Blankets and Wine will rock Kigali - Muthoni

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Muthoni Ndonga, the CEO of Blankets and Wine said Blankets and Wine will be a memorable event. / Nadege Imbabazi

“A CEO and drummer queen” is what Muthoni Ndonga, the Blankets and Wine founder describes herself; “CEO by day, and by night drummer queen,” she adds for emphasis.

Drummer queen, not drama queen like a few people are led to think, for she is a singer, rapper and drummer. It’s the drummer queen in her that gave rise to Blankets and Wine, and consequently Muthoni, the CEO.

“Blankets and Wine started in 2008. I started this event because I really needed a place to perform. Around that time in Nairobi if you did not do mainstream pop music then you did not exist as an artist,” she revealed at a press launch for the upcoming event that is slated for August 27. “If you didn’t get played on the radio, you didn’t get any shows,” she laments further.

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An idea soon occurred to her; to do some small shows in the up market Westlands area of Nairobi. However, things did not go as planned, and soon it became apparent to her that “the gig was going nowhere”.

“Only about one hundred people would be at this event no matter how much I advertised, and I felt that I really wanted to do something that could benefit me –that could give me a place and a space where I could perform and meet my audience and solve a problem for myself, but in solving a problem for myself I could solve it for all the other artists who are like me, who are good performers and musicians but who did not exist because they did not fit the bill of music that is played on radio.

I’m sure this is something not just in East Africa but all over the world, when the mainstream music decides what is to be heard.”

She quit her regular job, convinced like-minded musicians to join and perform with her, and slowly their audience started growing.

Between 2009 and 2014, the event was held monthly at different venues in Nairobi, effectively curving out a new space for Kenyan artists to perform and get up close and personal with fans.

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Burundian singer Kiki Toure (L) will perform at the event. / Nadege Imbabazi

Their efforts and passion did not go unnoticed, with several artists from other parts of the continent starting to express interest in the Blankets and Wine musical stage.

Gradually, organizers started reaching out to artists from Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Ghana, Zimbabwe … the list just kept growing each year.

“We really have a rich heritage we’ve built with artists from Africa coming into Nairobi: Oliver Mtukudzi, Mafikizolo, AliKiba, Maurice Kirya, Sauti Sol, Eric Wainaina, Harry Kimani, Nyota Ndogo among others.”

Spreading out:

After Nairobi, Blankets and Wines’ next stop was Kampala, where it has been running for the last four years. In Kampala, the event is quarterly, meaning it occurs four times in a year.

Muthoni first came to Kigali in 2015 and immediately fell in love with the city.

“It’s beautiful to watch Rwanda forming as a state. When I went to university I had quite a number of Rwandese friends, you people are extremely good looking, so I wanted to find out the source –where does this all come from. It was just interesting to meet Rwandans and to talk.

We just felt so grateful to find a way to bond with Rwanda and be part of your journey and part of the story of this country. And now we’re here and I love the people we’re working with now. It took us a while to figure out how do we come in, how do we raise the funding, how do we build a compelling story, how do we make sure that when we start we don’t stop?”

Diana Mpyisi, the founder of Spoken Word Rwanda was one of the people at the press launch of Blankets and Wine Kigali at the 1000 Hills Distillery in Kicukiro on Wednesday night.

“It was an organic journey and that is why it couldn’t happen before. It happening in Rwanda is really good synergy because in the last six years the art and culture space has grown exponentially in terms of art, fashion and cultural activities, so it’s really perfect timing that Blankets and Wine is coming to Kigali at this particular point in time,” she remarked.

Spoken Word Rwanda is one of the partners, while 1000 Hills Distillery is a sponsor.

In line with Blankets and Wine’s primary objective of offering a platform for under heralded music talent, there will be performances from eight up-and-coming local artists, some of who gave a sneak peek acoustic performance at the Wednesday press launch.

Among those that performed included Mike Kayihura, Weya Viatora, and a duo from the Nyundo School of Music.

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Mike Kayihura is one of the performers at Blankets and Wine next week. / Nadege Imbabazi

Away from the musical stage, Blankets and Wines events are also typically about fashion sense and food and drink, all rolled into one big outdoor jamboree. To this end, organizers always make it a point to engage different hospitality service providers, mainly food and beverages dealers who set up shop at the venue.

But there is still one lingering perception in some quarters about Blankets and Wine as one huge exercise in snobbery; something that the corporate and the elite flock to so they can later floss about it.

“From the outside I know how it looks in the newspapers – like it’s just so many beautiful people dressed so well gathered in one place. But when you come you see how much love and attention has been put into this. We think about our audience day and night, and the best way to give them the best day.

We think about the artists, the exhibitors, the vendors, sponsors and it shows. When artists perform, all of us come in and pay gate fees and there is some support from sponsors, this is the economy that then goes back to pay the artists, sound engineers, and other service providers.

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Stephan Knoef, the Managing Director of Hills Distillery, addresses media during a press conference recently. / Nadege Imbabazi

Blankets and Wine is really an economy, and what we do is get money from everybody and circulate the money back to everybody. That’s why we charge what is just enough to help us to circulate in the economy and get to the next event.”

Finally, I asked Muthoni to give suggestions on the best way to dress for the day:

“Because it’s a Sunday and there’s going to be so many beautiful people, come as your best version. Don’t do it for competition, don’t do it so that your picture may appear in the newspapers, just bring your best version to the event.”