You have probably heard of the Ghetto Classics because of Safaricom Jazz. But who are they?
I caught up with a section of The Ghetto Classics Brass Section at the Faith Baptist Church in Rongai for the Brass Ensemble Fellowship Concert. According to the organiser of the concert, Chris Haggai of Faith Baptist Church, it is the first concert of its kind in Kenya and he hopes for it to grow to accommodate up to ten thousand players in the future.
Ghetto Classics is a program started by Liz Njoroge in the Korogocho slums. The aim is to nurture prolific musicians while imparting invaluable life skills on the beneficiaries. Most of their funding comes from the proceeds of Safaricom Jazz. Find out more Safaricom Jazz: Interview with Bob Collymore
I got a chance to interview Simon Mungai, Cornell Odhiambo, Samuel Onyango, Fabian Ochieng’, Betty Mwende and Teddy Otieno who are some of the senior members of Ghetto Classics.
Which instruments do you play and why did you pick that particular instrument over all the others.
Simon Mungai: I play the trombone and I chose to play it because of how it’s made. The trombone is unique because if you look at other instruments like the trumpet which has valves, the trombone has a slide so you play by pulling it. So, it’s a very unique instrument and that’s why I chose to play it.
Cornell Odhiambo: I play the trombone. I saw many people playing the trombone and I enjoyed watching them play it so I got interested and picked it up and started playing.
Samuel Onyango: I play the trumpet. I picked it because if you go to jazz music, you’ll find it being played and at the same time it’s played at the orchestra. It is quite widely played. I also like the way it sounds compared to other instruments.
Fabian Ochieng’: I play the trumpet because it’s tone quality is different from the other instruments. To me, it sounds a lot better than other instruments.
Betty Mwende: I chose to play the trumpet because it’s the only instrument that was made from instructions given by God in the book of Numbers in the Bible and it was also the only one where he gave instructions on how it should be used. The trumpet call is also what will sound in the end times to announce the coming of Jesus. So, to me, it’s like a divine instrument.
Teddy Otieno: I play the tuba and the piano. Initially, when I joined Ghetto Classics, I wanted to okay the saxophone but they were very limited in number so I was advised to pick another instrument and I chose the tuba. I worked hard and last year I got a chance to represent Ghetto Classics at a two week camp in East Hampton, NY in USA. I started playing the piano after listening to Chopin pieces. They sounded really beautiful and it got interested in wanting to learn it.
How did you find out about Ghetto Classics and what made you want to join?
Simon: I was introduced to it by my friend Cornell and I joined because I was passionate about music. Later I also came to realise that it was my passion and Ghetto Classics was a place that I could nurture it.
Cornell: Ghetto Classics is like a family to me. There was teacher of mine called Karis who came to our class and told us about Ghetto Classics. He influenced us and encouraged us to join. I went there because the people who were in Ghetto Classics always seemed to close to each other and they felt like a family.
Samuel: We used to like going to church at 2pm to listen to the Ghetto Classics practice sessions. There, I heard people play, I got interested and I joined. Another thing that made me want to join was that, in my neighbourhood, there weren’t many activities to do during your free time. I made up my mind that instead of being idle, I’d rather go and spend my time there.
Fabian: I used to go and watch the Ghetto Classics rehearse at the church. I developed a passion for music after that so I wanted to join it.
Betty: I used to see people practice in church and one day I decided to join Ghetto Classics so that I can be a musician like them instead of being idle out there.
Teddy: My twin brother used to play the violin in Ghetto Classics. In 2014, he went for the Safaricom Youth Orchestra auditions and got picked. Seeing him play and be successful at it is what made me want to join.
Which musicians have you worked with before/ shows you’ve done and which ones were the most memorable.
Simon: The most memorable show that I have done is when I got a chance to play for His Holiness the Pope at Kasarani. Also when I had a chance to visit State House and it was cool and fantastic.
Cornell: When I was in the Youth Orchestra and we got to play for Bob Collymore. Also the show that we did for The Pope in Kasarani.
Samuel: I would say Safaricom Jazz Festival when we’d get a chance to practice, perform and interact with musicians like Salif Keita, Shamsi music, and the Nairobi Horns Project. Also the performance we did for the Pope in Kasarani as well as when we went to perform for the president.
Fabian: The most memorable group I have worked with was Nairobi Horns Project. I like them because they are always very serious about their practice sessions and they are also very professional.
Betty: I enjoyed working with Nairobi Horns Project because of the way they play. Their tunes are nice and they are also very organised. They are very respectful, it’s fun to play and work with them.
Teddy: The most memorable show was the Safaricom International Jazz Festival in 2015. There were these artists called Sons of Kemet from the UK. In the group, there was a person called Theon Cross who showed how diverse the tuba can be. People expected that the tuba could only play the bass part but he made it different and it played even the melody and it motivated me to also be that creative as a tuba player.
Whom would you like to work with in the future?
Simon: Joseph Alessi. He is one of the best trombonists in the world and it would be such an honour to play with him.
Cornell: Musician that I would like to work with in future is Nairobi Horns Project because they are very intelligent and they are good at what they do.
Samuel: Wynton Marsalis. If you look at the way he plays, he is very talented. But what impressed me the most about him was that he was able to play a concerto without set reading and it was really cool.
Fabian: Terell Stafford. I think he is a genius when it comes to jazz and he is an excellent trumpet player.
Betty: Sean Jones. If you listen to the way he plays the trumpet, he really brings out the tones nicely and he is very talented in music.
Teddy: All the musicians I would’ve have liked to work with are dead. Like Chopin, I would’ve liked to work with him. I don’t have any musician who is living that I would like to work with at the moment. I am still looking.
What would you like to be when you grow up? Would you still continue to pursue music?
Simon: Career wise, I haven’t really decided what I want to do in future but I will definitely still continue to play music.
Cornell: I will continue to do music part time but I want to be an engineer.
Samuel: I want to be a doctor when I grow up because I want to save lives and help people. I won’t stop playing music. I will continue to do it part time.
Fabian: I want to be a computer engineer when I grow up. I am inspired by Bill Gates because he used his knowledge to build Microsoft which is one of the biggest companies in the world. He was afraid of ending up poor so he pushed himself and became successful. I will also practice music in my spare time.
Betty: I would like to be a journalist when I grow up because I want to tell stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told and give a voice to the people who wouldn’t have a voice especially from where I come from. I will continue to play music part time.
Teddy: I want to be a doctor and a part time musician.
What is your favourite thing about being in Ghetto Classics and how has it changed your life.
Simon: The best thing about being in Ghetto Classics is that when you have the will, they will give you the way. In that, if you are passionate about something and you put in the amount of work that is required for you to succeed, they open doors for you and give you opportunities so that you can get to where you want to be.
Cornell: Ghetto Classics has really uplifted me in that, when I close school, I have somewhere I can come and spend my time in a wholesome way. It also helps me to meet other musicians and learn from them and grow as a musician.
Samuel: It encouraged me to not lose hope in my studies and in life. It gave me hope that I can be a better person in future. It showed me to look beyond my present situation and see the good that can come to my life if I don’t give up.
Fabian: Aside from being taught music, we are also taught life skills which can help you in all areas of life. Where I come from, a lot of the youth are idle and get into the wrong company. Ghetto Classics has helped me to spend my time wisely so that I waste it.
Betty: Ghetto Classics has helped me to not be idle and get into the wrong company. It has helped me to not lose my way and get involved in things that can hurt my bright future.
Teddy: My favourite thing about being in Ghetto Classics are the opportunities that come with being a member of Ghetto Classics such as getting a chance to represent them in the US and performing at Safaricom International Jazz Festival. It has exposed me to musicians and people I would never have been able to meet. I can also now go to school without worrying about school fees because Ghetto Classics pay my fees. So, I can concentrate on my studies and working towards my future goals.