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Remembering Hugh Masekela: the horn player with a shrewd ear for music of the day

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Hugh Masekela

Trumpeter, flugelhorn-player, singer, composer and activist Hugh Ramapolo Masekela has passed away last year after a long battle with prostate cancer.

When he cancelled his appearance in 2017 at the Johannesburg Joy of Jazz Festival, taking time out to deal with his serious health issues, fans were forced to return to his recorded opus for reminders of his unique work. Listening through that half-century of disks, the nature and scope of the trumpeter’s achievement becomes clear.

Masekela had two early horn heroes.

SOUTH AFRICA -DECEMBER 28 : Legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba with fellow musician and ex-husband Hugh Masekela. (Photo by Gallo Images/ Avusa)

The first was part-mythical: the life of jazz great Bix Biederbecke filtered through Kirk Douglas’s acting and Harry James’s trumpet, in the 1950 movie “Young Man With A Horn”. Masekela saw the film as a schoolboy at the Harlem Bioscope in Johannesburg’s Sophiatown. The erstwhile chorister resolved “then and there to become a trumpet player”.

The second horn hero, unsurprisingly, was Miles Davis. And while Masekela’s accessible, storytelling style and lyrical instrumental tone are very different, he shared one important characteristic with the American: his life and music were marked by constant reinvention. As Davis reportedly said:

I don’t want to be yesterday’s guy.

Much has already been written about Masekela’s life and its landmarks: playing in the Huddleston Jazz Band in the 1950s on a horn donated by Louis Armstrong; performing in the musical “King Kong” in the 1960s and at the Guildhall and then Manhattan schools of music with singer Miriam Makeba; US pop successes in the 1970s and then touring Paul Simon’s “Graceland” in the 80s and 90s.

What is less discussed is the music, and the innovative imagination he has periodically applied to draw it fresh from the flames.

Breaking new ground

The Huddleston band, plus time as sideman and in stage shows, were the traditional career path for a young musician. But then Masekela broke his first new ground. With fellow originals, including saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, as The Jazz Epistles they cut the first LP of modern African jazz in South Africa.

“Jazz Epistle: Verse One” (1960) featured band compositions marked by challenging improvisation – “a cross between mbaqanga and bebop”. Mbaqanga is form of South African township jive and bebop an American jazz style developed in the 1940s.

Masekela had also joined the pit band and worked as a copyist for South Africa’s first black musical, “King Kong”.

This exposure attracted attention to his talent from potential patrons at home and abroad. Pushed by the horrors of the Sharpeville massacrewhen the South African police shot and killed 69 people on 21 March 1960, and pulled by donated air-tickets and scholarships, Masekela left for London, and then New York.

In the next two decades, Masekela’s re-visioning of his music took many forms. He found America hard, but with wife Miriam Makeba (the marriage lasted from 1964 – 1966), the production skills of Gwangwa, and the support of American singer Harry Belafonte he proactively introduced audiences to South African music and the destruction of apartheid.

Jazz legend Dorothy Masuka, who died on 23 February 2019 attends Hugh Masekela’s memorial service. At the back is Sibongile Khumalo. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

On the ironically titled 1966 live “Americanisation of Ooga Booga”, he demonstrated the creative possibilities of “township bop”. Masekela did this by mashing up repertoire and playing styles from the South Africa he had left and the America he had landed in.

But he was also looking in other directions: in collaborations with other African musicians; towards fusion (with The Crusaders), rock (with The Byrds) and even pop at the Monterey Pop, festival.

That list captures only a fraction of his projects in the 1960s. Some bore instant fruit: his 1968 single, “Grazin’ In the Grass”, topped the Billboard Hot 100 list and sold four million copies; the previous year’s “Up Up and Away” became an instant standard.

In 1971, he teamed up with Gwangwa and Caiphus Semenya for another pan-African vision: The Union of South Africa. In 1972 he explored a stronger jazz orientation on “Home is Where The Music Is” with, among others, sax player Dudu Pukwana, bassist Eddie Gomez, keyboardist Larry Willis and Semenya.

Sixties counterculture

But as the title of “Grazin’ In the Grass” suggests, Masekela was also bewitched by other aspects of Sixties counterculture. He dated his addiction back to the alcohol-focused social climate of his early playing years in South Africa, but by the early Seventies he admitted:

I had destroyed my life with drugs and alcohol and could not get a gig or a band together. No recording company was interested in me…

That depression inspired the song that achieved genuinely iconic status back home in South Africa: the 1974 reflection on migrant labour, “Stimela/Coal Train”.

Foreign critics have handed that status to other Masekela songs, such as “Soweto Blues”, “Gold” or the much later “Bring Him Back Home”. Yet powerful though those are, it is Stimela, with its slow-burning steam-piston rhythm that captured the hearts of South Africans in struggle back home, and still does today. And of course the lyrics:

There’s a train that comes from Namibia and Malawi /there’s a train that comes from Zambia and Zimbabwe/ from Angola and Mozambique…

Masekela said:

For me songs come like a tidal wave … At this low point, for some reason, the tidal wave that whooshed in on me came all the way from the other side of the Atlantic: from Africa; from home.

Shortly afterwards, Masekela headed off to Ghana, hooked up with Hedzoleh Soundz, and was soon back in the charts. “Stimela” received its first outing on the album “I Am Not Afraid”, with West African and American co-players including pianist Joe Sample.

By the mid ‘80s, the hornman was back in southern Africa, recording “Technobush” at the mobile Shifty Studio in Botswana, and performing for the Medu Arts Ensemble with a Botswanan/South African band, Kalahari. His music shifted again: roots mbaqanga came strongly to the fore to speak simply and directly to people now openly battling the apartheid regime just across the border.

Returning home

After liberation and his return home, Masekela once more chose fresh directions. In 1997 he banished his addictions and began to showcase the virtuoso player he could have been 30 years earlier without the distractions of the West Coast. He fronted big European jazz bands, and benchmarked a long musical friendship with Larry Willis with the magisterial Friends.

But his shrewd ear for the music of today, rather than yesterday, also took him into younger company. He collaborated with current stars – including singer Thandiswa Mazwai – often encouraging them to take centre stage. Just before the recurrence of his cancer, he was planning a festival collaboration with rapper Riky Rick.

NEW YORK – AUGUST 20: South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela poses for a portrait on August 20, 1968 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

To cap the transformation, the individualistic rebel of the 60s and 70s became an elder statesman of social activism. In 2001, he established a foundation to help other musicians escape addiction. Once more he foregrounded the music of continental Africa, to campaign against xenophobia. And the return of his own illness became the cue to exhortother men to get checked for prostate cancer.

Other South African musicians have succeeded overseas; many have made one mid-career image switch – but few have shown us, in only one person but more than 30 albums, so many of the faces and possibilities of South African jazz.

Hugh Masekela, musician, activist. Born: 4 April 1939; Died: 23 January 2018

-Gwen Ansell; Associate of the Gordon Institute for Business Science, University of Pretoria

-The Conversation

The Conversation

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Naomi Campbell Has Big Plans For Africa

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The globally-popular Naomi Campbell was in Durban, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal, for the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA 2019 Leading Women Summit, to talk about her abiding interest and investment in the African continent.


As a supermodel who  has scaled stratospheric heights in fashion, Naomi Campbell has graced global runways and magazine covers, so when she came calling in Durban for a FORBES WOMAN AFRICA event, the anticipation was bigger than any cover shoot we have ever done.

For the 2019 Leading Women Summit held in the coastal South African city for the first time on International Women’s Day, the British-born supermodel, activist, philanthropist and cultural innovator exuded her signature grace and glamor in a sea-blue Marianne Fassler dress.   

In 2017, Campbell was named contributing editor of British Vogue by its  Editor-in-Chief, Edward Enninful.

When I complimented her March 2019 cover for British Vogue, she said, considerately: “I wish I could have brought you one, I could have grabbed a copy for you from the airport [in London] yesterday.”

READ MORE | Naomi Campbell: Africa Is One Of The Leading Continents In The World

Campbell caught her break as a fashion model when she was just 15 years old, and has featured in advertising campaigns for luxury houses including Burberry, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino.

Beyond her work in fashion, she has used her celebrity for fundraising and non-profit initiatives across the globe. In 1997, South African President Nelson Mandela named Campbell an “honorary granddaughter” for her activism. She also now has a YouTube channel, Being Naomi.

Campbell aims to integrate African and international luxury markets “bringing storied retailers to countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco, as well as introducing African artists to global audiences”.

“The strongest woman I have met come from Africa,” she told an audience of 500 during an on-stage interview at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit.

“There’s many great women. I was very blessed and lucky to meet Miriam Makeba when I came to South Africa. I didn’t know her story but it was just her presence. Then Winnie Mandela… I met many powerful and strong women with inner strength and I am very much attracted to women with strength. You learn from them, you take from them, you observe them and how they speak. I have always considered myself a work-in-progress.”

READ MORE | IN PICTURES | Leading Women Summit 2019

She added: “For me, modeling has been a blessing in my life. I am very grateful. It led me to meet the most amazing people. Where I am at in my life today, is to use the almost 33 years that I have been in this business to help make awareness, to open the minds to the brands that I work with and have worked with all these years.

“They need to come to this continent, not just come in and out and take, but [invest] in the infrastructure and make a commitment to the communities in Africa.”

A day before the event, when FORBES AFRICA caught up with Campbell, and before settling down for our brief interview, she began with a disarming: “What do you think is a good restaurant to go to in Durban?”

“I am tired but excited,” she had laughed. More from the exclusive interview:

You have said that you are investing in communities and infrastructure in Africa. Can you tell us more about your Africa plans?

My plans are to start serving my industry, brands and the continent. And seeing that we are such big consumers [of brands] in the rest of the world, yet we don’t have it ourselves on the continent… And it’s what works in all businesses, like fashion, architecture and technology. We are big influencers so why don’t we have these things? It’s mind-blowing, so now is the time.

READ MORE | Businesses Of The Future: 20 New Wealth Creators On The African Continent

You are working a lot with African designers?

I want to take them out into the western world and bring the western world in… so vice versa.

Are African designers in demand in the West?

Yes, because of the textiles. I don’t want to see that their textiles are copied and they don’t get credit for what they have done.

For me, the workmanship, the textiles, this is what we need to keep on the continent. We cannot allow other brands and designers from the West to come in and take your textiles.

What are some of your best memories of Nelson Mandela since your first meeting in 1993?

I have many great memories here in South Africa, and undoubtedly always with ‘grandad’, when he would send me out to the people, to different townships and villages and just put things in perspective for me.

Yes, I was coming from a fashion background, but I am a human being too and coming from a middleclass family, it’s something you feel to do, it’s not something anyone can push you to do. I am not sure what he saw in me and thought that I could do it, but I really love him and miss him.

Lending your celebrity to important causes, you have worked for global health, women’s rights etc… is there any passion project that you are working on right now?

My passion project is Africa. It is such a beautiful rich culture, with minerals and so many natural resources.

The narrative and perception also have to change. It is understood in the wrong way. 

All through your career, how have you managed to be so versatile across diverse industries?

There’s no plan to me, I just do what I feel. I [go with] gut instinct really of each thing I commit myself to doing, and I always follow through.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Hopefully, in the continent of Africa.

READ MORE | The material of life according to textile queen Nike Davies-Okundaye

What’s it like being a contributing editor on British Vogue?

It’s great working with Edward Enniful and fun to be an editor. I travel anyway but I get to travel and interview people from all walks of life.

It’s interesting to hear other people’s lives, their experiences, strengths and their hopes to get them on their journey. It’s not really like interviews but more conversational.

What is the best part of being an African woman in the 21st century?

African women have always been extremely strong. On the African continent, people are really smart… I have always had high respect for them.

They are so smart and educated, and yet what do they do with it once they have got it, and this is where it needs to change.

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Inside Nipsey Hussle’s Blueprint To Become A Real Estate Mogul

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The tattered stretch of West Slauson Avenue just off Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles isn’t the first place you’d expect to see a Cadillac Escalade roll up and deliver a Grammy-nominated musician. At the tiny strip mall on the south side of the street, storefronts include an off-brand taco joint, a Boost Mobile outlet and an accountant’s office advertising same-day tax refund advances up to $6,000.

This is where Nipsey Hussle decided to spend a recent Friday morning, and for good reason. His Marathon Clothing store, which peddles Crenshaw hoodies alongside his own music, occupies the corner of the L-shaped plaza. His history here goes back even further—in fact, it’s where he got his name.

“Before we was renting here, I was hustling in this parking lot,” says Nipsey, 33, born Ermias Asghedom. “It’s just always been a hub for local entrepreneurs.”

Change is coming to Crenshaw, and Nipsey is aiming to be on its bleeding edge: This month, Nipsey and business partner Dave Gross swooped in to pay “a couple million” for the plaza. Within 18 months or so, they’ll knock everything down and rebuild it as a six-story residential building atop a commercial plaza where a revamped Marathon store will be the anchor tenant.

In the meantime, a light rail line is rising to link Crenshaw—which, crucially, qualifies as a tax-advantaged Opportunity Zone—to Los Angeles International Airport and other key nodes of sprawling Southern California. The plaza will be among the first to benefit: There’s a brand-new train station under construction just steps away.

Nipsey may not be hip-hop’s biggest name, but he’s certainly among the genre’s most entrepreneurial. His slow-burn career started to catch fire six years ago when Nipsey offered 1,000 copies of his mixtape Crenshaw for $100 apiece—Jay-Z bought 100 copies—and rolled the profits into his label, All Money In. He released just 100 copies of a subsequent offering, Mailbox Money, with a price tag of $1,000.

“[Nipsey] was not trying to be independent just for the sake of it, but thinking about the benefits of being an independent artist,” says Chris Lyons, who has known Nipsey for several years and runs Andreessen Horowitz’s Cultural Leadership Fund, which counts Nas and Diddy as investors. “The most important thing is his ability to just see where future trends are going and not being afraid to pioneer.”

For Nipsey, the hustle started at home. He grew up down the road from the plaza, in what he calls “the worst house on the best block,” cutting grass and shining shoes to make extra cash as a kid before falling in with local gangs. Fortunately, his musical role models were entrepreneurs as well, offering a way out of a dead-end path.

Dr. Dre, from nearby Compton, built Death Row Records into one of the most influential labels in hip-hop history before eventually shifting focus to his namesake headphone line. Watching Dre from up close and moguls like Jay-Z and Diddy from afar gave Nipsey “the blueprint of what could be done with the platform of being a successful rap artist,” he says.

Nipsey started putting out mixtapes in 2005; on one of his early songs, Hussle In The House, he made sure to include a few financial lessons of his own. “Straight off the block, I sold dope to buy groceries,” he rapped. “Now it’s rap money, no advance, it’s all royalties.” Nipsey also prophetically flicked at his future Opportunity Zone gambit: “Pay taxes to these corners and put in work, it’s a policy.”

For his first music video, he wanted to do something that both represented his hometown and offered a path to earnings beyond music. Leafing through an old yearbook, he noticed a picture of local legend Darryl Strawberry in a vintage Crenshaw High School baseball jersey. Nipsey ordered a batch of throwback blue-and-yellow shirts with “Crenshaw” scripted across the front to wear in the shoot.

When the video ended up on MTV, scores of people started asking about “Crenshaw Clothing.” Nipsey had other ideas. A friend had given him a book called The 22 Immutable Laws Of Marketing, packed with Procter & Gamble case studies. As Nipsey ruminated on these lessons in the context of his own journey, the word “Marathon” came to him—it had more potential, he thought, than Crenshaw, a location most people couldn’t place on a map.

Nipsey flirted with major labels, signing with Epic but leaving in 2010—with his catalog intact—after a management change left his official debut album in limbo. While continuing his prolific mixtape output, he became obsessed with the notion of social currency, prompting the release of his $100 mixtape in 2013.

“I believe that economics is based on scarcity of markets,” he told Forbes at the time. “And it’s possible to monetize your art without compromising the integrity of it for commerce.”

Meanwhile, Nipsey continued to give away other mixtapes to satiate his fans, who in turn supported him by buying concert tickets and merchandise. He turned down new record deals because the labels all seemed to want a piece of his burgeoning broader business.

He didn’t need the cash, thanks to his ancillary income and his TuneCore catalog, which was earning him monthly royalty checks in the low six figures. After a couple of years, though, Nipsey had built up a good amount of leverage. He decided to cut a deal with Atlantic that enabled him to make Victory Lap, his official major label debut.

“It’s a partnership. … I shook hands and said I wouldn’t give full details, but we’re sharing everything: profit, masters,” he says. “I was holding out for a long time for these terms.”

Nominated for Best Rap Album at this year’s Grammy Awards, the record paired his rapidly improving socioeconomic status with a career-long message of fiscal responsibility. In one verse, he blustered about Benzes and Bentleys—and touted his trust accounts alongside the “million-dollar life insurance on my flesh.”

At the same time, Nipsey was looking for other ways to expand his empire. He met Gross, a private-equity and real-estate investor, courtside at a Lakers game several years ago. (“We started drinking tequila,” says Nipsey. “By the third quarter, we was more friendly.”) They bonded over Gross’s idea for an inner-city co-working space now known as Vector90.

They eventually teamed up to buy the plaza on West Slauson, currently zoned for buildings that max out at 40 units. Nipsey and Gross are aiming for 100 units, which requires a lengthy entitlement process, so they’ve been working with the city and local council members on the details—hence the long timeline. And they’re building smart.

Buried in the tax overhaul of 2017 is a provision to encourage investment in state-designated low-income enclaves known as Opportunity Zones. Under the law, investors can shift capital gains into institutions located in these areas, where the capital is taxed at a reduced rate; new opportunity investments can grow tax-free.

There are basically no limits on the amount of money that can be plowed into an Opportunity Zone or the amount of tax that can be avoided. Is it possible the program is excessively business-friendly? Not for its ambitious goals, backers say.

“The incentive needs to be powerful enough that it can unlock large amounts of capital, aggregate that capital into funds and force the funds to invest in distressed areas,” billionaire Sean Parker told Forbes last year. “Instead of having government hand out pools of taxpayer dollars, you have savvy investors directing money into projects they think will succeed.”

Parker was part of a diverse group of Opportunity Zone proponents that included Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina, a Republican, and Cory Booker of New Jersey, a Democrat. Like Parker, they argue that bold moves are necessary to fix entrenched ills: To qualify for the program, an area must have a median household income 80% less than nearby neighborhoods’ or a poverty rate of at least 20%.

Gross and Nipsey saw a perfect fit for Crenshaw.

“This is the quintessential Opportunity Zone investment,” says Gross. “The law is supposed to support ground-up entrepreneurship, giving opportunities and jobs to all communities and improving the neighborhood.”

The purchase of the plaza also marks the beginning of a coalition called Our Opportunity—led by Gross, with Nipsey as a founding partner—that will aim to team with local legends in 10 cities as part of a broader Opportunity Zone-based fund. From there, Nipsey envisions building a tax-advantaged lifestyle empire, all linking back to his music.

“The vision is to launch franchises,” says Nipsey, imagining a line of The Marathon Clothing stores, barbershops, fish markets, restaurants. “There’s such a narrative to this parking lot—that’s a part of my story as an artist.”

-Zack O’Malley Greenburg; Forbes Staff

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Is Nairobi’s Storied History Quietly Disappearing?

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If distinctive architecture marks a great city, then, Nairobi, chief among the great capitals of the continent, has plenty to appreciate. Unfortunately, faced with the urgent needs of development, the preservation of its historical buildings has often been overlooked. 

Nairobi, as some may know it, presents a bewildering range of architectural styles. Influences conflict from religion and the decadence of imperial culture to the studied modernism of post-independence and the synthesized futurism of late.

Yet, even in this dazzling array of constructed expression, the city’s architecture will not be recommended by many, if any, of its locals.

One might notice that a lot of the older buildings, some survived from the colonial era and others erected in the fleeting euphoria of post-independence, are taken for granted. Their relevance now narrowly defined by current occupants and not by what they were and how they came to be.

Nairobi Kenya architecture. Picture: Getty

The more anonymous international-style towers made of glass and steel that define the city skyline enjoy more frequent limelight, locating the ambitions of a modern African city in an increasingly globalized world.

This attitude has been explained by a popular theory frequently offered in the niche but studied debate within Kenyan architecture. One that often dominates any headline to do with the designs of the capital.

Evelyne Wanjiku, an aficionado of African architecture and co-author of a book on the history of Nairobi’s buildings, lambasted the tastes of her fellow countrymen as a crisis in the city’s property fashions.

“Buildings in Nairobi are a testimony to the influences of various industrialized countries. A walk around the city reveals buildings of British, Indian, and even Dutch influence,” she notes in a particularly disgruntled article in one of the papers of record, Daily Nation.

Beyond the alien persuasions of the Nairobi skyline, she says that even the well-to-do homeowners in the country reinforce this pattern through the “Victorian houses or fancy Tuscany structures” that they have built for themselves.

The assertion is heavy. Kenyans as, consumers of architecture, are all too willing to be swayed by those of an ‘imported culture’.

The reality, however, is a lot more complex.

In just a number of decades, Nairobi has spread, from its traditional center, to a sprawling network of settlements. In this frantic urbanization, the designs of architecture have been subordinate to the needs of development; conditions that the discipline has traditionally tried to avoid.

This phenomenon inspired a tangent in a conversation with Dr Bitange Ndemo, a popular newspaper columnist and professor at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

“The beef I have… is that once we are all dead, nobody will say that architecture existed in Kenya!” he laments.

To those new to the argument, the beef is two-fold.

Nairobi’s history is quietly disappearing. Some of it claimed in a recent spate of demolitions such as those of the colonial-era bungalows in and around the neighborhoods of Kileleshwa and the famous Kariokor Estate, home to the African porters of the ‘Carrier Corps’ during the first World War.  

Their replacements, brutally modern apartment blocks, allegedly erected for immediate commercial return that the professor, and other proponents, maintain, do not redefine these areas in any language but instead deprive them of all identity. Worse still, with average rental prices per month averaging upwards of $800, only a small slice of the city’s inhabitants can now afford to call these places home.

Nairobi, often dubbed as the ‘green city in the sun’, has a storied history which is told rather vividly through its buildings.

Founded at the turn of the 20th century, as a depot on the Uganda Railway, it quickly rose to prominence as a trading post in what would become British East Africa. It was the industrial center of the country’s colonial economy – the main artery in the trade of coffee, sisal and tea. Eventually, in 1907, it was declared the capital of that region of the British Empire, a title furtively snatched from the bordering town of Machakos.

As such, Nairobi’s architecture cleverly accommodates the country’s diverse indigenous and settled cultures along with their individual histories.

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Even today, monumental buildings, commissioned by the colonial government of the day, show a pride in Kenya’s position within the empire. Designed by a ‘rebel’ architect from the British School of the Arts in Rome, Parliament House, the home of the country’s legislature, is not a carbon copy of its archetype as was intended. Instead, it is a cheerful interpretation of Westminster, showered by the equatorial sun and in constant conversation with the towering palm trees around it.

The South Asian community, among the city’s early settlers, is responsible for a large part of the architectural kitsch. Forming the  bulk of Nairobi’s established merchant class, they have left an indelible stamp in the Art Deco styles prominent in some of the older downtown blocks such as Nanak House, which resembles a distant cousin of London’s Commonwealth House on New Oxford Street. An example of the generous extravagance of 1930s design, it is today better known for the upmarket hair salon on its first floor, than the conditions that inspired it.

While overshadowed by a clustering of modern towers, Jamia Mosque, in the center of town, is a beautiful specimen of Islamic architecture in the Arab tradition typical of the period of its construction, the first decade of the 20th century. Now a central place of worship for Nairobi’s sizable Muslim population, it is also well known for the businesses that have sprung from it, including an eponymous shopping mall several yards away.

Even as antiquated foreign fashions identify some of its streets, there are vernacular interpretations of them shrouded in the edifices of Nairobi. The Catholic Parish of St. Austin’s, at the edge of the middle class Lavington suburb, is a glorious showpiece of Gothic Revival with an African accent.

With its colossal mabati (corrugated iron) and timber roof trusses, it is a firm favorite of Ndemo.

“I get satisfaction from good architectural design… and if you go inside [the church], you can feel that someone put their thoughts together to do this,” he says.

The preservation of these Kenyan relics is not a recent concern. There is, in fact, a government agency dedicated to this crucial mandate at the National Museums of Kenya. However, for many of these buildings, the costs of safeguarding them for posterity far outweigh those of constructing anew.

Perhaps no one in the country is more aware of this conflict than the Head of the Directorate of Antiquities, Sites and Monuments, Dr Purity Kiura. While adamant that the task of preservation, in an effort to conserve history and memory in Kenya is important, she insists that there are other factors that weigh the equation.

“There is agriculture, there is education, there is health…and all of these are competing with other needs for the nation so monuments are not a priority,” she says.

She does admit that attitudes are slowing changing. With so many of the buildings in need of protection poignant reminders of a difficult period in the country’s past, the need to conserve them is often set against embittered sentiment.

A younger cosmopolitan population, a few generations removed from that time, lends a more sympathetic ear to the obligations of architectural conservation.

 “We are starting to see a more positive response… they seem to be understanding their history and accepting that history,” she continues.

Outside of public office, there has also been, in response, a modest movement building. Sometime in 2013, the Architectural and Heritage Advisory Committee (AHAC) was convened. The group, comprised of an eclectic mix of brand name architects, lay enthusiasts, a prominent journalist and an architect-turned-photographer, set out to protect Nairobi’s built heritage.

Its architect, an economist by trade, Aref Adamali, was compelled to organize it after returning home in 2008. Having lived in some of the world’s great architectural cities, among them New York and London, he was met with a fast-changing metropolis in the midst of a property boom.

To him, these developments were not convincing evidence that it was heading in the right direction.

“We were losing older buildings… not just old colonial buildings made of stone but [some] from the ’60s and ’70s with post-independence modernist architecture and even cool buildings from the ’80s… that we could [never] recover,” he recalls.

After a number of conversations, Adamali began the initiative that would form AHAC. Looking to avoid the taxing listing procedures of the National Museums, they took their campaign to the interwebs.

“Listing can be contentious [so] we decided not to take the regulatory approach… our interest was in casting our net further than the city center and into the neighborhoods that were quickly changing,” he explains.

The result was an online poll open to all of Nairobi and a blog cataloging the capital’s aging architectural gems. After a period of voting, AHAC compiled a list of 50 of the city’s most treasured historical properties informed by a broad spectrum of its residents. They also collaborated with local artists and photographers to immortalize these structures in exhibitions that appealed to the greater public.

The committee is still contemplating a longer term approach but they do have a few ideas.

Nairobi Kenya architecture. Picture: Getty

“We’d want the owners of these buildings to be, in effect, the unofficial custodians of them,” Adamali proposes.

Some of the buildings that feature on the list include some of Nairobi’s most photographed landmarks like the iconic Kenyatta International Conference Centre.

Inspired by the vernacular structure of an African hut and constructed using locally-sourced materials, it was designed by Norwegian, Karl Henrik Nøstvik, in close consultation with the country’s first architect, David Mutiso, in 1968.

The exercise was a particularly important one for Nairobi. As the architectural debate blares on, in local newspapers or in intellectual salons, along with its interpretations of identity, it remains far removed from the wider Kenyan public.

Offering locals and laymen an opportunity to locate and share their own ideas of the city’s heritage gives the preservationists some support and a lasting shot at success.

Nairobi is host to not just one but a cornucopia of cultural connotations through its buildings. Each making conversation, in the language of design, about their origins and place in the city. Taken for granted as they are, these monuments of old will continue be lost without memory by the modernizing nation around them.

As Adamali insists, this cannot be allowed to happen.

“We’ve got to appreciate what we’ve got and together try to do what we can to preserve them for future generations,” he says.

-Marie Shabaya

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