This is a review of TEFB’s Tom Mboya Edition that went down Saturday 5th October 2019

A damaging political climate between the 1950s and 70s culminated in a number of infamous assassinations. So, when the Too Early for Birds team returned to the stage this past weekend, they brought with them one of these fascinating histories – the production of an assassination that is perhaps Kenya’s greatest mystery yet.

The team conceived of their setting in memoriam Tom Mboya at a time when Kenyans are living out a series of national dramas to the tune of The Drunkard, Grand Theft Ruto, Mega Scandal among others. Would Tom, one of Kenya’s most gifted sons, have changed our country and its systems? We will never know. Thomas Joseph Mboya died on 5th July 1969.

The Good

Having watched and loved one of their shows last year, I was keen to make their acquaintance again. They did not disappoint and I liked their latest edition for several reasons. Admirable and well researched, the anthology was directed by Mugambi Nthiga and produced by Gathoni Kimuyu. The show was delivered by a versatile ensemble of actors who helped us retain a sense of place and timing through TJ’s life’s moments.

The staging consisted of a screen on which a couple of videos played. In addition, was a lining of prop boards on which, plastered, were newspaper cuttings featuring the late Mboya. Each act had the same fundamental setting. This was only spruced up every once in a while and on a different scale. The narration was, overall, a strong one as was the interweaving music through which I sat with my eyes closed and taken out of myself.

There were a number of arresting moments especially struck by Mercy Mutisya, Elsaphan Njora and Pauline Kyalo all of whom had a great ability to leverage on stillness. In addition, Anubhav Garg may have taken some time to settle into his role but once he did, he proceeded to offer a performance of considerable admiration.

The Bad

Still, there were some weaknesses. In an attempt to drive my point home, it is that too many cooks spoil the broth. Firstly, there were simply too many narrators who in turn had a downturn in the show’s pacing. Clocking three hours, this was a long show and it certainly felt it.

Secondly, there was an overcharge of puns and an over reliance of internet jokes. It may be that this affected my experience owing to the fact that puns should really not be rehearsed.

Third, is that some sections dragged on for far too long and in other sections, the intrigue wasn’t sufficiently built. By the time the show ended, I had a heightened sense of impatience. Needless to say, the show started 45 minutes late and the check-in desk was a mess with few attendants.

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I have since turned Tom Mboya’s fate over and over in my in mind; he has stayed with us as a tragic symbol of a time when politics was a theatre of cruelty. Under the circumstances, I am grateful that we have had brave enough a people who have stood up for what was right. Thomas Joseph Odhiambo Mboya was one such person.

Finally, I credit the TEFB team for making me realize that theatre in Kenya is coming of age.

Blick Bassy has been one of my greatest finds this year. His latest album, 1958, grounded in both melody and voice, is what happens when making music actually matters. The album, done in Bassy’s native language, Basa’a, is a eulogium for Ruben Um Nyobè. The depth in which he sings is remarkable and so are his compositional skills; a blend of African and Latin musical influences.

Ngwa is a work of memory; it starts with a cello solo before Bassy brings us up to speed with the ghost of Um Nyobè. Both the song and the visuals stimulate a sense of foreboding; something so vivid yet beyond, something perhaps after a war. Maqui and Lipem, both limpid and graceful, remember the freedom fighters (maquisards) and unsung heroes of Cameroonian independence. Certainly, all those who fought to preserve the independence and exclusivity of our nations ought to be revered.

Mpodol happens to be my favourite track on the album. Drawing from Nyobè’s nickname ‘Le mpodol’, I cannot think of a more fitting tribute. Performed with a fine supporting cast; Clément Petit on the cello, Johan Blanc on trombone and Arno de Casanove on the Trumpet and keyboard, mpodol lends a wonderful and compelling story of he who carried the voice of the people.

Alcohol, often misused as a sedative, reduces our anxieties and wills us to forget our worries and fears a while. And yet, what happens when a country is drunk with fear? In Woñi, Bassy talks about the fear and timidity that we still bear following the stark colonial years. Delivered in a style reminiscent of Cesaria Evora (whose birthday we celebrate today), Woñi highlights the volatile influence alcohol has on a community where heavy drinking has become a way of life.

Regardless of whatever virtues they may possess, there is a lot to be said about people who sabotage their countries. In Pochë, Bassy condemns political Judases like president Ahmadou Ahidjo; who protected the interests of the French during the Franco-Cameroonian struggle. In Ngui Yi and Sango Ngando, he criticizes the ignorance and indifference towards our histories. Lamentably, going by how much has culturally changed, Africa’s obsession with the West is likely not abating soon.

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Inviting us for a more critical stance, 1958 is a very noteworthy album; not only for the opportunity it affords us to hear the music and history of Cameroon but also for instigating us to look back at our own. There are many lessons to be learned here and much more so, let it be remembered that the past is never really past.

There are few things musical that will draw me into going for an event on a weekend, fewer still on a Sunday afternoon. I imagine that like me, some of you haven’t had enough rest this past weekend on account of FOMO. Despite having come from Jah Cure’s concert less than 3 hours ago, I had to attend the 26th edition of the Koroga Festival.

There are different sounds to afrobeat but I am not here to be prescriptive. Having been pioneered by the legendary Fela Kuti, afrobeat is a Kuti genre; one that his sons are now very cogent at. In fact, at some point during his performance, he made it clear that it is Afrobeat and not ‘afrobeats’. Femi and his Positive Force band can play the role and play it did they without any audible tiring.

The Positive Force band opened with a set of rhythm and percussion that was complemented by its horns section. Then came a highly charismatic trio of dancers-cum-percussors-cum-BGVs. Admittedly, from my position adjacent to the stage, this set precedence to an appropriately exciting atmosphere before the moment of the ship’s arrival.

The horn’s section of the Positive Force band
The highly charismatic dancing trio

With activism just as important to him, Femi channeled a little of it particularly to those of us who feel compelled to exclude others on the basis of our living standard measures. Thus, unity and the coming together of African people was a recurrent theme being that he is touring his recently released album, One People One World.

Throughout the spirited performance, the flavour of Femi’s music exuded a blend of both vigilance and relaxation. By giving us a feel of the New Afrika Shrine, there was much to admire in the singing, dancing and the band’s dynamic cuts when he performed Evil People, Corruption na Stealing, Beng Beng Beng and the titular track One People One World.

Like any great musical offering, Femi is a master in his own right holding the world record for the longest note ever sustained on the saxophone – at 51 minutes and 35 seconds. In a show of great mastery, a taste of this was something we were later treated to.

The striking moment, however, was when he staged a duet with his son Made Kuti before putting him on the spotlight. Made offered a generous and finely contrasted sax performance but that possessed many of the Kuti musical virtues. Impressive in his style and temperament, I can safely say that I am excited for his debut album to be released next year.

Made Kuti

Femi ended the show with a hilarious aside. By intimating that some parents may have conceived to his 1998 song Beng Beng Beng, he was adept and quick to highlight the sexual impropriety and irresponsibility plaguing our societies today. A fitting conclusion to a mighty fine time on stage.

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Most definitely a rewarding evening, Femi unquestionably did what he came here to do. If the event remained in any way unsatisfactory, that is in no way to be attributed to Femi whose performance rose above expected. Additionally, Them Mushrooms, Jua Cali and Samidoh came with favourable stage and vocal impressions and there could be no doubting their enthusiasm.  

Arararararararara!

It is not a pleasure I have every day or week to witness excellent musicians, however, for the better part of this year, I have been lucky to revel in some performances that, although not necessarily thrown to evoke great emotion, were very much enjoyable. This week’s showcase was one such event and it couldn’t have been more beautiful.

Wassa Sainte Nébuleuse – how fresh, well pronounced and dynamic! Over the duration during which she performed, I found her to be a good musician. Her dominating status certainly owed not only to her full-bodied vocal capabilities but also to her delicate and playful nature which was a good reason to engage whenever she asked the audience to join in.

All the same, the concert’s time was short spanning a little less than 2 hours and, in spite of a repertoire that suited her like a glove, I found Wassa’s staying power a shortcoming. Nonetheless, it was free concert and with free things, perhaps we are not to expect much.

From the moment I came across the poster, it was a certainty that I had to attend Breathe and so, on Sunday quarter to 3 thereabouts, I diligently walked to Alliance Française for the penult show. How do I tell you how much pleasure the cast gave me that afternoon? Or how much more interested I am now in the details concerning all that Biko has been through? It is my assumption that you all read, or have read, Jackson Biko’s blog, https://www.bikozulu.co.ke. The fact is that the written works of Jackson Biko entertain as much as they inspire.

A few minutes past 3 and we were asked to rise, as is customary in Kenyan theatre, to sing the national anthem at the start of the play which opened with a monologue from one of the shared voices – Gilbert Lukalia. Thereafter, the setting changed to a room with all shared voices present and it is here that the action really began.

The multi-talented cast of 9 all of whom impersonated Biko impressed me. Each of their individual performances added up to more than the sum of what I expected. I imagine that, like me, some of you are easily prompted by feelings and are thus eternally grateful for stage managers throwing the switch. My poor, by the time we were halfway through, I was a teary mess! The best ‘lol’ of the day came at the end of the performance when they goofed on the photo sessions in Kikuyu burials and the inflation of Luo burials; yes, sometimes death does give us a certain parodic dimension which advances to us our peculiar attitudes and habits towards it.

Rolling in one after another, the cast animated a number of selected stories: Mary Mwikali and Wakio Mzenge powerful relayed to us the sinister coldness of cancer in Pray for Jane and Mommy Will Be Just Fine. Wanjiku Mburu adapted Nobody Wins highlighting the incredible ‘complexity’ of a man and his drink and one of whose character, Mad Larry, forms the basis of Biko’s Drunk. Martin Githinji took us through A Long Post About Life with great hilarity while Nick Ndeda and Mwaura Bilal, in a highly engaging sense of melodrama, brought the intensely dramatic Just Friends to life.

Truly, Gilbert Lukalia was a revelation! This was my first time experiencing him on stage and while it is not necessary that I underline the intensity of what he did to me, his was a vivid portrait strongly projected particularly in his especial dramatization of Bradley. Here, I can add that what Gilbert did constituted the principle of a true thespian – confident, expressive, intelligent and, I believe, introspective.

Lastly, if it is your job, as I have made it mine, to have opinions about music and are worried about airs that cause you more distress than pleasure, say for instance your enthusiasm wears thin at the incoherent blabber of trap, then I have excellent news! The background music was on point with all pieces in the repertoire doing a mighty fine job of steering the act through. Three cheers for the staging’s music supervisor.

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In what esteem do I hold Back 2 Basics who did an excellent job of managing my expectations? Breathe felt as playful as it was melancholic and where this was a theme of loss and, perhaps reflecting on death, it was also about the importance of confrontation; a condition that has to be met by those who want to win in life.

*Disclaimer: Not everything lends itself to description; what I’ve written is but a superficial account of what transpired. Where I failed to make a great impression, I regret you’ll have to imagine it for yourselves. As for me, I came, I saw, I will come some more.