Africa could be all of 54 countries and counting, but the truth is that most of these are just people separated by colonial imposed boundaries.
This was evident at the 94th edition of the annual Kenya Music Festival held in Kenya’s lakeside city of Kisumu. The festival made a return after a three-year hiatus courtesy of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
While Uganda has the Nyege Nyege music festival and Tanzania the Sauti za Busara music extravaganza, the annual Kenya Music Festival is the closest Kenya comes to matching its neighbours. It’s a festival of arts and culture that brings together over 150,000 participating pupils and students ranging from lower primary all the way to university under graduates in its best year. This year the attendance was just half the number because of the short notice given for preparations.
Although the festival is of a competitive nature -- because winners receive trophies and certificates -- the atmosphere is celebratory in the true spirit of fanfare and carnival.
“We had to wrack our brains and find a quick way of hosting a successful festival faced with some resource constraints and yet had only one item qualifying from the nine regions for each of the 600 classes,” said the national chairman of the event, Peter Wanjohi. He is also the Secretary of State House Functions or colloquially the president’s master of ceremonies.
The festival is a one-stop shop of cultural expression drawing locally and also from the rich global cultural heritage. Beyond Kenya’s cultural presentations, there are performances from the rest of Africa, Europe, Asia and South America, representing the global village.
Audiences are treated to music, dance and elocution that transcends cultural boundaries and is a critical experience for students learning about the cultures of East Africa, Africa and beyond.
According to festival adjudicator Dr Wafula Mukasa -- whose alma mater is The University of Music Franz Liszet, Weimer, Germany -- the festival immerses students in history, geography and sociology of the people from the regions where they draw their music pieces from, making participation here the ultimate educational experience.
“It is learning by doing and it is the best form of competency based learning for our pupils and students today,” he says. Kenya recently changed its education system to the competency based curriculum (CBC), which is already in practice in other regional countries, albeit in part.
Take for instance, the category inspired by the Classics or what is referred to by festival organisers, Zilizopendwa from the rest of Africa.
This segment always draws a full house. Performances in this category over the years has been of such high standards, that the tickets are the most sought after.
This year’s winning piece in the Gospel category was by the Salvation Army Likoni School for the Visually Impaired was the Nigerian hit song Ekwueme by the late Osinachi Nwuchukwu arranged and adapted by Elizabeth Ngare.
Ekwueme, which means “He says and does,” in Igbo, is a moving emotional appeal to God to redeem his people from the world’s problems. The composer, Osinachi, died this year from alleged injuries from domestic violence.
Machakos Girls High School presented the piece Yahweh by the late Kenyan-based Congolese gospel singer Angela Chibalonza, in an adaptation and arrangement directed by Humphrey Kavehere. The song seeks God’s protection.
The soloist, Halima Hussein, moved the audience to tears with her powerful vocals that sustained long notes, supported by Stephen Musyoka and a beautiful blend of the chorus that earned them a standing ovation.
“We were moved by this group because they were true in capturing the mood and the intended message was well delivered and most importantly, it is a new arrangement in this festival,” said adjudicator Silvester Otieno of Kenyatta University. He was assisted by Prof Frederick Ngala of Kabarak University.
The themes of the music pieces presented at the festival range from marriage, death or grief, birth and cerebrations thereof, relationships, environment, integrity and cultural initiation ceremonies.
The African Folk Songs from the category Rest of African for Secondary Schools was a splendour of colour as performances ranging from pieces representing Xhosa, Tswana, Zulu, Banganda, Karamoja, Bagisu and Abakisimba cultures.
For their credit, Apostolic Carmel Girls Secondary School based in Nairobi’s Buruburu suburb, raised the bar with their Baganda folk dance, as performed at the Kabaka’s palace.
It was a display of variation of style and movements with a skilful playing of the drums. The ensemble of instruments showed how culturally advanced Baganda society was, long before the coming of the culturally destructive colonialists and accompanying Christianity and its foreign system of education.
This year also saw the entry of South African dance and songs from the Xhosa, Zulu and Tswana nations.
The Xhosa initiation ceremony was a realistic depiction of the dress, and language.
Chuka High from Meru County, presented a Zulu freedom dance with typical high kicks footwork as they rendered a beautiful choreography. The act depicted a people besieged and tortured.
But it was St Angela Girls High School who took performance a notch higher with their Tswana dance, a first at the festival. They combined original costuming with stage expression and perfectly harmonized melody.
“One would think it was actually South Africans performing. It is very encouraging because there is a great deal of research by our producers and choreographers which is what we are asking for and that’s a good thing,” said adjudicator Dr Wafula, when announcing the winners in the category.
To show how connected African communities are in their shared heritage, the Karamoja dance by Holly Cross Boys School had similarities with those from Kenya’s Turkana.
The music tempo, percussion instrumentation and the vertical dance movements are similar.
Masinde Muliro University presented a Bagisu dance that depicted initiation rites similar to those of the Bukusu nation of Kenya.
The dance is characterised by agile shoulder movements known as kamavega and seductive gyrations that are moderated to conform with the strict festival standards that demand decency in all performances.
The Classic category also featured the shared heritage of Taarab described by adjudicators as Islamic but haram for its secular nature, which separates it from the Qaswida form which is strictly spiritual.
Taarab music is popular in Zanzibar, Tanga, Mombasa, Lamu and Dar es Salam, all ancient East African coastal cities.
While classics by popular Taarab composers such as Mzee Yussuf of Zanzibar hardly fit in the educational realm with respect to sensual lyrics, performers adapt and change the tunes.
This year’s winners, Mama Ngina Girls School, chose a theme on leadership and elections, but several challenges, making their win controversial, considering that Nyamaharaga from Migori had a near flawless rendition with a richer live instrumentation of two keyboards, a guitar and tumbas, with functional and elegant costumes.
Kenya’s shared cultural heritage with Tanzania did not end in Taarab, but came out in the Maasai and Taita Folk songs and dances. The festival once again proved to be a cultural and heritage kaleidoscope of the continent.