Scarred piano man

They say that scars define the bearer. And for a while, Aaron Rimbui’s scars defined him, turning him into a recluse who thought people were laughing at him. Today, he is a whole new man. By VIVIANNE WANDERA

His brow is furrowed in concentration, long slim fingers masterfully caressing the black and white keys as melodious music gloriously fills the big hall and the room grows silent -- in awe and attentiveness. Seated on a high backed chair, behind a grand piano, Aaron Rimbui looks ethereal, intense and passionate, in what many would call the’ zone’. That was about seven years ago, at the launch of a lifestyle magazine in a fancy restaurant in the city and I remember feeling privileged to watch him in action.

But If I had looked at him harder then, I would have noticed the burn scars on his face and arms which tell a long story of pain and determination.

Fast forward to today, he is seated across me, in a time and space separated by oceans and miles. We are on Skype. Time and surgical procedures may have lessened the rawness of the scars on his face making them less noticeable but his quiet charm, good looks and confidence is what dominates his aura. And when we settle for the interview, his deep voice booms.  

Many years ago, in 1993, when he was 14, he was a lanky lad driven by music and curiosity with the world around him. And on some day that year, Aaron was home, his parents were home too, and he was going about his usual activities. Suddenly an intense smell of cooking gas filled the air, and he ambled towards his mother who confirmed that indeed it was cooking gas, and its source needed to be traced and the leak sealed.

They realised that it was emanating from a neighbour‘s house and so they alerted him. And thinking that her job was done, Aaron’s mum went about her business. But the curious boy wasn’t done yet.

He followed the neighbour to the leaking gas cylinder and while the man fiddled with the knob, he accidentally turned it up, instead of down.

“Next thing I remember was seeing a big yellow flame and my skin was peeling and falling off. And there was pain like none I had felt before. My face, neck, arms and feet were on fire,” he recalls.

And next thing Aaron knew, he was lying on a hospital bed having suffered second degree burns. He was in so much pain that he went into shock and was unconscious for several hours.

Nightmares and cold sweats

That was the beginning of the end of normalcy for the strapping lad and a painful three years of hospital visits.  

“I was in hospital for a month, and at the time, I had been preparing to join Nairobi School for my high school education, a journey that was going to be harder than I had anticipated.”

When he was not bullied by his peers, his self-esteem took a brutal beating, and it took him almost 10 years to rebuild his self-esteem.

“To me, the first thing everyone saw was my scarred face. I always thought that people were laughing at me behind my back. At some point I grew a huge keloid on my face. It was not a pretty sight. And this made me retreat into my shell some more. I kept to myself, fostering very few friendships. I didn’t think I was good to look at, and this went on for so many years,” he admits wryly.

Also the constant getting out of school for hospital visits made studying difficult.

“I had a difficult time in high school. I spent most of my time in the hospital getting treated and doing skin grafts and radiotherapy.”

And deep in the night, he would wake up abruptly in a cold sweat.

“I had nightmares, reliving the fire and my burning face and arms. I couldn’t sleep. And so I had so many sleepless nights. It was tough, but over time, they went away.”

To give him a chance of leading a normal life, the medics embarked on a plan to reconstruct his face.

“Because of how thick the forehead skin is, they had to stop using anesthesia while doing the skin grafts because it would kill my nerves. It was so painful and I would talk myself through the procedures, trying to remind myself that I had come too far and that I could do it. Healthy skin from my thighs was moved to my face and hands. I also had some radiotherapy done to kill the excessive cells that were growing.”

End of the pity party

Even though the facial reconstruction procedure was finished three and a half years after the fire, he still carried some residual physical pain. And while he bore that admirably, he still carried his low-esteem issues and frustrations about his appearance everywhere.

“10 years ago, I finally made my peace. I saw a therapist who was very blunt. He said what my loved ones were not telling me. That I was using my fire accident as a clutch, that I was letting it define me.  I realised that he was right and I had to accept my new looks and move on.

And that is when he slowly started getting out of his shell and working on his music. A passion that turned the young man into a household name in the world of jazz music. His musical career began working as a music director for the Eric Wainana before gaining prowess in his own right as a jazz artiste in the musical circles. He gained nationwide recognition when he joined the Tusker Project Fame as the head of the band. Since then, his star had kept on rising. 

The little limitations

Just like the scars on his arms and face, the gas may have caused some damage to his lungs.

“I have some scars on my airway and experience some difficulties with my left hand. It still doesn’t function as well as my right hand. Given that I’m a pianist, I always have to practice a lot and do lots of exercises to help my left hand can endure working or playing for a long time,” he explains.

Today, Aaron and his wife are based in New Jersey, and he is excited about his life there. His eyes light up as he talks about his wife of eight years.

“I met my wife in church. We became friends and to date she is still my best friend. Our move to America wasn’t planned. Safaricom Jazz Festival was instrumental to my move here. During the very first edition, Richard Bona who was the main artistes for the festival encouraged me to move to New York because it is the ‘haven’ for jazz music. So after some thought, we decided to move. And I worried that I would regret not taking the chance.

 Is he living his best life? I prod.

“Yes I am. We’ve been here for over a year now and I love it. The calibre of musicians playing here is amazing and intimidating. Makes me work harder and be better. I am happy.”

And his happiness shows as he beams widely as he signs off. While it is daytime in Kenya, it is nighttime across the Atlantic, and with some shows lined up in the next few months, Aaron says he needs to get some sleep.

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