When Barack Obama was inaugurated as president of the United States in Washington in 2009, he was almost upstaged. The Kenyan Boys Choir were in da' house and few could help but take notice.
It wasn't just the velvet richness of their baritone voices or the sweetness of their soprano harmonies. It was the perceptible joy in their faces that made the young men in the choir stand out. From the media blitz which followed their sensational debut outside Africa, it was revealed that most in the choir come from poor areas in and around Nairobi, where many families subsist on less than a dollar a day.
The choir was founded to help them rise out of poverty by giving them food, shelter and a good education anchored in the art of choral singing.
"It's an enthusiastic bunch," says the choir's general manager Peter (Labo) Ndung'u in advance of the 35-member group's appearance at We Day in Toronto on Friday. "Being in the choir motivates and bonds them together."
When and how was The Kenyan Boys Choir founded?
The Kenyan Boys Choir was founded, officially, in 2004 when its members, then belonging to just one school, Aquinas High School, were invited to tour the United States on an invitation from the St. Louis African Chorus. Upon returning from the tour, the members thought it wise to expand its membership and include boys from other schools across the country. Initially the choir had existed as just the Aquinas High School Choir but now it's an after-school independent program with a wider reach.
Who gets to participate?
After the founding members of the group decided to open up the group to other boys, the choir now draws members from all over Kenya, boys from a diverse background, some from urban centres and some from tribes and representing different religions. Before joining the choir members go through a thorough auditioning process. Only a few make it through. But even after making it through, all new members undergo an orientation process before becoming bona fide members of The Kenyan Boys Choir. It's pretty rigorous.
What qualities are you looking for?
First and foremost, anyone auditioning has to have a passion for music and performance. They also have to have the ability to sing and dance or play an instrument. They also can't be younger than 15 years and not older than 18 years in order to audition.
What is the age range of the participants, then?
Our members range in age from 16 to 26 years.
It is said that the choir doesn't just train voices. It trains boys to be men. Can you elaborate?
We have always had a system whereby we endeavour to ensure that any boy who passes through the choir leaves the choir a better and more responsible and respected member of society. We achieve this by constantly creating opportunities which encourage members to interact with various life-skills coaches and inspirational achievers who might be able to impact positively on their lives. We believe in capacity building for the boys. We encourage them to value education and excellence.The choir is a platform for them to achieve their life-long dreams.
And why only boys, by the way?
Well, it is The Kenyan Boys Choir after all. But plans are under way to have a Kenyan Girls Choir as well.
Describe the repertoire.
The choir's repertoire includes Kenyan traditional folk songs and more from various African countries. The choir also indulges in the Western European choral culture, and by this I mean a bit of classical music, jazz, spirituals, as well as covers of songs by various pop artists.
Our Kenyan adaptation of pop tunes and cover songs from international artists are what we love – and audiences seem to love – the most.
What was the choir's biggest breakthrough moment?
We believe that President Obama's inauguration was a great breakthrough for the choir.
Well, appearing at that certainly gained the choir a great deal of international attention. Did it also open doors?
Yes. First, it secured for the choir a record deal from U.K.-based Universal Records, which led us to create and release Spirit of Africa, which rose to No. 9 on the U.K. charts when released in 2009. Second, the media attention generated from the inauguration performance earned us tremendous respect in our home country, and lots of business.This in turn increased the choir's value, and from the enhanced revenue we were able to better take care of our members' needs. So it was a very good turn of events.
The choir first performed in Toronto at We Day in 2011 to great success. What made the concert special for you?
We Day 2011 definitely ranks as the highlight of our performance experiences so far. Never before had we witnessed such a great and energetic audience. And to top it all off we got to perform with Nelly Furtado. That was the biggest thing that ever happened to any of us.
Did that experience motivate your return now?
More than you can imagine.
What can audiences expect to see and hear this round?
A new and improved sound, and performance. We also have new costumes. It will be a fantastic show.
Where do you perform next?
In February, we are invited to the United States to perform as part of the FESAAM 2014 festival [an African arts event]. But our hope is to do more We Days. We hope we're invited back.