What you need to know:
- Brian was born in Mathare. Later, his family moved to Korogocho.
- In 2011, his mother, who knew of her son’s passion to be in a band, urged him to try it out.
Brian O Kepher, a Kenyan from Korogocho, is known in the global sphere of professional classical music conductors, yet he is still a student and not a professional musician.
The 25-year-old has been making waves on the highest levels of classical music from when he was in his teens, yet he had never touched a musical instrument until the age of 15.
Classical music is defined as “serious music following long-established principles rather than a folk, jazz, or popular tradition” in the Western world.
Brian was born in Mathare. Later, his family moved to Korogocho.
Since he began his pursuit of music in 2010, he has used the facilities of Ghetto Classics, an orchestra based in Korogocho, to rehearse.
“Seeing the passion of Ghetto Classics’ players is something beautiful when you know where they are coming from,” Brian says.
On Kenyatta Day of 2010 during the rehearsals of Mashujaa Day national celebrations, Brian, who was then a Land Scouts Commander at Our Lady of Fatima Secondary School, heard the opening drums of the national anthem played by the military for the first time in person. It felt magical, he says.
“The defence forces know what the national anthem means; they know people have shed blood for the country’s sovereignty. I told myself that if I ever got to play an instrument, it would be the drums,” he recalls.
In 2011, his mother, who knew of her son’s passion to be in a band, urged him to try it out.
Elizabeth Njoroge, the director of Ghetto Classics, asked him the instrument he wanted to play, and he chose the bass drum.
They would practise during weekends, but Brian spent a lot of time at a cyber café, where he would listen to international orchestras such as London Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic and New York Philharmonic.
At his church – St Teresa’s Kariobangi of Legion Maria of African Church Mission – they still conduct proceedings using songs from the Gregorian Chant or Vatican 1.
The history of classical music goes back to when Catholic monks developed the first forms of modern European musical notation in order to standardise liturgy throughout the worldwide Church.
In 2012, Brian joined the Youth Orchestra of Kenya, where he credits Grace Mureithi, his percussion teacher, for much of his growth in orchestral playing, which also sparked his interest in conducting music. In 2013, the Conservatoire Orchestra also fanned his fascination.
All the while, he would ask fellow students for access to different musical pieces that he could study. He also played in the Nairobi Orchestra.
“The World War fighters, including some Italians, played in the Nairobi Orchestra. It’s the oldest, what I’d like to call the machine of orchestras in Kenya. It was always my dream to be in the orchestra,” says Brian.
Immediately after high school, he interned in the administration wing of Strathmore University Law School and later under Prof Luis Franceschi, founding Dean of the university, and also under PLO Lumumba.
He was told to apply to play percussions in an orchestral ensemble made up of Kenyans, Indians and Scots for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland.
He made the cut and while at the games – his first time to leave Kenya – he saw London Symphony Orchestra in person. Brian also watched an operatic performance for the first time. Later that year, he started pursuing a diploma in Music (Associate Degree) at the School of Visual and Performing Arts, Kenyatta University (KU).
“KU is wonderful in teaching about African music but probably their resources don’t allow them to train in classical music. So, I had to turn to online classes. I started off with Gustavo Dudamel from Venezuela, who won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in 2014 at the age of 33, the youngest person to do so,” says Brian.
Music mentorship programme
In 2015, Brian was invited to a week-long music mentorship programme at State House under Pupils Reward Scheme as a mentor, where he met both President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto. The President asked him what his music education would do to help Kenya.
“I told him I was learning Western music to come back and elevate Kenyan music,” says Brian.
The week after, he was called up to conduct the orchestra for Pope Francis’s address at Kasarani.
“That was my first grand performance, and I was honoured because it was for the country’s pride. People would recognise me in the streets. Others started requesting me to teach their children to play instruments other than the drum,” narrates Brian.
A month later, he went to Gabon with Junior Achievers, a schools’ club, to participate in a competition, which they won.
When Brian learnt that Gustav Mahler was from a marginalised group – a Jewish man who lived in Austria from 1860 to 1911 but went on to be a renowned Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer – he decided that he would rather try and miss the opportunity to join the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition that is held in Bamberg, Germany, than not know his limits. In 2016, he applied to be considered for the competition.
When the reply letter came, the first lines read “Unfortunately, you are not qualified for the competition because we had thousands of others who are more qualified than you”. He stashed it away and continued with his day’s activities, disappointed.
When he got home that evening, he read the entire letter. His passion for classical music in his application had been inspiring, and he was invited to view the proceedings in a sponsored trip. The letter was from Marina Mahler, co-founder and jury member of the conducting competition. Brian became the first African to attend the competition. This was the first time he observed professionals in the orchestra performing.
They also gave him an opportunity to conduct. However, conducting ensembles of more than 100 performers was an overwhelming experience for him. He only did a small part of a piece before they made him stop after noticing that the intensity was too much for him.
“It feels like an atomic bomb is before you and it tries to push you off the stage,” says Brian about the kinetic energy that the volume of instruments being played form – that’s when he first appreciated why conducting is a profession in Europe.
Brian recalls an unexpected incident that happened in 2016 when he was a masterclass participant at Lausanne Conservatory, Lausanne, in Switzerland.
In a rather brow-raising compliment, a master’s student told him: “You conduct like a white man dressed in a black man’s skin. Did the angel bringing seeds to earth forget where you were to be born that he brought you to Africa?”
But Brian did not take the statement as racist, rather as an admiration of his skill by those who hold their tradition dearly.
While in Switzerland, he also got a culture shock in pronunciation. He took the wrong train because of pronouncing a city wrongly – he was directed to one headed in another direction. Luckily, the train conductor noticed the disparity and got him to the right one.
In March 2017, he was selected as a student leader representing Kenyatta University to participate in the premiere African Universities Leadership Exchange Programme at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, US.
While there, he went to a music professor and asked whether they had an orchestra and when they practised. Brian offered to rehearse with them and that’s how he got to practise the song Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem, “Dies Irae”, with them.
In June, he would perform as a timpanist with the World Civic Orchestra at the Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Centre, New York City.
In September, he was the principal timpanist with The Seoul International Community Orchestra in South Korea, having been among 205 applicants from 39 countries that were seeking to perform at the 4th Seoul International Community Orchestra Festival.
Back home, Brian had been a musical facilitator with the Administration Police in Utawala from 2014 to 2017.
After he graduated from KU later in 2017, he got a job as a music teacher in Arusha Meru International School, Tanzania.
“It was tiresome working with children aged between three and 18 years. Getting assignments done in time was not always guaranteed, but I was told that it was the ‘Tanzanian culture’.
“However, they are the best human beings to be around; they were so nice and had a lot of energy,” says Brian.
On October 10, 2017, Brian’s orchestral symphonic version of Fadhili Williams’ Malaika was played by Nairobi Orchestra as part of his credits for his course. He had worked on Christopher Walters’ Malaika variations.
In 2018, he came back to Kenya to further his studies and be close to his family.
He interned as a music teacher at Rosslyn Academy and conducted the Nairobi Philharmonic Orchestra. He also spent three months at Geneva University of Music in Switzerland, studying conducting masterclass and orchestra and live performing. He also got to present as a guest at a radio station at the university.
Last year, he became a conductor and composer-in-Residence at the Mahler & LeWitt Studios in Spoleto, Italy. He worked at the Casa Mahler Library. He completed final amendments to his orchestrated variation of Malaika and started new work.
Currently, he’s studying musicology at the University of Amsterdam, which is linked with the department of music in Pretoria University, South Africa. Brian takes his classes through Zoom.
“Classical music is not the original music of a people; it was blend and mix. Resurrecting our music is the first step of finding our ground in African classical music. The education should be started from primary to university levels, and not just the music festivals,” says Brian.
So, where did he get his work ethic and constant strive for excellence from?
Brian has been under the mentorship of former Housing Finance Group Managing Director Frank Ireri and Bishop Joseph Peter Abuto of Legio Maria of African Church Mission, who taught him the importance of humility and waiting on the right time.
He had actually been taken in by Bishop Abuto while he attended high school. Brian says the regimented ways of the clergy made him get into that mindset of planning his things. He was also an altar boy.
Further, he explains that his mother brought them up ‘militarily’ and they had to be on their toes with chores in the house.
Brian still lives in Korogocho. His house is opposite his parents’. He says he has to see the last of his siblings through their education.
“The older ones of my eight younger siblings live with me while the others stay with my parents. I don’t want to either beg or strain myself in looking after them. It’s affordable for me to live here. I save every coin I get in order to help them. I want my siblings to see how hard I work so it can motivate them too. With coronavirus, it has been a bit strenuous because work hasn’t been coming through,” he says.
Brian notes that he will leave Korogocho once he is financially stable to afford life elsewhere without having to strain himself.
The pandemic, although coming with challenges, has helped him rest and look back on what he has learnt and what he has given to the community in the five years that he has gained different experiences around the world.
Brian notes that Gustavo Dudamel and Simon Rattle, formerly of the Berlin Philharmonic (he is also a percussionist) are his heroes in this field. Dudamel is the music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but was raised in the slums of Venezuela. Even though Rattle isn’t from an impoverished background, he still had to come up a long way.
“It doesn’t matter where you are coming from, but where you are headed to. Use the way to find the way,” is Brian’s mantra.
He dreams of becoming a classical music professor in Kenya.