Charles Kariuki's road to African air guitar champion

Monday September 12 2022
air guitar

Kenyan Charles Kariuki, competing at the Air Guitar World Championship in Oulu, Finland, in August 2022, where he emerged third, making him Africa's champion. PHOTO | POOL


We all know what a guitar is and what entails playing it, but what is an air guitar and how does one play it?

I was introduced to the concept of ‘’air guitar’’ a few months ago, as a form of dance and movement where a performer play-acts playing an imaginary rock or heavy-metal style electric guitar, complete with its riffs and solos.

Charles Kariuki, a volunteer social justice worker in his neighbourhood of Mathare, one of Nairobi’s toughest informal settlements, was named African air guitar champion at the 25th edition of the Air Guitar Annual World Championships held in Oulu, Finland in the last week of August.

He came third, in a contest won by Frenchmen Kirill ‘Guitarantula’ Blumenkrats, followed by Frederic ‘French Kiss’ Reau, but ahead of French air guitar Apolline ‘Lady Atilla’ Audreys.

Air guitar is a global thing and the Annual Air Guitar World Championships have been continuously held in Oulu, Finland, since 1996, except in 2020 and 2021 because of the Covid-19 global pandemic.


Charles Kariuki (centre), with other winners at the finals of the Air Guitar World Championship in Oulu, Finland, in August 2022. He was the sole contestant from Africa. PHOTO | POOL


The championships are produced by the Airnest Productions Ltd, which also co-ordinates licensed national championships around the world and whose winners are then flown to Oulu to compete in the annual world championships on the last weekend of August in memory of Woodstock 1969, where air guitar was born when musician Joe Cocker, whose electric guitar had been ''shorted’’ by rain, first officially played an ‘’air guitar’’ when he ‘’pretended’’ to be playing a guitar to his hit With a Little Help from My Friends, and made ‘’air guitar’’ a fad for youth around the world.

In Finland this year, Kariuki was the first African contestant in the championship’s history and put Kenya and East Africa on the global stage of air guitar. Speaking with The EastAfrican this past week in Nairobi, it seemed like an easy accomplishment, but the reality is incredible, to say the least.

Kariuki had never played a guitar before this year’s contest and first heard of air guitar only early this year at a peace meeting in Mathare hosted by UN consultant Sarri Goottikuva.

Gootiva, in her peace message to the youth in Mathare had used the slogan “usipige vita, piga gita’’ (Swahili for ‘’don’t fight, play a guitar,’’ where the same word is used to mean both ‘’fight’’ and ‘’play’’), to shun violence.

Kariuki works with the Missing Voices Coalition, a social justice organisation dealing with extrajudicial disappearances of young men in Nairobi’s slums, and at first, he thought the slogan “usipige vita, piga gita’’ was weird until Gootiva demonstrated what ‘’air guitar’’ was. He was convinced it was a joke and he recalls thinking to himself: “What the hell? Look at these crazy mzungus, embarrassing themselves.”

Idealistic vision

But weird as Kariuki thought air guitar was, he was inspired by the idealistic vision of how with air guitar, “wars will end, climate change will stop, and all bad things vanish when all the folks in the world play air guitar.”

But what is air guitar anyway and how does one play it?

Just like Kariuki, I was introduced to ‘’air guitar’’ a few months ago, as a form of dance and movement where a performer plays an imaginary rock or heavy-metal style electric guitar, complete with its riffs and solos.

When playing an air guitar, one has to do exaggerated strumming, picking and invisible string-plucking motions, which can be coupled with either lip-syncing or even loud singing.

Sarri, now in her mid-40s, was a winning female performer at the first air guitar championship in Oulu.

“It made sense to source for the first Kenyan official air guitarists from Mathare instead of uptown Nairobi for us because, first, they cannot afford real guitars or other instruments and because air guitar is egalitarian, it makes social sense as an equaliser.” This was the same rationale behind the late Bob Collymore’s choice of setting up the Safcom slum jazz orchestras.

Secondly, Sarri says studies have shown that almost all urban post-election violence incidents in Kenya occur in the deprived informal settlements of the city, and that is how they came up with the slogan “usipige vita, piga gita” as this year’s air guitar theme since it was also an election year.

“I am a rapper in a duo called Skeme Music and one of our most impactful songs is called Mr Polisi. The song is a cry against gun violence and more so extrajudicial executions which are nothing new in Mathare,” Kariuki told The EastAfrican.

“With the help of various social justice movements we have over the years collected staggering statistics on extrajudicial killings of young people from ages 14 to 20, across informal settlements of Kenya,” he added.


Kariuki, competing at the Air Guitar World Championship in Oulu, Finland, in August 2022. PHOTO | POOL

When he realised air guitar was an opportunity to amplify the peace message from a global stage, he acquired a stage name, Slim, and signed up to compete in the national competition held at the Kenya National Theatre by sending a 60-second video clip of himself playing an air guitar to Sarri and Peter Kariuki (no relation).

“It was competitive going by the number of submissions, among them a few ladies with dramatic swinging braids, but I made it to the finals in July. I was up against good air guitarists, some so flexible they did acrobatic flips.

But my secret weapon was a traditional Maasai outfit and body paint for cultural authenticity. Then I got my sister (Mary Nunga) to help me make a grand entrance as an African Air Warrior, and hand me the Air Guitar. On that stage that night, I felt like the ancient spirits of my ancestors possessed me because I just went wild and threw the pre-planned routine aside.

It was electrifying, to say the least.

I won but sustained a minor injury on my right leg, something that I have now come to learn from other air guitarists in the world finals happens to a lot of the more vigorous performers.

I was elated by the local competition as we closed it in the grandest of styles.

I won and received a carved wood African map and was lifted shoulder high by fellow competitors, judges and attendees who also took to the stage to rock.”

Kariuki was instructed that at the world championship in Finland, the same rules applied would pally, where he will get to accompany two songs in two 60 seconds rounds and he was to choose his first song to perform to, and the organisers chose the second one to see his creative spontaneity. There is no dress code but competitors are encouraged to use costume clothing that enhances their performances – which are judged on technical merit (on whether they represent a real guitar show, mimesmanship or creating the illusion of an invisible guitar, stage presence, and airness – a subjective criterion left to the judges’ discretion on how much the performance was a “fluid object of artistry, and not only a simulation of playing the guitar.”


Kariuki, competing at the Air Guitar World Championship in Oulu, Finland, in August 2022. PHOTO | POOL

Kariuki was all set to travel to Finland and was lucky to have his visa easily granted on application.

But after that, Kariuki’s road to Finland was an excruciating emotional rollercoaster. And yet not unique to him. It happens to thousands of people from the global south seeking to travel to Western countries.

He had two layovers: One in Sharjah, UAE, the other in Istanbul, Turkey, before flying to Helsinki.

“On the day I was to fly, a Tuesday, I still did not have my passport, as the Turkish embassy had insisted that I'll need a transit visa to pass through Istanbul. I camped at their offices from early morning, pleading for either an expedited process or my passport back with which I would take my chances and just fly. My flight was at 1 pm.

At 10 am I had cancelled the visa process and secured my passport. To make it to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, a 45-minutes drive away through Nairobi traffic, I had to take a boda-boda, a motorcycle taxi first to Mathare to pick up my luggage, then onwards to the airport.

I made it for the first flight out of JKIA to Sharjah Airport in the UAE. But I could not get on my onward flight because I was denied a Turkish transit visa.

By now, even those on my team were telling me to fly back to Kenya after missing two connecting flights and spending the night in the airport lounge.

It was a very stressful situation and I moved all over the airport, that the cleaning staff and those on Transfer desks knew me by name. One even offered me her lunch coupon the next day. This was my first time flying and it is unforgettable for the wrong reasons.

Luckily Sarri, now in Oulu, got me onto another flight through Qatar, then to Copenhagen and finally to Helsinki. I then took a six-hour train ride to Oulu.

Needless to say, the trip took a toll on me, not just physically but also mentally. I eventually got to Oulu on Friday, three days later. I was introduced on the Air Guitar stage as “the man who travelled 60 hours to grace the stage.”

I performed under physical and mental exhaustion.