Getting to discover the ART in NgARTia

He spoke about his craft ahead of his poetry performance on Sunday

In Summary

• His passion for storytelling came after working with Owaaah on Kenyan history

Performance artiste Ngartia on stage during rehearsals
Performance artiste Ngartia on stage during rehearsals

Being an enthusiast of Kenyan history, one of the artistes whom I’ve taken an interest in recently is Ngartia. 

Ngartia performs storytelling shows, whereby he narrates particular events in the history of the country in an interesting fashion.

He captures our attention and leaves us in awe.

Ahead of his poetry performance on Sunday, I reached out to him for a word about it.

People mostly know you as a storyteller, from your days at Too Early For Birds to your nights at Alliance Française. Can you expound more on your latest show?

Before anything, I have always been a poet. I started out my career in art by writing mashairi in Class 6 and Class 7, which my teachers, particularly Mr Macharia, who was my Kiswahili teacher, dearly loved, to the point that he invited me to perform them in front of the class, an offer I incessantly declined.

In high school, together with my friends Brian Njagi and Tony Muchui, we inadvertently formed the Literature and Reading Club, and every week, we had to submit two poems to the self-appointed club patron, Mr Mawera.

Even after high school, when my aforementioned friends and I started a production company known as StoryZetu, our goal was for it to be a venture where we can produce poetry works.

In 2016, I met Abu and we became great friends, and together with him, we landed a storytelling gig for Owaaah’s blog, where we would write about the history of Kenya.

In October the same year, I got an invitation to be the Poetry Act for the Kwani? Open Mic. But rather than perform poetry, I decided to try something new, which was doing live storytelling. Therefore, I took the piece which I had written for Owaaah’s blog, one on the story of Muthoni Nyanjiru, the lady who died while agitating for the release of Harry Thuku from the Central Police Station in 1922, and told it as a storytelling session.

Everybody loved it, and that’s when we got the idea of doing more and more storytelling sessions. But all in all, it’s important to remember that my roots are in poetry. This will be my first time getting back to poetry after nine years, and I feel like the prodigal son in the Bible, who, for a while, wandered in unfamiliar territory, trying to find something for his heart, but in the end, he still went back home.

Ama kweli, wahenga na wahenguzi hawakutupaka mafuta kwenye mgongo wa chupa walipoamba kuwa, ‘Ng’ombe akivunjika guu, hurudi tu pale pale zizini’. In my case, too, after wandering for nine years in the storytelling territory, I have come upon the realisation that home is where the heart is, and my heart is in poetry. So, in conclusion, I am looking forward to the show!

I have seen so many posts about the show, including behind-the-scenes cuts from the rehearsals, therefore, I know you’re anticipating.  Please tell us more about it, and what the name ‘Dai Verse’ means.

As the name insinuates, Dai Verse is a diverse piece of art. It is a poetry performance whereby I’ll be looking back to the things I’ve written in the last decade. In it, I am able to sail through my journey as a poet, from when I can say I was an infant, to this point in time, where, presumably, I may judge that I am an adult now.

Almost like the times you’d visit a relative and they’d give you a photo album for you to go through their pictures over different time periods. Now, Dai Verse is my photo album, but for poetry. It contains different phases whereby I am experimenting with poetry, even when it gets personal.

Are the poems exactly as you had written them back then, or have you rewritten them?

Well, I had to rewrite some of them. This is because some references no longer make sense. A joke you’d make in 2010 no longer makes sense in 2024 because Kibaki is no longer the President and the dollar is no longer Sh80. Also, I had to restructure some of the poems, now that I’ll be acting them out. You see, some narratives work better on paper than when acting. Therefore, I had to cross them out. Nonetheless, the main chunk of the meat still stands, and so, you will be able to see it in the poems.

What are the resounding themes that stand out in these poems?

We have mental health, Kenyan politics, love, social consciousness, crime and even sex work.

Your cast has some big and admirable names to it. Was it a hard task choosing them?

You know, I initially thought that this would be a solo performance, whereby I would just do the whole set alone. Therefore, I only brought some musicians so they could offer interludes in the performance. But then, later on as we started rehearsals, we realised the need for more members of the cast. Therefore, rather than bringing more people into the ship, we settled on improvising with the musicians, and using them as part of the cast, too.

For the musicians, I had chosen Chemutai Sage, M3, Tim Arinaitwe, Vini Ngugi, Septad and Sho. Our stage manager will be Chadota. The director will be Nyokabi Macharia, and the producers are Shiko Ngure and Ciru Njoroge.

Have the preparations for this show felt any different, now that you’re doing it with a whole team, as compared to your recent storytelling sessions, like the ones at Alliance Française, where you’ve been doing solo?

Yes. There’s been a really huge difference in this rehearsal process. Mainly because, previously, I would only rehearse alone, and not only alone, but at home, too. Therefore, there was some form of solitude to it, and there is some comfort that arises with solitude, as compared to when you’re working as a team.

Now, there are a couple of eyes watching every move, and so, it’s quite hard for something to pass by. When alone, there were some errors that would have gone unnoticed. But now, even the slightest misstep is called out. And, even though it’s hard to admit, working with a team is way better, because it removes you out of your comfort zone.

What are your expectations for this show?

First of all, I am very curious to know what we’ll end up with. Before the rehearsals even started, there was what existed in my mind as the perception of how the performance will be, but with each and every subsequent rehearsal, something new is introduced to the set.

And so, it’s almost like The Ship of Theseus paradox. Day by day, we are reworking on new parts, introducing some new ones that work well, and replacing the older ones that aren’t good enough. So, at the end of it all, will our final product still be The Ship of Theseus? Or will it be The Ship of Ngartia? (chuckles).

In addition to that, I am also curious about the reception of the event. As I mentioned, the first Too Early For Birds event we did post-Covid didn’t have a great reception, with equally negative reviews as were the positive reviews. But the thing with feedback is that, even if you have 99 good reviews but one bad review, that one bad review will stick out in your mind like a sore thumb, and however much you try, you’ll always walk around with the bitter taste in your mouth until you redeem yourself. In my case, this Dai Verse performance will be the redemption.

The other thing that makes me look forward to the show is because we are experimenting with a certain traditional style; one that spans centuries. The Ancient Greeks did shows mixing poetry and theatre together, and it is what I’ll be trying my hand in.

Do you have other shows lined up for the future?

Yes! I have three more shows in the pipeline. The three are on politics, mental health, and love and heartbreak. One is, at least, slated for later in the year, and likewise, will be a poetry performance. It is titled ‘Ruruma’, which means ‘roar’ in the Kikuyu language. For that, we’re still editing the draft, but I’d urge you all to start anticipating it.

How would you advise interested people who want to join this industry but are not sure how sustainable it is?

Yes, I would say that it is sustainable, at least as far as I have seen. But then, as with any other sector, we only know of the successful people, but hardly about the failures. I would emphasise that it requires a lot of strength and devotion to the craft. If you are able to put in hard work, then you’ll definitely make it out of the hood.

This industry has, matter of fact, seen considerable growth in the last decade and a half. Far from the traditional form of storytelling done by our grandfathers, we have seen considerable expansion of the field of oratory thanks to social media.

One, it has helped with the acquisition of more content for the storyteller. Two, it has enabled one to get a bigger audience. While previously, one would have to go out there for a physical show to get a shot at a performance, now one has the chance to post their content on social media, thanks to YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and the like. We have seen people become famous in their fields thanks to social media, and so it is a sustainable venture.

Though I would heavily emphasise on consistency once again. During my time here, I have witnessed the growth of Gufy, Dorphan, Teardrops, Mufasa, and so on. Watching them, you can see the work they put into their craft. It may be doing shows regularly or getting more revenue streams. Mufasa went into book publishing. Dorphan went into merchandise selling. Gufy focused on ticketing.

So, yes, it is sustainable. As long as you learn from the best.

Lately, there has been talk on Twitter about how shows are now getting unaffordable, locking out some groups that would ordinarily be interested in the craft. Do you think your tickets cater for all kinds of audience?

For my shows, I usually ensure that I have different tiers of ticketing. There are always three categories: the ‘Early Bird’ tickets, which are always the cheapest. The ‘Advance’ tickets, which are always medium-ranged. And finally, the ‘Gate’ tickets, which are highly priced. The fact that we have different tiers of ticketing definitely shows our attempts at trying to open our doors to all classes of people, while at the same time ensuring that we make our ends meet.

And with that, I’d like to welcome each and every one of you to my show at the Braeburn Auditorium on Gitanga Road on Sunday the 21st of April. We’ll be having two shows. The first from 2pm to 4pm, while the second show will be from 6pm to 8pm. Karibu sana!

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