The Kenyan music industry has recently played second fiddle to our neighbours the Tanzanians and our brothers from the west in Nigeria. Local artists struggle to get a platform where they can perform, showcase and create their content. The root of the problem lies with us as the Kenyan market, we go out of our way to support international acts but barely even recognize our own. Our industry is full of vibrant capable creatives who only need a fair chance and good support to propel the Kenyan flag to the rest of Africa and beyond.
Big companies have a responsibility to push this agenda by giving local talent a platform to earn a decent living and to entertain with their Kenyan stories. These companies possess resources that could be directed towards positive ventures to empower up and coming painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians and any other individual working in the creative space. By empowering them, they open doors for international artists to come in and mentor local talent.
This is partly the role of the Safaricom Jazz International Festival that serves two roles, one to give exposure to local jazz musicians to showcase their work and also to give Kenya a taste of what international jazz has to offer. Safaricom has partnered with corporates to make sure that Kenyan gets the best of what local and international jazz artists have to offer. InterContinental Nairobi has been Safaricom’s hospitality partner for the last 5 years.
InterContinental Nairobi has been one of the biggest supporters of Jazz music and musicians in Kenya. Every other night you are likely to have a Kenyan jazz musician or band performing.
A haven in the city, InterContinental Nairobi is ideally located for business, 16 kilometres from JKIA. The hotel boasts an award-winning Indian restaurant – Bhandini, a dine by the pool restaurant – Terrace, Plantation Coffee shop, Makuti Bar, 11 meeting rooms and 326 air-conditioned rooms.
I caught up with the General Manager Oliver Geyer of InterContinental Nairobi to find out more about what they are doing to support Jazz musicians and especially the Safaricom Jazz Festival.
Tell us a little bit about InterContinental Nairobi
We are actually the 1st international hotel to open up in Kenya. The hotel was opened by President Jomo Kenyatta. And as the oldest international hotel, we have a certain responsibility whereby we are not just an international hotel. Rather we view ourselves as part of the community and that is why we contribute and try to support the local community where we can. Sure, the support is different in every country however, as a global brand, it is important for us that people feel the InterContinental presence as a hotel and also as part of their lives.
So what are the highlights of 50 years of the InterContinental Nairobi being here in Kenya?
During the time I have been in Kenya, I can say that we have proudly hosted around 30-40 heads of states in 3 years. Due to our long history in Nairobi, strategic location, our tight security measures and the guarantee of service our dignitaries recognize us as the first address to go to when in Kenya.
People have been coming here at any time of the day with their loved ones to enjoy fine dining and this makes us part of the local society. In light of our 50-year anniversary, in the social events I have attended I have heard stories of how people got connected to InterContinental Nairobi. They either have gotten married here, learnt how to swim in our heated pool or enjoyed Le Chateau; the back then 24-hour restaurant, but now a meeting room. They could go there any time of the day.
Highlights for me as such, I have also worked in 8 hotels globally. My top event being the TICAD event, 2017, which enabled us to have 27 heads of states staying here. It was a logistical nightmare. It surely was one of my career highlights, which connects back to this hotel. Especially having hosted the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe. We also hosted President Uhuru Kenyatta at the hotel and many other heads of state. I have to say it was a fantastic experience showing what the city is capable of logistically. Showing off what the hotel is capable of as well. I had a couple of sleepless nights, before, during and after.
InterContinental Nairobi has been a partner of Safaricom jazz since almost the beginning.
Yes. We joined during the second festival. This year was the sixth festival, so we have partnered 5 out of the 6 jazz festivals with Safaricom. When Safaricom contacted us to partner with them, it didn’t take us really long to think about it for a couple of reasons. We have a long-standing relationship with local musicians. Also, we have the stage, our own jazz concept at our bar and we are always on the lookout for local talent. I think it’s important that we as a global hotel and company also support local musicians. Jazz, in particular, has a lot of talent here, and it is up to us to give musicians the stage the exposure and the opportunity to grow.
We also have our Makuti bar. Depending on the season, 2-3 times a week we have live music there with local bands. We have our own jazz concept in our bar and we always have an eye for local talent. This is where I come back to what I said initially I think it’s important that we as a global hotel and company also support local musicians. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, live music is not appreciated anymore as it once was. But in Kenya and specifically for jazz, there is a lot of talent and I think it’s our responsibility to give them the stage and give them the opportunity to be seen and to grow.
So, knowing what Safaricom was doing in Korogocho, the cause behind it which involves helping kids in difficult situations, it didn’t take us long to be part of it. It was a great initiative to support the local community and the underprivileged. When we talk about supporting kids in difficult situations, we are all or many of us are parents and I think it’s something close to our hearts to do something about it. About 2 years ago the Ghetto Classics had their first public concert on our stage and to see them playing in front during jam session with international artists coming after them was heartwarming. It made it a cause that was not just on paper, it gave us a visual reason why we do this. That is why we are still supporting it until today and we will support it in the future. The Safaricom Jazz Festival is supporting over 1000 kids now.
My predecessor Dieter Franke is a passionate musician himself. Unfortunately, I have never explored my musical talent besides listening to it, but music is a passion I have. I love listening to music and I have explored it the 3 and a half years I have been here. Actually, my passion for jazz is new, I actually never got in contact with jazz before and I figured that African jazz is something I can really easily listen to.
So yes, we are in the 5th year. It is becoming more exciting. As I said, we are supporting over 1000 kids now which is amazing. It is our little contribution.
Your hotel supports jazz music. Is that a conscious decision and is it just jazz music or you support all kinds of musicians and artistes?
Our support is very fluid and not restricted to Jazz only. This year we had the African heritage nights with pure African music. However, Jazz has opportunities because it’s quite wide and it can be transitioned into anything, especially African jazz. African jazz artists have found a great way to combine the African rhythm with the instrumental jazz, with the saxophone and the trumpets.
Therefore, I think music is all about practice and going on stage and trying harder. So not only are we here to give musicians the opportunity to play but also not to restrict them too much with what they have to play but also promote what they do best.
Related to that how has your decision to have bands of jazz musicians changed the entertainment industry in Kenya.
If you ask any musician, unfortunately, we still have a long way to go. The only way to help musicians sustain their art is that we as Kenyans support our own music. So as a hotel, we help them do so by purchasing their CDs and giving them the stage.
The musicians also get paid a certain fee when they come in and this gives them a certain freedom to have the income and to focus on their music. Our role together with Safaricom’s initiative helps musicians to continuously grow and focus on Kenyan music or jazz.
You’ve had jazz lounges. Who are some of the famous international jazz artists who have performed here whether for Safaricom jazz or the lounges or just generally?
It is a bit fluid. The international performances are usually combined with Safaricom jazz. For instance, every big concert we have had say on the 1st of May, we had the jam sessions and it is up to the musicians staying in the hotel to decide if they want to join in. The beauty of this event is that international artistes always want to play with local musicians, which also becomes an opportunity for them. Such that local talents get the opportunity to play with multi-award winners. Some of our local talents include Shamsi music, who are regulars. We have had Branford Marsalis on our stage. As for the internationals we’ve had Sanborn on air, we had Kirk Whalum which was actually one of our highlights. He was playing sax with all our local team and at one point we had 7 Sax players on our stage. He came to his team and how they engaged with the local musicians and tried to take them along was just beautiful.
Most of the international artists we receive perform on the Safaricom Jazz stage. For every big event, we have an international artist that comes to join us. The beauty of having such huge stars in our stage is that they always want to jam will local musicians which we find to be very inspiring. When you see a local talent play on stage with a multi-Grammy winner you are reminded of the beauty of these events.
Did Marcus Miller perform at the festival when he was in town?
Unfortunately, he didn’t make it to the event, but we received some of the musicians from his team. We’ve also had Jazzrausch Bigband from Germany, so we had ten people on one stage and actually seeing them live, it was amazing. Ray Lema & Saka Saka Band from the Democratic Republic of Congo were on stage, so this was great for our Congelese fans. Last year’s event was fantastic with over 5,000 people coming in for Safaricom Jazz Festival. This year we got to see how much talent Safaricom has brought on stage over the years.
The good thing about the Jazz jam session is that it is always open, so we are excited to see who will come next time; we are excited to also see more Kenyan bands taking the stage. Last year’s event was very successful, and the fans appreciate the work that Safaricom is doing in terms of bringing lots of talent on stage.
What are the benefits of a hospitality chain such as InterContinental supporting the arts? Is it something you do all over the world in your other hotels as well?
We offer our support all over the world in different ways and means. As you can see, our support is not only limited to music, we also support other artists as well. We have art exhibition throughout the hotel, looking around you will see pieces by Kenyan artists, Nigerian artist and many different varieties.
InterContinental is a worldwide hotel, so we receive guests from all corners of the world, and we feel like we have a responsibility to give them a feel of the country they are in by displaying local art. Some of our guests have tight schedules and hardly have time to explore the culture and the people so we opt to bring the culture to them through music and art. This benefits us as Kenyans because our guests leave with a positive feeling about our country and what we can offer in terms of entertainment, this acts as motivation for them to come back and visit once again. We try to give our guests the entire Kenyan experience under one roof with our restaurants, events, and activities. Our visitors don’t have to leave the hotel to have a good time.
Any upcoming plans for Jazz concerts?
Two years ago, we had a series of events we called ‘A night of Jazz’. Due to complications presented by elections, the event was cancelled but we hope to relaunch it. It is still not decided what frequency it will come back with in terms of when it will happen and how many times but I can say for sure that it will focus on more local bands where we will have a few of them take the stage.
Besides that, there are other events we are planning to relaunch during the weekends that were also cancelled during the election period. We went through a lot as a country and hopefully, music and entertainment can be the things that bring us together as a people. We started 2019 with a lot of hope and expectation and therefore Safaricom Jazz will kick off the relaunch of a couple of events and all systems will be back to normal.
What are the benefits you have experienced as a hotel during your partnership with Safaricom for the Safaricom Jazz festival?
Safaricom, being such a major player in the communication industry has surely increased the exposure of the hotel. Having the name of the hotel on the tickets has made people more aware of who we are. More importantly, I think the greatest benefit we have experienced is the opportunity to create a long-lasting relationship with our partners from Safaricom. The team has remained the same from the start and we value the fact that we have worked together and really seen each other grow.
I attribute the good relationship we have to Ghetto Classics, which I believe has really brought us together. The emotional connection to Ghetto Classics has been more rewarding than any other benefits we have encountered along the way. It is always great when big companies come together to work towards a singular cause. The impact is usually more significant, and more lives are touched in the process. #SafaricomJazz: Meet Some of The Upcoming Young Musicians At Ghetto Classics
We have had partners come in to support the festival and I think their motivation is usually the knowledge that the proceeds are going towards the ghetto classics which is such a noble cause. I can say that the cause behind the Safaricom Jazz festival has been the reason why it has been so successful and its growth so significant.
Is there any event coming to the hotel that you would like to highlight?
In May we celebrated 50 years of the InterContinental Nairobi being in Kenya. We invited all our employees that are still alive since we started in 1969 and we celebrated with them for all the success we have had together. We plan to remind the community about who we are as InterContinental Nairobi and the significance of the 50 years that we have been around. Companies in this industry go through changes over the years with branding and values. We take pride in the fact that we have stayed the same.