“I want to be remembered as someone who pushed for perfection in the art of music. In every project I venture into, I make sure that I work the hardest to achieve the highest musical standards possible.” – Duncan Miano
Duncan Miano Wambugu is an accomplished music performer and choir director. He has always been passionate about creating music and sharing it to the world. His choice of instrument is an organ. Growing up in a musical family, his love for music was cultivated earlier on by his late father who taught him to play the piano. Duncan is married to Leah Wanjiku Miano, and they currently have two children, Yanira Wairimu and Theodore RD Wambugu.
Duncan has a PhD in Music Education. He describes his journey to get there as being a unique, humbling and blessed experience. His incredible musical journey took centre stage in Zimbabwe where he attended an all African choir. The trip to Zimbabwe opened up an opportunity for him to go to Canada on a scholarship. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Music (Organ Performance) from Augustana University College, in Alberta, Canada, (1999), a Master of Music (Choral Conducting) from the University of Alberta Canada (2003), and a PhD in Music Education from the School of Music at the University of Florida (2012).
After his international quest for knowledge, Duncan came back to Kenya where he used his knowledge to impact the lives of young musicians. He is currently a lecturer at the faculty at Kenyatta University’s Department of Music and Dance in Nairobi. He also serves as the Organist and Choir Director at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Nairobi. He directs the Safaricom Youth Orchestra and also helps promote the Ghetto Classics programme at Safaricom. Ghetto Classics is a program which introduces youth from Korogocho to the world of jazz and classical music whilst giving them an opportunity to make a livelihood out of music.
In 2013, Duncan was appointed the Music Director of the Safaricom Youth Orchestra (SYO) and a Trustee of Art of Music Foundation which runs the Ghetto Classics and National Youth Orchestra of Kenya (KNYO) programs. He is a member of the Kenya Music and Cultural Festival (KM&CF) Committee and a facilitator for the Permanent Presidential Music Commission Talent Academies held in various counties across the country. He is an accomplished academic and musician who has represented Kenya at both local and international workshops and conferences. He conducts the Nairobi Orchestra, KNYO and SYO in various concerts.
Duncan was the Founder/Director of the first-ever University of Florida Africa Choir Pazeni Sauti. He has served as an Adjudicator for the annual Kenya Music Festival (Nationals), and Choral Festival Alberta (North & South), Canada. He is a Conductor for the Nairobi Orchestra, Kenya Conservatoire of Music Orchestra, Nairobi Music Society and Kampala Symphony and Chorus. He is also a Clinician/ Facilitator for the Permanent Presidential Music Commission (Kenya), The Kenya Music Festival Foundation and Resource Person (Music) for the All Africa Conference of Churches. In 2008, he was selected to be the Vocal Coach for the reality show IDOLS (Eastern and Southern Africa). In 2011, he was appointed as the Music Director for the Safaricom Classical Fusion Festival, which featured among others the world-renown vocal groups Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Kenya’s own Sauti Sol.
My love for music goes back to my childhood days. I started playing the piano when I was six years old. As children, we grew up in a very musical family. My late father was a musician and he was also the lead organist for St Andrews Church, a position that I took over from him after his passing. Unlike these days, music was part and parcel of the curriculum when I was in school. I got involved in music from primary school all the way to Lenana, which is where I went for high school. While in Lenana, I also directed the school choir, we participated and won in many competitions.
You are an organist, what is an organ?
A pipe organ is a monster musical instrument which is mostly found in churches. There are two organs in Nairobi, one is at All Saints Cathedral and the other at St Andrew’s Church. It consists of a set of two or three keyboards and pedals which regulate the pitch of the sound. We call it a pipe organ because there are pipes connected to the keyboard and when air is passed through these pipes, they produce musical sounds. It is also known as the king of instruments because of its sheer size.
You also direct the choir at St Andrew’s Church, how do music and faith come together?
As a musician, I might be biased for saying this, but I honestly believe that music is the greatest expression of faith. Going back to the Old Testament, you can see that the Levites were in charge of making music for the glory of God. When you sing hymns or praise and worship songs, it strengthens your faith and makes you feel closer to God. Music and faith definitely go hand in hand.
How did you get your first scholarship?
I joined the church choir when I was in class five. I sang and played the piano in church all through high school. When I was in form two, I got the opportunity to attend the sixth general assembly of the All Africa Conference of Churches which was in Zimbabwe. They wanted to put together a choir that was made up of people from all of Africa and I was fortunate enough to picked. In Zimbabwe, I was the youngest one in the choir, but I was still chosen to lead and direct the musicians in the group. After a good performance, someone from the World Council of Churches noticed my talent and referred me to a university in Canada. In 1995, I received a scholarship to further my knowledge in the field of music.
What do you think made you stand out the most from the group, earning you a scholarship?
I think they must have noticed my talent when it came to directing the group and coming up with different harmonies. I would also say that the aspect of leadership was instilled in us since we were young by my late father, so my effectiveness as a choir leader must have attracted some interest and notice. The essence of the choir was to bring together people from all sides of Africa. As choir leader, one had to be creative in order to capture and represent as many melodies as possible. My leadership, creativity and talent all played important roles in me being offered the scholarship.
How did you adjust in a foreign land so far from home?
The whole experience was quite interesting. I was in Alberta, which is in the west side of Canada. It was more rural than urban. There were very few Africans at the university, but I really enjoyed my time there. I joined the ministry in campus and became their choir organist. Again, my role as an organist would later present more opportunities for me in terms of another scholarship to do my masters in Canada. I have been very fortunate in my musical journey to be around people who noticed my talent and gave me opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten.
Did you come back to Kenya immediately after graduating or did you practice in Canada?
My father passed on as I was getting ready to graduate so I had to come back home for the burial. I ended up taking a year off school to stay home with my family and to mourn the loss of my father. I had already applied for a scholarship to do my masters at the University of Alberta in Canada. I had already been accepted before the passing of my father, but the university was gracious enough to allow me to take one year off. During my year off, I met the then director of the music department at Kenyatta University and he encouraged me to apply for a graduate assistant position. I was lucky to get the opportunity and that is how I joined the KU faculty. After the year was over, I went back to Canada to do my two-year Masters degree.
What came next after completing your masters?
After completing my masters programme, I came back to Kenya and went back to teaching at KU where I taught for 8 years. It was while I was in KU, that I applied for a scholarship to do my PhD at the University of Florida. The scholarship was under a staff development programme that was a collaboration between KU and the University of Florida. The programme facilitated select members of the faculty with master degrees to go to Florida and further their studies.
How was life in Florida?
Life was good, it was another opportunity for me to learn about music in a foreign land and bring the knowledge back home. While at the University of Florida, I was the founding director of an African choir where we sang songs from the entire continent of African. Students from all nationalities were welcome to sing and become part of the choir. The choir was successful and popular in the University of Florida and beyond. My success in Florida opened doors for two more members of the faculty to go to Florida and pursue their PhD. It has been a blessed and humbling journey.
Looking back to your earlier days in Lenana, did you ever think that music could have taken you this far?
It’s interesting because, in high school, I had dreams of practising law. Music would always have a place in my life but at that time, I was more focused on becoming a lawyer. When I went to Canada for my undergrad, music was my major and pre-law was my minor. A few months into my degree I realized that music was far grander than I had earlier thought. In music, I saw more opportunity and possibility than I could see in the law. It was at that point in my life that I started seeing music as a full-time career and in that process, I ended my pursuit for the law. To be honest, I never once thought that music would be the thing that brought me success.
What response do you get from people especially here in Kenya, after you tell them you have a PHD in music?
The responses I get are quite interesting mostly because here in Kenya, music is not seen as a career in which you can pursue seriously and achieve success. The question I often get is, “You must be the only PhD holder in Music around?” The surprising thing is that in KU only, we have 20 PhD holders in our department. This perception is one of the reasons why we are investing time and resources into showing young people that music is a career just like any other. If you commit to it and do it well, you can make a livelihood out of it.
When coming back to Kenya as a Doctor of Music, what was going to be your biggest contribution to the local music industry?
Having travelled all over the world, I felt like that exposure put me in a unique position to bring different experiences and diverse attitudes that I had picked up along the way. Out there, you experience music in such a vast way compared to the level of exposure we have here in Kenya. Having been a student of the art, I had a lot of new content to offer young people back home to help expand their minds and show them the value of music.
What projects have you been involved in to help the youth?
Since I came back, I have had the opportunity to be part of various musical programmes, one of which is the Safaricom Ghetto Classics. The programme is based in the informal area of Korogocho where we introduce young men and women to types of music that they are not used to. We train them to play jazz and participate in orchestras, which are very disciplined types of music. The whole idea of the Ghetto classics programme is to show these young people that music can be an escape from the difficult lives that they live. Some of the youth we deal with have told us that were it not for the programme, they would have easily lost themselves in gangs and violence. Ghetto classics gives us an opportunity not only to impact these young lives but also to educate them about seeing music as a career and livelihood. #SafaricomJazz: Meet Some of The Upcoming Young Musicians At Ghetto Classics
Do they get to play in orchestras as well?
Safaricom has a youth orchestra programme which introduces the young people from Korogocho to this very sophisticated and highly disciplined style of music. The goal is also to try and bridge the socio-economic gaps that usually exist in our society. In the orchestras, you can’t tell who is from Korogocho or who is from an international school. That is the beauty of these programmes, the fact that Safaricom levels the playground and gives every young person an equal opportunity to succeed.
With music being in all aspects of your life, what kind of music do you listen to?
I grew up in the RnB and new jack swing era so, in terms of popular music, that is what I mostly listen to. Locally, I was blown away by the new Sauti Sol album which they just released. I have been a fan of Eric Wainaina for the longest time, so he is always in my playlist. From time to time I might listen to genge music and other new styles, but I am more interested in the older benga type of sound. Classic music is what I am trained in, so I listen to for educational and research purposes especially when I am preparing for the Safaricom Youth Orchestra. As a teacher of music, I can hardly enjoy classical music for relaxation, when I listen to it, I do so to analyze and dissect it.
Beyond music, what do you do for relaxation?
I enjoy reading, whenever I find the time I like to dive into a good book, right now I am reading the 5 am club and 21 rules of leadership. I am a big fan of John Grisham novels because of my interest in law. I also enjoy going on long drives just to clear my mind. I wouldn’t call myself a farmer per se, but I love being in the open air at the farm and exploring the possibilities of what crops I can grow and nurture. Being at the farm offers a good break away from the hassles and chaos of Nairobi.
You are 43, a doctor of music and a teacher. What would you say is your biggest achievement so far?
In terms of music, I have been privileged enough to break a few barriers. For instance, I was the first Kenyan to direct and conduct a full concert of the Nairobi Orchestra. A position that was reserved for seasoned foreigners. Through that, more Kenyans have had an opportunity to play in the orchestra and conduct as well. I was a part of the team that formed the youth orchestra at Safaricom. We have promoted the Ghetto classics programme.
My greatest achievement, however, is getting married and starting a family. I don’t know of many things that give me the joy I get from being a husband and father. My favourite time of the day is waking up in the morning and seeing the smiles on my children’s faces. There is no greater joy than that.
Do your children understand what you do for a living?
My oldest is two years old and my youngest is just two months old so they haven’t gotten to the point in their lives where they understand what I do.
In the future do you plan to expose them to music as your father did to you?
Our oldest daughter reacts to music when it is played on the radio and you can tell that this is due to her interaction with music at home. I definitely want them to grow up listening to music and possibly even perform and achieve their own milestones. Music is all around us, my wife is pretty musical as well and I hope that the kids follow in that route.
What do you want to be remembered for in the music industry?
I want to be remembered as someone who pushed for perfection in the art of music. In every project I venture into, I make sure that I work hard to achieve the highest standard possible. People who work with me should expect to be encouraged and pushed to becoming the best versions of themselves and creating the best musical levels. Professionalism and pursuing perfection in my work has always been my drive and focus.
Brian Muchiri is a passionate writer who draws his inspiration from the experiences in his own life and of those around him. He is candid and he seeks to inspire society to be more pro active and vocal about the social issues that affect us. Brian is also actively involved in pushing for awareness and inclusion of people with disabilities through his foundation; Strong Spine.