It started with a challenge. It was 2008. Michael Joseph, a lover of classical music and the chief executive of Safaricom, invited music director Ken Wakia to his office and expressed his intention to start a 200-member choir at the communications company.
“First of all I told him he was a bit crazy,” Wakia says. ‘Because that’s not possible, unless he employed people to sing, because his employees were not singers, they were not musicians.”
But Joseph told him it was a challenge, he wanted him to do it and he wanted the group to be of extremely high quality. Wakia, lead a choir called Nairobi Chamber Chorus and Joseph had attended some of its concerts, so he knew what the director was up to the task.
Thus the process of establishing the Safaricom choir started. Wakia held auditions for the company’s employees towards the end of 2008. About 75 people took part auditions held at Safaricom House, in Nairobi and at its Jambo Contact Centre in Mlolongo. Unfortunately, after listening to them for about a week, only a handful passed the test.
“So I went back to him and told him ‘Michael Joseph, this is not going to work’. And he asked me why. I told him that none of these people can sing. He said ‘you have to make it work’,” Wakia recalls during an interview at Vogue Café at Nairobi National Museum on February 10.
The choir director then held a second round of auditions. This time, about 80 employees took part – including some who were also in the initial round. Wakia says he did not lower the expectations or standards. After the second auditions, he was able to start off with a team of about 70 and started the Safaricom choir in January 2009. And he became its founding director.
In April, they staged their first performance, at the Safaricom Classical Fusion Festival at Impala Club in Nairobi.
Wakia terms it their most memorable event to date.
“Partly because this was just a brand new group and to imagine that we were able to live up to the expectations of the CEO then within a very short time was something to die for. But it’s also just the fact that when we performed the response we got from the audience was extremely moving,” Ken Wakia, Safaricom Choir director
Since then, they have been performing every year at concerts and at Safaricom events. Members train every Thursday from 6pm to 7:30pm at Safaricom House. Some employees are bussed from the Mlolongo office. The choir has 101 members – 64 men and 37 women. Some employees have been members since the start in 2009. Auditions are held every two years to replace those who leave the company.
So how does he manage the choir? The founding director says there is a committee of five that helps him run the choir or organise events. And there are about 10 people called mentors who help train members. Wakia shares the job of conducting the choir with the mentors and his assistant.
He says: “My task is basically to research and to create a repertoire for every season and to make sure that the choir learns and performs that repertoire. My task is also to introduce the choir to different styles and to people within the choral industry to help them experience and interact with different people in this industry”.