Following is a report from Tom Wolf, bandleader and banjo player for the band Elephant Grass, based in Nairobi, Kenya. A cousin of bluegrass historian Neil Rosenberg, Wolf came to Kenya years ago with the Peace Corps and has ended up spending most of his life in Africa. He applied for an Arnold Shultz Fund grant in 2022 to help pay for online fiddle lessons for Oscar Chilumo Mbwana and Stephanie Waithera Mwaura, two college-age violinists in his region who have become very enthusiastic about learning and playing bluegrass music. His reports are written in an informal “letter to home” format.
Hi to all! I thought I’d give you a quick update on my return to Kenya.
Hopefully auspicious, on the day of my 6:00 a.m. arrival (after 30 hours door-to-door due to a long layover in Amsterdam, in order to get a cheaper seat!) and after a nap, I drove a few miles to the nearest mall for some shopping. Just before entering the parking lot, whom do I see walking towards me but Oscar, with a fiddle on his back! Pretty amazing, given that he lives about eight miles from there. I jumped out after parking to greet him and let him know I had just come back. He said he’s “all better now” (from being knocked over by a taxi) and could use the borrowed violin for as long as he needs it, although of course he’d like to have his own back. The Dutch instrument repair guy (who lives 40 miles away) said, on the basis of the photos Oscar sent him, that he could fix it, but for around $250, which Oscar doesn’t have now. He has been able to get enough work performing and teaching violin and was on his way to a nearby church to play an event for “something small.” It was great to see him, and he confirmed he was available for the third event with Elephant Grass at a private art exhibition/garden party on the following Saturday.
At practice he seemed in good fiddling shape, and I encouraged him to continue his Zoom fiddle lessons with Steve, a teacher in the United States. (Oscar missed some lesson time due to the accident with the taxi.) Stephanie is taking fiddle lessons via Zoom with a teacher named Carole, from Canada.
I was especially excited about Saturday, since this would be the first time since we played in public on January 2 with both of them. When we played in June, Stephanie had a class (on a Saturday!) and then in late August, Oscar, of course, was still nursing his wounds. Stephanie had a class ‘til midday and didn’t get to our practice until just 45 minutes before we had to go to the event. We quickly went over a few tunes they could twin-fiddle on.
The main focus during the three-hour practice was to try and gear-up a new/substitute bass player, since our usual (Gwendolyn) was out of town with some of her students. Initially I assumed that if we wanted to have any bass we’d have to deprive Steph of her fiddle and put her on electric bass. Stephanie didn’t have access to her dad’s bass and amp, but another musician in the band said he had one and promised to bring it along to the gig the next day.
This was on Friday. I felt bad thinking about NOT having twin fiddles after so long, so I phoned an American bass player (progressive jazz) to see if he was interested in playing bluegrass with us. He declined; he said he was rehearsing with a jazz pianist from Ghana, but he told me about an Israeli who was “just learning” and had his own upright bass. I contacted him and he said he was free on Saturday and would give it a try. It’s amazing that he’s been here in Nairobi for eight years and lives less than two miles from me, though he only recently brought a bass back from France, where he’d gone for some chef training which I think is his main work.
Before Oscar arrived, three of us spent the next three hours with the new bass player, going through the chord sequences of as many songs as we could while we practiced our vocal trio on the choruses. He was amazingly open-minded and quick in picking up the bass parts (and with a very nice sounding bass as well), so even if we had only about 45 minutes after Steph arrived, we managed to do our two sets without any major crises, especially given the informality of the setting. There were around 30 people in the audience, and half were kids.
Our regular bass player is also a key vocalist, but I told our sub there would likely be other occasions when we want to play and she’s again not available. It would be great to have him “on the bench” and ready to jump in, and he said, assuming we can spend some more time with him so he gets more familiar with our material, he would very much enjoy doing that. Yesterday I sent him some video links to get him more familiar with top-notch bluegrass bass playing (Tom Gray, George Shuffler, etc.) as well to some of our other numbers. I’m hoping he’ll have me come over now and then so I can help him learn as many of our numbers as he can. Also, since he’s married locally, it seems he’s around for good, so well worth investing in—especially since Gwendolyn and family will probably be leaving mid-2024.
Stephanie has classes until December 10, but after that will be much freer—including next year when her internship will be just eight hours a day! I encouraged her to contact Carole to have at least a few more lessons before the end-of-year holidays. In the meantime, we’re supposed to play at a private school for their annual St. Andrews’ Day dinner (parents and kids) at the end of November and perhaps also at an organic farmer’s market. In addition, some friends about 40 miles away (near where the Dutch instrument guy lives) say they want us to come play, and I’m going to again try to get us on at least one TV station, with the main focus on our Kenyan fiddlers! Will let you know how that turns out.
Stephanie is also auditioning for a violin piece in a play on Friday and has asked to borrow my violin since she says, “I play it much better than Mom’s, because it sounds so much better!” Of course, I agreed to that.
The main thing: it was clear how much Oscar and Steph enjoyed playing fiddle with each other again, even if they (and all of us) need LOTS MORE practice time, even on numbers we already know. And it’s also clear how the Arnold Shultz Fund grant has encouraged them, even if neither has had that many lessons so far.
With the addition of Yaniv (the Israeli bass player – who had never heard of bluegrass before!) our total number is 11, again underscoring the “musical chairs” nature of our group. If there was another banjo player around, they could even perform without me!
PS: December 1, 2022
It was great to have both Oscar and Steph together again after quite a while, to present an educational program on bluegrass music at a local high school. Of course, there were plenty of rough spots, but the nearly 100 kids and parents seemed to like our 40 minutes of bluegrass “noise!”
I visited a class last week to give a presentation on the history/musical structure of bluegrass. I showed some videos: “Arnold Shultz, the Bluegrass Godfather,” a film of Bill Monroe playing “Uncle Pen” at the White House, and High Fidelity’s “Hills and Home,” so they could see a band with much younger people. Oscar came along so we could play at least one tune for them, and I understand all those kids were present last night. One student from the class I visited came up to me afterward and asked if there’s any place in Nairobi that sells banjos! I know of one music store and told him about it, and then he asked if they also sell finger picks, since he saw me up close using them during the presentation to his class and was very curious about them! I told him next time I’m in that mall I’ll go to the store and check and then tell the headmaster. If they don’t, I can always bring some back from my next U.S. visit if he’s serious, and he seems to be. Great!
The school headmaster wrote, “The bluegrass performance was both a delight and an education. It gave us all, I think, new musical and cultural insights and it was great to see how familiar and less familiar instruments came together to produce so rich and uplifting a sound (even when the lyrics were gloriously gloomy).”
All of us (especially Oscar and Steph) can use the $90 each! We played at a garden party event last Saturday, although Oscar couldn’t attend as he was playing “The Nutcracker Suite” somewhere. We’ll play at an outdoors organic farmers’ market December 17, which Oscar and Stephanie can both make.
Steph finishes her exams the end of next week and will then be ready to continue with some more Zoom fiddle lessons!
Photo above: Oscar Chilumo Mbwana and Stephanie Waithera Mwaura,
RETURN to the December, 2022 issue of The Cornerstone.