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Hellen Mtawali is a multi-skilled powerhouse whose contribution to the Kenyan music industry cannot go unnoticed. For 30 years, the 46-year-old singer, composer, voice coach, marketer and mentor has carved a niche for herself not just in the local music industry, but also in the hearts of those who have encountered her on different platforms. ESTHER AKELLO delves into the inspirational world of Hellen Mtawali and finds out what makes her tick.

Hellen Mtawali is a firecracker with an undeniable presence. It’s in how she carries herself (her gait is that of a proud peacock), it’s in her voice (commanding yet compassionate), and it is in that rare quality of how she manages to make one feel like they count. As we sit in her office, she apologises about how crammed it is. Spread out in different seats in her small office at Daystar University, is a group of 15 or so young adults – members of her musical band, Afrizo.  She proceeds to introduce each one by name, stating all the qualities that she thinks makes them not only valuable to the band, but also stand out individually. So immersed into their world is she that by the time she is done, it’s grins from ear to ear. It is not difficult to see why they call her mum.

Different generations remember Hellen Mtawali in different lights. The older generation will remember her as a constant figure on past gospel shows: Sing and Shine, and Joy Bringers on national broadcaster KBC in the 90s. Millenials will probably remember her as principal and voice coach in reality TV music show, Tusker Project fame and more recently, Premier Voice on Youth TV.

It is easy to assume that the performer has been musical all her life but in reality, the process to becoming the refined powerhouse that she is today started in her teenage years as a fluke.

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“While in high school, I tried my hand at writing songs for music festivals and some of them won awards. When I finished my studies, my teacher urged me to look for a university that offered music. However, I missed Kenyatta University by a point and enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree in education and Bible with a minor in music at Daystar University. Additionally, I got a private mentor from Pan African Christian University who took me under her wing. In 1995, I was hired by Daystar University to teach music at the diploma level,” says Hellen.

In between teaching, she undertook her Master’s in communication as well as developed a music curriculum merging contemporary and classical styles of music. “I observed what Kenyans like. I noted many Kenyans do not have an ear for classical music and training. Additionally, the curriculums out there were customised for western songs, not African style of singing. My lecturer once commented about the lack of authentic African songs because African singers kept mimicking western singers. I took it as a challenge to delve deeper into African music and hence the curriculum,” explains Hellen who is also a self-taught music performer.

In 1998, upon her husband’s request for back-up vocalists for an album he was working on, Hellen co-opted a few of her students to help with the project. After the studio album was done, her husband requested her and the team to tour with him at the Coast. The tour was so successful that she decided to define the team’s objectives and formalised it. Afrizo (short for African Zone) was born. The group, which sings in different African dialects, comprises of non-denominational individuals who tour both locally and internationally to raise funds for needy students at Daystar University.

Hellen confirms that she does not earn a single coin from the group explaining, “It’s my way of giving back. When I joined Daystar University in 1989, I received school fees waiver, as my father was part of the staff. When I was studying for my Master’s degree, I also received reprieve on my school fees through the staff development programme.”

As the interview rolls on, Hellen fondly points out to one of the students in her office stating that she has been part of Afrizo since the age of five. The only prerequisite Hellen demands from her students are passion and dedication, so strict is her policy that she does not audition her students. Everyone has a fair shot whether obviously talented or otherwise and her reasoning is simple.

“I believe if you have a voice, you can sing. Every music teacher would want to teach a person who is gifted but some people require more patience. When these ‘not so gifted’ singers are rejected, I take them in. In most cases, they are the most committed because they have something to prove,” she says.

Her role in Afrizo stretches far beyond the confines of the music world. She also mentors them in various aspects of life. Her inspiration is taken from a page in the life of the late renowned businessman, author, speaker and preacher, Dr Myles Monroe.

“I tell my students it is not enough to just be a musician. If you know you have multiple gifts, cultivate them as early as possible. When my students tell me they do not have food or rent, I cannot just lay my hands on them and hope all will be well. They look up to me to bail them out and it is my hope they will do the same for someone else when they are long gone into their careers. Some may not be the most talented but what is talent if you do not have compassion?” she questions adding that she tries to teach the students to be as self-sufficient as possible by using available materials within their reach.

Her efforts to be all-inclusive seems to have paid off, as the group comprises of students from various universities in Kenya to those who are already working in various industries. Additionally, through the band, some of her students have received full scholarships based on their talents.

The group’s recognition and reach has come a long way from its heydays touring the Kenyan Coast. In 2007, following a local performance, a well-wisher from the United States arranged for the group to tour the US to further the group’s charity course. The trip brought in millions in scholarship funds for Daystar University. So impressed was the university that they offered Hellen a deal: a partnership whereby in addition to being a lecturer, she would be in charge of running Afrizo as a marketing tool for the university. Since then, the group has made annual trips to the USA except in 2011 and 2014. Additionally, the group has also performed in multiple seminars and conferences around the world.

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“We sing in many African dialects, so conferences find it easy to invite us. Personally, thanks to all the music, I have managed to pick up 16 languages. I even sing in Hindu,” says Hellen emphatically. The band has also featured in continental shows such as Coke Studio Africa (Season 3) where they collaborated with Navio from Uganda and Mozambique’s G2.

Hellen’s success, though far-reaching, was probably further catapulted a notch higher in 2007 when reality TV music show Tusker Project Fame came knocking, hiring her as principal and voice coach to the show’s contestants. The show also used the curriculum she developed for four of its five shows. The irony is, Hellen had never taught voice training and performance at Daystar University because she did not have formal papers indicating that she had trained on the same. Nonetheless, her experience came in handy.

In 2015, in collaboration with Premier Academy, she launched her own show, Premier Voice on Youth TV, which signed on for 11 seasons. Season one is set to start this month. “Tusker Project Fame is a good avenue for shining a spotlight on talent but I felt like something was missing. We say we are proud of being East Africans yet we still sing in English and do not write our own songs. These were the things I wanted to bring in,” she articulates.

Hellen confesses that being at the top of her game has not come without a cost, and would not have been fruitful without the love and support of her husband and daughter. “With my husband being a musician, I thought my life would be easier when we got married. I had to learn how to be a musician, leave that out of the door when I got home and submit to my husband especially since there were times when I would have to leave our young daughter alone with him for up to three months due to tours,” she says adding that fame can go to one’s head while touring can be time consuming.

“At some point, my daughter Neema accused me of neglect. I tried explaining to her what I do but it did not work so I decided to show her. I started carrying her to all my shows and soon enough, she started understanding the complexities that surrounded my job,” she explains.

With all her success, Hellen says what keeps her grounded is her passion for people. “I love mentoring people and I want others to shine. There is enough spotlight for everyone. When I give someone a chance, people will still see Hellen. I do not always have to stand at the front line,” she concludes without any doubt that she is a true mentor and role model.

Published in February 2016