Above: Cyndicate Kebei playing the French horn at Ghetto Classics. The window faces Dandora dumpsite. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Published: The East African Nation media 4-10 Dec 2021

The sound of music fills my ears, a cacophony of notes from different rooms behind closed doors. I open a random door at the end of the dimly-lit narrow corridor to be greeted by a young woman blowing a French horn and a man at the cello. In the background through the glass window is Africa’s biggest slum, Dandora, with people and Marabou storks scavenging through the mountain of garbage as gigantic yellow cranes pile more on.

Dandora dumpsite from Ghetto Classics window Korogocho slum. Copyright Rupi Mangat

It’s an unlikely scene – the slum and the classical musicians – but this is the home of Ghetto Classics.

The two youngsters are oblivious to the acrid smell and the smoke from the dumpsite, their concentration absolute. For these youngsters, this is their safe house where they come to play music and have dreams to escape the grinding poverty that they are born into.

“The only thing you need when you come to Ghetto Classics,” says Cyndia Kabei, the 20-year-old girl with the French horn, “is a passion for music.”

And a dedication to practice, practice, practice.

Ghetto Classics girls in practise with the flute at Ghetto Classics housed at St John Korogocho. The window faces Dandora dumpsite.

Born in the slum, Korogocho that neighbours Dandora and separated by Nairobi River, Cyndia (short for Cyndicate as she says with a smile) heard about Ghetto Classics from friends at school in Korogocho. “I used to sing in church and in 2017, I joined Ghetto Classics.”

Like every new comer to Ghetto Classics, the first three months are spent playing the ‘recorder’ that is a wind instrument. “It’s to check your persistence,” says the young woman.

And then you are given the instrument of your choice if you make it through. For Cyndia, it was the French horn. “I found it unique and felt challenged. Not many play it and no girls. It’s really tough but l researched on the internet about it. I love it. I’m going to play it for the rest of my life.”

Dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, the pretty young girl has grit. “My mum sells vegetables on the pavement and my dad works as a painter in Jua Kali (informal sector dubbed under the hot sun). He is really hard working but he has no work at the moment.”

The young woman looks out of the window facing the mountains of garbage with a far-away look.

“Growing up is not easy in Korogocho but you look for things to keep you moving, to spice up your life, like music.”

Korogocho is a slum of mabati and mud houses reached through narrow muddy lanes where there is no running water or sanitation. The road off the Eastern Bypass via Kariobangi to Korogocho starts with high-rise brick buildings till the slum where nothing is wasted. Piled on the road are wares sifted from the dumpsite – anything from broken toys to electronic stuff. Crime is rife, prostitution a way of life for many.  

In 2018, Cyndia auditioned for the Safaricom Youth Orchestra and passed. In 2021, she finished her O levels but then corona hit.

“Instead of just sitting at home, I started a band with Lameck the violinist in 2021. We call it the Dhamani Band, which has grown from four to 10.”

Dhamani is the Swahili word for earth. The band which consists of four guitarists, three singers, one keyboard and one sax player, specializes in African zouk music, a popular dance music from the Caribbean islands with a history of African slavery in the French West Indies.

Cyndia’s biggest dream is to take her parents and three siblings out of the slum.

In Concert Ghetto Classics

Ghetto Classics – the Start

I open the door with the most vibrant sounds. There’s a man on the piano and a cluster of musicians accompanying him with a violin, cello and a flute. The rich voice of a woman carries through. The group is practicing for ‘The Best of Ghetto Classics’, a concert by the most talented musicians of Ghetto Classics directed by Levi Wataka and Michael James. In a few days they will hold a concert at the upscale MatBronze Café in Langata.

The woman singing is Elizabeth Njoroge, founder of Art of Music Foundation which teaches music to over 500 children in Korogocho, with other satellite projects spread across the country.

The Foundation uses music for social change, teaching children from unstable backgrounds to play instruments as well as keeping them in school, providing mentorship, and offering food and a shelter to the most vulnerable. Ghetto Classics is a product of the Foundation.

Njoroge started the project with the parish priest at a community center run by the Catholic Church 12 years ago.

It’s a challenging place with kids from the slum in addition to getting the instruments, the child, and the teacher in the same place at the same time.

In the course of her love for classical music, Njoroge met Edita Camm, an orchestra buff cum manager who has staged many operas in Nairobi and after her eight, was set to retire.

korogocho Ghetto Classics musician practising the violin. Courtesy Ghetto Classics

“In October 2019, I showed my last Opera. It was a short opera by Mennotti before the covid pandemic,” tells the petite Camm.

But she soon realized that the musicians she had worked with were suffering, their income down to zero for two years because of the lockdown with the clubs and theatres closed.

“Their plight moved me to organize a concert as soon as the lockdown was lifted,” continues Camm. But instead of organizing full scale operas which take a year to prepare and rehearse, Camm began to produce concerts.

When a friend played her a recording of David Mwenje of Ghetto Classics singing ‘Bring him home’ from the musical Les Miserable, Camm reached out to Njoroge.

“It was an impressive rendition; more so considering that David comes from Korogocho slum and has had limited training in music by the marvelous institution Ghetto Classics.

“I was moved and such talent without a wider audience is wasted.”

It’s the story of the concert ‘The Best of Ghetto Classics’.

“The concert has three professional musicians to accompany the musicians from Ghetto Classics. They are the pianist Bennaars Ongidi, the violinist David Ralak and the founder of Ghetto Classic – the super soprano Elizabeth Njoroge,” tells Camm

In Conversation with the Best of Ghetto Classics

Between rehearsals l chat with the millennial musicians all born in the slum, soon to perform in black suits and polished shoes.

David Mwenje sings tenor. “I loved singing in church,” he tells. At school he was a prefect and made a deal with the noise makers in class who played instruments. “I told them l would not report them if they taught me music.

“Then one day l followed them and ended up at Saint John’s and saw Ghetto Classics.” This was in 2016, the start of a new life for Mwenje. “I’m told l have a Vatican voice,” he says with a grin. “I think it’s a gift from God.”

Njoroge introduced Mwenje to Sylvester Makobi, from Kenya now based in U.S. with the African American Arts Institute at the Indiana University of Bloomington. In an impressive resume, Makobi has also performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Holding zoom classes, Makobi introduced Mwenje to opera. “I didn’t even know what opera was,” says the vocalist.

“My dream is to be an opera singer, to help others who have talent but don’t know that.”

One of the eight kids, he’s lost four siblings…some shot in gang rivalry, theft or drugs. At 20, he’s helping his mother, a vegetable seller to raise the rest in a single room.

Lameck Otieno at 20 is a violist. One of the nine siblings, his mother is a ‘mama mboga’. Studying architecture at Jogo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, his dream is to transform Korogocho into a healthy housing estate with homes for pregnant girls, hospitals and schools to keep the kids out of the dumpsite.

As a seven-year old, Otieno foraged for food in the dumpsite, found his toys there until someone put him in the slum school. He enrolled with the church, sang and in 2014 heard Ghetto Classics performing in the amphitheatre at Saint John’s. He’s performed for the Pope and the President (Uhuru) but still returns home to the slum every night.

Stephen Kamau at the cello at GhettoClassics Korogocho.Copyright Rupi Mangat

Stephen Kamau at 21 began playing the violin but found his love for the cello, which he’d never seen till his foray at Ghetto Classics. His favourite musician is Yo-Yo Ma the American cellist and child prodigy, performing as a soloist with orchestras around the world. Ma is one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020.

The Best of Ghetto Classics will be at Matbronze Café at 6 p.m on 7th December and Muthaiga Club on 9 December.