“It is still a dream of mine to perform all over the world in front of thousands of people. I hope that my music will one day help someone get through a tough time in their lives just as the music I was listening to helped me through my childhood. ” – Simon Thuo
Simon Thuo is a talented artist who was at one point the lead singer of the popular band “Solinga”. He is one of the directors at Nakuru Players theatre and is the founder of Simor Music Entertainment Company which mentors young creatives around Nakuru. He has also founded Simor Music which is a music school based in Nakuru offering training in various musical instruments. He is a true inspiration, from dealing with a sick mum, experiencing domestic violence and living in the streets. Simon has gone through the fire and he shares part of his journey with us.
Tell us something about yourself
My name is Simon Thuo Muigai and I am the firstborn of a big family. I like to identify myself as very family-oriented because I am passionate about keeping my family close and as happy as we can be. I am also a very positive person. I thrive in my independence, I don’t like to restrain myself and my abilities not only as a young man but also as an artist. I am a lover of life in its entirety, I try to appreciate the good times and learn from the difficult ones. That’s me in a nutshell.
How young were you when you developed an interest in music?
I come from a small village in Nakuru so there weren’t too many avenues to grow or exercise my art so I went to one of the few places where I could be creative, the church. I have always been quite active, some might even say I am hyperactive. I could always mobilize my peers to come together in the church to sing, participate in skits, plays and dancing. Being a creative, the church was a bit restrictive for me because in church, there are certain guidelines you must follow.
Back at home I would listen to Usher and R Kelly on the radio and sing along to the songs word for word attempting to hit the same notes. At the time, I was drawn to that style of music because we did not have too much variety on the airwaves. I remember having cut-outs of the Sunday newspaper where they would feature a certain song, a picture of the artist and the lyrics. Singing slowly became a kind of therapy for me because as a family, we were going through a very difficult time and when I sang, I forgot about all the problems we were having.
You say music became therapy, what issues were you struggling with?
My life has been nothing short of a roller coaster. A good place to start would be at the beginning; my mother, myself and my two younger brothers were en route to the United Kingdom to join my father back in 1997.
My father had won a visa and had been living there for some time. Like many families at the time, we were going to the UK in search of a better life and greener pastures. Something went wrong in France where we were supposed to have a layover after which we were supposed to connect to another plane that would take us to the UK. We didn’t get on that plane, my mum, having not travelled before on a plane thought we had arrived and that’s how we missed our flight.
Though I was young at the time, I vividly remember how we used to sleep in the staff quarters at the airport. It was a small room with many mattresses stacked on top of each other. There were no phones then, my mum didn’t have any information about where we were going or a number that could be used to contact my father. He on the other side had waited for us at the airport in the UK only for him to receive the shock of his life when he noticed we were not on the plane. We spent days at the France airport, restless, confused and scared about what was to become of us. Over the next days, we were moved from France to Belgium and then to Germany where we finally got a flight back home.
Your father must have been worried sick about you?
He had sought the services of his friend who had traced our steps trying to locate where we had disappeared to. As fate would have it, he would always be a step behind us. He missed us in France, Belgium and Germany. When we finally got deported to Kenya, we spent two weeks in the airport as our case was being investigated by the relevant authorities.
I have vivid memories from my time at the JKIA where I was watching the tv in the waiting area and music was playing on the NTV channel. Two songs stuck with me and I still sing along to them with emotion to date. The first was a song by Notorious BIG and the other was “Scrubs” by TLC. When I think about the dark days at the airport, those songs are the soundtrack.
How did you eventually find your way back home?
From JKIA, we were taken to the police station where we were to be questioned so as to determine the circumstances of our disappearance. By this time, my mum had gone through an emotional ordeal, being moved from one foreign country to the other with her three children, unsure if she would ever see her home again.
On top of all that, the Kenyan police wanted her to relive that tragedy. My mother experienced a mental break down where she passed out and lost consciousness. She was quickly rushed to the hospital. That would be the beginning of her struggle with severe bipolar disorder.
What happened to you and your brothers?
After my mum was taken to hospital, we did not have any place to go so the officers took the three of us to different children homes. They separated us just like that. When my mother finally regained consciousness at the hospital, she asked to see her three children. The doctors told her that she did not have any children, that she had been brought in alone.
This obviously made her very disturbed because she felt like after all we had gone through, she had lost us. She became quite restless and unstable, so the doctors were forced to sedate her and give her drugs to manage her bipolar. She felt lost because she did not understand why she was being sedated when all she wanted was to see her sons.
How were you re-united?
Seven months after being separated, my father managed to locate all of us and bring us back together. It was shocking to see how much my mother had changed, she had lost a lot of weight and it was from that point that she never let us leave her sight. After being reunited, my father was still in the UK and was trying to support us by sending money for upkeep. The people he had given the responsibility to support us did the opposite.
Life in Nairobi was hard without money and my mother was not capable of working because of her condition. That’s how we ended up being street children. Life had gone south for us and it seemed like things were going to get worse until a friend of my father saw us and explained to him the condition in which we were living.
My father got on a plane and personally came to Nairobi to take us from the life of hardship that we had been living. At this point, we couldn’t even recognize our father, it had been years since we had last seen him. To us, he was just another stranger.
It was then decided that we were going to relocate to Nakuru to live with our grandparents.
It must have been a relief to finally be saved from the life of difficulty you were living.
Every time I thought things were going to be better, they got ten times worse. My grandfather was a violent, alcoholic man and he would repeatedly beat up my grandmother every night after a night at the local pub. My grandmother was a sweet lady who stomached all the abuse her husband put her through and still had enough space left in her heart to love us.
She never taught us to hate our grandfather for what he was doing, she simply acted like nothing was happening. It is from that experience that I vowed never to take alcohol. I had seen what it could do to a person and I didn’t want to risk going down the same route. Later, my grandfather and grandmother both passed on and one of my aunties took us in because my mother was still ill and incapable of taking care of us.
Things were good for some time until she stopped taking care of us in the way they had discussed with my father. My dad was sending money and calling to find out how we were. She would always say that we were doing fine but that was the furthest thing from the truth. We would go to school in tattered uniform and go for days without bathing. My father made a surprise visit when he came from the UK to our school unannounced. He found us with torn and dirty uniforms. He was shocked and angry because he was sending money for us to be taken care of but clearly that wasn’t happening.
He bought a piece of land, built us a semi-permanent iron sheet house and asked another auntie of ours to help take care of us as he went back to the UK. From the outside, she seemed like a really good person because she was saved and was a member of the church. In real sense, however, she made our lives more miserable than they had ever been. She treated us badly in our own house. We would sleep hungry, she would whip us and beat us for no reason and life had become quite unbearable at this point.
Whenever my father would say that he was visiting, her attitude would suddenly change. She would cook for us, wash all our clothes, just so she could convince my father that she was taking good care of us. Once my father left things would go back to factory settings and the abuse would continue. One of my brothers did not handle the situation too well, he developed a lot of aggression and resentment towards life and that attitude led him down a dark path.
How did you manage to stay sane and positive through all the things you had gone through?
Music played a huge role in my healing; I never went to counselling but neither did I lose my way. Being a firstborn child with an absent father, a dark past and a sickly mother, sometimes I felt like the weight on my shoulders was too much but every time I sang or performed I felt a reassuring peace that erased all the pain from my heart.
The more I engaged with music, the happier I became. I would listen to emotional RnB songs on the radio and I could relate to the pain of the singer and it made me feel like I was not alone. In the process, I also learnt an important lesson in anger management and not being impulsive to react to emotions.
Did things ever change? How is your mother and what is the state of your family right now?
Though it hasn’t been easy, things have really changed for our family though we have encountered a few bumps on the road. Last year we lost my younger brother after been ill for quite some time. It was a difficult time for us as a family because our difficult past has been the glue that has brought us together. Though he went too soon, he left a young wife and a son who are good reminders of the friendly, caring and energetic brother we knew.
My mother still struggles with her bipolar to date. Some days are better than others, but we always try to be by her side as much as we can. Sometimes she asks where my brother is, it is as if part of her brain refuses to accept that he is gone. The love of a mother truly transcends any other love.
We were able to move into a more permanent house that was big enough for all of us courtesy of my father. My father is still in the UK and he is still there whenever we need his help. Now that we have come of age, we take charge of all our issues as a family and try not to involve too many people in our business because we have seen what that has done to us in the past.
My youngest brother still lives at home with my mother to help out wherever she needs some help. My other younger brother has grown up to become a fine young entrepreneur and is finding his own way. For me, I still visit home as much as I can and try to get my family together every chance I get. I live in Nakuru town which is where I do most of my work. I have been fortunate to love music and earn a living out of it.
Tell us about the genesis of your musical journey.
I finished high school at the age of 21 because I had lost a lot of time on the way with everything that had happened earlier in my life. Immediately after leaving high school I joined a group called “Play Makers” which was an acting group not too far from home. We would go around schools to presenting the plays and providing other forms of artistic entertainment.
I enjoyed acting because it was just memorizing the lines and assuming a character. It came naturally to me, so I always looked forward to the experience. When in the theatre for practice, I would sneak out and hang out with some guys who were always playing the guitar. I remember Sauti Sol had just released the hit song “Still the one”. I loved it and asked if the guys could play the tune to the song. I sang the song just as Sauti Sol had sung it, hitting all the notes perfectly.
The guys were really impressed by how well I pulled off the song and they couldn’t believe that I hadn’t received any vocal training before. From that conversation, I became a member of my first band: Vitz Band. It was my first experience using music as a means to earn a living. I would get paid 500 bob per gig and it was the sweetest pay cheque I ever got. I couldn’t believe I was being paid just to sing.
Were you still living at home at this point?
My brothers had gotten older, so they were now responsible for taking care of our mum and so I asked my father to help me get my first house in Nakuru town. Being in town was very important to help me be closer to music and attend gigs with ease. He paid my rent for the first three months and after that it was all me and the 500 bob from my gigs.
Some months were tough, we didn’t get gigs yet bills still had to be paid yet I had to eat, dress, pay rent etc. Amazingly, I always pulled through. That period gave me a valuable lesson in saving and using resources wisely.
What opportunities did you get from being in the Band?
I did not stay in the Vitz band for long. I left because I felt like the management of the band was not being honest and transparent about our wages as a group even though we were doing huge events. I shortly joined another band which was known as “Dynamics” but most of my opportunities and success came from the band that we formed from scratch; “Solinga Band”. I was the lead vocalist and I remember the first show we ever did as Solinga got us four thousand each. I felt like that was a sign of good things to come. Apparently, it was.
What genre of music were you playing as a band?
The name itself says it all. SOLINGA is a combination of the word soul and lingala. We used to mostly play soul music with a hint of lingala. Our greatest success as a band came from our hit song “Mziki Nawe” which was at one point the song of the week on the music show “The Beat” on NTV.
We got invited to the top tv shows in the country. “Mziki Nawe” was such a sensation and it put us on the national level. Though the band didn’t stay together to release more hits, I am still very proud of what we achieved in our short time together.
Looking back at that period, what is the one moment that stands out the most?
Weirdly, the most memorable moment came at a time when I was at my lowest. Solinga band was crumbling, painful things were said, and I was left very disappointed. A friend of mine got me a ticket to the Churchill Show Live recording in an attempt to lift my spirits.
I was having a good time at the show, but it got better when Jamaican artist Alaine was introduced as the guest that day. She is a beautiful talented artist and it was surreal to see her standing right in front of me. Churchill the host, invited a few people from the audience to have a try at singing one of Alaine’s songs. I took the opportunity and sang the song “Wafula” which she had featured Churchill himself.
It was a fairly new song; it had just hit the airwaves so not many people knew it. Once I hit that high pitch the entire audience erupted into applause and all this was aired on tv. Alaine herself got on her feet and joined in the applause. Alaine herself cheered me on, it was a big moment for me. The video went viral and I got my few seconds of fame though I would have liked to work with Alaine instead.
When the band broke up what did you do next?
After Solinga fell to pieces I decided to take some time off working with bands to think about what direction I wanted my life to take. It had always been a dream of mine to open a music school. A place where I could use the knowledge I had acquired along the way to help aspiring artists to sharpen their skills and find their voice.
I realized that I had the ability to speak on behalf of the young artists and help them find their footing in the industry. That was how “Simor Music” came to be. I have always thought myself as business-oriented and therefore I was ready to face the challenge of starting a new business and getting myself out of my comfort zone.
What is Simor Music exactly?
With the help of my family and friends, I registered “Simor live Entertainment Limited” as a music label where I get to work with young artists and help develop their talent. I also have a music school which is under the music label where I train people to play various musical instruments such as guitar, keyboard and drums.
My music school is at the Nakuru Player’s theatre where I get the chance to interact with artists from all genres and see how we can work together not only to improve the music scene in Nakuru but also in Kenya. As a label, I am proud to say that I have given opportunities to many talented aspiring artists. I have an upcoming project where I have worked with a very promising young rapper and I am sure it is going to be a success.
How did you find your way back to Nakuru Player’s theatre and what is your role there?
After the band broke up, I came back to Nakuru and went back hanging out in the theatre just to perform and also to look out for gigs. I didn’t want to be seen as though I wanted to be given special treatment because of my earlier success with Solinga so just as everyone else I paid my membership and the affiliate fee.
Once I became a full member, I started organizing small events to give the young artists a platform to express their art. My peers noticed my hard work and commitment and that led to me being voted in as one of the theatre’s directors.
What projects are you currently working on and what should we expect from you in the future?
The project I am most proud of at the moment is the play “Sarafina”. It was initially performed in Nairobi but after seeing the show I was convinced that we had to bring Sarafina to our theatres in Nakuru. I met up with the show’s producer and shared my idea with him. He was receptive about bringing the production to Nakuru so together we went to the county government offices where we were fortunate to meet the Governor of Nakuru. He received the idea positively and signed off on the project. Over forty youths from Nakuru got hired for Sarafina.
Besides bringing Sarafina to Nakuru, I have also organized a couple of events at the theatre, there is “Cheka Tu”, which is about giving local comedians a platform to express their art and earn something from it. “Jiachilie Vibe” is another event that we do every Friday and again, it is a platform for singers, poets, spoken word artists to have a platform.
With Jiachilie vibe we put a lot of emphasis on going back to live music and enjoying the melody of different musical instruments. It’s important for young artists to find their true voice and be able to perform without playback. I have not been performing as much recently but once things at work settle down, I definitely want to go back to the stage and do what I enjoy doing most. Like I had mentioned, I have an upcoming song featuring a local rapper which I will be releasing in the future.
It is still a dream of mine to perform all over the world in front of thousands of people. I hope that my music will one day help someone get through a tough time in their lives just as music helped me through my childhood.
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