Turning Straw Into Golden Music: Ghetto Classics Has Opened Up Opportunities For Young Trombonist Simon Mungai Wambui

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Simon Mungai. Photo courtesy of Safaricom

In the overly hot and dry Sunday afternoon of 2nd January 2014, two 14-year-old boys beat the dusty main road of the sprawling Korogocho Slums as they headed to a local church. One of the boys, Cornel Odhiambo, had invited his good friend to join him at St. John’s Catholic Church. He wanted him to see, and possibly join a new music program that had been started in the church, and had been running for a few years. Meet Some of The Upcoming Young Musicians At Ghetto Classics

Cornel, who now played the trombone, an instrument he had never seen before in his life until a few weeks earlier, wanted his friend to join the orchestra in the slums. It was called the Ghetto Classics, and they would be playing classical music. Strange for people who had constantly been hearing reggae music playing. The influential Kenyan Underground Hip Hop from the nearby Dandora slums was also a common feature, as well as the groovy Genge inspired by far from Calif Records in Eastleigh.

Four weeks later, Cornel’s friend played a sloppy rendition of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ on the trombone. He was ecstatic and completely over the moon. This was his first time doing anything in front of a crowd, and with greater reception than he anticipated.

 

That song, Twinkle Little Star, set the young man on a trajectory to reach the stars he was playing about. In four short years, he would be a student leader at the Ghetto Classics. He would be a part of the Safaricom Youth Orchestra and the Kenya National Youth Orchestra. The Ghetto Classics would tour the country, play in the Safaricom International Jazz Festival in Kenya, and play for the Kenyan-born US President Barack Obama when he came visiting. GC, as it was called, gained fame the world over.

But the highlight for that promising young man was his maiden international flight, flying with the Ghetto Classics, to Poland for the 13th Annual Brave International Festival in July 2018. Brave Festival is a Polish International Music Festival. It’s a cultural exchange, of sorts for musicians. Ghetto Classics performed alongside children with Albinism from Tanzania, and a Rwandan band as well among many other nationals.

 

Concert in Polland. Picture courtesy of Ghetto Classics

That boy’s name is Simon Mungai Wambui. Then, when he came to join the first time over, he was just Simon Mungai without the Wambui. Simon wants a PhD in a musical instrument. The trombone.

But it hasn’t always been like this. Music changed his dreams.

* * *

When Simon was still Simon Mungai and not Simon Mungai Wambui, something deep inside him had told him that he wanted to be a doctor. That voice was constant, like a never stopping metronome. It clicked Kta. Kta. Kta. Kta. In equal space and time without stopping. It had a very good reason, and it was almost right.

Simon is very likeable. You can see how kids in Ghetto Classics are fond of him. Like a good big brother, almost a hero, definitely a guiding light. He is slightly taller than the length of a fully stretched out trombone, end to end. He has no free time. That has worked in two ways. He has very few close friends, most of them, from the orchestra. Secondly, he has found the perfect thing to use his time on. His peers would be either at the dumping site idling or being drawn to drugs and crime. Some of his age mates are already parents.

 

Simon Mungai. Photo courtesy of Safaricom

He is now 18 years old. His last teenage year, next year will be spent mostly on books, and a little less rigorous music practice sessions. He is in Form Three at Our Lady of Fatima Secondary School. He is as modest as they come, he says he is an average student. He has very short hair, and he is relatively thin. Doing well in his finals is really important. He wants to study and grow his music further and further.

He will do it.

***

The first time he thought he wanted to be a doctor, he was three years old. His father had just fallen visibly sick. He was a middle-aged man, but he seemed quite aged. The fact that he lived in Korogocho and the work he did crowned him with a little more extra white hairs than he should have had. He was a harsh and stern man, extremely focused and dutiful. His voice an identical twin to his harshness. He was a government-appointed village elder in the Korogocho slums, and he had been bestowed upon the task and responsibility of making sure things ran in Korogocho the way the government expected things to run in Korogocho, and anywhere else for that matter. He settled disputes between neighbours and strangers in his jurisdiction. He reprimanded sinners, misbehaving saints and criminals. He looked for lost kids and traced those who had run away. He mediated between dogs and cats, and everything that could not stand the presence of another thing in their space. He confirmed and reported births and deaths, he rallied the community towards a specified action, and he worked with the police to maintain law and order. He was the law, almost. And he made sure everyone was in his or her best behaviour. They were, mostly.

He always carried work home, too. With zeal and agility, he brought up his children, as an example, to reflect the way the government expected things to run in Korogocho. As if to prove to his employer that he was up to the task. The children knew who the boss was. It was God, and then dad, and then the President of the Republic and the Commander in chief of the armed forces. In that order. He purposefully protected his family. He built a fence around his house in that small space of a slum and he did not like when any of his five children went past its gates. They needed a very good reason to be anywhere outside their home. Korogocho, to him, seemed like a place you would want to keep your children indoors. Forever, if you can.

His name was Dickson Kirika, and Dickson together with Margaret begat five children. Simon was his last.

‘Manze mzae wangu alikuwa ni ngori.’ Simon says, shaking his head as if he can’t believe his father was that harsh. He is also not sure his father would have been ok with him playing any musical instruments, and concentrating on anything apart from his textbooks.

Simon’s father was never afraid. Or maybe, he never showed fear. He worked hard every day. He dealt with things in what he believed was the right way. How that affected you, was your personal problem. The village elder lit fires, literally and figuratively. Everybody knew he was fire.

He used the fires he lit, to light up other things. Like his cigarettes. He had many. He smoked heavily, full pack in one day. Over time, his weakening body could not take his kind of work and the smoking anymore. So it mutinied and attacked him. It created a lump on the side of his throat. A lump that would painfully grow. He ate in pain, with that thing trying to chock him up, and thinning his voice before taking it away completely. That lump carried a death sentence.

It was throat cancer.

And then, the sleepless nights began.

‘I was small, so nobody thought I noticed anything. I did. It took a toll on me too. I wished I could help him out of his pain and misery every time I looked at him.’ Simon says.

As the cancer ate his father’s throat and mouth away, the thing that whispered to him that he would be a doctor kept whispering ‘Doctor. Doctor. Doctor.’ And he was listening.

‘When my father could not speak, they got him an electrolarynx. It’s a device that helps gives patients a voice when the mouth can’t talk.’ It had to be tuned daily, and every night someone had to wake up and see if he needed help or anything. Because he was voiceless. When he lost his mouth and the power to eat and swallow his food, they took him to the hospital. He came back with a feeding tube in his abdomen. They would mash food and feed him through it. He lived in great pain until he could not take it anymore. And then, in 2010, he succumbed to throat cancer.

He had seen his father lose his throat, his whole mouth and eventually, very painfully, lose his life. His family first lost sleep, and then a breadwinner and then protection and finally their father.

But the voice kept going at it. ‘Doctor.’ It kept whispering.

After his father was buried, his mother, Margaret Wambui whose last name he would proudly claim as his own, moved the whole family to a new settlement called Kajiji within Korogocho slums still. Margaret worked in the sprawling and extremely dangerous dumping site. That is how she eked out a living for her fatherless children.

It was out of Kajiji that Samuel walked to St. John’s with his friend Cornel, and his life changed, completely. And when he played his first ever tune, the thing that told him he wanted to be a doctor kept quiet. After for the first time he told the voice what he wanted to be. A Musician.
* * *

Simon almost did not go to Poland, for the Brave Festival.

‘When I first heard there was a Poland trip, it was as a rumour. That those who had been asked for their birth certificates were going.’ He says.

He had handed his original birth certificate to Simon Mwaniki who had asked a select group of people personally to bring their documents. Later on, they would be asked to bring their parents and then they were notified after parental consent, that yes, they were going to play at the 2018 Brave Festival in Wrocław, Poland. This was from 13th to 22nd July 2018, under the theme “Invisible.”

The Ghetto Classics would play a total of 4 shows but Simon played only two because he and two others arrived in Poland 2 days late.

His mother, with whom he lives since all his older siblings have left home and settled down with their families across the country, worked so hard to ensure he had all the paperwork done for the trip. She did the initial running to make sure his paperwork was ok.

‘She could have said no, but she let me go. She has done so much for me, and fully supports my dreams.’

His passport had delayed coming out, and they had to make numerous trips to Nyayo House, Nairobi to try and explain the urgency. It arrived 2 days after intended travel, and the Polish Embassy gracious fast-tracked their visa application.

‘It was a dream come true for me.’ He says. He had never been to the airport, and when he saw it, he thought JKIA was it. JKIA was the stuff of movies. ‘Then when we arrived in Doha for our connection to Poland, I saw how amazingly small JKIA seemed to be. And then we got to Poland and it was a lot more amazing. Our taxi was a Mercedes Benz. All this because I can play the trombone? And I am from the ghetto? The sky has definitely got to be the limit for me now.’

Photo courtesy of Ghetto Classics

The Ghetto Classics played in Poland on the evening of Wednesday, July 18 at the Puppet Theater – Summer Stage in Old Town Park, Teatralny Square 4. They also collaborated on a performance with Meninas De Sinha singers from Brazil at the same venue on that day.

They further hosted an open meeting with Radzimir Debski, also known as Jimek, at the Inner Courtyard Of The Capitol Music Theatre, Piłsudskiego 67. The rehearsal for the closing performances with Jimek was highly publicized, it may as well be counted as a show on its own. On the Sunday 22nd July 2018, they performed with Jimek on his composition, an orchestral history of Hip Hop to close the festival before they headed home.

 

Simon does not own a trombone but is assigned one under his care at the Ghetto Classics. He hopes to get one, as then, he can get more practice done. He also wants a lot more children from Korogocho to come and join. They can take recorder sessions for six months before they can pick an instrument to specialize in.

He is currently working hard to play Bluebells of Scotland by Arthur Pryor, not a mean feat on the least. He wants to play it by the end of the year.

‘It requires someone who has played for at least 7 years, with a certificate. But I am working on it. I am almost there.’ He says.

Simon is not sure his father would have let him join GC, but he is sure that his father would be proud to see him today. Because all his time is given to GC, he has no time to idle around, which he thinks is dangerous. He has seen his peers fall under police bullets, or disease, or just disillusionment. He adores his mother for giving him room to pursue his passion.

He prepares for his final form 4 exams from next year, 2019, but he can’t wait to get to work on that PhD.

This week some of his bandmates from the Safaricom Youth Orchestra will be part of the Safaricom Jazz Lounge with the legendary Dianne Reeves for the US, Kato Change and ADHOC from Kenya. He is excited and honoured to be part of the orchestra, to meet great musicians and learn from them. He hopes one day, the festival will feature an all internationally acclaimed Kenyan acts. He hopes to perform solo across the world as well.

He is grateful to Ghetto Classics and Safaricom Youth Orchestra for the opportunity.

Check out the story of Charity Faith – From The Ghetto To Performing In Poland, Young Percussionist Charity Faith Of Ghetto Classics Is A Rising Star To Watch Out For

The Ghetto Classics is a program that equips underprivileged youth with music skills and it has been supported by proceeds from the Safaricom International Jazz Festival since 2014. The beneficiaries of this programme are currently pre-teens and teens from Korogocho slums. Here, they have been equipped with skills in classical and jazz performance. The Ghetto Classics program was started by Elizabeth Njoroge and Fr John Webootsa.

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