Mzungu (um-zun-gu) is the Swahili term for "white person" and I heard it yelled excitedly so many times today. We were able to spend the morning at the Kenya Music Festival. It is a music competition among every school in Kenya that has several rounds. Today was the start of round two. It was so amazing to watch these children perform traditional songs, poems, and dances throughout the day. The costumes were so incredible. Ghetto Classics had a handful of students there, performing in the instrumental category. They sounded great!
It was so fun to watch all of these children perform. Not a single one of them was having a bad time, and I never saw students being yelled at, crying, or misbehaving. Everyone (including the teachers) was just having fun. The students waited outside for their performances, and many of them waited a long time (like 4-5 hours!). They did their practices and got into their costumes, but also had a lot of freedom to roam around. I was amazed at how much trust and confidence the teachers had in their students. There were literally thousands of children running around in a sort of organized chaos.
And not a single cell phone.
So much has happened in the past two days! Yesterday we travled to Korogocho to work with the older orchestra. I spent about 2 hours with the trombones and tubas and a bit of time listening to the orchestra rehearse that is going to Poland next week. I will admit, I did not know what to expect in terms of the level of the students, but let me tell you, these kids can play. They all had really beautiful sounds, and the concepts we practiced were no different than what I would have worked on with any student back home: note shapes, beginnings of notes, ends of notes, pushing air through phrases, and a bit of vibrato work. It was truly a gift to hear them play and to hear their exictement for music. They were engaged, focused, asking questions, and everything a good student should do.
Meanwhile, the garbage dump in the background had caught fire and was smoldering, (This is a common occurence, as the chemicals that are dumped often have reactions and catch fire.) and the smoke rolled on in. The students are so used to it, that their environment doesn't even phase them.
Today we traveled back to Mukuru for Link Up! classes. The most important thing that struck me was the discipline these children had towards playing recorders. They were not playing them as loud as they could, or being obnoxious with the instrument. They listened, they were engaged, and they learned. On occassion they played when the teacher was talking, but as soon as he said, "Don't play when I'm talking." they stopped. Amazing.
I was also able to sit down with The Art of Music Foundation and Ghetto Classics founder, Elizabeth Njoroge. Elizabeth has built this program up from literally nothing to what it is today. The teaching artists visit the primary schools during the week, giving them Link Up! recorder lessons. It is open to any child who wants to participate. The recorder classes serve as a means of filtering out the students who aren't really interested in music, since they cannot play an instrument until they learn to read music and are proficient at the recorder. Then they can join the Ghetto Classics Orchestra that practices on Saturday and Sundays.
Since it's beginning, Ghetto Classics has had many visitors from multiple countries. The group has played for the Pope, during his visit to Kenya. Next week half of the ensemble is traveling to Poland to perform with the hip hop artist JIMEK. Meanwhile, the other half of the orchestra will make a 7 hour drive across the country to perform at event for President Obama (Oprah Winfrey will be there too!) On top of that, it has added locations in Mombasa and it's most recent program in Mukuru. It is all made possible by Elizabeth. She is truly a visionary when it comes to planning what the programs should be. She is welcoming, warm, and genuine, and it's so wonderful to now know her.
It has only been a few days, but I have already learned how welcoming the people of Kenya are. They are proud of their country, but also love to have visitors. We have shared some wonderful conversations about race, politics in the United States, poverty, and many other world issues. Though I am one of the only white people around, I have not once felt uncomfortable or singled out because of that-- this is something I wish we could see back home. They are humble and want to learn from us, but they also want to share their culture. It continues to be an incredibly humbling experience.
I am honored to have been selected as a 2018 Fund for Teachers Fellowship Recipient. Through this grant I will travel to Nairobi, Kenya to work the the El Sistema based music program, Ghetto Classics. This blog will share information and stories about my first journey to Africa.