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The President's pianist

By | August 28th 2010

Lola Akwabi has her talent to thank for gracing the lounges of State House. The piano maestro has struck the right chord in the music world and is keeping the note of success ringing, writes JOAN BARSULAI.

Over the last decade, classical music in Kenya has enjoyed renewed appreciation. It is no longer restricted to schools and colleges: More Kenyans are now listening to this kind of music, and even training in singing and playing various musical instruments.

Lola Akwabi, a talented and outstanding professional piano player, is well on her way to becoming one of the country’s concert pianists. Lola’s interest in music goes as far back into her childhood as she can remember; her father was a professional musician in the 1960s, and growing up with this kind of influence naturally sparked a musical interest in Lola.

Lola plays the piano at State House, Nairobi. She hopes to train more young girls to play the instrument.

She started playing the piano at the age of nine, and she was trained at the time by Mr Moipei, father of the famed Moipei triplets. But Lola has largely trained on her own, driven by her love and passion for music.

She recounts that her interest never once waned. She was lucky to attend Kenya High School, which has a strong music culture. There she naturally furthered her music and was the school pianist.

After high school, she took up various jobs, but always played on the side. She often got complements from friends and family for her ability to play so well, but she noticed a stark difference between what she listened to on CDs and what she played.

With this in mind, she took up more professional training three years ago with a professional pianist called Mrs Moss, who is renowned here in Kenya.

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Armed with her newfound knowledge, there was no turning back. Lola took up a job as a coordinator and tutor at the Kenya Conservatoire of Music in Nairobi. So, far, it has been an uphill climb, as far as getting Kenyans interested in playing instruments, but she can now see an upward surge in the desire for Kenyans to embrace classical music.

"I would say there has definitely been a growing market over the last few years. There are more artistes coming into the country from abroad, who are playing and holding piano lessons, so things have definitely taken a turn for the better. Classical music is no longer a foreign concept," says Lola.

Her finesse with the piano has taken her places. At the moment, besides tutoring people from all walks of life at the conservatoire, she has played in Nairobi Baptist church for a long time. She also plays at the State House luncheons and on public holidays.

"Not many people have had the privilege to play for the president; I can say that my love for music has definitely afforded me that opportunity," she says.

Lola also hosts a classical music programme on Family TV where she lets her fingers do the talking. She has managed to organise three concerts in Kenya to date. Recently in Mombasa and Nairobi, she performed as a single act and managed to attract a large turnout of music lovers.

"This, I consider a great personal achievement. I want to be able to entertain with my skill," she says.


Lola has also participated in the Yaya Festival of Choirs on a number of occasions, whenever the Yaya Centre management hosts their annual festival. In addition, Lola has been a resident pianist at the Kenya Music Festival for eight years and occasionally plays with the Nairobi Orchestra.

The fact that she has also managed to tutor several students ranging from ages six to over 45 years also gives her fulfilment in her career.

With the generous support of Safaricom, Lola, alongside other classical maestros, have been able to play at the Classical Evenings Club that is hosted on the second Thursday of every month.

Ezek Libor Novacek, a world-renowned Czech pianist, is Lola’s mentor, with whom she keeps in touch.

She says she is greatly inspired by his phenomenal skill. She also admires Beethoven, she rates as resilient and ambitious, given what he had to work with in order to achieve such great success at the time. The usually modest Lola says that locally, there aren’t any pianists whom she can compare herself to — she’s definitely struck a higher chord. She says that she is a great admirer of Miriam Makeba, the mother of African music.

At the moment, Lola acknowledges that there aren’t enough opportunities for Kenyans interested in taking up piano lessons. Besides the Kenya Conservatoire of Music, there is only the Wynton School of Music, also based in Nairobi.

This ‘musical desert’ is what motivated her to host a three-hour classical music show on Family Radio every Sunday morning, in order to reach out to the many classical music lovers in the country. The show plays the best classical music with exclusive interviews with the world’s best classical artistes, and also features profiles of world-class maestros.

It also brings occasional music excerpts for high school music students who have no access to classical music.

Says Lola: "I realise this may not really enable listeners to play an instrument for the moment, but they can at least enjoy classical music from various artistes and epochs. At the moment the idea is to get Nairobi saturated before we gradually go into other towns."

Lola advises the grown-ups interested in music to follow their hearts. All it takes to make it in this industry is a lot of hard work.

Concert pianist

She advises: "The myth that people can only be good at playing instruments if they start from childhood isn’t true. As an adult learner though, you need to work harder and practice more because your fingers will have to be trained to stretch."

Besides teaching at the Conservatoire, she also offers part-time teaching at Banda and Peponi schools, as well as private tutoring lessons to several students at their homes.

Whenever she gets time off, she likes to pay attention to her other passion, which is taking care of animals.

Lola is working towards becoming a concert pianist by training rigorously. She says this has taken up most of her time, which is why she is not married.

"I have over 500 dead husbands — like Beethoven and Mozart — who I spend most of my time with," she says in jest.

She hopes to refine her skill abroad so she can return and train more girls in piano playing.

She says: "Female pianists are so few, so I would like to create opportunities for women to thrive here and sharpen their skills. I am what I am today because my mother has always supported me."

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