La La Land may have been awkwardly dethroned as winner of the Best Picture category at the 2017 Oscars but the musical is on everybody’s lips. Touted as “a work of sublime artifice”, “an irresistible excess of heart” and “a sun-drenched musical masterpiece”, Damien Chazelle’s film comes at a time when the US needs a ray of sunshine, a break from the bleak, dreary political and social realities of the day. And what better way to let your hair down than with a dreamy musical?
Since it is election year in Kenya, let’s take a breather from politics and look at four original musicals that should return.
Luanda – Man of Stone
This musical rendition of the popular folk legend of Luanda Magere, the mighty warrior from the Luo community, was staged in 2003 in Nairobi to critical acclaim. Gowi Odera starred as Luanda while June Gachui played his first wife and Karimi Rimbui his second. Luanda is said to have had a body of stone and it was not until his second wife discovered his weakness – that his shadow would bleed if pierced – and betrayed him that his enemies defeated him in battle. He turned to stone, and the stone is a tourist attraction today.
It was produced by Sterling Quality and the music done by popular contemporary artist Eric Wainaina. Jazz pianist Aaron Rimbui was part of the band. It is by far one of the best shows to have graced the Kenya National Theatre stage, with excellent acting by a powerful cast and original music that blended folklore, contemporary styles and sometimes humour.
This gritty explosion of colour, dance, reggae music and slum life was the first Kenyan production to go to Broadway. In 2009 it was staged at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Singer Eric Wainaina’s brain child, Mo Faya left audiences laughing and crying all at once. Wainaina's song 'Nchi Ya Kitu Kidogo' is a powerful indictment of corruption and the musical was a moving story of the preying “investor” who seeks to defraud a community and steal their land, a common occurrence in Kenya.
But it was also the story of a slum community that though ravaged by poverty has strong ties. Directed by veteran thespian John Sibi-Okumu, the musical brought on stage some of Kenya’s finest talents including Mumbi Kaigwa, Dan Aceda, Wainaina as the lead actor DJ Lwanda and Valerie Kimani. On the instruments were Ricky na Marafiki band.
Out of Africa – Safari Through Musical Kenya
This promotional musical was a collaboration between Kenya Tourism Board, Peter Ultee Productions and Meerkat Productions, and toured the world in 2012, selling Kenya as a magical tourist destination. Written and executed in the epic style of South Africa’s seminal musical, Africa Umoja – The Spirit of Togetherness, this show ran a thread through Kenya’s heritage – both ancient and contemporary. It was a colourful performance with diverse music styles from different tribes.
It also featured a star-studded cast with the likes of Peter King, Charles Ouda, Anto Neosoul and Mkamzee Mwatela, who in 2003 played Sarafina in the self-titled musical.
Mekatilili the Musical
In this musical, Spellcast Media told the story of Mekatilili wa Menza, a woman leader who led the Giriama community in a rebellion against the British colonial administration between 1913 and 1914. The British levied forced labour on the locals, disregarded their systems of government and put their own stooges in charge while desecrating their cultural symbols. They called Mekatilili a witch for dancing ‘kifudu’, the ecstatic death dance through which she passed on messages from ancestral spirits to the people, encouraging them not to fear and not to give in.
The show dazzled with its energetic choreographed dances, mellow coastal rhythms, supernatural manifestations and its creative licence twist, where heroes from other Kenyan communities came to the aid of the heroine, thus bringing in an eclectic range of music and costumes. It is a story of strength, betrayal, pain, loss and eventual triumph.