Natalie Lukkenaer, a voice coach and music business professional, is the founder of Sauti Academy, an artiste development programme under Penya Africa, a Kenyan record label, where she is also the director. She talks to EDNA GICOVI about running Sauti Academy, her love for music, and the importance of nurturing talent.
It’s 10 p.m. on a rainy Saturday evening. A lively concert is drawing to a close at the Michael Joseph Centre at the Safaricom Headquarters off Waiyaki Way in Nairobi. A group of six, who gave the evening’s electrifying performances, are huddled together at the centre of the brightly lit stage, proudly displaying certificates and with big smiles on their faces as cameras click away.
After a short while they all embrace each other, some with tears in their eyes. Amidst them is Natalie Lukkenaer, a petite lady with an interesting haircut, whom they all affectionately embrace before exiting the stage to celebrate with their excited friends and family. The six are a graduating class from Sauti Academy, an artiste development programme under Penya Africa, a non-profit music label based in Nairobi. The just concluded event is their graduation concert. Sauti Academy was founded by 29-year-old Natalie Lukkenaer, a voice coach and music business professional from the Netherlands, who is also the director of Penya Africa. It takes me a while to get a chance to talk to her after the concert owing to the group of people gathered around her, some enquiring about the school, others congratulating her and others greeting her. I finally get her attention and in a few seconds, I introduce myself, we exchange contact details and agree on an interview date the following week and she gets back to give attention to the increasing number of people waiting to talk to her.
The interview takes place at Penya Africa’s studio at the Showbe Plaza in Pangani. Natalie teaches me how to pronounce her seemingly difficult surname as we get started. “It’s Lukæna,” she says and I repeat after her, unsure that I have said it correctly. “Even Dutch people don’t know how to say that. It’s old-fashioned Dutch. But it’s just a name, right?” she says, smiling.
Natalie was born and raised in the Netherlands. Music has been part of her life since childhood. Her parents enrolled her in a music school at the age of seven, where she learned how to read music and the next year she started playing the violin. She took music as a subject in school and throughout her teenage years sang in a band and also had a chance to record some of her music.
Towards the end of her high school education, she met an intern at her school who was studying music. Aware of Natalie’s talent, he asked her to audition for admission in a music school, to which she obliged. She first got into a preparation programme as she had never taken any singing lessons prior to that time and she needed to be adequately equipped in order to audition for a place in a music school.
“It’s very competitive. To get into a music school where hundreds of people audition for a few places is no easy task. This is why I had to do a preparation course before joining,” she says.
After successfully completing the preparation course, she decided not to audition right away, as she wanted to travel. In a year’s time, she auditioned at two music colleges and got accepted to both. She chose the Rock Academy in Tilburg, Netherlands, which had a curriculum that appealed to her. The academy educates young musicians and prepares them for a professional career in the international pop music industry using a four-year bachelor’s degree that enables students to develop themselves in the fields of performance, songwriting, production and sound-engineering, management and teaching. At the time only eight singers, including Natalie, were accepted out of about 100 people who had auditioned for the singing category. “It was very exciting. There were very talented people there,” she says.
Part of the school’s curriculum includes an internship, and Natalie chose to do hers in Kenya in 2007. She volunteered at Sarakasi Trust, a non-profit donor funded performance arts development organisation based in Nairobi where she worked for four months. She learnt a lot about the music industry and also fell in love with Kenya.
After her stay in Kenya she traveled to London on an exchange programme for six months, where she studied music management and also offered voice coaching at Westminster University. While there, she wrote a research paper on how to start a music school in Kenya. This is essentially where the idea for Sauti Academy was conceptualised.
She came back to Kenya in December 2007 to work on her research paper but had to leave just before the election violence broke out. She returned in February 2008 and started working on her business plan and also volunteered at Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps where she taught music, English and also learnt some Swahili. “I learnt a lot about Kenya during that time and my bond with this country grew even stronger,” she says. She eventually decided to make Kenya her home.
Voices for Sauti…
Sauti Academy began rather informally in Natalie’s house in Nairobi’s Mountain View Estate one Sunday afternoon towards the end of 2008. “My house didn’t even have furniture at the time! My students and I sat on the floor,” she says with a chuckle. Through word of mouth, she got more and more interested people interested in music lessons and was lucky to get free space at Church House in Nairobi’s city centre where she started giving voice lessons on Sundays. She later moved the coaching sessions to a friend’s house in Kariobangi South.
The outfit was still very informal at the time and she didn’t charge her students for lessons. She is nonetheless grateful for the year she spent giving lessons for free and considers it part of her research project.
“You can’t start a business without doing some research first, and I learnt so much from that. I had about 10 students and taught for several hours every Sunday,” she says. Sometime in 2009 while back in the Netherlands, she encountered acclaimed Kenyan band Sauti Sol and Nynke Nauta and Robert Wawesh, founders of Penya Africa where the band is signed. During their interactions, they discussed the need to have a training ground for musicians in Kenya to equip them with the basics of music. They noted that a lot of singers who wanted to be in the music industry didn’t have the required skills.
Following these discussions, Sauti Academy became one of Penya Africa’s programmes in 2010. Teaming up with Penya Africa helped Natalie strengthen Sauti Academy and the skills she was offering. A selection process was also introduced for those who wanted to join the academy. “In the beginning, Sauti Academy was open to anyone and everyone. But now, anyone who wants to join has to audition,” she says.
About 30 students have graduated from Sauti Academy since it started. “The group that just graduated is our seventh,” she says proudly. This artiste development programme that runs for one year, reaches out to musically talented vocalists between the ages of 18 and 25 who are looking to make music their professional career.
The programme encompasses weekly voice lessons focused on voice technique, song interpretation and performance, lyric writing classes and also classes on basic piano skills, composing, music business workshops focusing on structures within the music industry, music management, record labels, copyright, and event organising, among others. It aims to share knowledge and build skills that musicians need to get started on their careers in the music industry.
The one-year programme is divided into three terms and at the end of every term, the students have to organise and perform at a concert. The next auditions are on May 3rd and 4th. Auditions are usually announced on Sauti Academy’s social media pages and website.
“We’re open to everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, class or sexuality,” she adds.
Sauti Academy gets about 100 people on average during auditions though it only takes 10 students per term. It’s also not just for singers who are new to the industry but includes those who would like to better themselves as well.
“I also work with people who are already in the industry. I’ve worked with Alisha Popat and Sauti Sol who are already established musicians. Even Michael Jackson had a voice coach when he was preparing for his last tour,” says Natalie, adding, “Voice coaches are not for people who can’t sing. I work with people who can already sing and already have the talent but are looking to improve it.” It costs Ksh 18000 per term to study at Sauti Academy.
One of the challenges Natalie has faced in her work is the rampant notion that innate talents are already perfect. “If you believe you can be a musician, you can, but this doesn’t come for free. You may have a God-given talent but it’s not enough to just have talent. You have to develop and professionalise this talent if you want to get somewhere,” says Natalie. She emphasises the importance of diligence, creativity, humility and staying critical of oneself. She goes on to say, “If you have a talent for debate, do you automatically become a lawyer? No! You have to go to the university and study. I think the same should apply to music. Not everyone has to go to school for music but I think those that get the opportunity to do so, even for a short while, gain something valuable.”
Another challenge Natalie has faced is parents not supporting their musically gifted children. “Parents need to support their children and develop their talents,” she says. Discipline is a prerequisite for success in the music industry according to Natalie. She is very strict with her students and doesn’t allow them into class when they arrive late. “I require my students to come on time and to come prepared,” she says.
Natalie has seen a lot of growth in the music industry since she first came to Kenya. “I can’t compare 2007 with now. There is also a lot of great live music around now,” she says, adding that even though the country has come a long way, it still has a long way to go. She hopes that more youth will appreciate that being in the music industry is just as good as any other career.
For Natalie, music is a tool to unite people and she is inspired by the ability it has to take away prejudices. “It is a bridge to unite different ethnicities and classes, especially in Kenya,” she says. She hopes to continue building new talents in the future and looks forward to having an artiste signed by Penya Africa or one of her former students from Sauti Academy win one of the prestigious Grammy Awards. Natalie has been married to Azi Embodoka, a Kenyan yoga teacher, for three years. In her free time, she plays tennis and attends music festivals.
Facebook: penya.africa | Twitter: @penya_africa