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IPR in conversation with Ginanne Brownell and Simon Kariuki Ndungu

Ghetto Classics musicians and friends
Mia Collis
Ghetto Classics musicians and friends

The author of "Ghetto Classics: How a youth orchestra changed a Nairobi slum" and one of the orchestra's founding members on starting a music program next to a garbage dump

The Kenyan orchestra Ghetto Classics was named by its own members, young musicians who live in the community of Korogocho.

Located next to Nairobi's largest garbage dump, Korogocho is considered one of the most dangerous communities in Kenya's capital.

In a new book published by Mission Point Press, journalist Ginanne Brownell tells the story of the musicians of Ghetto Classics.

Since 2008, they've grown from a motley initial cohort into a semi-professional orchestra that has performed for U.S. President Barack Obama, Pope Francis and U.S. first lady Jill Biden.

Musicians from Ghetto Classics have also shared the stage with famous classical and jazz musicians including Branford Marsalis, Kirk Whalum and Marcus Miller.

Listen on demand to IPR's recent conversation with Ginanne Brownell about this remarkable group of musicians. The conversation includes an appearance by Simon Kariuki Ndungu, one of the founding members of Ghetto Classics.

Excerpts from the conversation are reproduced below and have been edited for length and clarity.

A note on language: both "ghetto" and "slum" are terms used by musicians profiled in the book

 Ginanne Brownell explores the
Courtesy Ginanne Brownell
Ginanne Brownell explores the Korogocho dump in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi

Ginanne Brownell on being a white woman writing the story of an all-Black orchestra in Africa

I was asked frequently why I, a white Midwestern girl, was writing about this orchestra in the slum half a world away. I've been a journalist my entire career. I'm a foreign correspondent. As a journalist, I'm trained to go out and do stories in places that I don't necessarily come from, that I don't necessarily have the background in. And so for me, it wasn't a big jump to write about this orchestra, in the sense that I've been writing about education and development and arts and culture for 30 years.

I'm originally from Flint. There were two quite significant pieces of journalism that came out about the water crisis. One was a PBS series on Frontline [Flint's Deadly Water] produced by Sara Childress, who's from Flint. And there was also a book called The Poisoned City, which was written by a journalist who's not from Flint [Anna Clark]. I thought both were really well done. You have the personal experience of somebody who produced a piece who's coming from there, and you also have a book written by somebody who really doesn't have any background in being from a place like Flint. But I think that they both are complementary.

So I'm coming into a community where I am not from there, but I have my journalistic lenses on, and I have a bird's eye view that I can give. If somebody else who was from there wanted to write something, that's amazing too. There are lots of ways to tell a story.

Simon Kariuki Ndungu works with young musicians
Simon Kariuki Ndungu works with young musicians

Simon Kariuki Ndungu on how he first got involved with Ghetto Classics

I started by playing reggae music and hip-hop music. In the slums, or the ghettos, that is a medium to express our grievances and our ideologies as a community and to tell the world how we we feel through music.

When I was 20 or 21, a woman named Elizabeth [Njoroge] brought classical music into our community. At the first concert, we started laughing, like, "What's this?" `We weren't used to Mozart's music. We only saw classical music on television or radio once in awhile. But I got interested, along with other young people.

It was a rough journey. We started by singing because we didn't have any instruments. They'd gather kids under a tree, give them Coca-Cola soda and teach them a few notes to sing.

Then I played saxophone with five other students, and we all shared. You would wait in line for a two-hour session. Your friend will play for ten minutes, clean the mouthpiece and then you play for ten minutes.

Simon Kariuki Ndungu on why he chose music as a path

I came from a very harsh environment. I grew up with guns, and my brothers were in gangs. I was surrounded by gangs. I saw people killing each other. I was looking for a safer place.

My family was very supportive [of music]. My brothers were supportive despite them being gangsters because they saw I was unique. I was polishing the image of the family that had been tarnished over the years. People used to say my mother only raised gangsters, but then I came with the music and started bringing hope.

Ghetto Classics musicians at St. John's, outside of the Korogocho dump
Stephanie Schiller
Ghetto Classics musicians at St. John's, outside of the Korogocho dump

Ginanne Brownell on how Ghetto Classics has changed Korogocho

It became more and more clear to me as I was writing the book just how much these young people in Ghetto Classics had become empowered and how much they were able to create change in their community.

This program not only changed the young people's lives, but they've helped change and better their society.

Simon Kariuki Ndungu on how Ghetto Classics has changed Korogocho

We have visitors who can walk in the streets, people from the UK and sometimes from Europe. It used to be hard for foreigners to walk the streets, but now, [residents] relate the foreigners to us [members of Ghetto Classics].

We are protecting each other because over the years, we have constructed a positive image of our community. I'm a product of the positive contribution that classical music brought into our community.

Production support for this interview came from David Bondurant and Ed Ronco, with special thanks to Kacie Brown, IPR's digital content manager.

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.