Switzerland on a research trip, exploring the local Jazz scene – visiting performance and recording venues and participating in jam sessions, while also initiating connections with Swiss musicians towards future collaborations.
In 2017, she also travelled to Addis Ababa to collaborate with Ethio-jazz musician, sponsored by the British Council’s Mobility East Africa Travel Grant, and was invited by UNESCO Headquarters to participate in a round table on Jazz women in Africa in April 2021.
The best aspect of doing what she does? “I would say being able to do what I love to do as my career, which does not feel at all like work. I enjoy it a lot,” she told The Standard. Her much-anticipated sophomore album, ‘But I’ll Try’, is set to be released this year.
Ivy Alexander, Guitarist and recording artiste
Many Kenyans got to know Ivy Alexander when she worked as a guitarist on Coke Studio Africa, during the 2018/19 season. Ivy’s father was a guitarist as well, so he was among the earliest and major influences on her craft. She also studied at the Kenya Music Conservatoire for a year.
Ivy is now one of Kenya’s most acclaimed guitarists, is in an all-female band known as The Flower Project, and has played with major artistes and on huge stages locally such as the Safaricom Jazz International Jazz Festival and abroad, such as the OneBeat concert. The latter is organised by the US government and brings together musicians from all over the world to create music together.
“For that, I went to the States for about a month. There, we had to create original music together,” she said in an interview with KTN.
“So the people of Algeria have their music called Nawa, I brought my Kenyan style to it, so I think that one grew me as an artiste because there, they treat you like you are representing your country, so it was a huge stepping stone for myself and I had to actualise into my artistry. That is when I started writing my music.”
That is how she ended up writing Pacha, her first single, during that period in the US, and she says that from then it has been about dwelling on the authenticity of African music.
In a tale as old as time, Ivy also experienced the downside of being a female artiste, which she explained to Guitar.com.
“As an African female artiste, it was not easy being looked down upon because, in our African setting, ladies are rarely seen playing instruments,” she said.
“So in a couple of instances, I had my guitar taken out of the monitors. Other times artistes would come for rehearsals and when they would see me there with my whole rig already set up, they would ask the music director, ‘Where is the guitarist?’ but this has since changed.”
In an interview with Vivo Woman, she was asked what she would do away with if she had a magic wand, that was a stereotype. “I would get rid of the notion that we are good musicians just because we are girls. We have done our work and I think we are where we are because we have put in the work. If I had a magic wand, that would be one of the biggest ones to get rid of. Because I feel like we are equally as good musicians as our male counterparts in the industry.