An afternoon with the Kenya National Youth Orchestra 

It’s a huge hall, a proper theatre. A larger than life stage sits at the front lifted towards the heavens. Even at the fifth row you’re still looked down upon. The red seats are soft and comfortable, with ample back support. And wide enough for most shapes and sizes.

Sunday 29th January 2017. This was my first time inside Kenya National Theatre (please don’t judge me). I sauntered in at 3pm. Paid 300 bob because of this amazing thing called student discount. Regular adults paid 500 shillings. I found the hall half full. The show had just started.

By 3.30 it was full house.

We sat quietly in the darkness looking up at the Kenya National Youth Orchestra on stage. The background changed color almost magically every few minutes, from pale green to soft pink to a strong yellow.

The first few minutes in there felt like a foreign experience. Like I was a character in one of those American movies, watching a classical performance at the Carnegie Hall in New York. I became one of those white people who go to the orchestra for an evening date. Only that this one was filled with young Kenyans.

The orchestra was seated in a semicircle on simple black fold chairs. From where I sat I could only see the string section and the bassoonists. They all faced the conductor while their eyes were fixed on the music sheets placed in front of them.

Even though I couldn’t see the whole ensemble I could hear them clearly. The percussion players beating the drums to their heart beats. The woodwinds producing deep sweet sounds. The brass section with their blaring sounds. The violas and the cellos on the left, and the violins on the right divided into two sections.

The latter mostly sounded like tiny birds chirping in the early morning.

Sometimes it was hard to discern who was producing what sound. The different sounds blended into one melody, like an already established tune. But if any instrument was missing, it just wouldn’t sound the same.

Start of KNYO concert

As I watched the show, I discovered being a conductor is not easy. It’s not just about waving your hands, and a wooden magic wand. You need to understand the music. Know your stuff. How loud or soft certain parts should be. Have a keen ear that can sense if the music is in the right tempo and pitch.

It’s quite nerve-wrecking to be one, I think. You run the show. It’s like being a singer with a stick in your hand – your mic. Your back however faces the audience. And there’s an overwhelming band in front of you backing you up. If you mess up, you let the whole squad down.

During the performances the whole theatre was silent, except for the instrumental sounds emanating from the front. You dared not speak or even cough, lest you distract the focused musicians. You had to save your comments and “oohs” for the end. Thank God no phone went off interrupting the show with “Kamata chini Kamatia chini”.

Once the first piece ended, loud claps and cheers erupted from the audience. I had no idea there were such avid fans of classical music in Kenya until that day.

There was an intermission in between the performances, to give us all a break – especially the young musicians. The conductor then became the MC. He was engaging and witty, making us laugh easily. The young musicians seemed to love him as much as the audience.

He also told us more about the KNYO which offers free musical training for 14 to 24 year olds. Practising at St. Andrew’s Turi and Hillcrest International schools. The thought of it sounded enticing. Bonding with young people, learning music and life together. In a green homely environment of course.

In the end he was revealed to also be the musical director of the orchestra. Mr. Levi Wataka. A three-in-one man.

Levi Wataka Mceeing

There was a wide array of pieces performed that afternoon. Some were sombre, others were upbeat -like Cidade Marhavilosa which got a deserving encore. Some familiar like Ode of Joy by Beethoven, others foreign to our ignorant ears. Most of them involved the whole orchestra, especially the challenging pieces. Dvorak’s New World Symphony was one of those which they executed quite brilliantly.

The jazz band did a solo piece led by their dashing leader (I swear he resembles Childish Gambino). This is when the horns came into play, girls fingering saxophones skilfully and men caressing their French horns. The trumpeters blew their horns like it was Jesus’ second coming.

The string section also got a chance to shine. They single-handedly did an interesting Luo piece called Nyathi Onyuol. This was the most unique performance of all. Kids who were 10 years old and below were invited on stage to walk around and observe the instruments during the performance. Look but don’t touch, the director insisted.

Thank God the audience was not left behind. We were asked to join in by singing “Tim Majek” at the chorus. Levi the conductor would turn around at certain points and signal us. I’m glad to say we nailed it!

I onky wish I was given that chance to get up close when I was 10 years old.

Personally I listen to classical music at home, on one of those audio TV channels. It’s my background music when I’m writing, reading or even eating. But these guys play it to people who have paid for it. To entertain.

There are no words uttered in classical music. It’s all about the emotion, how it makes you feel. Being at the orchestra is like an escape from life to listen to music being created from scratch. To forget about your worries and get lost in the harmonies. Or to think about everything and anything (like I did). Let your mind run wild and free, with sweet music as your background.

Musicians stand up at end of performance

As the show was ending I had so many questions. What made a young player choose a viola instead of a violin? Is it because it is bigger? Or why the clarinet rather than the flute? Did they fall in love with it at first sight? Was it the sound that beckoned them? Or did their friends advise them to pick the cool one?

It must be exciting I think, to master an instrument. Handling an expensive toy in your hands, and playing with it as you please. With the help of sheet music of course. Creating music from the body and soul. Like the string tutor David Ralak who looked cool and as he passionatelt played his brown violin at the front.

I don’t think there’s any instrument I would like to learn, other than the piano. I’m getting old though (my white hair count is now at two). But I wouldn’t mind being a conductor. Directing the show with my two brown hands. And that thin stick – they call it a baton.

Just as long as I don’t have to wear a black suit.

people leaving Kenya National Theatre hall

Next time there’s a concert in town you’ll probably find me at the upper deck of the Kenya National Theatre. Then I will finally have the upper hand, and a view of the whole Kenya National Youth Orchestra.

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8 thoughts on “An afternoon with the Kenya National Youth Orchestra 

  1. I love the way you vividly described the whole experience and made me feel as if I was there as well. Lol, you’ve given me a “reader’s discount”…haha…I’m a huge fan of classicals as well and I wish people knew how cool it is to study with classicals or Jazz or Blues instrumentals in the background….(hey, you ain’t old yet to learn piano…if you are commited , you can learn any instrument even at age 87years…) ….this was a cool piece. Thanks, Joy.

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    1. Thank you Frank for your kind words. I agree, such music is the perfect non distractory background when you’re doing anything really.
      I’m starting to think about that piano thing seriously. At least I’m not 87 years old yet. I hope you go for your dreams too.

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  2. Oh that was a performance and a half, I’m really glad I attended. I still remember how passionate David was. It was hard not to notice with him occasionally, slightly raising his legs and nodding his head.

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  3. I love how you captured the entire experience. I’m part if the orchestra and to see how somebody loved it so much is exhilarating.

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