Creative artists in Nairobi, Kenya assemble at The Elephant to write and present new musicals
Two of our faculty members, Deborah Brevoort and Fred Carl, traveled to Nairobi, Kenya this past summer to lead a new musical theatre workshop initiative for creative artists. The workshop grew out of a relationship that the Program began with Eric Wainaina, a famous musician in Kenya, who visited the Program last year. We spoke to Deborah and Fred about their experience:
Can you describe the initiative as well as its purpose and goals?
Deborah: There’s a composer in Kenya named Eric Wainaina who is basically one of Kenya’s leading pop star musicians / singer-song writers, and he had participated in the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab with a musical that he will be bringing to the New Victory Children’s Theatre in New York City this fall. Eric was excited about the prospect of creating new musicals that were based in Kenyan stories and written by Kenyan composers and authors because there’s basically no resources over there to develop that sort of thing. So, he asked Roberta Levitow, the Senior Program Associate-International with the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, how they could put something like this together. Roberta began trying to mentor them herself (as Sundance is not a teaching organization), but eventually came to me because she didn’t have the skills to give Eric and his cohort what they needed. She asked me if I would consider going to Kenya to participate in a workshop that Eric was going to put together. I told her that I’d be happy to, but that I would not want to do this without a composer because if they were going to create musicals they’d need both a wordsperson AND a composer. She asked me if I had any ideas for composers and I told her that I knew someone at NYU named Fred Carl who would be perfect. That led to a conversation about whether or not we could collaboratively create something with NYU. So, we literally got up from the café where we were at and came over to The Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program and spoke to the Department Chair, Sarah Schlesinger, who loved the idea, but told us that NYU couldn’t be an official sponsor. She did, however, tell us that the Program certainly had resources that it could share. I then went and asked Fred if he would be interested in participating in the workshop (which was being invented as I was speaking to him about it), and he said he definitely was interested. I then began uploading libretti of different musicals for the Kenyan participants to read and, long story short, Eric went around and rounded up the best creative artists he could find in Kenya: musicians, composers, authors, playwrights, performance artists, children’s authors, etc. It was very spontaneous. He would approach different creative people and tell them, “Hey, we’re going to do this creative workshop. If you’re interested, show up at The Elephant,” (which is the leading venue for new music in Nairobi, Kenya. It’s basically a house and a compound with recording studios).
Fred: Yeah. As Deborah mentioned, Eric assembled a group of artists into teams with anywhere from 2-8 artists in each team. We very quickly realized that Eric, because of who he is, was able to attract groups of artists (whose work he had seen or experienced) to come and participate in the workshop.
Deborah: Eric’s philosophy was: ‘I’m throwing open the doors’, and Fred and I went over and didn’t know who was going to walk in. In fact, as the workshop progressed, people started hearing about it around Kenya and just started showing up. And so, when we started out, we began with 10 “teams” who would say, “Okay we wanna come in and write a musical about such and such a topic,” and Fred and I would talk to them about it for a half an hour. And then another team would come in and we’d say, “Okay, well why don’t you start exploring that idea and come back in tomorrow?” And then the next day they would come back, but the team would be different. Instead of 2 people, there’d be 3 people, or 6 people. They were collaborating and writing together. The whole thing was fluid and moving. Our 10 musicals turned into 16 musicals, and there were even more who wanted to participate but we just didn’t have enough hours in the day.
Fred: We had observers who ran theatres as well as a couple of theatre groups who showed up. Nairobi is a large cosmopolitan city, and my sense was that the arts scene—I’m talking about fashion, dance, the intellectual writers: poets, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, playwrights, journalists, publishers, musicians, singers, composers—is pretty tightly knit. So, a lot of people ended up knowing one another.
Would they assemble themselves into pairs or groups?
Fred: Sometimes they would and sometimes Eric and Angela Wachuka, one of his associates, would assemble the groups. They knew them better than we did. Some people had already worked together and others had not and were meeting for the first time.
Deborah: We also had individual artists who were invited as “speed daters” and would come in and sit in on the sessions with us, and by the end, they would then organize their own collaborative clumps – though not always in the way we would have done it. It was really thrilling.
Fred: And everyone was just thrilled to be there. Getting the work out of people was not an issue at all.
Deborah: Hungry. That’s the operative word for this. Everyone was hungry.
Fred: They were familiar with film musicals such as Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story, but a lot of them hadn’t seen stage versions of musicals, so we were able to introduce a few shows to them that they didn’t know.
Deborah: The format was that Fred and I would be there every morning from 9 AM to 1 PM and we would just meet with individual teams—whatever that group happened to be—and they would talk to us about what they wanted to do. It was sort of like an NYU lab, but less intrusive than what we would do at the GMTWP. We were just sprinkling a little water because we weren’t trying to form anything. We were just there to nourish and nurture. Then in the afternoon we would take turns teaching. I would do lyric writing and song form and Fred would help them find the song moment in the scene and push their understanding of the power that music has in this form. We would then hold a listening session. We really limited what we did and didn’t throw too much at them. We really focused on opening numbers, duets, and basic verse-chorus and AABA song forms.
Fred: We’d sneak in things about ensembles and their function and a couple of conversations about narrative storytelling and non-linear storytelling. We got a lot done.
Were they primarily short-form pieces or were they discussing whole pieces?
Fred: Everyone was working on a full-length piece of some sort. There was one one-act, which was a full-length piece for children. Everyone was working on ideas that could be developed into a whole piece.
And then you would help them apply technique and craft to whatever they were doing?
Fred: Yeah, we would take it from wherever they came.
Deborah: Whatever walked in the room, we talked to that.
Fred: They dealt with opening numbers in most cases. We would raise the questions, ‘What does this opening for this show need to let an audience know? What world does this need to crack open?’ The answers were different for each piece, and people were in the room listening to those differences. No one thought, “Oh, what I’m doing is what you should be doing.” They would watch someone else’s process, but also keep it very much focused on their own individual concerns. They would get the lessons from us but also from each other. And then they were able to incorporate lessons into what they were doing specifically, which was always very different from what everyone else was doing.
Deborah: A lot of artists wanted to come in and just listen to us talk to other artists about their projects. There was only one artist who wanted private labs. We had one artist come in from Ethiopia (which is interested in doing a similar kind of workshop) who was basically with us morning, noon, and night to just observe. We threw open the doors and anyone could come in.
Fred: The goal was for everyone to have at least 10 to 15 minutes of something to present at the end of the 2-week process. Almost everybody did that, and they all performed it. They would perform their own stuff as well as each other’s work. Or, they put things on tape. It was up to them to decide how to present their materials.
And you were there for 2 weeks?
Fred: Yes. 2 weeks.
It’s so interesting to hear about the different creative facets and abilities that everyone contributed in order to create something—which brings me to my next question:
What was the process of incorporating the unique culture and perspectives of the creative artists into their musicals?
Fred: There are many multiple languages that are spoken in Kenya by the over 40 different ethnic groups. There are some dominant languages, but everyone who participated in the workshop spoke at least 3, if not 5 languages, and those languages all come with their own cultural significances.
Deborah: They were writing musicals in Swahili, Dholuo, Kikuyu, and others. Some musicals had 3 languages in it.
Fred: We were very clear with them to not make concessions for us. We’d ask them who their audience would be, and if they brought in material written in English we would ask them to explain why. If it was a Nairobi audience, they’d understand all of those languages. People would bring in something for us to hear which was written in Kiswahili, or Kikuyu, and then we would explain what we thought was happening in the piece or what we thought one character was saying to another character, and the writers would respond with, “Yeah, that’s exactly what just happened.”
Deborah: There were no translators but we had no problems understanding.
Fred: The emotional storytelling was happening at a high enough level so that we could understand. Obviously, we didn’t always catch the nuances of the languages, but I don’t necessarily catch those even when I see shows in English. But understanding the emotional core of the story was not a problem.
Deborah: We did not impose certain ways of songwriting onto pieces that didn’t necessarily subscribe to that. I did a whole section on AABA song form to explain how it gives you a dramatic structure, but there was a writer named Elsaphan Njora who was doing really non-linear performance art—incorporating spoken-word monologues with movement, etc. I told him to think of AABA, but not DO AABA. I then asked him where the B section was in his piece, which helped him realize that he needed a new thought to help him get to the ending. He needed the pivot. So, he was able to take song form and use it in a way that fit what he was doing. We had a lot of pop composers who work primarily in verse/chorus, and though they didn’t need to be taught about that song form, they did discover how to use it to create progressions.
Fred: And what I found was that the conversation was frequently about transitions. For instance, if they were using verse/chorus form where a beat would follow the song, I could ask them to figure out a transition that would then give a forward motion from one thing to the next and which would allow them to refer to what they just did. There was a lot of conversation about transitions. They started to see how to put things together and how things can tie into one another. I didn’t think of them as students. They were professionals in their field who were coming in and using what they already knew to apply it to help tell a story.
Eric Wainaina and other creative artists discussing a piece
What kinds of things did the experience illuminate for you as writers?
Fred: For me, once again, which is always so gratifying, it was in realizing that this particular art form is something that is so necessary and that so many people recognize and want to be a part of, no matter where they are from. So that was very refreshing. It was personally exciting to be in conversation with a different kind of music. Having never really spoken to people who were embedded in the kinds of cultural situations that some of these artists had experienced, it was exciting to be exposed to different kinds of cultural directions that I had maybe heard about but didn’t really know. I didn’t make concessions for who I am, and they didn’t make concessions for who they are. We just kind of met and we’d get in a room and argue sometimes and just find that “place”. The range of storytelling was really exciting and invigorating.
There was a science fiction piece that, on the surface, seemed a very light and cute piece, but very quickly you understood that it was a VERY serious critique of colonialism—and this is from a country that has been under the foot of colonialism throughout history.
Nairobi is a cosmopolitan destination for a lot of people from places like Uganda, Rwanda, Somalia, and for a lot of women who are subjected to things such as genital mutilation. Writers presented stories that were happening in “story land” but were also about them taking control of their narrative and their situation.
One story was an investigation of 4 field marshals in the Mau Mau Rebellion that won independence for Kenya. 3 were men and 1 was a woman. The men are frequently mentioned, but the woman is not, and she’s the only one of them who is still alive. And these writers interviewed her to tell her story.
We didn’t have to tell the artists to write about what was happening and what they were thinking about in terms of Kenya and Nairobi. They all just did it—in a lot of different ways. There is a lot of inter-ethnic conflict so they were writing pieces about that. For me, that was very invigorating.
Do you think that their instinct to write about those sorts of things was due to them being professionals in their fields or because of their unique cultural situations?
Fred: I think a bit of both. They’re in a place where there’s a lot going on. A presidential election just took place there that ended up in months and months of post-election violence—bodies in the street in certain neighborhoods. And now the two sides have reconciled, and that has offered up a lot of possibilities, but those are the conditions they are living in.
Deborah: There’s a lot of tribal pressures in Kenya due to the number of different tribes. This past presidential election really magnified those tribal differences. Things align differently in Kenya than they do here. It’s not racial. It’s tribal. Or it’s colonial.
Fred: …or about class. And class is very much tied to each tribe in many cases.
Deborah: But what Eric did was really radical because he essentially invited people from every group: Indian, Muslim, Hindu-Indian, Muslim-Indian.
Fred: There’s a large South Asian-Kenyan population.
Deborah: We had Kikuyu and Luhya and Bantu. We had somebody from Congo. It was really diverse. So, that was really remarkable. You could just see the incredible power of music and how it could bust through any barrier or anything that would separate a people. Music is the great unifier and musical storytelling can reach across boundaries in a way that nothing else can. My sense was that we were in the middle of something that was pretty radical. Eric actually described it as “culturally cataclysmic”.
Although we went over there to give and to share, I felt like I got more out of the experience than the artists did. I guess the thing that was so powerful to me was that every single person there had an urgency that was fueling their art. That was truly inspirational. I think we can be a little slight here. People want to come and be Broadway stars, or we want careers. All sorts of things can motivate American artists. What is fueling the work in Kenya is a deep sense of urgency about the national situation or about the personal situation, and every single story had stakes that were high and artists that were telling that story because they were fighting for their lives. When you have that kind of urgency and connection fueling a story, you have really important, incredible stories that are moving, and it’s a reminder for me as a writer that you should write as though you have just been given a death sentence and you’re going to die in 5 days. So, you have to ask yourself the question “what am I going to say?”. It's going to change what you’re going to say, right? It needs to be important. Don’t waste time. There was nothing frivolous—which is not to say that people weren’t having fun, because people were having a lot of fun. But there was nothing light, nothing frivolous happening in these stories. Even though some of them were comedies. Dead serious. It was just a reminder to take this seriously. They’re taking it seriously.
Fred: And we didn’t have to tell them that. And many of them have had international careers. For instance, one artist is in Kenya’s biggest boy band—and Kenya occupies a large footprint, especially in east Africa. So that music isn’t just localized to that one spot, but it travels around Africa and gets performed in other countries, but the artists are grappling with the question of what they have to do in order to break into the next level. As African artists (musicians and playwrights), they feel that there is a box around them unless they can crack through it. That is obviously cart before the horse with the art form of musical theatre. So, we encouraged them to get their storytelling tight so they could then begin thinking on larger terms. Many of them wanted to know about “Broadway”, and I think we did a good job of giving people that, but we also pushed them to tell their own stories.
(right to left) Deborah Brevoort, Eric Wainaina, Fred Carl
What do you hope for in terms of the future of musical theatre in Kenya?
Fred: That it just keeps growing and developing into its own thing. I loved going, and our hope is that this particular project will continue for the next few years. Hopefully some of these pieces will continue to be developed to the point where excerpts could be shown at some international theatre festivals, but my hope is that there will come a time when we don’t need to go because the musical theatre scene is vibrant all on its own, and that it morphs the way it needs to morph to tell the stories that are needing to be told.
Deborah: We are putting yeast into a very rich batter.
Fred: Yeah, we’re dropping some seeds.
Deborah: We’re sprinkling some water on flowers that haven’t received water in a very long time. That’s what our role is.
Every year there are international theatre festivals that take place in Kigali and in Kampala. They are big deals. The practical plan is to include work in a festival in November 2020 which will showcase the work that the artists are producing. That festival could contain readings of works in progress. One might showcase a more produced version of a show. The current plan is to return in June and then possibly again in January, June, and November 2020.
When we did the final presentation (which ended up being knockout), people were in tears. There was a guy who had written the check to pay for our airfare and our hotel, and he basically ended up writing another check to fund the workshop for next year. And he said he had 7 friends that he would talk to for additional funding. All of this depends on the funding to bring us over, but Eric is able to put things together. The workshop created such a groundswell that money just appeared. So right now, that’s the goal. At least 3, maybe 4 more trips over before November 2020, and then they want us there in November 2020 to help launch things at a festival. I’m happy to be there to nurture for as long as I’m needed and then to just go away, but Ethiopa is now talking and they want in on this. It’s all about the funding, so we’ll see.
Relate one favorite anecdote
Fred: One thing that stood out, just because it was basically a “burst into tears” moment, involved one of the participants—a guitarist named Kabaseke.
Deborah: This is actually the anectode that I was going to relate, Fred, so you go ahead and tell it.
Fred: His life story is epic. He’s in his early 30s. He’s a FABULOUS guitarist—pretty much any style (and some styles you don’t even have a clue about). World Class. He’s in Eric’s band, so Eric asked him to do a piece on his story. He was originally from a small village in Congo. All he wanted to do was to play music and he learned to play on a local instrument. Once a week, people would come to the village and show a movie via a projector, and one time they showed a movie where someone was playing a guitar, and he was like, “what is that?”. I want that. So, he took a gourd used for storing oil, emptied it, attached one string, and made a makeshift guitar and taught himself to play that. There was one older man in town who owned a guitar and who ended up becoming his mentor. The man taught him and gave him a guitar so he could play on an instrument with more strings. Then a soldier came to town to recruit kids to become child soldiers. His mentor told him that he needed to leave the town because he was made for music. His mother agreed. He then walked to the next country, but while there, he was captured and drafted as a child soldier. However, he was able to escape and he walked to Kenya from Congo.
Deborah: Congo to Uganda to Kenya—it’s like Denver to New York—in the jungle.
Fred: In a warzone.
And how old was he at this point?
Fred: He’s 32 now and his story begins when he was 7 or 8. He told it in a very interesting way. He worked with 2 other people—one was a playwright and director and the other was a singer/actor from a boy band. Kabaseke only speaks the language from his hometown, as well as French, and Kiswahili, but he doesn’t speak English. He would tell us his story and then his collaborator would translate and write things down. It was kind of amazing.
There was a legendary Kenya musician named John Nzenze who attended the workshop and who is a very important figure in the Kenyan music scene.
Deborah: He’s like the Elvis Presley of Kenya. Every Kenyan knows every song he ever wrote by heart.
Fred: In the late 50s and early 60s, John was listening to American twist music, and he took that and created his own style out of it called “twisty”. Well, John was showing up every day to the workshop and he ended up playing the older musician from Kabaseke’s story who mentored him when he was young. Kabaseke played his younger self. They did the presentation, and there was a narration in Kiswahili, so we couldn’t understand what was happening as it unfolded, but essentially, they were recounting his story. We were inside of the story where we were watching a musician who is in his seventies talking to a musician who is in his thirties—two people who have made music their life—saying that he basically HAD to make music his life.
Deborah: Everyone in the audience knew these two people playing these parts because they are so culturally significant.
Fred: And there were all of these layers and levels hitting you. So, they came in to show us what they were going to do for the day, and we were going to give them some critique. I sat there and realized I was going to start crying. Deborah and I didn’t say a word to one another, and at a certain point, within 2 minutes, we both looked at each other… and…
Deborah: It was the most powerful thing I have ever heard.
Fred: We were both experiencing the same thing. We were both going to burst into tears, which wouldn’t have been the most helpful thing to help them get their piece together.
Deborah: It was so powerful. It was about this person and his desperate need to create music. And the beauty that came out of it… and the language.
Fred: They were worried that we didn’t understand what was being said, but we completely understood what was happening because of the high level of emotional storytelling.