“It was worth all the rejection, tears and sleepless nights. I used my talent to lift someone else up.” – Thelma Rimber.
Imagine that you are a child, living in destitute poverty in a slum with absolutely no opportunities to do anything. Then imagine that there is a woman who comes into you life, helps you to develop your innate gifts and talents and inspires you to do more and to be more. And, she shows you how.
This woman is Thelma Rimber. A woman who is so talented that she can have her own successful solo career as an artist and entertainer, but, she chooses to stay and help young people. We are so honored to have her share her journey and her mission with us here.
You teach piano, voice and acting. We would like to know about the piano first. When did you start to learn how to play and why?
I would always watch pianists on the keys doing their thing and I’d get fascinated, but somehow it never occurred to me that I could ever play. About four years ago I started a youth choir at church and I would get so frustrated at the lack of our very own keyboard player. We were constantly let down or they would turn up with an arrogant attitude because they knew we needed them. Eventually I felt enough was enough and decided to learn how to play. I didn’t have an instrument though. What’s more, I didn’t have money to get one. On my birthday that year, by some miracle my family surprised me with the first instrument I have ever owned and I was thrilled! A Yamaha keyboard. Another miracle happened and the choir director at my church decided to sponsor my lessons at the one music school I really wanted to get piano lessons from. It’s now my third year as a piano student and I’m still falling deeper and deeper in love with those enchanting black and white keys. Am currently doing Grade 4 & 5 concurrently.
Incidentally my youth choir drifted apart because everyone seemed to be relocating or moving in different directions but am glad it was the push I needed to learn how to play piano.
You are a naturally skilled singer. In order to each others, did you take additional training or learn other methods or do you just teach what you know?
People usually laugh when I tell them I started out as a terrible singer. I would break into a sweat and tremble or even not be able to breathe properly on stage. The result, as any singer can imagine, was a terrible performance. Yet, people would come up to me and say they love my voice. I couldn’t understand why! However, I loved singing too much to do it as awfully as I was at the time so I began to pray for a miracle. I just told God I couldn’t stand being that bad a singer. One day, a friend at church asked me if I would like to download a set of vocal training programs he had on his computer. I did and they had an amazing effect on my voice. My own family couldn’t recognise my singing. I started to share those lessons with children in a choir I taught at the time and then gradually found myself in vocal coaching. I still would love to get expert one-on-one training from a seasoned teacher but so far I teach what I have learned and know. I think starting out as a bad singer helps one know what not to do if you’re to sing well. I also love to read off the net what I can of singing and proper techniques and share these with students.
And acting — was acting natural for you also, or did you take additional courses?
I marvel at how the one thing I do not at all struggle with, of all my talents and skills, is acting. I did take at as a course at school but it was more out of a passion than a need to learn how to do it. It helps me direct from my heart when I’m instructing my students but then again, I do read about it just to grab theoretical aspects that present interesting debates.
Africa is the land of music. Even the languages that people speak on the continent are very melodic. Did you grow up listening to music and if so, what kind of music was prevalent around you and where was it, in the home or in the community?
My paternal family is musical. My dad’s brother is an incredible concert pianist, or was, because he’s retired now. My father has always had a guitar somewhere to whip out whenever we were bored and we would sing along as he played. In Kenya, we have the coastal tribes which mostly speak Swahili. Swahili originated from the African Bantu tribes and the Arab traders mingling with each other along the East African coast. I come from one of these coastal tribes called the Giriama. During weddings and celebrations, we have a genre of music called Bango (pronounced Bang-go) and this is what my ear was tuned into from childhood. Bango is the most beautiful mix of Caribbean sounding Swahili music, sang with saxophones, large drums, guitar and keyboard or marimba (xylophone) accompaniments. This music was always playing at home or in my dad’s car because they’d remind him of his home back in the Coast of Kenya (we live in the capital city, Nairobi, which is a six hour drive away).
My father also loves Jazz and this sank into my system from childhood. He seemed to own endless Jazz music and so, to this day, it is my first love when it comes to choice of genre.
Kenya has an amazing mix of music because it seems almost every tribe has its own interpretation of music. We have 42 tribes in a not so large country yet all these blends fit and express themselves culturally. When we want to reach all Kenyans we sing in Swahili because that’s the national language. More commonly, many youthful musicians sing or rap in Sheng’ which is our local slang (a blend of English and Swahili). So all these, plus music from our neighboring countries were around me as I grew up.
Who were some of your favorite singers when you were growing up?
I think the among the first singers I grew up wanting to emulate were the Maranatha Singers and Ron Kenoly because my mother would play their music while dropping me to school almost every morning. As I gained understanding and more exposure, I fell in love with Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, as well as Nat King Cole because of dad and his jazz. But as I became more aware of my own tastes in music the late Whitney Houston, the late Tabu Lei, Yvonne Chakachaka, the late Lucky Dube, Chaka Demus, Toni Braxton and Tevin Campbell were all favorites that defined music for me as I grew up in the 90s.
What were some of your favorite bands?
When it came to bands, those that played Bango music locally were among my top favorites-we had the Pressmen Band that were a top hit back in the 90s. I also loved another Kenyan group called Safari. Spice Girls too I must say were a favorite as I entered my teens, and the ever lovable Morgan Heritage.
When you were 16, you performed Miriam Makeba’s song, “Malaika” and left the audience in awe and received a standing ovation. What did that experience leave you with?
When I was 17 my dad sent me to South Africa to finish high school and for the first time I was in a school offering drama as a subject, that was heaven to me. For the final exams we were to prepare a monologue to present. I included the song Malaika in mine. In East Africa we know it to be Fadhili Williams’ original composition so I had his version in mind as I sang. I didn’t think of myself as a singer so I was pleasantly surprised when the school principal invited me to sing it at the school’s end of year award ceremony. The audience looked humongous with just over 500 people. It changed my life, hearing the applause and seeing the moved emotions throughout the hall. That was the beginning of me discovering my singing talent.
Even with this confirmation of your natural talent, you did not pursue additional performance opportunities. Why not?
After that, I enrolled into a university in South Africa, Rhodes University, to do a Bachelor of Arts majoring in performing arts. Sadly, I problematically completed only one semester before dropping out and going back home to Kenya. The major reasons were that I was feeling pressure from my family to enroll into law school instead, because it seemed to them that a career in performing arts just did not present a promising future. It became too painful to think of acting or singing while in law school so I shut my mind and heart to it completely.
So, your parents encouraged to you do business studies while you were in college. In conflict with your heart, you studied law instead of the arts. After completing school, you gave yourself permission to go into the arts anyway. What happened within you that allowed you to give yourself permission to do that?
By the time I reached 4th year of law school, I knew I could not live without the arts. I started praying like there was no tomorrow for a way out of law as a career. The chance to pursue a Master of Arts in theatre in Perth, Australia came up and I applied just as I was graduating from law school. I think my father realised he had pushed me into a career I had not wanted for myself and he graciously agreed to sponsor my studies in Australia. Once there, I rolled up my sleeves and got into learning everything I could about script writing and producing for theatre and screen. I however found myself getting thoroughly depressed with the unfamiliar culture and atmosphere that after completing one year, I opted to come back home to Kenya to start off a career in the arts.
How did your parents feel about it?
When I got home, my parents had mixed feelings about me looking for jobs in film and theatre instead of applying for a ‘serious’ job as a lawyer. The journey was heartbreaking for me because one, they never knew what to tell family or friends about what I do because they didn’t understand it and two, they just didn’t seem proud of what I thought were great accomplishments. One day a cousin sarcastically asked me ‘You left law for this?’ I had to grow some thick skin against all the criticism flying about me from family over my career choice. What’s worse is I was still financially dependent on them even after all their investment in my education. I was an embarrassment and it was obvious.
You said it was difficult to “penetrate the [media and film] industry…without any qualifications.” What kind of qualifications were those people looking for and do you think, given your outstanding talent, that they were being realistic or discriminatory? The break the question down a little further, do you think you had the ability to perform to the level that was needed or do you think you had more to learn?
When I came home from Australia, I asked my theatre lecturer to write me referral which I intended to include in my acting portfolio. This prestigious man blew my mind when he said in his recommendation that I was one of the best performers he had seen in 20 years. When I began auditioning locally, one of the directors also seemed stunned by my talent, so did many actors. However, I just have never been successful at local auditions. In the most recent rejection I got, someone on the inside who had been part of the casting team admitted to me what I have always suspected is the reason behind it: bias. He told me he tried to fight for me to get the role but the director had already made up his mind on who should get the role, even though we had not been given an opportunity to audition. I think I have what it takes to take acting in my continent to a new level, but I also think the local casting directors I have come across just might not be ready for that change. I do believe that with God’s time I will meet the right match of directors to work with.
This dream that you had to open a performing arts academy in Kenya. Where do the roots of this dream stem from?
When it became obvious to me that I was being turned away time after time, I realised that I might die old with my dream to become the best performer I can be unfulfilled. I was facing a very dry period with no jobs coming up and no money, when I just got on my knees and asked God to show me what to do. I remembered the biblical figure Moses and I believe I heard God ask me in that moment the same thing He asked Moses, ‘what do you have in your hand?’ My answer was ‘I can act, You can use that, God.’ Then I believe I heard the voice resonate so deeply within ‘Go and lift someone up with what I have given you. I will use that.’
And this is where Rimthel Creative Arts Company came from?
Yes. The picture then came so clearly to just teach those who are talented but less privileged than I am in the performing arts. I don’t know how I got the courage to do it but I went to the slum called Kibera, and I walked around looking for young talented actors. My life was threatened in the process by a Mafia leader there. Apparently if I was not going to pay him anything to walk freely in the slum, I couldn’t walk around at all or rent premises there to teach from. It got so bad he arranged a mob one morning to accost my assistant and I as we came to teach. The area chief took his side when I took the matter to him and so, I looked for another option. The students agreed to come to a venue half an hour’s drive from the slum every Saturday morning. At first I could afford to hire a van to bring all 20 of them but once things got dry for me financially, they started to walk to my venue and back to the slum. I was teaching them at no cost but a friend in the UK heard about my work and would send me little money by Western Union to keep the workshops going.
What kind of help could you use from others?
Today, I feel pained that I could not go on with my children in the slum because it just got too difficult financially. With financial support, I would be able to pick at least two talented slum dwellers and take them through intensive training to help them build their own platforms to earn a living through performing arts. Without career prospects, they become criminals, prostitutes, contract STIs or get pregnant. These are youth who cannot afford high school so imagine a 14 year old who will never again enter a classroom struggling to survive in a slum for the rest of their lives. Those I worked with even won a trophy in a contest in the slum conducted by an NGO. They had self-esteem and a sense of belonging and I would really hope to restore that. Anyone who would be willing to walk that dream with me can send whatever amount of money is possible for them, or drama resources or anything practical to assist. I have built a small stage in my garage for them to act from during our workshops and I am making monthly payments for an upright piano I took last year to teach music from. With help, I can do so much more.
How does training in the arts help children?
Currently I am doing a Master of Arts in Education Leadership and for my thesis, I have been doing research on the benefits of music for preschoolers. For children, research shows that music raises the IQ, helping with the development of literacy, numeracy and spatial skills. Basically, a young child taking voice lessons develops their aural, oral and reading skills much faster than a child who is not. Reading music and interpretation of note values from the written symbols greatly helps build a child’s mathematical skills. Looking at drama lessons, they really aid in children’s development of self-confidence and creativity. The eye-hand coordination in a child also grows as they learn to play an instrument; this is good for their reflexes. Adults are not left out since studies show that a musician’s brain works differ due to playing an instrument enhancing certain functions. Because of developing their listening patterns, musicians are likely to remember details in every day life more than a non-musician. The processes of reading music and quickly interpreting it as one plays enhances brain functions which makes researchers believe that the brain of a musician possibly acquires a different shape from that of a non-musician. Incidentally, the benefits are more evident in children whose brains are still developing so that their IQ is raised due to participating in musical activities.
When all is said and done, and an 80 or 90 year old Thelma Rimber is looking back on her life, tell us what she sees.
First I want to give credit where it is due. Despite the long route I have taken to finding myself in performing arts, I would want it to be known that I believe my parents did what they thought was best out of love for me and concern for my future success. Today, because of much prayer and dialogue, we remain very close and I am glad to say they are my biggest fans. They graciously continue to support my musical journey and because of that am able to afford my piano training.
I always pray that I will die empty, having given everything God created me to give to this world. I see the massive and international Rimthel Performing Arts Academy with open doors for the talented, whether rich or poor, to come and refine their gifts and skills in acting, music and movement. I see them graduate and have access to fair opportunities to perform worldwide. I see Rimthel working with the Kenyan legal system to enforce the rights of performers against unfair pay packages, discrimination and piracy among other forms of injustice. Whether or not by the time I am 80 I have won an award or too myself, I see my students accepting Oscars and Grammy Awards as I humbly watch on and nod my grey head saying ‘Ah yes, it was worth it. It was worth all the rejection, tears and sleepless nights. I used my talent to lift someone else up.’
It is never just about us; with performers, it’s about sharing our hearts and souls with a world that may or may not recognise us, but is changed because we passed through it long enough to plant a seed.
Piano, Voice & Acting Coach
Rimthel Creative Arts Company