A decade ago, no one would have associated Korogocho slums in Nairobi with a musical genre that has been a preserve of the rich.
But at St Johns Church in Korogocho slum, painted with colourful murals of Bible stories, every weekend dozens of children used to leave poverty and pain behind and find joy in orchestra music.
Playing a cello, violin or clarinet was an emotional escape, but then Covid-19 hit.
For almost a year now, the children under Ghetto Classic have been unable to physically practice as they used to.
The Ghetto Classics music foundation aims to transform the lives of over 650 children in Korogocho, Huruma, Dandora and Mukuru kwa Reuben, as well as students from Farasi Lane Primary School and Muthangari Primary School in Nairobi.
Lameck Fredrick Otieno, 19, who has been with the Ghetto Classics for the last seven years and plays violin says that music opened his eyes. “I grew up in the slums and the slum was my world until I picked up a violin. It helped me see a different world. I am currently studying architecture and this was inspired by my tours with the group. I saw houses that I had never seen,” he says.
But the pandemic has disrupted his life and he misses performing. “I was a troublesome child, but music changed me. Now I have set my goals. I will become a politician and represent this area.”
Viena Munjal, 18, who plays clarinet joined Ghetto Classics when she was ten and just like Otieno, the foundation has also been taking care of her school needs. She sat for her KCSE this year. “It means a lot to me as this is the place I found my second family. This place has been my sanctuary. I miss playing jazz and I pray that Covid will go away so that we can play music again.”
According to Elizabeth Njoroge who founded the Ghetto Classics orchestra in 2008, it is not easy to grow up in Korogocho. She says that what was once a dream, has taken a life of its own.
“Ghetto Classics is now more than a musical group. It has transformed the lives of many young people in Kenya. It is a family for those looking to change their narrative.” According to Ms Njoroge who is also the Executive Director of The Art of Music, more than 3,000 school children drawn from Nairobi, Kiambu and Mombasa have benefited from the Ghetto Classics Outreach programme. “Safaricom has walked with us and invested in the lives of these children,” she says. Alexander Mutuli, 17, another beneficiary of Ghetto Classics says when they play they often feed on the energy of audiences. So when live performances were stopped, he fears that crime may fill the high that live orchestra music gave them.
Alexander loves playing a Djembe and Ghetto Classics has exposed him and other underprivileged children to a new world. They performed when the Pope visited Kenya and during Jamhuri Day celebrations at State House. Stephen Kamau and Teddy Otieno, members of Ghetto Classics were once invited to the International Music Session in the Hamptons, USA.
Brian Kepher also applied to participate in the Gustav Mahler 5th International Conducting Competition and was invited to audition at the Conservatoire of Lausanne in Switzerland. He was also selected to participate in the first-ever African University Leader Exchange Programme at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Cyndicate Kabei graduated last week from the Safaricom Youth Orchestra which draws together 45 percent of its students from public schools, 30 percent from the Ghetto Classics programme, and 25 percent from private schools.
Cyndicate started playing the French horn four years ago when she joined the Ghetto Classics.
“Music is an integral part of my life, and the orchestra has allowed me to nurture my talents, explore music and gain exposure with world-renowned artists,” she says.