So far, we’ve travelled to four continents. So when an opportunity came to try a fifth, we jumped.
This tour was made possible with the generous support of the Ontario Arts Council
Chapter One – Nairobi: Play
Mary Tangelder is a former vocal student of Suba, and works for an NGO called the International Rescue Committee, and is also visiting faculty at the University of Nairobi. She has always had an interest in music and healing, and saw her position at the IRC (and her association with us) as an opportunity to combine those concepts. We would come to Nairobi and deliver workshops about using music in crisis situations, as a form of humanitarian relief, as a way to move beyond getting people clean water and basic supplies, to increase cultural awareness and understanding in a land of tribal conflicts, and to help make people whole again.
How would we do this? And who would come to such a workshop series? We weren’t really sure.
We had a preliminary meeting (in Canada) and laid down some basic concepts. But apart from deciding on dates, and an overall framework for the general nature of the workshops and concerts, we still weren’t sure. The rest would be worked out when we arrived. That may seem a little seat-of-the-pants to some, but in some situations, it’s really the best way to work. Sometimes you really can’t get a feel for what you’re doing until you’re on the ground, so to speak. Our 2007 tour of India with Autorickshaw was such and example: most details were worked out after we arrived. And in Kenya, it also made sense.
We spent our first few days getting our bearings. Kenya, and Nairobi especially, is a land of contrasts. Sounds like the sort of vague statement reserved for a bad geography report, but it certainly applies here. We lived in a well-to-do suburb, where each building was a compound, with twenty-foot-high walls, topped with barbed wire and electrical fencing, guarded by private security forces. We saw beautiful, verdant vistas, then drove past (but not through) Kibera, Africa’s largest slum. Warm and sunny every day, we walked through our part of town freely – but never after dark, when even most locals won’t venture out on the streets on foot. It’s not called “Nairobbery” for nothing, and we weren’t interested in testing out the name.
Our knowledge of African geography and culture was embarrassingly slim before doing our pre-trip research, and before actually arriving. By most African standards, Kenya is a relatively stable place – that is, compared to some of its neighbours, such as Uganda and Somalia. It has a (nominal) democracy, which was being put to the test as we arrived. 2013 is an election year in Kenya. The last election in 2007 saw bloody violence as various tribes warred with each other over election results. So, tension was in the air, as we were in election-primary season. We heard various reports of riots flaring up around the city based on protests against whomever was nominated for whatever position. These reports came on the radio, announced the way we would hear announcements of traffic accidents or storm warnings in Canada. There was casual talk of what supplies people would buy if forced into “hibernation” – a polite euphemism for “refusing to leave one’s house if things got out of control”. Mary already had an escape route: during the elections, she would take off to Istanbul for vacation. It sure put democracy in perspective.
But, the elections themselves are in March. Apart from a few flareups, which we never saw, it seemed relatively OK. It’s amazing what one can get used to.
This picture, in a way, sums up Nairobi: an iconic acacia tree, partially obscured by power lines and burning garbage.
So, after some jetlag, we did a little local sightseeing: the elephant orphanage…
… and the giraffe sanctuary.
We also found a very cool vintage street market (one of our favourite activities while travelling) and picked up a few interesting things.
Then, we got down to the task of planning these workshops. Between Mary’s understanding of humanitarian issues, and our knowledge of musical exercises and techniques, we came up with some pretty good ideas of how to fuse the two. Great material for our upcoming 2-day-long intensive workshop.
But first, we went on safari.
Going “on safari” is Kenya’s main tourist attraction, but it’s something of a misnomer. First off, “safari” is Kiswahili for “journey”, of any type. Taking the bus to Mobasa is technically a safari. And ours wasn’t the typical drive-out-in-the-savanna-in-a-jeep affair. Where we went, the wildlife came to us.
On Mary’s recommendation, we went to Olerai House near lake Naivasha. Olerai House is part of an old colonial estate, owned by the same Italian family for several generations. The accommodations were luxurious, the food was incredible… and for the first two nights, we were the only guests there.
Most safaris involve driving out in the savannah for hours to catch glimpses of wild animals. Olerai Lodge was smack in the middle of the savannah, with wildlife all around us. Instead of a jeep, we had a Samburu Warrior guide named Ndawas who would take us out on walks to observe the wildlife.
Ndawas taught us a few practical tips which we plan to use back home, such as how to avoid being attacked by a hippopotamus (in case you’re wondering, run in a zig-zag fashion: hippos are extremely dangerous and can run 40km/hr… but only in a straight line), how to tell a male from a female zebra from a distance (females have dark-brown stripes; males are pure black) and which tree blossoms make the most effective deodorant.
After three blissful days, it was time to get back to work. But on our way home, we stopped in at Hell’s Gate National Park, for a walk in the gorge. We were required to have a guide from the Masai tribe. At first, we assumed it was the usual tourist-cash-grab… but it turns out there was good reason. First, it’s their land. Second, the gorge was quite deep, with no steps, rails, or any safety standards whatsoever. Without a guide, we probably would have tumbled down faster than expected. Or found ourselves unable to climb back up. Or parboiled in the hot springs.
we climbed, bare-handed, from that river down there
There were more forms of wildlife than we could count, and more beautiful scenery than words can justify. So, instead, take a look at the photo gallery to get a sense of it all.
To top it all off, when we arrived in Nairobi, were heard reports of stone-throwing riots happening right across the street from our apartment. Fortunately, it had dissipated by the time we got home.
Chapter Two: Nairobi Workshops and Onward
So now it was time for our workshops. Mary had done some great legwork in getting the word out, and we had a good crowd. There was quite a variety of participants: some came from other NGOs, some were Mary’s students at the University, some were educators from fancy private schools, or local slums. One participant, Ali, was particularly notable. He took an eight-hour bus ride each way to come to the workshop. From the border with Somalia.
And he had never made music before.
Ali is from Kenya, but like many people close to the border, he is ethnically Somali. Much of Kenya is Christian, a holdover from the British colonial days, but as an ethnic Somali, Ali is Muslim. In his particular flavour of Islam (Sunni), music was more-or-less forbidden, or seen as a secular (and therefore suspect) art. I can’t even imagine a culture with no music, and I was amazed that Ali was not only interested in the workshop, but actively participated.
Ali is an “education quality control officer”. We have no idea what that means. But, he explained that education is an issue where he is from, with only about 30% of children there going to school. The problem wasn’t really a lack of schools, but that they were stationary, while the tribes were not: a fixed-location school isn’t much use to a nomadic tribe. There are attempts to create a model of “moving schools” that travel with the tribes, but it’s not yet a reality. Ali was intrigued by the concept of using music as a tool for cultural understanding, communication, and healing. And such things would be useful where he lives: Kenya and Somalia are currently at war, and the whole area is a little tense.
So, what did we do in these workshops?
First off, we learned quickly that most of the participants weren’t incredibly musical, so a few of our more musically-complex activities went quickly out the window. No matter: music wasn’t the goal, so much as using it for other reasons. One interesting exercise was a simple musical counting game, which we often use in choirs for focus, doing it in a round and with other variations. For these folks, we made up a new exercise, based on language. English and Kiswahili (Swahili) are the official languages of Kenya, but dozens of languages are spoken. Everyone understands each other by speaking one of the official languages, but the subject of one’s “home” language is often laden with other cultural issues: “what is your language?” is code for “What tribe are you from” which, depending on your tribe, may or may not work in your favour. In case your tribe is one that is looked down upon by a more politically-dominant tribe (or if you belong to said dominant tribe, you may be the focus of resentment), it is better to downplay your tribe/language: not always so good for any sense of cultural or individual self-worth.
So, the exercise involved having the participants pair off with someone who speaks a different language. Each pair was to do the exercise as follows:
– do it together, in English (as a common tongue)
– do it together, each in their own language (result: cacophony)
– teach each other how to count to five in their respective languages
– do the exercise together, taking turns in each others’ languages (result: harmony)
It seemed to us like a simple, self-evident exercise, something you might do in a multicultural children’s classroom for fun and for some simple cultural exchange. But it went quite a bit further with these folks. They all talked about how teaching someone their language was empowering, and equalizing, and how they truly had something to teach – and learn from — each other.
As we’ve travelled the world, we’ve become more and more cognizant of our own Canadian multiculturalism, how it is woven deep into our cultural DNA, and how it really is unique. It’s not perfect by any means, and of course racism is alive and well, but the concept of multicultural respect and coexistence is both our Canadian expectation, and the ideal for which we strive. In Kenya, a naturally multicultural country, tribal differences are deeply ingrained, and even when they don’t present direct conflict, people may coexist uneasily. These simple forms of intercultural exchange are harder to come by, and much more appreciated when they happen.
Another exercise was the creation of a blues song, meant to give people a vehicle for expressing emotions, particularly difficult ones. We teach a similar exercise in Canada. Back home, the lyrics people make up tend to be “first-world-problems”: partly because we live in a fairly privileged world, partly because the exercise is usually taught as a musical exercise rather than for genuine personal expression, and partly because people wouldn’t likely openly express negative feelings in public. Here, we had everything: simple stories of a wallet being lost (and found again) on a bus, family members dying, stories of poverty, and people torn apart by wars. Afterwards, we had some discussion on what it meant to express these emotions, and what it would mean to have no voice, figuratively and literally, without music as a tool for expression.
The two-day intensive workshop was indeed intense, and overall very successful. We hope that this “pilot project” will continue to grow, and that we will perhaps come back next year, and possibly take it out of Nairobi and into some far-flung locations throughout the country.
We had a couple of extra days before heading to London for our gig with Retrocity at the London A Cappella Festival… which we filled with some more sightseeing. Most memorable was the Kitengela glass factory, which Mary had described as a “weird, trippy experience in the bush”. She wasn’t kidding.
But first, we had to get there. And this is how:
So, to clarify:
– Yes, that’s a 200-foot drop below
– Yes, the entire thing is made up of metal wire, most of which is about the thickness of a decent coat hanger
– Yes, it’s a couple hundred metres across
– And, yes, Dylan has a fear of heights. Not airplane-heights, more like climbing up (or across) shaky structures.
Suba made here way across… gradually.
Dylan made his way across… painfully slowly.
[no picture… if you think I was going to hold a camera and crawl across that bridge, you’re crazy.]
And then our host bounded across in about a minute, not even holding on to the rails. Dylan was suitably humbled.
But the trip across was worth it. The factory was started up by some crazy Dutch sculptor who wanted to build an artist colony. So, the complex was part factory, part gift shop, and part acid-trip-calibre sculpture garden. There are plenty of pictures in the photo gallery, and they’re definitely worth checking out.
Like, wow, man.
On our final day, we took a trip to a tea plantation. Kenya seems to be a world of parallel universes, each completely removed from each other. Here, we discovered a little piece of British colonial culture, which still exists in pockets here and there. Our host was “white Kenyan”… in this case, a descendant of the British colonists. And in typically British fashion, it felt like a little piece of the (well, their) Old Country…. complete with rolling acres of farmland…
…beautiful sculpted gardens…
and of course, sherry on the front porch before lunch.
On our real final day (the day we left), we stopped by a local coffee merchant, right next door. We knew they were there, since we smelled the roasting coffee every day. The weren’t really open, but the merchant there, Dianna, gave us a little tour demonstration anyway…
… then invited us back, where she promised us a tour of a coffee plantation “to really understand the journey from farm to cup”, and gave us a free pound of fresh Kenyan coffee. A perfect way to end the trip.
Chapter Three – London, Retro Style
After Nairobi, we headed straight to London to join up with Retrocity, our a cappella group devoted to the music of the 1980s. We’ve had this group running for fifteen years now… but this was our first-ever international tour.
After several tours where we had eschewed hotel rooms for the more enjoyable (and cost-effective) short-term apartment rentals, we decided to do the same here. Suba scored big-time: a 4-story house, made up of two joinable apartments, for all eight of us. Great fun, perfect location, our own kitchen, and a fraction of the cost of hotel rooms. Score!
We arrived a day early there a day early, and Dylan spent the day getting copies of his book from the local UK distributor to sell at the Festival. The London A Cappella Festival is a fantastic event, curated by our dear friends the Swingle Singers. We performed at the event last year as the FreePlay Duo, and it’s always a wonderful time. We got to see shows by some of our favourite groups, including Rajaton, Postyr, and of course the Swingles. A cappella festivals are basically big family reunions/love-ins: many of the same people appear at each one (both artists and attendees), old friendships are continued, and new ones made. Best of all, Retrocity played to a sold-out crowd, to a standing ovation. A great way to start the international phase of our time together!
The rest of our time was spent relaxing and sightseeing. We’ve been to London several times, but the city continues to grow on us. It’s a great walking town, with the perfect combination of tourist attractions, green spaces, and historical wonders. And by “historical wonders”, I mean one of the oldest pubs, built in the 16th century, frequented by Samuel Johnston and Charles Dickens. Originally a wonderfully dank little room with a fireplace, it has since expanded into the nearby 13th-century cellars of an old monastery. Can’t get better ambience than that.
And thus concludes our latest journey. Stay tuned for our next trips to Europe (hopefully) Israel, and the Far East! Many thanks to Mary Tangelder, who started out as a colleague and ended up as a dear friend; the Swingles, for finally getting Retro out of Canada, and to the Ontario Arts Council, for their generous support of our tour, and without whom it wouldn’t have been possible.