Born and raised in Nairobi, Rabai got his first taste of music in primary school. Back then, he and his elder sister would sing songs – off beat – from lyrics stuck to her exercise books after school.
And thus began a journey into music that saw him move out of home and begin fending for himself at a young age, teach himself how to play the saxophone, pay his way through the Jether House of Music and lose his only source of income after being let go from a band.
Rabai didn’t start out playing the sax, he only picked it up after an unfortunate hijacking incident saw him lose his trumpet.
“One day this guy told me of a family whose dad used to teach at Starehe Boys Centre. He had passed on and his sax was under his bed. I found it, took it to a repairman and we’ve been together ever since. That’s the story behind my sax. It has sentimental value and I will never sell it. It’s old but you know what they say about old stuff,” he says.
He’s come a long way since then, having played at album launches for artists like Valerie Kimani and June Gachui, appeared on Coke Studio and played at South Africa’s Joy of Jazz festival. He also curtain-raised for the late, great jazz maestro, Hugh Masekela, at the Safaricom International Jazz Festival in 2016, in what would turn out to be one of Bra Hugh’s last live performances.
He and his sax are now on a mission to grow Kenya’s jazz scene, and turn it into an industry.
“There’s a misconception of what jazz is. People think any instrumental music is jazz. But jazz has its own features. Playing an R&B song to an instrumental isn’t jazz. But the genre is growing thanks to people who are faithful to the art, people who push boundaries and people who do not compromise by going mainstream to get numbers. It will take a long time but with dedication from us (artists) the appreciation will grow,” he says.
Fresh off the launch of NHP’s debut album, Black in Gold, Rabai reflects on his journey into music, twelve years in.