Conductor and Composer Sylvester Otieno Ogama Teaches Kenyan Music at USF

Thursday, February 07, 2019

Sylvester Otieno Ogama’s enthusiasm and passion for music is infectious. He is the Chairman of the Kenya Federation of Choral Music and the Director of Choirs at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. A renowned clinician and conductor, he also composes and arranges choral music. This January he shared his expertise and music in a series of workshops and presentations at the University of South Florida, where he was hosted by USF Choirs.

Ogama rehearsed several songs with the USF Collegiate Chorus and the USF Chamber Singers, including the Swahili hymn “Hakuna Mungu Kama Wewe.” The USF Choirs will perform the songs at the third annual Black Composers Concert on February 22.

Sylvester Otieno Ogama guides USF choir students in song.

Sylvester Otieno Ogama guides USF choir students in song.

Composition and ethnomusicology students learned about the music of the Kenyan tribes, as well as the choral arrangements of traditional Kenyan folk songs. All sessions were free and open to the public.

During his stay in Tampa, Ogama observed the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and the Hillsborough All-County Chorus in rehearsal. He also visited and worked with the choirs at three local high schools: Wiregrass Ranch High School, Newsome High School, and Gibbs High School. These visits posed a very unique community engagement opportunity by bringing Ogama directly to the students to deliver the workshops in person.

“I want to introduce the African—particularly Kenyan—perspective of music-making to students,” Ogama stated. Emphasizing what he calls the global village, he wants to instill in students a world view of music-making. “The world is small, we are connected and can learn from each other.”

Understanding the music education system here helps him to see the impact of what they can do back home, where music education is more informal. “I want to take what I have learned and bring it back to Kenya,” he said. “Kenyans are proud of our cultural music and heritage and want to share it with the world. What can we incorporate to make it grow?”

The warmth of the people he has met at USF and in Tampa has left a deep impression on Ogama. He expressed deep appreciation for the kindness with which the School of Music has welcomed him, and spoke enthusiastically of the equipment and facilities. Above all, he is thankful for “the experience of sharing music knowledge, whether it’s through singing or dancing.”

Ogama’s ability to help students relax and feel the happiness in music is a gift, said Morgan Burburan, a music education doctoral student and interim director of choral studies at USF. She shared a video of Ogama and a group of students singing in a circle, clapping their hands and swaying their bodies from side to side. The joy flowing all round the classroom was palpable through the screen. It is this joy and freedom in making music that Burburan wants students to remember. “Music is part of the soul and human nature,” she said. “No matter where you are, music is happening. I think that speaks to what music means to us as humans.” 

Morgan Burburan and Sylvester Otieno Ogama.

Morgan Burburan and Sylvester Otieno Ogama.

Ogama and Burburan first met in June 2018 at the Festival Singers of Florida, where he had conducted a choral music clinic. Having witnessed Ogama’s gift with music, Burburan considered it important for him to share his knowledge and music with a wider community. She was also inspired by a previous trip to Kenya, where she had visited a primary school, a secondary school, the Kenya Music Festival, and Kenyatta University. “I received such a warm welcome and I learned so much, I wanted to bring that to USF,” she said.

Thus she and Dr. Kevin Fenton, professor of choral conducting and ensembles at Florida State University and artistic director of the Festival Singers of Florida, sought to bring Ogama back. Dr. Fenton invited USF and the University of Central Missouri to co-sponsor Ogama’s visit. USF joined thanks to a grant funded by USF World.

Dr. Fenton’s friendship with Ken Wakia, director of the Nairobi Chamber Chorus, was instrumental in making Ogama’s artist residency possible. The two long-time friends built a relationship that has strengthened the cultural music exchange between the United States and Kenya. Choral directors from Kenya travel here to teach, and American professional conductors go to Kenya to instruct, a testament to the global village that Ogama mentioned earlier.

Next Ogama will head to Tallahassee to work with FSU Choirs and the Festival Singers of Florida. From there he will journey on to the University of Central Missouri, his last stop for this visit. No doubt he will continue to spread the joy in music as he teaches the intricacies and beauty of Kenyan music.