From parks to podium

Kenyan ensemble

From parks to podium

As a school boy in Kenya, when Joseph Muyale Inzai found himself struggling to pay his school fees, music came to his rescue. Literally. A bundle of musical talent that he was, he helped his school excel in music festivals and competitions, thereby managing to continue his studies. Immensely overwhelmed by this experience of his, he wanted musically talented boys like him, from economically deprived sections of society, to be able to pursue their studies on the strength of their musical talent. So was born the Kenyan Boys Choir, way back in 1997.

Prod Joseph on the objective behind the inception of the Choir, and this is what he has to say — “I owe my all to music. This Choir is my way of giving back to society. The objective behind the inception of this Choir is two-proged: One, to develop the innate musical talents of young boys and girls. Two, to keep youngsters engaged and thwart their tendency to stray and indulge in anti-social activities which is an easy diversion given the poor economic conditions of the large majority of population in Kenya.”

Firm resolve

However, the decision to start the Choir was not an easy one, considering the economic situation he was in, and the sacrifices he had to make, including quitting his day job in Kenya Railways, to take the Choir on the path of success.

The Choir, having gone from strength to strength, is today a force to be reckoned with in the world of music. With a membership of 40, it comprises high school- and college-going boys in the age group of 13 to 24 years. Like their founder and artistic director Joseph, these boys, mostly from the slums of Nairobi, raise their school and college fees through their performances. The selection criteria is also strict.

“While some members of the Choir are chosen through auditions, some are identified during the Kenya Music Festival competitions, and some from the schools and colleges I teach music and dance in,” says Joseph.

However, if you think Joseph Muyale only trains boys and spares no thought to gender equality, then you are mistaken. For, the Kenyan Boys Choir has a sister group of 40 girls, aptly called The Kenyan Girls Choir. And, Joseph Muyale is very optimistic about the girls’ group’s success. “We are hoping that the girls will get similar opportunities, if not more! We have some mixed items that the two groups perform together. The Musical Arts Academy of Nairobi is the umbrella institution for both the choirs, and plans are underway to establish The Children’s Choir of Kenya, too. I’m glad that of the three programmes, atleast two are in place,” says Joseph, whose dream project is to have The Musical Arts Academy of Nairobi fully established.

Vocal variety

The Choir’s USP being Pan African Folk Music set in treble, baritone and bass with choreographed dance steps and movements in African traditional regalia, it proudly endorses the rich heritage of Kenyan musical culture. It is also renowned for its Maasai and Samburu chants, which Joseph explains thus: “Maasai and Samburu chants are vocal sounds imitating the sounds of birds and the lion, used in Maasai and Samburu songs and dances. These vocal chants act as accompaniments to songs, and are an equivalent to the piano in classical music.”

Close to nature is what their music is. No wonder, their practice sessions also happen close to nature. Yes, the Choir practises four times a week, under a tree, in one of the many parks in Nairobi, after school hours.

The turning point for this choir with such humble beginnings came with an invitation to perform at Obama’s inaugural celebrations in Washington in 2009. In Joeseph Muyale’s words, “It was the best and most exciting thing that ever happened to us. Remember, we rehearse in the woods of Nairobi, and for us to get this grand invitation was nothing short of a miracle! To go and be a part of history in Washington DC was really great. We thank God for that.”

“President Obama being Kenya’s son, we had a huge responsibility. We were carrying the emotions and good wishes of Kenyans all over the world, and had to give a fitting tribute to the man of such a tall standing. We knew the world would be watching us. From the moment we arrived, we felt honoured and respected, appeared on CNN live five times, and on BBC and other world media channels. In all, it was a very enriching  experience,” he says.

Even as the Choir sang a Swahili hero’s welcoming song, exhorting the new President to “just be happy”, at Washington, Joseph’s countrymen back home sat glued to their television sets, and the day was declared a public holiday.

If all this wasn’t sufficiently momentous, on their way back home,  the Choir were signed by the Universal Records, while they were in transit at Heathrow!

Their tryst with success had truly begun. For, the world had got a taste of the Choir’s brand of music, and they wanted MORE. So, off they went to various parts of the world, taking their Kenyan music along. In the meanwhile, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in the UK happened, where a differnt choir performed some of Joseph’s arrangements. Collaborations with the likes of Nelly Furtado, Demi Lovato, Shawn Desman also followed.

Visit to India

And now, they are coming to India for the first time ever to perform with Toccata Musical Productions led by Dr Sunil Paulraj. “Sunil has a great mission of touching the lives of the underprivileged. In 2011, when Toccata visited Kenya with their concert tour and offered us an opportunity to perform with them, we were thrilled. We enjoyed a great working relationship as our creative DNAs matched. Coming back together to work with Toccata in India is very exciting,” says Joseph.

Oh, boy! Is he excited? “Very much. India is a land of many cultures. The fact that they co-exist with many differences and cultures speaks volumes of their love and inclusiveness for all things different. India loves colours, and so do we. We, in Kenya, are big fans of Bollywood music and dance, too,” he adds.

For the concert in India, to be held in Kochi and Bengaluru, the Choir is planning to present African music alongside other global hits like the songs from Lion King and ‘One direction’.

“We are Kenyan cultural ambassadors, so we’ll keep the essence of Kenyan/African fabric alive in all we do. This has been our selling point.  I’m sure the energy we bring to our music and dance numbers will connect with the Indian audience,” says Joseph.

So be it!

(The Choir will be performing at the Bishop Cotton Boys School auditorium, Bengaluru, from 13 to 16 August, 2015.)

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