Helen Mtawali – Multi-talented songstress with a teacher’s heart

Remembered for gracing our television screens as the firm but encouraging Tusker Project Fame Academy’s music teacher, Hellen Mtawali is an accomplished singer, composer, choreographer and lecturer at Daystar University, who uses song to evangelise and to help the less fortunate, and has been instrumental in mentoring Kenya’s next generation of musicians.

Hellen Mtawali can be described as anything but a wallflower. She has an undeniable presence, perked up by her trademark vibrant clothing and confident gait. She has been touted as one of the greatest songstresses of our times. Easily recognizable from our TV screens when she was the music teacher at the popular Tusker Project Fame Show, Mtawali lives and breathes her music.

“There is nothing that I do better than music, at least not professionally,” she quips.

Besides being a music teacher at Daystar University, she has also taken up the role of Kenyan music ambassador, having founded the Afrizo band, a popular music group that has flown the national flag at many international events.

The journey to finding her musical roots was, however, fraught with bends and twists that the young Mtawali had to grapple with.

I used to sing in the choir. I remember one teacher telling me that I was very talented, but that I should also learn how to read music

“I grew up in the army barracks where my father was an aircraft technician. Life was definitely not without its share of adventure. We lived at the air base for 17 years until the failed 1982 coup.”

Her father was among those put in prison. He was jailed for four years and they had to leave the air force base and move to Nairobi’s Kariobangi Estate where her mother worked as a teacher and had access to free housing in the teachers’ quarters.

Mtawali then joined Ogada Boarding School in Kisumu for her high school education and completed her ‘A’ Levels at Obisawa High School.

“I really wanted to join Kenyatta University to study music, but my grades were off by one mark.  I was crushed because I had really set my sights on that.”

Things were not any easier at home. After serving his jail term, her father couldn’t find a job. He didn’t have his academic papers as they had been destroyed in a fire after he went to prison. Things looked bleak. He had been a senior army officer and now, even getting work was difficult. He eventually found a job as a groundsman at Daystar University.

“It was a humbling experience for him, but he held on. We certainly needed the money and Mum could really use the extra help,” she says. “By the time he retired, he had risen through the ranks to bookshop manager at the university.”Things also started looking up for Mtawali. With her father on staff at school, he could get a fee waiver for Mtawali and her siblings to study at the university.

Faced with the dilemma of what discipline to pursue, she settled on a Bachelor of Arts degree in Education, Bible and Music. This was inspired by her love for music and also because everyone, including her teachers, told her that she had a natural aptitude for it.

“I used to sing in the choir. I remember one teacher telling me that I was very talented, but that I should also learn how to read music.”

On completion of her studies, she taught music at Nairobi School and Nairobi Baptist Church before going back to Daystar for a postgraduate programme in Music.

Her musical profile nationwide was also growing, thanks to some musical ventures she participated in.

“I was the continuity announcer at Kenya Broadcasting Corporation for the gospel music shows Joy Bringers and Sing and Shine,” she recalls. These shows provided her with an opportunity to sing. “I then joined the Kassanga Musical Family and we went on to perform together for 15 years.”

Through the Kassangas, she found a platform to learn a great deal, and found the help needed to take the plunge and produce her first album of Luo songs, which was recorded on cassette tape.

Branching out on her own wasn’t easy, she admits. She had hidden under the umbrella of the Kassangas because she was not confident enough to go it alone. But she finally found the courage to start a solo career. “The experience with the Kassanga Band shaped me a lot. I got to learn a lot about bands and I apply most of that knowledge now,” she says.

Words of Wisdom

  • “Never think that you are too good at what you do. A true musician stays on top of their skill, constantly improving it.”
  • “Treat everyone with regard; never take anyone for granted.”
  • “Sometimes you need to let go. You can’t keep doing everything all the time.”
  • “If you are a teacher, don’t forget yourself. Improve your craft too. Otherwise you will be churning out great people while you remain at the very same level.”
  • Whatever you do, do it like there is no tomorrow.”

After completion of her postgraduate studies, she got a teaching job at Daystar University, a position she holds to date.

While teaching music at Daystar, it occurred to Mtawali that there were other ways to make school and studies more interesting for the students. Daystar had just started the Athi River campus and most of the younger students had transferred to the new campus, leaving the main campus feeling a little dull. In 1998 she rounded up a few students and they started putting on presentations once a month at the school hall during lunch hour. Thus Afrizo was born.

“I taught them how to sing and now every Wednesday, they do free performances at local joints.” The group has now grown to over 100 members.

Mtawali is quick to point out that she is not paid to train the Afrizo band. “It is my way of showing gratitude to the University for enabling me to get a good education. And whenever we do weddings and gigs locally, the students earn themselves some pocket money.”

Besides being the chief trainer at Afrizo, she also trains choirs all over the country and does choreography for various bands and music groups.

Used to juggling many tasks, it didn’t faze her to add one more task to her already full plate when Tusker Project Fame Academy – East Africa’s biggest reality singing show – came calling in 2006. She was more than ready for the challenge.

“I was delighted. They wanted someone who could develop a syllabus, and being a teacher by profession, I fit right in. I gave it my best during the interviews.” Two days later, she got the job.

However, because of her Christian background, the job conflicted with her values since Tusker was a brand of alcohol. “I had a talk with my pastor who said that as long as I was teaching what I normally would, it was okay,” she says.

She couldn’t be prouder to have produced some great students from the Academy in the four years she was part of the programme. She is especially proud of Valarie, Alvan and Ruth. “They went on to do great things. And oddly enough, they were also my students at Daystar,” she gushes.

In 2015 she launched her own show, Premier Voice on Youth TV in collaboration with Premier Academy.

Besides her busy career, she is also a wife and mum; balancing the roles has been her biggest challenge so far.

“My daughter Neema loves music, too. She is naturally gifted and I train her vocals,” she says.

She describes her husband, Alfred, as “your quintessential techno geek.” He runs his own language translation company, but he is always home by 4.30pm every day. “At least one of us is home early. Balancing my many roles is the tricky bit, but my family comes first,” she says.

Weekends are set aside for her family, though it doesn’t always work out like that. “Decembers are always busy with work, so we celebrate our holidays just before or in January.” She is usually home by 7pm when she has no gigs. “I make sure to cook, which they absolutely love. They can always count on very good meals when I am home,” she laughs.

Somehow, she still manages to find some ‘me time’ in the midst of everything.

“I have come to learn that it is important to have time to just breathe.” She recalls a time she suffered from insomnia that was so bad she had to be medicated.

“Now when I can, I will sleep till midday, hang out with my daughter, and go to the gym and the spa. Sometimes a girl just needs a break.”

And Mtawali is not without wise counsel for the young, borne out of her own experience, triumphs and failures.

“Always have some cash flow. Education teaches you to be a professional, but you have to learn to invest. And maximize your potential,” she says. “If you can sing, sing and make money. If you can write, write and make your buck. I do my own hair and design my own costumes. I am maximising my potential,” she concludes.

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