Every year, the Safaricom International Jazz Festival brings a host of top global jazz musicians to Nairobi. This year, on 21st February, it will be bigger.
Jazz wasn’t always hip and cool. In fact, it had to invent those words.
When I was 5, I think, I found my old man’s gramophone hidden in a small case at the dark, cobweb-filled edge of his makeshift library. There were records too, although I found those a year or so later. By that time I had broken both the bracket and the crank of the gramophone, yanking them out. Accidentally of course.
I remember the flash of panic on his face when he saw the crank, broken and lying on the turn-table. He knew it was me, but he never asked. I snitched on myself years later when I asked what his favorite music of the 60s and the 70s was. Soul, definitely, because James Brown had played for so many weeks on end in some colonial camps in the 50s. By the time my old man walked into his 20s in the mid 60s, soul had married jazz.
His best friend at the University of Nairobi, an odd American future hippie who kept a pet python, brought him a few jazz records. Jazz was not just new in Kenya then, it was just expanding its wings beyond its original homeland and market. See although soul seems to have found success in Kenya, the global audiences that took in jazz were smaller, and perhaps cooler. Even today, the few Kenyan artists who’ve embraced jazz have always played for small, niche audiences who understand the true sound of music. The problem with jazz has always been that it’s not a sound for everyone. It’s always been a sound only for those who want to find their jazz. So what’s your jazz?
Jazz is deeply rooted in transplanted Africa, in New Orleans. Of all the colonies within the United States, New Orleans was the only place that allowed slaves to own and play musical instruments, especially drums. As almost always happens to music, African-American slave drums met European-American horns. The result was a fantastic, wild and yet calm, sound. Nobody knows for sure where the word ‘jazz’ even came from, but they know what it means now. And as it’s godfather Louis Armstrong answered, rather frankly, to the question of what jazz is, “if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.”
A century in, jazz is still such a remarkable genre because its blended African rhythm with what we know as European classical music. If there ever was a form of music that deserved to go global but only so much as to find the right ears, it was jazz. It ticks all the boxes of the modern cosmopolitan audience, with a sketchy, deep history and drawing influences from many cultures.
The headline artist at the 3rd Annual Safaricom Jazz Festival is the jazz maestro Branford Marsalis. Branford’s roots are in New Orleans where his father, the patriarch of an entire family of jazz musicians, Ellis Marsalis, was born. But lineage is not Branfords claim to fame. It is his music on the soprano, alto and tenor saxophones as the leader of the Branford Marsalis Quartet.
Marsalis’ sound is raspy but smooth although it depends on which saxophone he’s playing. Like a true jazz maestro, his signature sound is born improvisation. The tradition of jazz believes a band should be democratic, and improvisation on stage is everything. Because of this, bands have fun on stage, sometimes breaking into laughter because something isn’t working out.
Yet the success and the problem with jazz is that it is such an unruly genre. People used to think rap was unruly but jazz, with so many influences and so many styles, almost as many as there are jazz musicians, has no limits. It is what the individual musician decides to make it through their instrument and composition.
There was a time jazz looked like it would lose its brand to new genres that appealed to younger African American audiences. Branford himself went viciously after rap as junk in the early 1990s in the classic forwardness of the Marsalis family. Today though, jazz occupies a lofty social status as a unique, calm and polished genre. Its a language. The entire idea of this dialect is passion, infectious passion that is unique to each musician, each ensemble, and each performance.
Other performances at Safaricom Jazz 2016 include the South-African Siya Makuzeni, a trombone player and lyricist. She has a Jazz degree and a long list of A-list collaborations.
Francesco DOrazio, on the other hand, plays the violin and the piano. The world-acclaimed Italian plays modern and contemporary music.
The Sons of Kemet is a five-year old British jazz group that plays does a remarkable combination of African tunes, jazz, Caribbean folk, and rock.
Jef Neve is Belgian. Like Branford, he is a jazz and classical music performer, although he plays the piano instead.
Safaricom International Jazz Festival 2016 will, for the first time, be held at the Safaricom Stadium Kasarani. The stadium is bigger than previous venues, with more space for everything, including parking. The organizers are offering courtesy buses for jazz enthusiasts, from designated points in Nairobi so you don’t have to drive or catch a cab to the stadium.
If you haven’t heard the unique genre that is jazz, here’s your chance to answer the question “What’s my Jazz?”
View galleries of previous events here.