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After refusing to play for eight hours yesterday at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, Kenyan musicians are back today with music scheduled through 8 p.m. The musicians claimed yesterday that they were not being paid as had been promised by the Kenyan government.
The musicians agree to perform again “after a series of conversations between the musicians and the Kenyan government, and between the Smithsonian and the Kenyan government and the musicians,” said Smithsonian Folklife Festival Director Sabrina Motley, who noted that the situation was “very fluid.”
Tabu Osusa, a Nairobi, Kenya-based music curator and producer, who is here helping run the program, said that while the musicians have not yet gotten a firm commitment from the Kenyan government, “we owe it to the audience and not to the Kenyan government to keep performing. We have made our point and we cannot punish the people coming from everywhere to see us.” He said the Kenyan government had assisted in getting performers’ visas and flying them to D.C. but contended that daily payments were part of the agreement.
A Kenyan Benga music program was scheduled to start at noon yesterday at the Festival’s tented Ngoma Stage. Instead, Kenyan musicians were huddled together in the backstage talking. A few minutes later, percussionist Wakake Otieno approached the microphone, saying that the musicians were in a “sticky situation” as they were not being paid by the Kenyan government per an agreement. He said they didn’t blame the Smithsonian for the situation and that they apologize to the audience that they were not going to be able to perform until the situation was resolved. In a prepared written statement, the musicians described the situation as a “type of corruption.” These musician statements were soon delivered via social media and ricocheted around the Kenyan diaspora. Yet while the Smithsonian Folklife Festival noted the cancellation via Twitter and its website, for many people showing up yesterday, there was no detailed information posted near the stage explaining the last-minute cancellation.
The musicians had been performing every day since the Festival had started this past Wednesday. Motley told me that the Smithsonian provides lodging and meals for the performers but that daily payments for performing were a matter between the Kenyan government and the participants. Yesterday afternoon, the whiteboard outside the Ngoma Stage tent listing the day’s musical events was wiped clean, but today it’s filled with descriptions for today’s programming, including a 6 to 8 p.m. Kenyan Diaspora Day concert with Samba Mapangala and his band. After today the Festival, which also includes Kenyan craftspeople and a China program with music and crafts, is scheduled to return on Wednesday, July 2 and run through Sunday July 6.