BY CHAO TOLLE
Friday, 7:15 am
It’s a few minutes after 7 on a chilly Friday morning; travelers stream through the arrivals of the newly refurbished Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and the sights and sounds are like any international arrival termini around the world – children cling onto their parents’ legs, mothers wearily balance bags and phones while men scan the crowd for a car service or a familiar face. Our guest emerges; flanked by two immigration officers whom he’s chatting with politely until he notices his manager who’s on hand to receive him. Immediately, his face relaxes into a warm look of recognition. AliKiba – arguably one of Tanzania’s and indeed Africa’s best exports is in town headlining the 9th edition of the Koroga Festival, a bi-monthly music extravaganza hosted by Capital FM.
Fresh from a US trip which saw him record a music video and do some work with Wild Aid Africa, a charitable organization that deals with wildlife conservation, of which he’s an Ambassador, he settles into the car and asks about his day’s schedule. Quiet, at times introspective and observant, he takes in everything around him and his interest piques when he’s told about rehearsals; something he’s looking forward to with the show just two days away.
“Could I have some hot chocolate please?” he asks politely while waiting to get onto Capital in the Morning breakfast show.
It’s just after 8am and he hasn’t yet been to his hotel; a slight tinge of fatigue sets in and he explains his early morning and jetlag having just arrived from Los Angeles the day before. The easy and rambunctious nature of the show draws him out and the charmer emerges as he makes fun on the interview relaxing visibly and talking passionately about his musical journey, peers in the industry and future aspirations with passion.
Following a scheduled press conference he has time for a meal, makes a trip to the nearby local mosque for Friday Prayers and then – rehearsal and time for a new AliKiba to emerge. The laid back nature replaced by zeal to perform, to get it right and to put a show together. His dancers file into the rehearsal space and the band, whom he’s meeting for the very first time is greeted enthusiastically. Owning the space like a lion owns its prey, he launches straight to work… meticulous, attentive to detail, and infinitely patient with the musicians he transforms his voice into a musical instrument holding notes as easily as a breath of air, ensuring the right chords are hit all the while his ear acting as a feedback mechanism. It’s a sight to behold; it’s AliKiba in his element and a hint of what to expect on Sunday.
“It’s all coming together, but I need background vocalists to make it perfect”; he says emerging from the rehearsal room three hours later.
Calls are made and the session ends with his promise to be back earlier the following day; his team, which comprises of managers, dancers and a photographer all compare notes on the way back to the hotel. After a quick dinner and update on his social media – we head out to yet another interview. He’s clearly exhausted at this point, but is reminded that his Kenyan fans are patiently waiting to see him on television – he obliges and the response is instant. Love, adoration, appreciation inject some life back into him.
The night wraps up at one of his favorite cafes in the suburbs where the staff recognize him and usher us to a comfortable yet quiet area –typical AliKiba I soon learn, no large entourage – there’s a football match on and we watch at least half of it while he enthusiastically catches up with his fans on social media before calling it a night.
“When you hear them sounding like a whistle, it means that they’ve gotten their harmonies right,” AliKiba says calmly.
It’s a day before the show and Ali, as I now call him, is firmly in control. After a power cut in the middle of rehearsal, the background vocalists take a break practicing their harmony; he takes time explaining the meaning of some of the words in his songs while patiently correcting their pronunciations. He neither raises his voice, nor admonishes; instead, offers encouragement while waiting for everyone to get it right like a director putting his symphony together. The session is punctuated with input from his management who sit unobtrusively recording and observing the rehearsals. Five hours later and finally satisfied with all elements, he seems confident in his understated manner that the show will go well.
The camaraderie within his team is evident as they crack jokes and intersperse their conversation with real life situations – this is where the laid back AliKiba emerges – he explains that he prefers hanging out with his friends and doesn’t enjoy frequenting areas with loads of people.
“If I wanted to be drawn into that lifestyle I could, but I like to be comfortable” he says, as we all sit in a small café in one of the city suburbs where the laughter in the group flows easily.
We talk about the Paris attacks, religion, food and so much more – nothing, it seems is off limits once he’s relaxed. During our conversation, one of the dancers, the youngest in the group – explains how his life changed considerably from being a problem teen that routinely ran away from home to a dancer who was now able to earn a living from what he loves and has a passion for. He thanks Ali for that; all their stories are similar – he listens quietly as they speak and for a moment a contemplative figure emerges, perhaps understanding his role in their lives as a counselor, a friend, a big brother, a boss all rolled into one; they’re a team, a family and he’s the head.
We drive into Arboretum on Sunday and there’s still a line of people trying to get into the venue as late as after 4pm; the energy and anticipation on the outside is a stark contrast from the calm yet fun mood inside of the car. There was a pep talk, questions, and finally the showman began to come into sight.
“All these people are waiting to watch us – we have to put on a good show!” AliKiba says determinedly.
As he made his way to the tent – the transformation continued from laid back to what we were all waiting for. His management, aware of his requirements, quickly went to work ensuring the transition would be smooth while he mingled easily with his entire team fixing his energy drink, cracking jokes, stretching and ensuring that everyone was comfortable ahead of going on stage.
“Is my water there?” – He asks; it’s Showtime.
Ali is handed his mic and walks calmly towards his platform – some fans spot him from behind the VIP barrier and begin screaming his name. He smiles, says hi and right on cue finally steps on stage to a thunderous applause from a crowd that has swelled to 4,000 people. A barrage of flashbulbs, and dizzying lights – the transformation is complete and AliKiba the entertainer salutes the crowd like a general would to his platoon.
For close to two hours he serenades, dances, teases and rips his shirt off in the process (intentionally of course) in what I later come to understand is known as the “Hulk” move. The crowd is mesmerized; singing along to Mapenzi ya Run Dunia, swooning to hits such as Nakshi Mrembo, MacMuga, Cinderella, and screaming while voting during the Cheketua dance-off.
The chant of “Kiba…Kiba” reaches his tent bringing him back for his encore during which he wraps his set up with the widely popular Mwana. AliKiba officially shut down the 9th edition of the Koroga Festival which saw over 4,000 people in attendance; a record number since it’s inception in 2014.
The “Kiba effect”, it seems, spares no one. Post-show while making conversation and taking pictures with sponsors, Government officials and fans, there’s an urgency from some to be in his presence; he’s patient but visibly tired. Meanwhile, the calm that earlier personified his tent is now gone and instead, a large group of fans have gathered outside and are demanding to be let in, threatening to come through forcibly to see the star.
“AliKiba…AliKiba…”fans continued to chant.
Some are let in but he finally makes a quick exit through the back into an awaiting car and retreats into the night.
“Uliridhika na show?” AliKiba asks smilingly.
We’re all at dinner two hours later; Ali’s scanning his social media and uploading pictures for his fans – still at work. There’s talk of a video he needs to shoot for his next single and meetings that need to be set up.
Ali wants to go, celebrate and relax with his team at his favorite café, a nice small place where he can remain anonymous. Unfortunately, there’s a large gathering who are enjoying a local traditional performance – the MC makes mention of his presence and he greets the crowd after having been invited to Mogadishu for a show when the situation stabilizes.
The show might be over but for the honey-voiced Tanzanian superstar who doesn’t like heights – his stratospheric rise to the top seems to be well secured if he retains his focus.
The 9th Edition of The Koroga Festival was held at Arboretum on 11/15/15 and featured Atemi Oyungu, Kidum and AliKiba