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Kenya's 'Slum Drummers' Make Beautiful Music With Scrapped Objects


In the informal settlement of Dagoretti in Nairobi, Kenya, a 13-member group called “Slum Drummers” builds drums, xylophones, and other musical instruments out of materials from dumpsites and metal scrap yards. They use their music to encourage young people to stay away from drugs and to stay in school.

It's hard to imagine that this instrument, called a kalimba, is actually an old cooking pot, that has been fished out of this place.

But Nairobi’s "Slum Drummers" are masters at making beautiful music from less-than-beautiful objects.

Like these tubes that produce a distinctive twanging sound when hit.

“It is called the tubaphone, from the word “tube,” because it is made of the tube," said Joel Muiruri, a singer and percussionist with Slum Drummers. "You see, we use the recycled things. The tubes that are normally used in the sewages and everything, we recycle them and use them as a tubaphone. In our group, the tubaphone is like a piano: it gives us the pitch and the notes.”

Band members make all their instruments using materials they collect from dumpsites, metal scrap yards, or even their neighbors. Muiruri says this differentiates Slum Drummers from all other bands and sends a powerful message to the poor.

“You cannot show them that we are buying instruments - how will they be able to buy instruments? We want to show them that, [by using] what you are living with, you can make a difference with that," said Muiruri.

Slum Drummers was formed last year as a community-based organization. Most of the members had several years of musical training from an earlier project.

The group aims to reach out to the youth and others living in Nairobi’s teeming informal settlements, or slums, with a message to stay away from drugs and to reject a life of crime.

“We give them the message of hope, and to encourage them, because some street children, some of them have already lost their hope," said Eunice Ruguru, a dancer and drummer with the group.

Band members themselves report experiencing a sense of hope and transformation in their own lives after joining Slum Drummers.

“Me, myself, I was in the street. I had been there for seven years, doing all this stuff, like stealing from people," said singer, dancer, and drummer Henry Kangethe. "I came to see that there is another life. You do not have to steal. You can maybe ask for something, like beg for a coin. Then from there, I thought again. I thought, instead of begging, can I do something? Now, I am not begging. I am selling you something. I am making something to sell to you.”

Slum Drummers plays for a variety of audiences, ranging from street children in informal settlements to international audiences at cultural centers.

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