With all of the recent attention to the International Conductor’s Exchange Program and specifically this year’s pipeline to Kenya, I wanted to share an historical perspective from my own Kenyan research in the 1990’s. In fact, this article might serve as a “prequel” to today’s musical developments in Kenya and offer an additional perspective by partially filling in the backstory.
Musical Research in Kenya
Musical research in Kenya is a comparatively new phenomenon. My 1995 doctoral thesis, A Study of Choral Music in Kenya: The Contributions of Its Composers and the Influences of Traditional and Western European Musical Styles , was researched in Kenya under the auspices of a Fulbright Fellowship. My goal was to research developments in contemporary Kenyan choral music and observe the synthesis of traditional musical styles with Western European compositional processes. My source material was gathered from the composers themselves, and I compiled their stories via questionnaires as well as gathering examples of their choral compositions. 12 composers were interviewed, and their practical approach to their compositional craft and the writing of music for performance in schools, churches, and festivals, is what has kept their art flourishing.
Their willingness to share their musical and cultural philosophy as well as their music was inspiring, contributing directly to the international community of choral musicians. These materials were submitted for my doctoral thesis at the University of Cincinnati. As I now look back, it is unfortunate that there hasn’t been much additional research. It appears that my paper was one of the first dissertations put on file at the Kenya Information Preservation Society (founded in 1990), which, as their title suggests, is devoted to preserving the cultural heritage of their nation. The handful of dissertations also on file focus upon specific case studies of acculturation, copyright, text setting, and a history of music/dance competition. However, there still exists a great need for systematic collection and archiving of the myriad of Kenyan traditional music which admittedly would be an immense undertaking and require coordination by the Kenyan Government.
As a choral musician, I was based in Nairobi where I found the musical scene to be highly energized. A particularly fertile landscape was that of the Kenya National Music Festival, attended by musical groups from throughout the country. A logical starting point for this article is to summarize conclusions I had drawn in 1995 about the status of contemporary choral music in Kenya as well as share questions I had posed at the time regarding the future of the choral arts in Kenya.
It was determined in 1995 that five distinct genres were being explored by Kenyan choral composers. Still, the emphasis upon composer training in Kenya has produced a music education system skewed toward Western European influence (as established by British music educators in the 20th century period of colonialism). However, Kenyan composers have adapted quite readily to syncretic genres (utilization of cross-cultural influences) realizing this may be the only hope for their compositional survival. For that matter, Kenya has traditionally be open to new ideas, since “Kenya’s strategic location as a migratory pathway has encouraged the process of acceptance and assimilation of cultural traits from outside groups”.1
Traditional musical elements continue to figure prominently in contemporary compositions and although there continues to be traditional categories of music included in the presentations of the annual Kenya Music Festival, Kenyan choral art music (with its traditional elements) is still not included in the National Music Education curriculum. A key ingredient would be the inclusion of Kenyan choral art music as a formal musical genre at the Kenya Music Festival. Despite the composers’ embrace of syncretic musical styles, there is a very real danger that Kenya’s indigenous music will be lost by acculturation.
Of special interest is a doctoral dissertation by Duncan Wambugu. In this document, Dr. Wambugu underscores the importance of inclusion of a music curriculum in the Kenyan National Educational System and specifically, the use of traditional music genres in academic study and performance. In fact, the incorporation of traditional musical genres could be deemed essential to the health of the nation as music in Kenya is inseparable from life events. Music is attached to all of life, from birth to rites of passage (adulthood) to death, from planting to harvesting, from times of war to times of peace. Choral music continues to be ubiquitous in Kenyan society with the formation and continued participation of choral groups in branches of government, private enterprise, music clubs and organizations, churches and other religious organizations, and of course schools.
Most obvious is the need for a systematic and standardized approach to preservation and analysis of Kenyan choral music. An ideal project for the future would be the initiation of a “Kenyan National Songbook” in the same manner as the “African Textbook Project” envisioned in 1969 by the International Library of African Music (Roodepoort, South Africa): “Under the ILAM’s supervision, research teams in the field were to initiate and record audio and video performances of music and dance, transfer the recordings to a processing team for transcription and analysis, and publish and archive the results. Ultimately an anthology was to be distributed to all participants.”2 With or without such a document, the process of recording, transcribing, cataloging, and archiving of indigenous music (the result of field research as well as witnessing performances at the Kenya Music Festival) would prove very fruitful for the composers of Kenyan and to musical life in general. Duncan Wambugu also argues for a universal format which would be practical and accessible on a global scale, concluding that, “(Kenyan choral) Art music would therefore be an ideal platform”.3
The Kenyan musical scene is energized and continues to display an attitude of optimism. There is progress in the quantity and quality of musical organizations and performance level, and as Kenyan composers continue to rely on their musical instincts, their output will continue to reflect the depth of their cultural heritage, and their music will truly speak of Africa.
In my intention to turn this subject into an open forum for choral musicians, I welcome submissions to these sample questions for those who have visited Kenya in their quest to learn more:
- What were you seeking to discover in your travels to Kenya?
- Did your original mission statement transform upon arrival in the country?
- Were you able to accomplish your original objectives?
- Did you encounter barriers to research-gathering?
- Did you find your local contacts to be supportive of your work?
- In what way did you apply the results of your research upon your return home?
- Do you have any future plans to continue your research?
These and more specific inquiries would appear to be useful in charting a future course for research of Kenyan choral music.
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1Dale Rieth, A Study of Choral Music in Kenya: The Contributions of Its Composers and the Influences of Traditional and Western European Musical Styles (Doctoral thesis, University of Cincinnati, 1997): 87.
3Duncan Wambugu, Kenyan Art Music in Kenya’s High School General Music Curriculum: A Rationale for Folk-Song Based Choral Music (Doctoral dissertation, University of Florida, 2012): 131.