Published: 22 November 2023

Matumaini: A Musical Journey of hope and unity in the heart of Nairobi

Three Surrey students are using the power of music and drama to unite communities and inspire change. ‘Matumaini’ is a story of hope which reaches from the heart of one UK University campus to life in a Nairobi slum.

Surrey music graduate Caspar Simonsen spent this summer working with Youth Theatre Kenya to compose and stage ‘Matumaini’ (which translates to ‘Hopes’) – a musical theatre production that tells the story of life in Korogocho, a slum at the foot of the Dandora dumpsite. Originally written in 2019, Matumaini was rewritten last summer to have more of a Swahili influence, before the show was performed in August 2023.

Caspar, who graduated from Surrey with a Music BMus (Hons) this year, grew up in Kenya from the age of five to 19 years and was a part of the local youth theatre. Playing in the pit band from the age of nine, Caspar, also known as Rue, became the musical director for the annual show. Post-graduation, he took these skills and those he developed at Surrey, and became the music director for ‘Matumaini’, writing and orchestrating the music, and also playing bass and piano.

Caspar said: “I write the songs and lyrics and orchestrate – I teach the band and the cast the songs. The annual show is one of the things which brings a lot of people together from all over Kenya, kids who live in the slums and can’t afford to get to rehearsals, along with kids from all backgrounds. After two weeks of working together, everyone is hanging out and getting on.”

“The writing usually happens at the same time as the music; the creatives met at a house and the script writers would plan the scenes and then come to me and say we need this song today.”

The show uses the medium of music to inspire hope and create change within the lives of the communities who live there. It brought together more than one hundred young people from across the country, from every socio-economic group, and united them in the art and the power of storytelling.

The collaborative spirit of Matumaini is not confined to the stage alone. The production’s band featured twenty musicians from ‘Ghetto Classics’, an organisation dedicated to providing free music lessons to young children in the Korogocho slums.

Guildford School of Acting (GSA) BA (Hons) Acting graduate Svea Brain Jangen worked as an acting coach for the annual show this year.

Svea said: “We had many discussions about how we could update the story from the 2019 version, we wanted to emphasise the importance of music as well as the authenticity of the true stories we were basing the musical on. We had help from our contact Hinga, who is a Swahili speaker.”

“I helped direct a few of the scenes and even choreograph a dance or two. The cast was extremely hard working. I wish we could have had more time with them so I could have shared more of my knowledge. I also ended up teaching the melody and harmonies to some of the leads and helping other leads with the rhythm of the more difficult rap songs.”

“During the performances I would help backstage and front of house as well as be a bit of an assistant to Kagure Bubi who’s been stage manager for Youth Theatre Kenya for several years and is currently doing her first year of the BA Theatre Production program at the (GSA).

Caspar added: “The whole experience has helped me, in terms of public speaking, by teaching kids and teaching instruments. I would sing a line and ask the cast to repeat after me. This year I worked with Kevin Winebold, a Music Director and Performer who has worked on several Broadway shows. I played the bass while Kevin played the piano; I was able to learn a lot from him.”

Dr Christopher Wiley, Music BMus Programme Leader, and Caspar’s final-year project supervisor said: “This is a wonderful demonstration of the power of music to unite diverse communities and speak to real-world issues of environment and sustainability, as well as demonstrating how University of Surrey graduates bring about positive change for society in different parts of the world. Many congratulations to Caspar, Svea and everybody involved.”      

Watch the performance of ‘Matumaini’ here: Act 1, Act 2 and a documentary about the making of the 2019 script.

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