Safaricom Jazz: Interview with Bob Collymore

Safaricom's Bob Collymore shows Brian Mutwiri from Claire's Community Center how to play the Sax.

I interviewed Safaricom CEO about the Safaricom Jazz Festival. I was curious about the legacy of the festival. Below is the interview.

Safaricom CEO, Bob Collymore giving Brian Mutwiri a lesson on how to play the Saxophone. Brian is a student at Claire’s Community Center and is a member of Ghetto Classics.

What is the Safaricom International Jazz Festival all about?

The Safaricom International Jazz Festival is about four things:

  1. Giving fans an international jazz music experience
  2. Supporting local jazz musicians by giving them a platform to showcase their talents as well as share the stage with internationally acclaimed musicians
  3. Raising money to support Ghetto Classics, a music programme that seeks to teach music skills to youth aged 10-19 years. The programme is based in Korogocho and is currently supporting over 300 youth.
  4. Raising the standards of jazz in Kenya to create a jazz music festival that is just as big – if not bigger than – the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

What inspired you to start a jazz festival in Kenya?

We saw an opportunity created by the vacuum in the jazz space. There were live music events but there was none specifically for jazz lovers, so we came up with a concept that we felt would fill that vacuum and give jazz/live music fans an event to look forward to, apart from the smaller performances in bars and restaurants. But for me, the truly inspiring element of the festival is the opportunity to allow children from less privileged parts of Kenya to access music. The Ghetto Classics program aims to uplift children from Korogocho by providing them with access to music lessons and providing them with the access to global mentors who are part of the Jazz Series.

What is the long term vision of the Safaricom International Jazz festival?

We see the Safaricom International Jazz Festival as having the potential to be one of the biggest live jazz music festivals in Africa, attracting music lovers from all over the world and positioning Nairobi as a jazz music hub in Africa. We’ve grown significantly since we had the first event two years ago. We’ve grown from a crowd of 5000 people at Ngong’ Racecourse in 2014 to 11,000 people last year, so we’re clearly on to something.

We’d like to see more local and international jazz musicians perform at the Safaricom International Jazz Festival, enjoying a cross-cultural exchange that will influence the growth and development of jazz music in Kenya.

Having seen the impact of the Festival on Ghetto Classics, we also plan to keep supporting the programme so that it can scale up and transform the lives of more Kenyan youth, especially those from lower income neighbourhoods.

What milestones has the Safaricom International jazz festival achieved so far?

The growth in numbers has been more than we anticipated. Going from 5000 to 11000 in the first two years is a sign that our audience appreciates what we’re doing, so we’re constantly pushing ourselves to do more to sustain the momentum.

We’ve brought in a good line-up of big name artists, including: Kunle Ayo, Jonathan Butler, Jimmy Dludlu, Richard Bona, Rhythm Junks, The Nile Project, Grammy Award winners Kirk Whalum & Norman Brown, multiple Grammy Award nominee Gerald Albright, Salif Keita and Shelea. The Kenyan musicians have proved to be just as talented as the international stars, with performances by Aaron Rimbui, Chris Bittok, Eddie Grey, Juma Tutu and the Swahili Jazz Band, James Gogo and the Gogosimo Band, Afrosync and Edward Parseen and the Different Faces Band.

We’ve also raised over Ksh.12 million since 2014, money which has helped support the Ghetto Classics programme. So far, over 500 children have benefitted from the programme, with 300 still currently taking music lessons. This must be the biggest achievement for us so far: seeing these children excel in music and their studies, and get a chance to escape the poverty and hardship that is life in the slum. We are using music to transform their lives, and are seeing the impact extend beyond these youngsters to their families and friends.

There are other Jazz festivals in Africa including the Cape Town Jazz. What would make jazz lovers from around the world diarize the Kenyan Jazz festival?

Kenya is a great destination overall. We’ve got sun, sand, safari, rich culture and now, jazz music. Coming to Kenya for the Safaricom International Jazz Festival will be nothing short of a memorable experience, and will complete any tourist’s holiday or visit.

Not many countries can offer you a game drive in the morning, a jazz festival in the afternoon and signature Kenyan cuisine (nyama choma) to end your day.

Is Safaricom benchmarking the festival with other festivals? Which festivals are these?

We’re looking at the most popular jazz festivals around the world: Cape Town International Jazz Festival, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Montreal International Jazz Festival (Montreal, Canada), Montreux Jazz Festival (Montreux, Switzerland) and Copenhagen Jazz Festival (Copenhagen, Denmark)

The proceeds go to the Ghetto Classics Program. What made Safaricom support this programme?

Our mission is to transform lives, and in this case to transform the lives of youth in Korogocho through music. When we saw how talented the children in the Ghetto Classics programme were we decided to form a long-term partnership that would be supported by the Safaricom International Jazz Festival.

There is a tourism aspect to the Safaricom International Jazz Festival. Last year there was for the first time a festival in Mombasa. You had mentioned last year that the festival would be going to Maasai Mara. What is the tourism and travel aspect of the festival?

We haven’t yet settled on the next venue for the Festival, although we’re definitely still interested in growing it beyond Nairobi.

We see an opportunity for music lovers to travel to Nairobi to attend music festivals we just like they do for other music festivals around the world. Kenya is already one of the world’s most loved travel destinations, and we’re positioning the Safaricom International Jazz Festival as another offering in addition to sun, sand and safari.

The Festival is about music, food, and fun in one of Africa’s most culturally heterogeneous cities, and we believe that with time it will have the capacity to attract both domestic and international tourists.

How is Safaricom using this festival to grow Kenyan talent?

We have a lot of really talented jazz musicians in Kenya but many of them only get to play to relatively small crowds at bars, restaurants and corporate events. One of the aims of the Safaricom International Jazz Festival is to provide a platform for local jazz musicians to showcase their talent to bigger crowds, as well as share the stage with international musicians.

We hope that this kind of exposure will help them grow, as well as grow the market for live jazz music in Kenya and therefore make it profession that more talented musicians can make a living from.

How will the Safaricom International Jazz festival impact the music scene in the long term? What is its legacy?

In the long term, we see the Festival becoming one of the top 5 jazz festivals in the world. We want it to contribute towards making Nairobi a hub of live jazz music and growing our musicians into internationally acclaimed names.

We also hope to see more talent nurtured through the Ghetto Classics programme that we support; we believe this talent can shape the future of Kenya’s music scene.

Do companies have responsibilities to the communities around them to support and grow the artistic scene?

Companies have a responsibility to support the communities they operate in, be it by supporting the arts or other programmes. It would be great to see more companies supporting the local arts scene though. There’s a lot of talent out there, and we’ve seen this through our support of the Michael Joseph Centre and Ghetto Classics.

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  1. […] Beyond that though are the non-tangible ones. By playing in the places the kids do, by meeting the people they do, by being treated so special, the kids believe in themselves and that counts for so much. This is a community that is marginalized and made to believe that they are 3rd class citizens. Having Bob Collymore as their friend, means more to them than you can imagine. Find out more about why Safaricom is supporting Ghetto Classics in this interview with Bob Collymore. […]

  2. […] Safaricom CEO, Bob Collymore, has said that the company will continue supporting arts programmes which help create brighter futures for talented youth. Through music, members of the Ghetto Classics are learning new skills, discipline and most importantly, realizing that their future is greater than what they are born into. Bob Collymore talks about why they support Ghetto Classics in this post Safaricom Jazz: Interview with Bob Collymore. […]