The Ambassadors’ Exchange, Jan 2020

Stephen Ongoma, Ghetto Classics, Nairobi, Kenya

“A Ten-Year Celebration of Youth Orchestras in Kenya”

Ten years ago, the Kenyan Art of Music Foundation was established to help nurture the talents of young Kenyan musicians from humble backgrounds. As a result, three of Kenya’s best orchestras were formed during the decade: Ghetto Classics, Kenya National Youth Orchestra, and Safaricom Youth Orchestra.

To celebrate this progress, the three orchestras came together in 2019. They were joined in performance by renowned Polish hip-hop producer Jimek and by Jorge Viladoms, a great Mexican pianist of the 21st century. As we know, music has no boundaries. Making music makes a difference!

Matthew Jones, England

“The Manchester University Outreach Orchestra”

On November 23, 2019, students from the University of Manchester made their way to a local primary school, St Joseph’s, to put on a concert they would never forget!

The Manchester University Music Society (MUMS) Outreach Orchestra is a small orchestra brought together on a project-by-project basis. We go into primary schools where music is often quite a neglected part of the school curriculum, to give the children an opportunity to engage with an orchestra in an entirely new, fun way. This year I have the pleasure of running this fantastic orchestra – for sure the toughest logistical role I’ve had so far in the musical world, as I found out from organising this first concert! From printing scores/parts to creating a positive, team environment within the group, I’ve learned a lot from this project.

Central to the initial planning of this concert was the use of the BBC Ten Pieces arrangements: arrangements designed for small ensembles of varying skill levels (we used arrangements labeled as Grade 4-6 [intermediate] standard). Using these arrangements, we could get the orchestra playing well-known classical repertoire with very limited rehearsal time. The concert also included two new arrangements of pop songs by undergraduate music students Sam MacDonald and Tom Julian; I asked them both to arrange using instrumentation consistent with the Ten Pieces arrangements – ensuring that every instrument and player is being used as much as possible for the course of the concert.

The concert started with the first Ten Pieces arrangement, Aaron Copland’s Hoedown – an exciting, lively evocation of America’s Wild West. This was followed by an introduction to the orchestra in which I asked the audience whether they could name any of the instruments. This drew some surprising responses! The bassoon was guessed to be a didgeridoo (a valiant effort!) and the French horn was correctly identified!

Next up was the first of the two pop arrangements: Havana, by Camila Cabello, arranged for saxophone, trumpet and orchestra by Sam MacDonald. My spark for this arrangement came from watching videos of Sam and his trumpeting, busking partner Bob Koropisz. I asked them whether they’d be interested in playing Havana to a live orchestral accompaniment and Sam agreed to arrange it himself! Not only was this part of the concert enjoyable for everyone involved, with the bellowing growls of intense saxophone improvisations and virtuous trumpet melodies, but also it allowed the children to see the orchestra in a different form: a distinct separation of melody and accompaniment in what was essentially a double concerto style.

Before the next piece, student conductors Isla Atay and Euan Au led a session introducing the young people to conducting, even inviting some of the audience to come up to the front and try their hand at leading Havana.

The last Ten Pieces arrangement was Tchaikovsky’s “Trepak” and “Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker Suite. After the concert, the school’s music teacher told me how shocked she was that such a huge majority of the children actually recognised these pieces. It just goes to show how present classical music really can be in popular culture – it’s just a matter of separating it from the often-incidental role it inherits.

The concert ended with an epic finale that had been in the planning since the very start of the project. Months before the first rehearsals, I went to St Joseph’s to talk to the music teacher about the concert and told him I wanted to end with something everybody knew. Very quickly, she suggested the song “Hall of Fame” by The Script. This was a song that the whole school had been learning to sing at their assemblies, so it would certainly be recognisable! Tom Julian arranged the piece meticulously. At the performance, the children had never rehearsed with the orchestra, we had never heard them sing it, so it could EASILY have all gone wrong…but it didn’t! The children, some without ever having seen an orchestra before, were able to be part of the performance… and that’s the power of music.

But it didn’t end there! The music teacher asked us to play something whilst the kids left, so I asked them, “Which one was your favourite?” I was surprised to hear a unanimous roar of… “Old Town Road!” I told them, “No! We don’t know that one!”

I was wrong.

Our bassist, George Bingham, started playing a recognisable line. Soon enough, Bob and Sam joined in on trumpet and sax. (Turns out they’re in a band together and rehearse these sorts of chart toppers all the time – how convenient!) Other members of the orchestra joined in, improvising at will, until everything evolved into a grand performance of a compilation of popular favourites. Clearly, that will have to be our next arrangement!

If you want to learn more about the orchestra’s work or want to help in any way, do send me an email:

Linet Othieno, Nairobi, Kenya, Ghetto Classics

It’s been a very busy month full of performances and master classes! First, we were visited by the famous Ebene String Quartet from France. Members of the quartet led the string section for a week, and on their last visit, they performed some of their favorite music for us.

Following their visit, we had a one-week intensive that brought together three orchestras run as the Art of Music Foundation (as mentioned by Stephen, as well). The Kenya National Youth Orchestra, Ghetto Classics Orchestra and the Safaricom Youth Orchestra all came together to celebrate their 10th anniversaries as ensembles.

The final performance had many exciting elements that made the whole event successful and motivating to all the young musicians. We were joined in our performance of Rhapsody in Blue by the great professor/pianist Jorge Viladom, and worked with the incredible Polish producer and composer Jimek on his compositions Hip-Hop History 1 and 2. The day before the concert, Jimek even composed a new instrumental part to a song by one of the students, Cyndicate Kabei. Her piece, Asante, meaning Thank You, was dedicated to Jimek and all those who made the celebration of Art of Music@10 a huge success. In addition to the combined orchestra, dancers and singers from Ghetto Classics also performed a variety of styles, including hip-hop, traditional dance and ballet.

Our final visitor of the month was our long-time friend from Germany, Stephanie, who has been giving master classes via Skype. She came to visit along with a cellist, Benjamin, who worked with our string sections.

We have been closing out the busy month playing Christmas carols in a variety of hotels and venues. I hope you enjoy the photos from the events included below.

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