Njane Mugambi

Composer - Educator - Researcher (Nairobi, Kenya)

For over twenty-five years, Mugambi has been actively involved in the Kenyan music industry as composer, teacher, academic and performer. His musical interests and experiences are adventurous and eclectic. They include classical, jazz, pop, folk and world music genres. His main passion, however, is a recurrent theme for creating music that reflects and celebrates Kenya’s rich and diverse culture.

Mugambi is Kenya’s leading composer of contemporary classical music. His compositions have been played in East Africa and Europe. His orchestral work revolves around his relationship with the Nairobi Orchestra that goes back 25 years; whether playing clarinet, conducting or composing for the ensemble. The orchestra has premiered several of his works including- Ujenzi (2013), a symphonic poem that relates the story of the building of the nation, juxtaposing it through sound, against the historical adventure of the construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway (the ‘Lunatic Express’) through the Tsavo wilderness in the late 1890s. Ujenzi was premiered to commemorate 50 years of Kenya’s independence; Hifadhi (2009), an orchestral composition calling for environmental consciousness and climate change awareness; Pumbumbum Peh! (2008), a spirited fanfare for brass and percussion; Kani (2008), a short rhythmic orchestral tone poem.

Pumbumbum Peh! and Hifadhi were performed during the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games, on 12th January 2020 at the Salle Metropole, as part of the cross cultural activities hosted by Jorge Viladoms and the Conservatoire de Lausanne. The European premieres for both compositions were conducted by Peter Evans with the Meadows Chamber Orchestra in November 2008 and May 2011 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

More recent works include- the Tuba Concerto (2017) premiered by soloist Jennifer Moore Wafula with the Nairobi Orchestra and conducted by Duncan Wambugu; A Mass for peace ‘Missa Amani’ (2018) where the indigenous influences inherent to Mugambi’s style come to the fore as can be best heard in a section of the Gloria, where the rhythmic multi-layered singing style of the Maasai (one of Kenya’s ethnic communities) is celebrated. The mass, scored for choir, organ, brass and percussion, was premiered by the Nairobi Music Society conducted by Levi Wataka.

Other choral works that have been performed by the Nairobi Music Society choir, include ‘Ni Utuko’, an arrangement of the carol ‘Silent Night’ for choir, organ and bells. Ni Utuko was originally written in 2000 as a clarinet and piano arrangement. Mugambi’s arrangement for orchestra and choir, of Kenyan pop icon Eric Wainaina’s patriotic song Daima Kenya, has also been performed at various concerts.

Other selected works performed by various other ensembles include- Kanda (2010) for string orchestra; Nyimbo za Nyuzi (2006) string quartet; Maisha oboe suite (1999-2005), a composition that depicts the human life cycle and rites of passage in several movements; Pole Pole Ero (2005) and Ti ti tuu (2005) for wind quartet and percussion, amongst others.

Mugambi’s interest in contemporary approaches to world music has led to creative and unique collaborations with renowned musicians including- Czech composer and performing artist Jiri Pavlica; Pakistani musician and producer, Nizar Lalani. In 2009, Mugambi and Lalani worked together on the Worlds of the Indian Ocean conference music project, creating a concept band that mixed folk instruments and idioms within a contemporary style, to demonstrate in practical terms, the links between music of the East African and Pakistani coasts. Their band performed in Nairobi and Karachi to critical acclaim. Between 1999 and 2002, Mugambi also founded and led the experimental band Zikiya Kenya as a vehicle for exploring Kenyan folk music within a contemporary context. In 2000, Mugambi was also a founding member and bass clarinettist of the now defunct Nairobi Jazz big band directed by Randy Wanless.

Mugambi has also worked with some leading Kenya’s leading pop artists. Most notably, he arranged and recorded in the songs ‘Masela’, ‘Petite Soeur’ and ‘Malaika’ for renowned singer and UNEP goodwill ambassador, Suzanna Owiyo.

Ongoing works include a cantata for children’s choir and a collaboration on a film project with Dr. Bettina Ng’weno which has led to the release of a short film, ‘The Time is Now’, an overture to a planned full length feature film set in Nairobi in the late 1950s, at the threshold of Kenya’s independence, where music and dance play a central role in a tale of love and urban life in Nairobi’s railway quarters. The short film is centred around a dance and with a song composed and recorded by Mugambi.

Currently, Mugambi is Director of Music at Peponi House Preparatory School, Nairobi. He continues with his passion to compose, work as an educator using music as an all-round educational tool and celebrate the beauty of the diverse Kenyan landscapes and cultures through music.

- NJANE MUGAMBI, February 2021 –

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