By James Rogoi
It’s Thursday night. In the crisp, neon-lit evening, loud guitar riffs and drums rent the night air. In the back of the large crowd, Abdi Rashid Jibril is leaning against a wall, bobbing his head as the perspiring six man rhumba ensemble, Orchestra Masika, plays their music. Rashid’s trademark dreadlocks have been clipped short – he chopped them off one humid night in Tanzania – but he’s still an unmistakable presence. While most of the crowd is lost in chatter, Rashid listens to the music like trained percussionist he is.
The band’s saxophonist, Juma Tutu, walks to the front of the stage – ready to bring the house down. Rashid doesn’t say it but he must be feeling a sense of deja vu. Indeed, Tutu is a familiar face and collaborator. When Rashid first became a live music producer, some five years ago, Tutu was just the third performer to take the stage.
Rashid’s weekly gig, Thursday Night Live, has been one of the best ways to keep pace with live East African music. For most of its existence, it was held in Choices, a relatively small bar in the Industrial Area. But late last year the bar’s owner decided to go in another direction, and so Rashid moved the gig to J’s, in Westlands. Rashid is the ‘glass half full’ kind of guy. Despite losing his intimate setting at Choices, he’s more than hopeful that his new, more spacious home will bring out even more live music lovers.
J’s is bigger – much bigger – than Choices. The stage is in an open area, as opposed to a previously intimate setting, the tab is also a bit pricey, and Rashid is still working on how to make the sound the best it can be, among other teething challenges. However, one thing is very conspicuous and Rashid jumps to it before the question comes up: “The audience is very white!” In concurrence, his ‘new’ audience overwhelmingly consists of white foreign nationals. “I was actually taken aback at first,” he confesses. It’s still early days at J’s and hopefully ‘native’ Nairobians will flock back to what have been, hands down superb performances from 2011 to date.
Rashid was born in Nairobi, but he spent about a quarter century in the US. When he returned for good, in 2009, he found a vibrant music scene but saw a need for a consistent live gig to showcase the talent he saw. For the first two years, he played percussion for a variety of Nairobi musicians – Maia von Lekow, Eddie Gray, and Tutu. In 2011 when Chege wa Githiora, a researcher and scholar visiting from London – and also a close friend – suggested Rashid develop a live act Choices, Rashid jumped at the chance. He met with the club’s management and presented the idea he had been ruminating over for a while. Two days later, he got the call: it was a go. He says it with a surprise still, over five years later. Like he wasn’t expecting anything to come of it or at least not expecting to get called back so soon.
The party at Choices pulled in packed crowds. After the concept had crawled then walked and was starting to run, Rashid would get calls from a myriad of bands who wanted to play the Choices stage. He recalls, “I’d get calls from bands and they would tell me, ‘hey, we have all this music but we don’t have any videos on Youtube.’” He didn’t mind evaluating future acts and has sat through many an audition in his day and more times than not been pleasantly surprised. His old friend and collaborator Maia von Lekow was one of the first to grace the Choices stage. The gig became so popular that Rashid realized his initial plan of making it a monthly event was no good. Soon, he was bringing in performers every week. From then on, shows were booked for weeks in advance with an increasingly growing audience. He once got a call from Sauti Sol when they were just about to hit the jackpot in a big way saying they’d heard of his event and wanted to play there. “I said, you guys are welcome to play,” he remembers telling them. It would be one of the biggest shows he did, filling the Choices to almost suffocating capacity.
Ask him about his upbringing and it will quickly become clear that Rashid comes from a line of powerful women. He beams when he talks about his mother, in particular – her independence, and her fierce loyalty to her children. Before his birth, Rashid’s parents separated; his mother, Aisha Ali Samatar, choosing to leave a union in which she was unhappy in, something almost unheard of in the Somali community to this day, let alone all those years ago. Perhaps she got some of her independence from her own mother, Rashid’s grandmother, who started the first school to cater to the Somali community in Eastleigh – in her back yard. Then, Rashid’s mother was offered an opportunity to go to the US. She took it. A single mother to two boys, she left them with relatives in search of the proverbial greener pastures. She managed to build a semblance of a stable home and the boys followed her there a few years later. Almost in her seventies now, she still resides in Oakland, California.
Rashid says his artistic nature dates back to when he was a young boy growing up in the Pangani of the late ‘70s and ‘80s and later in Westlands. “My mother loved to dance,” he said, and remembers the sounds of Big Bands, Motown and Congolese Rhumba filling their home.
Following his mother’s footsteps to the USA had given Rashid a high school education in Arlington, Virginia and later a Bachelor of Arts Degree in History and Political Science in New Hampshire. His musical Damascus came in his formative years in the USA, trying to discover his identity in a foreign land. An encounter with percussionist and music instructor Hafiz Shabazz at Dartmouth College in the late ‘80s only whet his appetite for his passion. He would come out of there with a course in Percussion and Rhythm to his name. He soaked up some of the best percussive sounds, drumming in the San Francisco Bay area where a thriving Cuban, Brazilian and West African sound was rife. Loco Bloco was his next project, working with marginalized communities of black and Latino youth. He taught them the drum, and dance all this time playing in bands and percussion groups. During this time, Rashid managed to fit teaching, massage therapy, gardening and making artsy African masks into his resume of activities.
He came back eight years ago, and says the chief reason for moving back was a yearning to get to know his father who was terminally ill. He would be there when the man he had gotten to know over a few months moved into the next realm later that year. He also wanted to know Kenya more. He watched on television miles away as unrest rocked his homeland and as others outside the country, he was a bystander. And so he chose to return to Kenya – for good.
Rashid still loves to travel. “It’s an important part of life, to see and learn from the world we live in,” he says of his love for globetrotting. He’s been to over fifteen African countries and would like to add two more new stamps to his passport this year. He has been to Europe, “briefly”, Central America, Canada and once to Thailand. He likes to plan his travel around music festivals and as such Mozambique and the Azgo Festival in late May 2017 will be his next port of call. The Bush Fire Festival in the Kingdom of Swaziland will round off his 2017.
These days, Rashid continues to play music. There’s a whole room in his house dedicated to his toys of choice – percussion instruments. He’s featured on Maia von Lekow’s “Drift”, Eddie Gray’s “Stories by the Lake” among a lot more percussion work. He’s also on a soon to be released Sarabi record.
But Thursday Night Live is still his main love. If he’s disappointed about having to leave Choices, it’s not discernible on his face. He chooses to look at it as a new challenge just as he did in 2009 when he said goodbye to California and come back to Kenya. “It was a good run,” he says.
And so as Thursday lugs into Friday, and Rashid bobs his head (ever so slightly) to Orchestra Masika, it’s only hoped that J’s will be as good a home to him as Choices was. Rashid hops aboard his big blue Suzuki DR750 parked outside. It suggests a life in the fast lane but Rashid jokes it’s just an efficient way to get from Point A to Point B. As he revs the engine, his dread locks dance in the air – already beginning to grow back to their former glory.
James Rogoi is a freelance writer, interested in the urban metropolis that is Nairobi and whatever goes on beneath the surface. He is also behind anything that you will see in print on any matter relating to the sport of tennis.