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Aaron Rimbui: Nairobi to New York City

Aaron Rimbui: Nairobi to New York City
Seton Hawkins By

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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.

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