At 22, he could be considered the youngest conductor of classic music. Brian Kepher, is one of the conductors of the Ghetto Classics Orchestra, a part of a music education program which benefits youth in the slum of Korogocho and other poor areas. Kepher once used to sleep on the floor of a local church because there wasn’t enough room in his family’s home in Nairobi’s Korogocho slum. He is the first born in a family of nine. He sat down and talked to Hilary Kimuyu about his life and his love of music and why he is so proud to have performed for President Uhuru Kenyatta and Pope Francis when he visited Kenya.
What have you been up to?
I’m about to graduate from Kenyatta University and hope to enroll at the University of North Carolina. At Kenyatta I was studying music. If I attend North Carolina I’m hoping to study Stage Music and Philosophy.
To me it is in my blood. I’m doing what I love.
In simple words who is Brian Kepher?
I’m from a big family. Both my parents are alive and they are my heroes. My mother is the strongest woman I know and my dad is a hard worker. I live in Korogocho. Everything was going well until when I was about to sit my KCPE in 2009. Everything changed. My dad lost his job and what we went through I can only describe as darkness. I went to Lucky Shamir Primary School before joining Our Lady of Fatima Secondary School.
How did you manage to finish your education?
When my dad lost his job I was in Standard Eight but luckily I already had a scholarship. I think my dad only paid the examination fee. I reported late to secondary school, long after the admission date.
What happened while in secondary school?
I had to move out of our home for four years. That is how my life began. Our house was small and being a man and the first born, I had to excuse myself when my mother wanted to change her clothes and she had to do the same for me. So I ended up at a local church. The Bishop of Legio Maria African Church took me in and I was under his care for four years. The Bishop ensured I went to school and my fees was paid but it was not as smooth as you might think.
How was it?
Not everyone at the church accepted me. They thought I didn’t deserve to be there because I was not an orphan. Some people went out of their way to frustrate me especially when the bishop was not around. I remember, at times, when we were invited to go and play and got booked at a five star hotel, they would tell us not to forget that we would still come back and sleep on the floor and cover ourselves with sacks. Sometimes we went for days without food at the church and we only depended on the school lunch. But at the end of the day I was happy no matter how cold it got at night, I still had somewhere to place my head at night and attend school.
And what about university?
University is not cheap. I think God has been looking after me. When I got admitted to KU, another Good Samaritan started paying my fees. At the moment I have applied to attend North Carolina and I know there is someone out there who will help me finish my studies.
Why did you join Ghetto Classics?
Back when I was a scout we used to attend National events, that’s when I heard the KDF play the National Anthem. The KDF were practicing the National Anthem for Mashujaa Day and I had never heard the National Anthem sound that beautiful. That was in 2010, my first year in secondary school. The bass drum is the one that I can say injected music in my blood. It confused me and at the same time felt like it was magic.
How did you get enrolled to Ghetto Classics?
One day in 2011, I went to visit my mother who used to sell vegetables just opposite St Johns-Korogocho Community. When I told her about the KDF band, she told me to go and listen to the children who were inside practicing. It wasn’t until June that I joined the Ghetto Classics. When I walked in the first instrument I picked up was the bass drum. Six months later I auditioned for the National Youth Orchestra and I was picked.
And how did you end up as a conductor?
In 2012, I was called to join The Kenya Conservatoire Of Music where I trained under many conductors. I was inspired by the KDF conductor and others and it ignited a change in me. I used to ask them questions when we were on a break and I started watching YouTube clips of the New York, Berlin philharmonic orchestras and London Symphony Orchestra online. I officially started conducting in 2015 just a few months before Pope Francis visited Kenya. I was lucky because when Ghetto Classics was conferred the honour to perform for him I was their leader. All this exposure is thankfully because of Safaricom after they started sponsoring Ghetto Classic in 2014.
Was Pope Francis the first person you performed for?
A week before his arrival, we were invited to State House to perform the National Anthem. I couldn’t believe everyone stood up and I was so nervous but we pulled through. That was my first major concert. The second one was in front of the Pope and hundreds of thousands of people and millions watching on television. I have also conducted at the Safaricom Jazz Festival.
You have travelled around the world learning?
Yes, in 2016, I attended the Mahler Conducting Competition, in Germany. I was the only African there. After two weeks of intense learning, I was again invited to Switzerland’s Lausanne Conservatory. I have been to several countries learning and playing. This month, I will be playing in Seoul, South Korea for two weeks.