I grew up in Mombasa, a small city on the Kenyan coast, where people speak the Bantu-Arabic trading language called Kiswahili, along with English. Local women walk the streets in black abayas and deras next to tourists in shorts and tank tops; beach boys loiter on the sand, and the sounds of taarab music continue to fill the streets of the old town, where my grandfather was born.
Mombasa feels like a different landscape from the rest of Kenya. And for many of us, Nairobi, the inland capital city of Kenya, has always seemed a distant dream. In fact, I didn’t know much about Nairobi except that my father worked diligently in the transport industry to ferry goods from the Port of Mombasa to the inland. I hadn’t spent much time in Nairobi until January 2019, when I joined the team of the NBO (Nairobi) Musical Theatre Initiative.
My path to the NBO MTI began when I first left Kenya almost five years ago on a full scholarship to attend New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts. I remember thinking to myself that I had made it: Here I was, a girl from a small city, sitting in her first college class, the first to attend university from her family, surrounded by a bunch of starry-eyed artists, all with different stories. New York City was a jolt: I went from self-producing, directing, writing, and starring in my own work at my high school, the Aga Khan Academy, to experiencing dance-theatre like Germaine Acogny and Mikaël Serre’s Somewhere at the Beginning to immersive theatre like Sleep No More.
In my senior year, I got a taste of home when I bumped into award-winning Kenyan musician Eric Wainaina while he was on tour with Tinga Tinga Tales: The Musical at the New Victory Theater in October 2018. Wainaina came to NYU to do a reading of his own musical theatre project DJ Lwanda. I remember listening to his song “Daima” when I was 13, in the midst of the post-election violence that rocked Kenya in early 2008, and feeling a sense of patriotism and faith that everything would be okay soon. I would never have imagined being in the same space as him, let alone attending rehearsals for his project. I was taken aback by the brilliance of his new musical, which explored the serious social challenges faced by residents of a Nairobi slum. And I was honored when Wainaina invited me to help him champion a musical theatre development initiative in our home country.
I was then pursuing my undergraduate education with a double major in theatre (with a focus in directing) and history (focused on African performance). Though I couldn’t yet make sense why my home country needed an incubator for musical theatre specifically, I was excited by the idea that such a space could exist for Kenyan artists to develop their work and collaborate with other theatremakers in the community. There is an urgent need for arts-based initiatives across Africa, not only to support the development of new work but also to expose the global community to theatrical and storytelling techniques that have existed in African traditions for generations. And to witness firsthand the support and encouragement that these artists had received in creating a new musical was truly inspiring. They had had the kind of space, and the kind of artistic community, I wish I’d had growing up. So I said yes and left JFK for NBO for a two-week workshop.
Nairobi has jokingly been called “Nairobbery,” but I was witness to the positive side of the city’s urban intensity when I arrived last January. Wainaina’s popular music “dwelling,” the Elephant, was buzzing with 50 people coming and going, and the din of them making musical theatre. As I walked down the hallways past each of the rooms, I could hear the gentle strumming of a guitar, followed by a classical rhythm on a set of tablas, sounds of sci-fi magic, and thundering hip-hop tunes on the keys. I wasn’t sure how to make sense of all of these different rhythms from different musical cultures and styles. It felt as though I had landed in a totally different universe. What had I walked into?
I was intrigued by the various projects rehearsing independently during the morning sessions. I had a chance to shadow Sheba Hirst, Wainaina’s wife and producing director of Rainmaker Ltd., from one room to another, observing each team create new material, write new scenes, and compose music. Wainaina, who serves as the artistic director of the initiative, along with consulting producing director and mentor, Roberta Levitow, had already worked for over three years to create a space where artists could work to develop and produce new musical theatre works, written, composed, and performed by African artists, by and for African audiences. Their hard work was everywhere in evidence, as the Elephant felt like an incubator for seedling musical theatre pieces.
The initiative works with professors from the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, Fred Carl and Deborah Brevoort, who, along with Levitow, a former senior program associate at the Sundance Institute Theatre Program, serve as mentors for the artists and their projects. While we went around ensuring that all the tech needs were met, the mentors moved from one room to another providing feedback on the songs and the scenes. (Levitow’s presence that January, it should be noted, was funded by a TCG Global Connections In the Lab grant.) To date the initiative has catalyzed the creation and development of 11 Kenyan musical theatre projects, four of which presented in-progress concert readings at the sixth edition of the Kampala International Theatre Festival in Uganda in November 2019. The response from audiences was overwhelmingly positive, as they deeply resonated with the content and grooved to the beat of the captivating music.
Many of the stories are set in a local context but have global relevance. Some of my favorite examples include a brown-Black love story, the life story of Kenya’s only surviving female field marshal and freedom fighter, and a story about a child soldier who fled the war in Congo to become a musician. Not only do these musicals-in-development share locally relevant stories, but they are also rooted within traditional African storytelling structures, in which the marriage of dance, drama, and music within performance is common. The fusion of traditional practices and the use of locally available instruments are beginning to expand the musical theatre genre to include practices from around the world. One example from the NBO MTI workshop was Escape: Interview with an Acrobat, a piece that incorporates hip-hop, techno rap, electronic sounds, and a live band of traditional musicians playing the zeze, the obokano, and the djembe, all to exhilarating effect.
In the afternoon, we gathered in the “Live Room,” the largest and most colorful room in the building, for a lecture from one of the mentors, Fred Carl. It was like a typical Kenyan classroom: hot and stuffy. Some of us were seated on the floor, and our older artists were seated on plastic chairs and stools. One of the Rainmaker production assistants, Mbogua Mbugua Mbugua, was busy scrambling with cables to make the sound work, while Carl performed a comic “musical interlude” as we waited for the technical difficulties to be sorted out.
I didn’t know what to expect during this session. I had never really understood the use of music in theatre, so I was skeptical that Fred’s lecture would resonate with me. I had had the opportunity to watch many Broadway musicals in my first year at NYU, including Tuck Everlasting, Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Lion King, among others. While the spectacle in each of these performances was breathtaking, I wasn’t sure what the purpose of musicals really was, beyond entertaining the audience. They felt to me like live versions of Bollywood movies—which I love. But I couldn’t connect that kind of musical theatre to my own interests, which are in making work with deep social and political resonance, discussing issues relevant to society today. I thought the only way to do that was to write and/or devise plays through improvisation and other physical theatre techniques.
It wasn’t until Carl broke down the musical structure of the prologue in Stew’s Passing Strange that the marriage of music and theatricality began to make sense. He applied the same kind of artistic rigor to musical theatre as I would in breaking down an experimental postmodern dance piece. Carl and Brevoort used examples to explain the use of motifs, repetition, choruses, and various other musical elements in telling a story. I was stunned to realize that musical arrangements could foreshadow dramatic action, and that the arrangement of a song could determine key plot points in the progression of a narrative. These mentors successfully turned my farcical understanding of musical theatre into a deep respect for, and an increasing curiosity about, the form.
And I began to make associations with the traditional taarab music, which embraces Arabic musical influences, that I grew up listening to on the coast. It is also a form filled with motifs and repetition; it was used to socialize Tanzania and to convey meaningful messages within the coastal community. As an artist and as a scholar, I have been deeply interested in the use of the arts to create social and political change in Africa. I asked myself the questions: Could musical theatre be a lens to understand the postcolonial landscape of our country and continent? And what would it take for us as artists to construct a new postcolonial African identity?
In spite of myself and all the assumptions I walked in with about musical theatre, I realized that to understand the manner in which the arts function in traditional African society, it is imperative for me to understand the technicalities of musical theatre as it is practiced elsewhere. Traditional African storytelling relies heavily on oral tradition and musicality; indeed music, dance, and storytelling are the identity of Africa. In the West, musical theatre may be a structure and form of artistic representation. In Africa, for us, it is a way of life. But without Wainaina’s initiative, I would never have been able to apply the tools of musical theatre to deconstruct traditional African stories, and to create groundbreaking new work.
I intend to further my research and develop a pedagogical structure that will combine a historic understanding of Africa’s musical past with the techniques of making new musical theatre, which will allow us to claim artistic leadership on a global scale. I feel so fortunate to have experienced this initiative from both sides—as both an observer and as part of the producing and artistic team. Being a part of this vibrant community of culturemakers in Nairobi is a dream come true. And despite my initial doubts, I’m convinced that Wainaina’s ever-growing musical development program is much needed in the region. It is empowering African artists to tell their own home-grown stories.
This cross-continental collaboration between artists from the U.S. and Kenya brought me closer to my home country, and has inspired me to continue researching various methods of ritual storytelling and their intersections with musical theatre and historic oral traditions. With Wainaina and the NBO Musical Theatre Initiative (which will culminate its first phase with a festival of new musicals in Nairobi in November 2020), I hope to be a part of a new wave of African culture, rooted in our own past, speaking to the present, and helping to create the future.
Karishma Bhagani, a director, serves as associate producer of the NBO Musical Theatre Initiative and associate artistic director of Tebere Arts Foundation, and is an education apprentice at New York City’s Roundabout Theatre Company.