Henhouse Prowlers in Kenya: Bluegrass, Hip Hop and Diplomacy
We get a lot of questions about the trips we've taken to 14 countries with the US State Dept. More often than not these conversations consist of short exchanges that will never do the experiences justice. So, we wanted to take the opportunity to share just a few of them here. The places we have been changed who we are as musicians AND people and it feels important to share, as well as put on record the truly positive work our State Department does. If you're reading this and have any further questions, please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What follows is just one day of our most recent trip to Kenya:
Monday, July 18th - 2016
We were about 90% through our tour at that point. That means we'd spent 4 weeks in Europe, a week in Uganda and 3 days in Kenya. On the State Dept. tours we're given a very concise schedule of things before we get there and I can show you what it looked like on that day. We had been in Mombasa the day before, just as a reference.
7:00 a.m. - Depart hotel for airport
9:30 a.m. - Flight to Nairobi
11:00 a.m. - Check in at Ole Sereni Hotel
12:00 noon - Lunch at Ole Sereni Hotel
1:30 p.m. - Drive to Dandora Hiphop city Hub
2:00 p.m. - Visit Hiphop city hub and interaction with resident hiphop musicians
2:50 p.m. - Drive to Pinebreeze community Library location
3:00 p.m. - Concert at the Pinebreeze Community Library with Juliani and Sarabi bands
6:00 p.m. - Drive back to hotel
The schedules are loose at best and things often change on these trips, being that we're in another part of the world. Still, this is what we wake up and look at every morning on these ventures. That's all you get. Ultimately we show up to these places and get to work with whatever is presented to us. That might mean putting on a show for a huge audience, or doing a workshop on music with a small group of students, or collaborating with local musicians. You learn to improvise in a way that's hard to describe until you're in the middle of it. It's exhilarating and maybe just a little crazy.
Things moved around this Monday because US Ambassador Godec wanted to come to show we were going to put on at the Community Library. We switched the schedule around and did that show first.
Flights across Africa can be stunning.
The drive to our first show from our hotel took about an hour and brought us through all manner of neighborhoods. We ended up in the city of Dandora, which is often called a ghetto. It's hard for us as Americans to deal with that word due to its less than positive connotations, but we heard people who lived there (and used to live there) use it proudly. The neighborhood is known globally for being the site of the largest garbage dumps in Africa.
You can read about Dandora and see some powerful photographs here.
Also, there's a really wonderful article on how residents are helping change it here.
We showed up and began setting up for the show. The Sarabi band (more on them in a bit) was there already and had sound checked. One of the wildest things about these kinds of events is that we're set free on our own to do sound. That's all fine and good in the US, but you have all sorts of different variables when you're in Africa. Electricity can be tricky, for one. We've gotten pretty good at it (we bring a super compact but powerful PA and a power conditioner), but it can still be hectic.
Aaron is a godsend in these situations. He knows his technology.
The reason Ambassador Godec wanted to come out was to support the Sarabi band, who played a set along with us. They were INCREDIBLE musicians and it turns out they've been blacklisted some in Kenya because they sing songs of protest against the government.
Check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QGx_6lMjGI
It's in Swahili, but you don't need to understand the words to see where they're coming from. The song is a powerful statement against the suppression of free speech.
It's important to note here that without fail we come back from these trips with a much better understanding of how the US State Department works and with a sense of pride in it all. These programs are publicized very little (if at all) here in the US, yet they happen all the time across the globe. Ambassador Robert Godec gave a short speech on the importance of protest music in American history and how proud he was of this band for pushing the envelope, regardless of the consequences. It's widely known that Sarabi Band is hassled by the powers that be for their anti-government stance.
The show itself was wonderful. We played the Kenyan tune we learned and the audience kind of lost it. Honestly, there's nothing more gratifying than having an audience (who looks at you the way folks do when you're from another culture) open up and accept you when they find that you share a musical connection with them. We bonded some with the Sarabi band after the set and it felt good.
This is the Sarabi band below:
And here's Jon hanging out with their bass player:
Stay tuned for part two of this chronicle. This was just the beginning of an incredible day.