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Aaron Rimbui: Nairobi to New York City

Aaron Rimbui: Nairobi to New York City

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There is something special about African music, and that's what I'm coming to offer: my African experience.
—Aaron Rimbui
Kenya is noted for an extraordinary array of musical offerings yet its jazz scene has historically been quite slim. However, Nairobi-born pianist Aaron Rimbui may change that dynamic. Drawing on the musical traditions of Kenya and East Africa, Rimbui has established a singular and absolutely arresting approach to jazz piano.

With several solo records under his belt and a recent move to New York City, Rimbui seems poised to emerge as one of the leading figures of African jazz, a gorgeously lyrical player and an outstanding composer with something truly unique to offer.

All About Jazz: What were your earliest experiences with music?

Aaron Rimbui: I started out playing in church as a drummer and grew up in a home where my dad had a huge collection of LPs. He loved entertaining guests so he would always play those records. We lived opposite a very famous club in Nairobi called the Bombax Club. Legendary Kenyan bands like Les Wanyika and the Maroon Commandos played there.

I played drums for a while. I did not play piano until high school. My younger brother Tim—who is a well-known music producer in Kenya—played the piano. When my dad bought us instruments, he got me a four-piece drum kit and Tim a Yamaha keyboard.

While playing drums at church, I would always be intrigued by the keyboard players. I wished I could play that instrument too. When I got to high school, I started fiddling on the piano. One day at a Sunday service rehearsal in church, the pianist didn't show up. I had been fiddling at the piano and the music director thought I could play. So he said, "Well, you're playing tomorrow!" I'm like, "What do you mean?" But for some reason, I said I would do it.

AAJ: You have spoken about music offering a healing experience for you. In your case, that was literally the case due to injury, correct?

AR: Yes. When I was about 14, I was involved in a gas explosion, a near-fatal accident. I was in the hospital for a month due to severe burns on my hands, face, and feet. The healing process was long and painful, involving reconstructive surgery and skin grafts on my face and left hand. Music was my solace, my go-to place. I found instrumental music calming. It was at that time I felt increasingly drawn to the piano. The accident had a deep spiritual impact on me.

AAJ: As you delved deeper into music, what were some of the early influences for you in terms of jazz albums?

AR: Henry Mancini's Greatest Hits (RCA Victor) LP with tunes like "Peter Gunn" and "Pink Panther" were my initial introduction to jazz and big band music. I would keep going back to that record. It had no vocals, and that was different. Kenyan music is vocal-heavy.

AAJ: When did you begin to notice the interconnections between that music and the local bands you were hearing?

AR: Cultural interconnections? Kenyan musicians have always collaborated with Tanzanian and Congolese musicians. Les Wanyika was a Kenyan/Tanzanian band. In addition, due to the turbulent political situation in the Congo in the '70s and '80s, the Congolese migrated east and came to Kenya, bringing their music. As a result, Congolese musicians played music in clubs, bars, and restaurants all over Nairobi. It was good! These guys are great musicians! Franco and TPOK Jazz, Madilu System and many other iconic Congolese musicians had shows in Nairobi. I later found out some of the recordings featured European jazz musicians.

AAJ: You have described yourself as self-taught on your instrument. What was your process for developing your style?

AR: One of my God-given gifts is my hearing. It seemed that I could just hear a tune, figure it out and somehow know the key. I still can. I'd sit at a piano and just play what I had been listening to. When I started branching out into jazz, I was listening to Abraham Laboriel, a well-known bassist. He was featured heavily in live gospel recordings, playing ridiculous bass solos. I think I was 14 or 15-years-old at that time. I started checking out other artists and musicians he played with by reading album credits. That's how I discovered musicians like Marcus Miller, who led me to Miles Davis, who then led me John Coltrane. I'd stay up until two a.m. listening to and figuring out solos, chords and harmonies on my brother's small Yamaha keyboard.

The legendary vocal group Take 6 was an important discovery. I was completely blown away! Through them, I started paying attention to two jazz piano players who had a profound impact my playing: Herbie Hancock and George Duke. This started a musical journey where I'd get a cassette tape, sit down, figure out the chords, play and see if it sounded the same.

AAJ: You have previously referenced finding a limited jazz scene in Nairobi. How did you apply your woodshedding process to your early performances?

AR: In my late teens I would hang around the Nairobi Baptist Church. They put up concerts that would have Black gospel tunes. I thought it was jazz because of the complex harmonic changes and blues licks. Some of the musicians in those concerts studied at music colleges in the United States. It was also a confusing period for me musically because I was still actively playing drums and piano. Later, I would realize the shedding wasn't effective because I wasn't dedicating good practice time to either of those instruments.

AAJ: During this time, you were also invited to study overseas but did not do so.

AR: Yes, it was the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California. I came to the United States in June 2001 as a pianist for a year-long gospel tour. While there, I reconnected with a couple of my friends. One of them, Kanjii Mbugua (a fantastic musician and singer from Nairobi) was studying at the Musicians Institute. He told me that famous musicians like Norman Brown were adjunct professors. That was exciting. I got their email address, I applied and was accepted. The challenge was that it was expensive. The college was not offering scholarships. It was bittersweet in the sense that my parents were so happy that I was accepted, then came the fee structure. If I recall, it was $20,000 a year in tuition alone—in 2002! It didn't work out.

Before the tour and college admission, I was working at a recording studio in Nairobi that specialized in jingles and ads. I was hired primarily because the producers needed someone who could play piano and keyboards. I didn't know much about programming. I only knew how to play my small keyboard! That was my education on music production and engineering, using Pro Tools and Logic Pro Studio.

AAJ: So you spent 2003 through 2005 working in a studio and learning the ropes as you developed your abilities on the piano. During this time, you released your debut record Keys of Life (Self Released, 2005). On the one hand, you have sometimes referred to the album as more of a demo than a proper debut. On the other hand, it was incredibly unique at the time, being a jazz piano offering from Kenya.

AR: My friend Kanjii came back from the States after his studies, and he asked me to help him run a studio as a producer. This led to a stint producing pop and world music albums for local artists. The idea of recording my own album was from Kanjii. He thought I had material to put out. It was worth a shot. I put together ideas and sketches and released Keys of Life. I would describe it as a Kenyan pop instrumental. About three and a half years later, in May 2009, Alfajiri came out. It's a fusion record. As years went by, I increasingly felt dissatisfied with those albums. The production was subpar and some of the tunes needed to be reworked. I recently took these albums off the market. The albums Deeper (2016) and Kwetu (2017) are essentially reimaginings of Alfajiri and Keys of Life.

AAJ: Working in a studio and programming pop jingles required you to compose and play in multiple genres, requiring a high degree of versatility. Thinking about the past decade of your career, your work with the television talent show Tusker Project Fame seems like a natural outgrowth of that experience. Can you talk about your role with that show?

AR: Tusker Project Fame is like American Idol. But what makes it unique is that it also has a Big Brother element. Endemol, the company that puts out Big Brother and The Voice, owns the Project Fame franchise. In 2006, I got the gig to write the theme song with my brother Tim Rimbui and Kanjii Mbugua. This was my first gig for Project Fame. Two years later, Endemol wanted to expand the show to other countries in East and Central Africa. They gave it a big overhaul.

My second gig for Project Fame was producing the backing tracks and putting together a live band. The tunes for the contestants would be sent out on Monday and I'd have the tracks and arrangements ready by rehearsal on Wednesday. We played reggae, Afro Pop, rock, Benga and soukous. The gig lasted six years. It paid really well too!

I also wrote the theme song and score for Tinga Tinga Tales, a children's animated series in collaboration with Eric Wainaina. It's been on the Disney Channel and BBC.

AAJ: Can you talk about your work as a radio host on Capital Jazz Club in Kenya?

AR: That is an interesting story. About seven years ago, Capital FM had a world music show that didn't have a presenter. I have a large collection of African music. I was acquainted with a producer at the station and reached out via email, expressing my interest in hosting the World Groove show. They said, "We thought you were a jazz guy! Are you interested in the Capital Jazz Club?" I was informed that Capital FM wanted to revamp the Capital Jazz Club, which was a three-hour jazz show on Sunday evenings. I didn't hesitate. I took the job with no prior knowledge or experience in broadcasting. Capital Jazz Club had been on air for almost 20 years at that time. It was daunting to host a show I grew up listening to. The gig lasted four-and-a-half years.

AAJ: Where did South African jazz play into this?

AR: I always played South African jazz on the Capital Jazz Club as part of an emphasis on African jazz. Listeners are very familiar with the music. Hugh Masekela had been to Kenya a couple of times. In fact, in 2011 my quartet opened for him at a show in Nairobi. Years back, a friend got me Andile Yenana's We Used to Dance (Sheer Sound, 2002) and Bheki Mseleku's compilation album The Best of Mseleku (Sheer Sound, 2006). They are both iconic South African pianists. Bheki's tune "The Age of Inner Knowing" and Andile's tune "Rwanda" are definitive moments for me. Musically, I was searching for a deeper and freer acoustic sound. They were a reference to that direction.

AAJ: Did this have an influence on your albums Deeper and Kwetu and your Jazz Crossing Borders concept?

AR: Absolutely! My Jazz Crossing Borders concept actually came into being from a conversation. The 2016 Safaricom Jazz Festival had booked Siya Makuzeni, a phenomenal vocalist and trombone player from South Africa. During the meet-and-greet and jam session, I met Ayanda Sikade. Not only is he a ridiculously good drummer, most importantly he plays from the the heart. He was playing with Siya.

I had been looking for musicians from South Africa closer to my age and playing more acoustic, groovy music. I came across the prolific pianist Nduduzo Makhathini's Mother Tongue (Gundu Entertainment, 2014) album on iTunes. Ayanda Sikade played on that record.

Ayanda and I got to chat, and then he sampled my album Deeper, which was fresh out of the oven. He went quiet and just listened. He finally said, "Man, I like your music! I like your vibe!" He listened some more and then said, "Hey, would you like to come and play at The Orbit?" I'm like, "What"? When? How?" I'd come to know about this big famous club in Johannesburg that Nduduzo Makhathini played at. Ayanda then tells me he had a booking for April 22. Nduduzo wasn't available to play since he was on tour. Now, South Africa is home to some the finest piano players on the planet. Why would he ask me? We exchanged numbers and he said he'd call me when he got back to South Africa, which he did.

We worked out the logistics. I flew to South Africa and did the gig. It was a trio featuring myself, Ayanda Sikade on drums and Benjamin Jephta on bass. The response was really amazing and humbling.

I then got a call to play in September that same year. That's when Kwetu was recorded. Ayanda Sikade got the legendary bassist Herbie Tsoaeli for the session. Herbie is on Bheki Mseleku's and Andile Yenana's records. Unbelievable! We met, we rehearsed and recorded the next day.

AAJ: Let's talk a bit more about Deeper and Kwetu as they relate to one another. There are some interesting throughlines uniting them, even though they are quite different. Deeper also brings in more vocal qualities and chants. Can you talk about it?

AR: Deeper is the first album to capture the groovy acoustic sound that I had been searching for. I was also actively listening to musicians like Kendrick Scott, Robert Glasper and Walter Smith. Robert Glasper's album Canvas really stands out in that vein. Deeper was inspired by these cats. I reworked some tunes from Keys Of Life and Alfajiri. Deeper is a trio album with guitar and vocal embellishments, hence the chanting.

Kwetu takes this concept to the next level without embellishments. Recording with Herbie Tsoaeli and Ayanda Sikade gave me the freedom to stretch out. We cut the record in six hours at a studio in Johannesburg. Some of the tunes are first takes. Just like Deeper, some of the tunes are reimaginings from Keys of Life and Alfajiri. I produced and mixed both albums.

AAJ: Deeper and Kwetu highlight a sense of arrival in your development and artistic growth. How did that play into your move to the United States?

AR: Both records came at a time when felt that I was hitting a ceiling. I wondered what was next for me regarding my career. I was unsettled. During that period, I got a gig as the Safaricom Jazz Festival artistic director. So we booked Richard Bona as the headliner.

During a conversation with Richard after a jam session, he said that he felt New York would be really good for me. It would challenge me and force me to grow. He told me how Mike Stern gave him the same advice when they first met. I had been to the United States twice before, and I felt that coming to the States for a few months was doable. But moving? I was not yet sold on the idea. After a series of conversations with my wife, the idea of moving to New York was born.

The process took four years and it wasn't easy. However, I can say it is the best decision I've made. My wife and I arrived in New York on the morning of August 8, 2017 with five suitcases: literally into the unknown! Iconic African musicians like Bheki Mseleku— who played with Joe Henderson), Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Abdullah Ibrahim—cut their teeth in the US, having come here as exiles or immigrants. It's clear that there are threads connecting African musicians to the States, not to mention the history of jazz itself. That's what I find so exciting. The possibilities are endless.

There is something special about African music, and that's what I'm coming to offer: my African experience.

Selected discography: Deeper (Self Released, 2016), Kwetu, (Self Released, 2017).

Photo Credit: Emmanuel Jambo.

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