10 Kenyan Jazz Musicians you should know

Trumpeter Christine Kamau is the only lady Jazz musician in Kenya in a male dominated scene

Although the Jazz scene in Kenya has been growing, it is yet to be mentioned in the same breath as South Africa when speaking about places in Africa where Jazz is vibrant.

I have written quite a bit on this before and given some insight on what prevents us from reaching higher heights. Things have been changing slowly and this is evident from the number of Jazz musicians that are joining the pioneers. Kenya is known more for Rhumba and sometimes its hard to count the Jazz musicians with both hands.

The musicians on this lists are strictly Jazz musicians and does not include instrumentalists. Just to get this out of the way, an instrumentalist is one who, despite being exceptionally good at playing a musical instrument chooses to only do covers of already existing music and/or gives the songs a jazz interpretation. Instrumentalists are also, instrument players who compose music for other music genres other than Jazz.

With that out of the way, here are Kenya’s Jazz musicians in no particular order.

1. Ricky Nanjero
Ricky Nanjero is a bassist Afro Jazz musician. He is one of the few bassist who plays his instrument with personality and style, taking the bass guitar to the center stage in music. He says that his greatest inspiration in his music is his life and his past. He likes feeling the music and relating it to his own life. This, he believes, is what has propels him to great success in his career.

Ricky’s name is actually Patrick Nanjero Lukhachi. He was nicknamed Ricky as short of Patrick and the name stuck over the years. Most of his family, friends knew him by Ricky and so, he decided to adopt the name as his stage name. Ricky is a last borne of a family of 8 with 4 brothers and 3 sisters. He is married to Magdalene Lukhachi.

He started learning drums but with time, he drifted off to bass guitar and it was not long before his talent started blossoming. Ricky faithfully played in the deliverance church Umoja band for 4 years until 2004 when he did his first recording with successful band, UDC band church based, and got a contract with Blue Notes band to entertain guest in one of the leading hotels in Nairobi Kenya, and the rest as they say is history.

In 2009, Ricky won a partial scholarship to the worlds most respected music school, But He decided to stay in Kenya to concentrate on his carrier more in 2012 Ricky started a show know as an Evening of afro jazz which happens every last Tuesday of the month at Alliance Francaise the show is always sold out.

Ricky also has a programme called jazz for books where he collects books from international school and donates them to needy schools in Eastlands.
Bio courtesy of Reverbnation

You can sample and purchase his music on Waabeh

2. Edward Parseen and the Different Faces band

Parseen is the lead Saxophonist in the band which was formed in June, 2008. Consisting of only three members originally. Currently having five members.
The band specializes in Pop Jazz and African Jazz and other Musical genres especially for accompaniment.
The Following are the Band Members and their brief Musical Profiles;
EDWARD PARSEEN (B.Mus) – Saxophone, Trumpet, Vocals. He is the founder and band leader, playing the Saxophone, trumpet and Vocals.
Moses Njoroge – Keyboards/ Arrangements. He is an accomplished classically trained pianist.
ETIENNE MANGALA – BASS . Etienne is very versatile and plays different genres of Music including Rumba, Zouk, Reggae, Jazz, RNB and Soukous. He is also an accomplished music producer.
Issack Kimetto on bass guitar and Dotty Ngao on vocals are the other 2 band members

3. Eddie Grey

Jazz recording & performing artist, guitarist, composer and producer centered on fusion of all kinds of popular music Nairobi Kenya,
Eddie Grey‘s more notable contribution to Jazz in Kenya is in the Pioneering of Jazz Guitar recordings that has brought this cherished instrument back to the foreground. Eddie Grey just completed his 2nd Album ‘Stories by the Lake’ that among others features the award winning Pioneer ‘ father’ of Ethiopian Jazz, Mulatu Astatke.

The style of his music is progressive and this has led to several featured perfomances within the Jazz Guitarist’s career.
As a composer, Eddie Grey’s passion is to create a distinct indigenous voice within the already broad genre that is Jazz. He has thus collaborated with several traditional and Afro musicians from across East Africa in order to begin that journey. As a producer, Eddie Grey’s film scores have featured in several projects including the recent film ‘Gun to tape’, the journey of David Rudisha into the London Olympics. His song Free Africa was also chosen as the theme song for the Africa Creative Economy in Dakar.

His recent trip across the Rift Valley and parts of Uganda have allowed him the opportunity to gather inspiration for the already ongoing 3rd Album, The Pilgrimage Project set for release in 2013.

Alongside Eddie Grey is his band, The Ensemble. A group of technically gifted musicians that help deliver this unique message of rhythm, harmony and Soul.

4.Joseph Hellon
This is one man who let his personal business get in the way of his music despite being an accomplished Kenyan saxophonist with a very promising musical career.
By the end of high school at Starehe Boys Centre, Hellon was already working as a music teacher. In 1994 he became a teacher at Real Music School in the Westlands area of Nairobi, which is affiliated with London College of Music. He soon became principal and later renamed it Jether House of Music.[1] The school trains individuals and ensembles in classical and popular music.
Hellon’s specialty as a musician is the saxophone. He is a well known live performer in Nairobi and has recorded five albums: Zamar, Ekkaleo. Bizkuti, Hellon Live in Bizkuti, Afro Jazz featuring Hellon and Aaron. His sixth album, Fish Conspiracy, was scheduled for release early in 2013.
Unfortunately, Hellon nowadays does everything else other than produce and play great Jazz music.

5. Chris Bittok
Chris Bittok is one of Kenya’s leading jazz saxophonists. The bespectacled, clean shaven and soft spoken artist had his first encounter with a saxophone at the age of 14, courtesy of his brother, a jazz buff, who introduced Bittok to the genre.

Though jazz does not have a large following in the country, it has grown in leaps and bounds, with different clubs embracing the music by setting aside a day in the week, for the genre, including K1 on Tuesdays and Tamasha Hurligham on Sunday, both of which were introduced by Bittok in 2005.

“One of the things that forced me to become entrepreneurial in my music is because a sax, is the most dispensable instrument,” said Bittok, adding that a saxophone is the icing on the cake, and is considered a luxury in most bands.

Bittok, who has been in several bands, had to look for his own gigs, mainly through networking and word-of-mouth, in order to make money and expose himself to the niche market.

6. Jacob Asiyo
Jacob is arguable the recognizable and multi-faceted talent of his generation. Jacob began playing piano at the tender age of 11 after hearing a piano being played in the music room at his elementary school. An intense determination that has its roots in this childhood recollection has led to Jacob becoming a captivating entertainer.

7. Lawrence Mwai
Mwai is an accomplished pianist leaning heavily towards the Jazz Genre of music. He also runs his own music outfit and is well heeled in the intricacies of both the business and the art form of a performing artist. With an impressive resume of events that clamor for his skill, he has an equally – if not greater – repertoire that can be displayed whether as a solo pianist or as part of band.

8. Juma Tutu & The Swahili Jazz Band

Swahili Jazz is a blend of native Mijikenda traditional music with Asian, Arabic and Western influences. Swahili Jazz is easy to relate to through its soothing and unique melodies. The music is normally instrumental and with lyrics they are in poetic Swahili. The band was founded by the lead saxophonist & singer Juma Tutu.

Juma Abdalla Atibu aka Juma Tutu was born and raised in Mombasa. Went to Tudor High school from 1995 -1998.
He is a Swahili Jazz artiste, a saxophonist, music composer, singer and performer.
He has played with Generations Band, Bango Sounds and Them Mushrooms before forming his own band The Tutu Band in 2003.

9. Christine Kamau
Christine is a trumpeter who grew up in Nakuru, Kenya. She began showing signs of musicianship at an early age. Her parents encouraged her by enrolling for music lessons at age 11 to study music theory and classical piano. She followed on with learning the Trumpet at the Kenya Conservatoire of Music under Kagema Gichuhi.

Christine has released an 8-track instrumental album titled This is for You worked on with Cameroonian music producer Romeo Kouemeni. The album offers an easy listening experience, the music being a fusion of jazz with elements of benga and rhumba.

Christine has performed at various local music events in Kenya including the monthly festival Blankets and Wine, Jazz under the Stars festival, Sierra Jazz Festival 2012 (opening of the UK jazz group Incognito), The Safaricom International Jazz festival 2014 (rising stars edition) amongst others. Christine has also been featured in a musical program by the BBC world service titled ‘Africa Beats’ a series that showcases emerging music talent from Africa.

She performs regularly in the Nairobi music scene alongside her band comprised of remarkable session musicians: Ted Mwangi (Bass guitar), Johnson Omonije (Keyboards), and Charles Obuya (Percussions)

10. Michel Ongaro

Michel Ongaro’s music defys the musical genre boxes that are used to define an artist as either a Jazz, RnB, Reggae musician. His music is a fusion of different musical tastes from Africa, the Caribbean, Jazz among others.

Michel, a humorous and witty artist whose skills span across a wide music spectrum, was born and raised in Nairobi Kenya. A singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and music coach, Michel has been active in the music scene since 2002. A cancer survivor, Michel is a source of enlightenment and inspiration to many. With his positive energy and talent, he makes beautiful music that borrows largely from his rich African heritage and blends spectacularly with other music genres from other continents to create quite a charming blend.

Michel began making music at a tender age with makeshift percussion instruments that he’d make for himself. Having been rendered blind at the age of two, he learnt to overcome this challenge to emerge an artist that is refined in both skill and character.

His musical inspiration comes from artists such as Cesaria Evora, Djelimadi Tounkara, Salif Keita, Franco Makiadi, Diblo Dibala, Africando, Muungano choir, Lee Ritenour, Bin Crosby and many others.
(Bio credit – Reverbnation)

Worthy Mention

June Gachui
June is a talented Jazz vocalist & singer. Kenya’s own Etta James. June Gachui, is a woman of many talents. She is not only an accomplished intellectual property lawyer, but also a musician and actress.

Underground Jazz in Kenya
There is a new generation of Kenyan Jazz that is coming up learning from the list above of seasoned musicians. If you are wondering why you are not seeing names like Kato Change, Don Ouko and others. They will be in the next list. Look out for it.

Credits: Many Thanks to Parseen and Jack Ojiambo for helping me come up with this list and for the insights into new undiscovered musicians.

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