How a violinist turned a shunned instrument into a source of money
At 29, the affable Chilumo Mbwana is a man fully aware and confident of his extraordinary talent.
Mbwana is not one to waste words, he likes details and he also does not waste on describing the music he plays and how he makes money from it, although the genre is not popular in the world. Kenya.
“I don’t know why the majority of Kenyans associate fiddle music with the elite and the wealthy. Yes, there is still a sort of elitist classist association with the violin. However, we need more people to sign up for the courses as this is a misconception. I work hard to demystify it. It’s not cheap but it’s affordable. Mbwana told me as he packed up his instrument of trade.
He just finished playing an evening gig at the five-star Nairobi Kempinski.
Chilumo prefers the nickname “super violinist” because he thinks there is no one else who plays the violin better than him in the country.
Sincere and serious in his conversation, the “super violinist” now finds himself at the top of the few favorite maestros known to the country. Years invested with tutors, mentors, masterclasses and self-reliance are paying off. He is not only a violinist but also a teacher of the same with some of his students almost twice his age.
“I have been giving private violin lessons to learners of all ages for years and this is one of the highlights of my career. It’s never too late to start. My oldest student is 52 years old,” he says.
A conversation with Chilumo awakens the kind of attention that prompts a mind to think for itself.
Whether one agrees with his opinions or not, he admits to having reached a point in his life where he has to speak out about what is wrong with his gender.
“Only in Kenya do performers refuse to work with a violinist simply because it is not part of the traditional musical instruments. Most live performances use the same traditional old school band instruments. No uniqueness in sound, especially for slow lovey-dovey and heart break songs which would be more effective with an experienced violinist laying down lines in the song.
His assertion on this is artists like Nyashinski, Bahati, Rufftone, Mercy Masika to name a few.
“For the few artists I’ve had the pleasure of playing for, the difference is huge and everyone notices and feels it. I hope more and more creative people will be open to using the violin.
Even as local artists continue to debate whether it’s really necessary to have a violinist on their live sets or on their recordings, Chilumo has already established a market that places a high value on his craft.
“I mainly play for weddings and corporate events and the quote varies from Sh30,000 to over Sh100,000 depending on various factors such as length of play, location and choice of music and the number of songs.”
But that’s not all, there is also a special rate card for lovers.
“For studio sessions, rates normally vary between Sh10,000 and Sh30,000 depending on the above factors. The same rates apply to those who hire me to perform on their date nights, engagement proposals, and even apologies.
He remembers that particular night in 2019 where he played matchmaker with a heartbroken woman.
“This evening really marked me. A young man hired me to play for his girlfriend as an apology. I don’t know what he had done. I appeared as a surprise guest at their date while they were having dinner. When I started playing, the girlfriend broke down in tears and then they started to get closer and I was left a little confused wondering if I should stop or continue. was emotional yet fulfilling. I hope they’re still together,” beamed Chilumo.
He fell in love with the violin in second grade when a visiting South Korean teacher played the instrument at his school.
“She ignited the flame in me because when I listened to her playing, I felt it was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard.”
When he passed his secondary school leaving exams, he wanted to own a violin, but his parents did not agree. He postponed his dream until four years later, when he was able to acquire one through proceeds from the various blue-collar jobs he engaged in during the period.
“A decent violin costs 20,000 shillings but like any other item you can get one for up to 1 million shillings and it depends on your bragging rights but technically the functionality is the same.”
Besides the instrument, learning to play the violin is neither cheap nor expensive.
It will cost you an average of 10,000 shillings per month to learn how to string the small Italian instrument discovered in 1525.
“The cost depends on how fast you want to learn and how consistent you are. Usually the lessons are quite expensive, but it depends on what you are trying to accomplish.
This is because there is so much to learn and it depends on individuality, focus and effort.
“It is difficult to give a definitive answer on how long it takes to master the instrument. However, I would say that depending on how many lessons you receive and how much time you invest in practice, six months to a year would be ideal.
Unlike a guitar or any stringed instrument, the violin is very technical.
“I must say that the violin is quite difficult, very technical, I mean you have to master the bow, the fingering and the reading.”
Chilumo’s favorite style of play is temporary classic, but he’s not shy about trying different genres.
That evening, he opened his performance with the Grammy-winning song Volare, a fast-tempo Italian classic, combining with his guitarist to bring out Spanish flamenco-like playing.
It then followed Elvis Presley’s I Can’t Fall In Love released in 1961. It was the last song the king of rock and roll performed live before his death in August 1977. Chilumo would go on to deliver genre facets of Kothbiro , a benga tune from the late Ayub Ogada to Mugithi, classic and soulful.
He tells me about an unwritten rule like this.
“Each violinist had to play Johanna Pachelbel’s Canon in D, also known as the wedding song. This is the most famous violin tune. The most requested song all over the world. I’ve played it over 100 times. It’s at my fingertips, I can put it on even in my sleep.
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