Today on Man Around Nairobi we feature Saxophonist Tim Riungu. Tim Riungu got introduced to practical musicianship at Nairobi School where he played trombone in the school band for two years. At the end of Form 3, he discovered the saxophone and never looked back. Tim went on to study Music at Daystar University, then proceeded to the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa to study Communication. After a short stint working in radio production, he returned to Kenya in 2006 and joined The Villagers Band the following year. Later in 2007 he joined a jazz trio, The Limericks, and was in both bands concurrently for the next 7 years. This saw him perform regularly in the restaurant, festival and concert circuits regionally. In 2010 he participated in the “Daughters of Africa” musical theatre show that toured The Netherlands and Belgium, premiering before Queen Maxima, then Crown Princess. The show was a resounding success and was eventually staged more than 80 times in a 3-month period. This led to another production “Out of Africa: The Magic of Kenya” sponsored by the Kenya Tourism Board. It toured The Netherlands and Denmark in 2012.
In 2014 Tim co-founded AfroSync Band and it quickly gained a strong following in Nairobi’s jazz fraternity. The following year Afrosync took part in the Safaricom International Jazz Festival 2015-16 series, opening for Kirk Whalum, Gerald Albright, Norman Brown and Branford Marsalis. He enjoys history, natural science, travel and experiencing new cultures.
Did you grow up in Nairobi?
Yes, I did. My years as a minor were centred around Westlands constituency, which is where my home, primary and high schools were located. It was a very peaceful upbringing, too peaceful at times. I often wished for more kids to hang out with but we made do with whoever we could find. Westlands was a very leafy, homely place, a far cry from the bustling commercial hub it has grown into. There were residential bungalows where many of the skyscrapers stand today. I’ve never lost the love for nature and the outdoors that I got from tramping about the valleys and catching tadpoles in the streams, especially with Karura forest right next door. It might all sound strange to today’s 10-year old but maybe somebody will come up with an app for them to recreate such…
We did the usual boy stuff. Anything that involved running, hiding, swinging on a tree or a ball. My brother and I often took long walks into Karura Forest via its Spring Valley side. We once stumbled across an illegal logging operation deep in the forest and made haste to put some distance between us.
What do you love about Nairobi?
The cosmopolitan nature of this city. You can find so many parts of the planet represented here culturally. Opportunities for professional and personal development. This is where a good idea well-executed makes dreams come true. The hilarious people co-exist here with the most serious-minded folk, as do the best-dressed fashionistas. Nairobi is home to the tallest skyscrapers and most chic malls all within sight of a for-real wildlife park that costs me only a few dollars to visit. Or, if you live next door, the wildlife comes to visit you anyway!
I love the sheer variety of audiences and performance settings Nairobi affords me. I have often played at a stiff corporate cocktail, a joyful wedding reception complete with mûgithi train and then a chilled lounge situation, all within 24 hours. And, frankly, not having too many other musicians doing what I do in this city is a plus! The amount of creative talent that I interact with is stimulating and an opportunity to learn something new constantly: studio producers, sound engineers, advertising professionals, songwriters, arrangers, performers, teachers and students.
What would you change about Nairobi?
First I’d have to change myself and channel my inner John Michuki, may he rest in peace. The negative aspects of our urban culture, particularly the disregard of road rules, bladder-easing on the roadside, petty corruption and grand corruption would have to go. I’d also cooperate with our hard-working hawkers to develop a workable formula that allows them to earn their living without being an obstruction to pedestrian flows. Motor vehicles that spew noise and exhaust pollution would feel the whip too, as would the law enforcement personnel that turn a blind eye to it all. I’m not sure how, but more open spaces for physical recreation would have to be created in the concrete-filled residential areas.
I’d change the perception that music is my weekend hobby and so I should be paid less than other service providers at an event. This I find with small functions that are organized informally.
As a professional how is it working in Nairobi? Is Nairobi open to what you do or what could be better?
For a professional musician, Nairobi is easily the most desirable place to work in East Africa. The production standards and availability of skilled talent make it a very stimulating environment to do creative work. There is also a good market for creative output whether one is doing commercial jingles, club bangers, soulful gospel or, like me, funky jazz lounge music. Consumers of music are generally very open to different experiences, yet they can also be ruthless critics. That a number of festivals regularly take place and are well-attended is a testament to that. As is the number of venues hosting live music acts on any given evening.
What can be improved on is monetizing our craft: artist management and development, increasing links with the corporate world for mutually beneficial outcomes and government policy that is coherent and relevant. Presently the Sports, Culture and Arts ministry is nowhere near the star status of its ICT sibling in harnessing the talents in its realm.
The pace of payment can be a challenge, with knock-on effects elsewhere in my life. Last-minute confirmations for a gig can cause logistical nightmares, and there are occasions when I’ve had to politely decline an engagement.
As the economy steadily grows and demand increases for creative services, there are opportunities for linkage creators between musicians and potential clients. In a transparent, self-regulated way that protects both parties’ interests. Similarly, image consultancy and marketing services polish our acts for a bigger market.
If you had a tourist friend coming in from outside the country what three things would you say to sell them the idea that Nairobi is worth visiting?
Given the kind of friends I keep, this would sell the idea:
A “circular” matatu ride through Eastleigh is something that Perth, Paris or Panama City won’t ever match. Ever. And thereafter head off to kiss a giraffe in Karen.
Nairobi’s eclectic architectural history: early 20th-century European colonial buildings, the Indian heritage reflected in Ngara and Parklands. And a slum visit would be a true eye-opener to a different existence.
The vibrancy of cultural activity daily: Maasai markets, live bands, theatrical productions, art in galleries and on the streets, eating spots of every shade….and catching a parade of Wakorino en route to church is a HD moment by itself.
If you would like to interact with Tim Riungu you can find him on Twitter at @timoriungu.