On African Color (part 1)

Summer for me ended with the unique and powerful experience of touring the Northeast-Midwest US with the Nairobi Chamber Chorus. Before I get into the experience itself, a bit of background: NCC is an auditioned, mostly a cappella choir that offers an advanced ensemble experience to young(ish) musicians in Nairobi.  The average age is about 27.  The repertoire is extraordinarily diverse – over the years, the group has sung in multiple African languages such as Zulu, Ibo, Yoruba, Mandinka, RuKwangali, Kikuyu, Luhya, Taita, Giriama, and Swahili, as well as non-African languages such as Latin, Finnish, Japanese, Maori, Hebrew, Italian, and Cajun.  The group does a little of everything from Bach and Mozart to modern choral greats; from folk music to spirituals; from Afro-pop to Abba.  The membership has averaged 20-25 singers, though currently there are 30 members evenly divided between men and women.  I am the only mzungu [white person].

I first saw the group in about October of my first year in Kenya (2008).  Eager to discover the musical scene in my new home, I followed a poster that led me to a concert at a bookstore in a nearby mall.  I didn’t know what I was in for.  Captivated, I sat on the front edge of my seat for the entire hour and a half, bouncing my head to the rhythms and beaming at any singer who caught my eye.  When they were through, I practically tackled the conductor.    Amazing, absolutely fantastic.  You moved me to tears.  I’m a musician too, a teacher in fact.  Choir.  I love to sing.  If you ever have auditions please, please let me know.  Here’s my contact info.  When are you performing next?  Can I be there?  I can’t tell you how much this concert moved me. And that was that.  He let me audition.  They let me in.

At the time, I wasn’t the only mzungu.  There was a young Canadian exchange student singing with them when I joined, but I never had the chance to get to know her – she went home within a few months. I didn’t think too much about color in those early days.  It was for me as it had always been.  If anything, I thought about language.  I didn’t speak much (any) Swahili that first year, and while rehearsals were always run in English, the banter between members was often in Swahili.  I was a cultural outsider, but even that didn’t bother me.  That too was a norm of my experience.  Language or culture or both, I assumed I would learn and so I didn’t dwell on it.  I focused on the music, for there tulikuwa pamoja – we were all together.

Fast-forward to this summer.  We had been preparing for this tour for almost a year.  Months of planning included learning new repertoire, fundraising through concerts, designing and tailoring new uniforms, organizing visas and plane tickets, and outlining a schedule with our tour manager in the US.  The dates were set for two weeks bridging July and August.  We would start in New York City, drive northwest as far as Traverse City, Michigan, turn around, dip as far south as DC, and then end again in New York.  In total, four states plus one district: NY, PA, OH, MI, and DC, with a scenic drive through Maryland.  We would sing a concert every night but two, we would stay with host families from each of the communities where we performed, and we would travel between each city in two 15-passenger vans.  One of the vans pulled a U-Haul with all of our luggage.  I drove the one that didn’t. With so much time spent on the preparation, it was hard to believe that the tour itself would ever arrive.  When it did, it was an adventure.

We had, of course, all of the usual challenges of a choir on tour: travel days were long, every venue was acoustically different, every stage required creative adjustments, and every audience had their own set of ears.  Most members struggled with jet lag at the beginning and a few caught sore throats along the way.  Getting thirty people to show up on time to anything took a little training, and we never did quite learn how to efficiently pack and unpack the U-Haul.

The unusual challenges of the tour, however, are far less easy to describe.  For almost all of the members, it was the first visit to the USA; the first encounter with Americans who know little to nothing about Africa; the first experience of race in America; the first view of American wealth and poverty.  For some of our audience members, it was the first encounter with an African choir; the first interaction with English-speaking Africans; the first experience of an African choir singing non-African music; the first sight of a white face in a black crowd.  Paradigms were pushed in all directions. This paradigm-pushing will be the focus of my next post (part 2).  For now, here are some video clips of the group.  I didn’t get as much footage as I would have liked simply because I was always on stage, and our tour manager Marcus had many other things to think about.

New York City – Midtown Manhatten

First concert of the tour – O Shennandoh


Rehearsal in the afternoon – Omobani

Concert in the evening – Elijah Rock

Kenyan National Anthem
Translation: Oh God of all creation, 
Bless this our land and nation
Justice be our shield and defender
May we dwell in unity, peace, and liberty
Plenty be found within our borders.

Musa: The original “Pole Musa” is a very well-known Kenyan pop song from the 60s or 70s by Daudi Kabaka.  We do it all a cappella (including the famous guitar rifs) and it usually gets cheers of delight from Kenyan audiences.

E Nyumbaya

(Paraphrase) Translation:
Oh God, you are up there,
And we are down here.
Have mercy on us.

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