Popularly known as Coach Kavutha and synonymous with the Tusker Project Fame (TPF) musical competition, where she has been a vocal coach for the past three years, the personable Kavutha Mwanzia-Asiyo chats with EDNA GICOVI about the her life, voice coaching at TPF and her unquenchable passion for music.
My dad always told me that if ever the teachers at my school taught maths, Swahili or any other subject by singing, I’d definitely be the top student,” says 36-year-old Kavutha Mwanzia-Asiyo. Her life has revolved around music for as long as she can remember.
As a child, she knew almost every song played on the radio. “I could easily remember melodies and lyrics and in the morning on the way to school I’d sing along to every song playing on the radio,” she says, adding “I think I grasped music so much better than I did my schoolwork.”
In spite of her great love for music, it never really occurred to her at the time that she could have a career in it. In fact, she wanted to be a veterinary doctor at some point. “We had a puppy and I grew up on a farm so I was surrounded by lots of animals. I particularly wanted to have a career that would enable me take care of cheetahs, lions, giraffes and other animals in the wildlife,” she says.
At St. George’s Girls High School, Kavutha chose music over French and also joined a singing group where her singing talent became apparent. It was then that she started thinking that maybe her involvement in music could turn out to be bigger than she had expected. After high school, she enrolled at Daystar University in 1994 to study communication with a minor in music.
She chose Daystar because the institution offered music, though only as a minor (a second area of specialisation available in some university programmes that comprises of fewer units of credit than a major).
“Back then, there used to be a very long wait before joining a regular university programme and though I wanted to join Kenyatta University to study music, I really didn’t want to wait two years,” she says.
She decided that if music didn’t work out, she would work for a radio station. At Daystar, Kavutha enjoyed studying music immensely. Mrs. Miller, a music lecturer she encountered during her last semester, was particularly influential. “She thought I had a wonderful voice and an ear for music and that I could do well if I chose to pursue music as a career. She helped me find my direction,” she says.
Kavutha hoped to continue studying music on a much deeper level after completing her studies at Daystar. She wanted to attend the acclaimed Berklee College of Music in the US. It however proved to be a rather expensive venture, so she started applying for jobs at various radio stations.
“As chance would have it, God smiled on my family and my dad came to me one day and asked if I still wanted to go to Berklee and I said yes! He had finally found enough money for me to study there,” she says. After her family did their calculations to ensure that they indeed had enough resources to fund her education and stay at the US, she started making the necessary preparations. Fortunately, she was able to transfer her Daystar credits to Berklee, which meant she would spend less time on coursework. She only had to be at Berklee for two years instead of four. She joined Berklee in 1998, the same year she graduated from Daystar, albeit, in absentia.
LIFE AND MUSIC LESSONS AT BERKLEE…
“Berklee changed my life. Everybody there ate, breathed and lived music,” says Kavutha. It was a little hard for her at the beginning. The environment was very different from what she was accustomed to and she got very homesick. Nonetheless, these experiences set her on the path to who she is today. The school opened up her world.
“Before Berklee I was very timid and quiet but now I am much more outgoing. Berklee instilled in me that ‘you can do it’ attitude and taught me that I am as good as I think I am and also that I can be better,” she says. Another thing Kavutha learnt at Berklee was that there was always going to be someone much more talented than she is musically, and also someone less talented, so she had to keep striving for excellence. She focused on developing her voice as an instrument and learnt how to play piano as an accompaniment.
“Berklee taught me that my voice is as important as any other instrument. My voice is my instrument,” she says. She graduated from Berklee in 2000 with a second bachelor’s degree in music and stayed on for another two years, working as a vocal teacher.
Coming back to Kenya in 2002, she teamed up with her best friend Nthenya Masyuko to form The Orange Company. They started a monthly event for jazz lovers, and also organised First Friday, a monthly worship event. This is what eventually paved the way for her to be on Tusker Project Fame (TPF). Kavutha has also been a voice coach and a music lecturer at West Nairobi School and Daystar University, and also does private voice coaching.
TUSKER PROJECT FAME…
Kavutha got involved with TPF in its third season. “It was a wonderful platform. I had watched the first and second season when Hellen Mtawali was the vocal coach and I liked it,” she says. The just concluded eight-week TPF season five was her third one. “I’ve loved and enjoyed the fact that I can do what I love to do everyday. The contestants are always very talented. I’ve seen some wonderful singers pass through my hands. My hope is to share with them what I’ve learnt,” she says.
TPF has kept her very busy in the last two months. Kavutha and the rest of the faculty worked all week including weekends when they had to attend the gala nights. “It’s very intense. It takes 10 weeks for us because we have to be there two weeks before the show begins,” she says. “But I love it and I do it with all my heart. I love my students and love to see them do well,” she adds.
She says she has loved every season she’s been on. The contestants are always different and interesting. According to Kavutha, the just concluded season had much younger contestants compared to previous ones and she’s laughed much more than she ever did in the other seasons. “They’re all very funny. They said such funny things,” she says about the contestants adding that they’re all good kids. “They love music and would love to excel. Each of them is a superstar in their own right,” she says with fond memories of the contestants.
So what does it feel like to be on TV? “It’s different!” she says, adding, “I don’t actually notice that people notice me but it’s always nice to have people walk up to me and say hi.” She laughs and says that sometimes people will walk up to her, sure that they know her and wonder why she does not greet them yet they know her.
They also tell her what they think of the show which, she says, is great because what they do at TPF is for them. All in all it has been a wonderful three years at TPF for Kavutha and she would love to continue doing it. “It’s a platform that gives me a chance to do what I love and to see the level of vocal music in Kenya go up,” she says.
IF YOU CAN TALK, YOU CAN SING…
Kavutha believes that if you can talk, you can sing. “Anybody can sing,” she says, adding that singing is correlated to what you hear and what you can reproduce. She goes on to say that people who have naturally beautiful voices and have been exposed to many different types of music can reproduce music better. Those who have not had that sort of exposure have to work harder to do the same but can still learn how to sing well. She gives the example of two people driving to the coastal town of Mombasa, one in a Mercedes Benz and the other in a Toyota Vitz. “They’ll both get there but the one with the Mercedes might get there much faster. It’s the same with two people, one who has the singing talent and one who has to learn,” she says.
Singing is about practice. “You may have a beautiful voice and I can give you a great lesson but if you don’t use it, you lose it. Practice, practice, practice… is the secret. Also, be resilient and tenacious,” she says. One must also be willing to learn and take criticism positively. “In every profession, there’s time spent in preparation. Why shouldn’t musicians be doing the same?” she asks. Singing is an everyday learning experience for her. She learns from her students and they learn from her.
Kavutha is happy with the growth that the Kenyan music industry has undergone. “It’s wonderful to see people make a living from what they love and in any art form as well,” she says. She feels we still have a long way to go though we’re on the right track. Kavutha predominantly sings jazz and is also working on an album that will incorporate her jazz, African and gospel roots.
A MUSICAL MARRIAGE…
Kavutha got married in 2008 to Jacob Asiyo, who also happens to be a musician. Jacob plays the piano and also sings. “He’s a fantastic musician. He pushes me to be a better musician and I do the same for him,” she says. “I always jokingly tell him that he’s a better piano player than I am but that I’m a better singer than he is,” she adds smiling.
Kavutha met Jacob in late 2005. “I saw him at a restaurant where he was playing and I thought he was so cute! I bumped into him again at a gig with a friend who knew him and we got a chance to meet and talk. The rest, as they say, is history,” she says. The two dated for about two years and got married on Kavutha’s parents’ wedding anniversary. “It was a really big deal for me to get married on this day and have the same anniversary date as my parents,” says Kavutha.
They have been married for four years now. “I love it! And I highly recommend it!” she says about marriage. Kavutha got married at 31. “I was technically what you call an older bride,” she says, adding that it’s important to not only get married when you’re ready, but also when your friend is ready. “But don’t wait too long!” she cautions. She stresses the importance of getting married to first and foremost a friend, then a lover, saying, “Always marry your friend because when the honeymoon ends, your friendship is what will remain.”
Nevertheless, her marriage is not always, as she puts it, hunky-dory. Neither are they always in love. “We’ve had our ups and downs. At first adjusting to living together was not easy. We both have our idiosyncrasies and sometimes we drive each other up the wall,” she says. Despite this, they have both learnt to compromise and accommodate one other. “That’s what love is all about,” she says. “At the end of the day we are in this together. When I feel like my world is ending, he’s the one I’ll turn to and vice versa. He’s my friend. It’s wonderful to be married and we’re happy.”
Asked about being married to a fellow musician, she says, “It helps that we’re in the same industry as we can both relate to each other’s situations. Sometimes our schedules are so crazy that we barely see each other. Though we make time for one other and have our date nights.” She says that it’s important to tell your partner everything – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Kavutha and Jacob don’t have any children yet. “Some people have been on my case about this,” she says chuckling. “Music is a hard job for someone with kids. When we’re ready and when it’s time, we’ll have them,” she says. How many children does she plan to have? “Probably two but we’ll take whatever God gives us,” she says.
Kavutha grew up in Nairobi. She is the first of four girls. She is followed by Kasyoka, a graphic designer and photographer, then Kamene, a doctor, and lastly Kavinya, a banker. She finds it interesting that they are all in diverse careers – two in the arts, and two in conventional careers. Family is of great importance to her and she is still very close to her family.
“We didn’t grow up in an estate setting where kids play outside together so we usually just played together, which made us pretty close,” she says. Her father was an accountant while her mother was a teacher. They are both retired now.
Kavutha believes in God and having a relationship with Him is vital for her, adding that we all need God. “You always need that place you can go to beyond your family, spouse or friends. You have that space that only God can fill,” she says. During her free time, she enjoys travelling, watching movies, reading fiction, and quite unexpectedly, knitting. In the future, she looks forward to growing her family, completing and releasing her album, performing at various jazz festivals, and also continuing to teach at TPF.