James stood there mesmerised by the way her fingers ran along the length of the saxophone, blowing hard on the mouthpiece as she fingered the keys. The whole crowd was under the spell of this enchantress and her instrument.
‘Hey man, we have to go.’
‘What?’ James turned to face his partner and bandmate Jorge.
‘I said we have to go, it’s going to get late and we won’t be able to afford the cab fare.’
‘Oh, right,’ furtively glancing one last time at the lady on the saxophone.
Outside the wind blew gently, caressing their skins and whistling in their ears as if in song. The three men walked silently each one immersed in thought. Jorge, the band leader scurried ahead of them. He thought about his trumpet lying patiently in its case in his room waiting to heed the call when it was time to play. Time constraints had caused him to cease to play it as his energy had been spread so thin between work and school. Jermaine wondered why no one wanted to buy their music, despite the throngs of screaming fans who flocked to the concerts where they featured. He still played his trombone daily but it broke his heart to hear its brassy tunes and then learn that their music had been illegally downloaded and shared that most venues preferred to play upbeat tunes, not giving their music a chance. ‘Some fans,’ he scoffed. James, on the other hand, wanted to play like the lady they’d just heard at the bar. To have his soul drowned in music that it would just outpour from the depths of his being. He had never been able to do that since his mother had died, the memory of her loss felt like an invisible wall that prevented him from indulging with abandon whenever he played.
The blue cab pulled up beside them.
‘Yes,’ the driver nodded as they all climbed in and Jorge gave directions to their shared apartment in one of Nairobi’s suburbs. Once at home, Jermaine, Jorge and James went into their rooms and cloaked in the darkness of the night, they thought about their own future as musicians and whether or not it was still worth it with the challenges that swirled around them.
The following day, they all hurdled into the studio where they often gathered for practice before a show. After tuning their instruments, Jorge gave them the key and they began to play a song for their schedule for the end of the week. Several times they had false starts and after a few hours, they each felt winded and dejected.
‘No one even cares about this music,’ Jermaine sighed.
‘I mean do we ever hear our music anywhere else? Except at the places where we perform? No one gives a rat’s ass about harmonic progression and melodies.’
‘Yeah, I don’t even know why we do this anymore,’ James chimed in.
‘Guys, we have a performance to do,’ Jorge said as he stepped on the pedal in readiness to play.
‘To what end? Honestly, I feel like giving up. I want to make a living from this, but this music and money do not seem to work together. Everyone either thinks jazz is foreign or bourgeois or old people music.’ Jermaine continued to rave.
‘It’s a tough audience to crack, I agree but at least there are people who listen to us,’
‘Oh come one, Jorge you hardly have time to play nowadays, your job is making you more than this band is.’ James argued starting to pack his instruments.
Pictures of great jazz musicians lined the four walls of the small studio. Their expressions were frozen in the past. Some of the pictures showed them smiling and others showed them playing their instruments.
Now they all reminisced on how they came together to form their musical outfit, from their days pursuing their solo careers up until their shared passion for music had brought them together. They remembered their optimism when they began, buoyed by the feeling that the market would embrace them with open arms, that it wouldn’t be long before their music played all over town as they shared their gift and love for music with the whole city, country and eventually the world.
Now they felt disillusioned, it was as if someone had burst their bubble before it even took off from the ground. Like all artists, piracy was their biggest concern, they wanted to live off their craft and share their music, but how could they? When bills needed to be paid and the industry crippled their art with porous laws on musical rights. Often, some sleazy promoters tried to fleece them of their profit but they had gotten wiser since they first started and thoroughly did their research before committing to anything.
There was also Kenyans’ love for all things foreign, how music from other countries almost always got the lion’s share of airplay and even when local music played, it was always the same type of artists.
The misinformation on jazz being foreign also hurt them yet it was borne from African slaves who sang the blues to forget their troubles in a land far away from home.
As they mused on these things, a nudging seemed to come over them, it was gentle at first, tugging at the edges of their hearts and then it became more urgent, refusing to be ignored. The three of them looked at each other as though an epiphany had come over them. Music called on them and when Jorge cued them the three of them began to play.
This time, James felt the chords intoxicate him, filling his ears with their sweetness and he remembered the lady at the bar the previous night who seemed to be possessed by the tunes she played. Neither Jermaine nor Jorge thought about the economic challenges their band faced and let the music wrap them in its powerful hold and take them to the place where nothing else mattered except the elation in their own hearts as they played to their hearts’ content.
Everything else would fall into place. For now, they let the music move them.
Two weeks later, they heard about a jazz festival that would be hosted by Safaricom Limited. The auditions would be held a month from then at the Michael Joseph Centre at the Safaricom headquarters. Since their session that day at the studio, the group now played with renewed vigour and when they went for their audition, although nervous and a little unsure, they did their best and were overjoyed to receive the call that they had been selected to perform alongside jazz musicians they looked up to and a crowd that appreciated their music and we’re willing to pay to hear them play.
Jorge’s, James’ and Jermaine’s family and friends were happy for them, wishing them success during their show and happy that the music they loved to play would reap economic benefits for them and propel them to the heights they hoped to reach in their musical career.
Weeks of rigorous but fulfilling training followed as the day of the show drew near.
On the day that they were slated to perform, shades of light blue broken by irregular patterns of white clouds covered the sky. As the band stepped on stage, Jorge took the microphone and introduced himself and his team. A hush fell over the crowd as they waited expectantly for them to start playing and just like their studio sessions, they played their hearts out, letting the music take control, the effect rippled across the crowd and everyone was soon dancing and nodding their heads to their music. To watch a crowd of appreciative fans enjoy their music the way they did was what they lived for. For them, it solidified their decision to choose to pursue music and there was nothing else they’d rather be doing. After their performance, they interacted with gushing fans and sold copies of their recently released album. They also got a chance to mingle with the rest of the crowd and got to listen to the remaining acts.
That night, as they went home and retreated to their rooms, the general mood was one of hope and a feeling that the industry was taking a step in the right direction in opening up their music to the rest of the country and the world through efforts such as the Safaricom International Jazz Festival.