Peter Holmes à Court

The Bach Project

36 days of action featuring 36 concerts in 6 continents with Yo-Yo Ma.

In this episode, we discuss The Bach Project that featured the legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma— an event that would explore how culture connects us. Yo-Yo began this journey across the world in 2018, however, it was interrupted by the pandemic in 2020. We are joined by Peter Holmes à Court who is the Senior Convener at Afrika House, the team that facilitated the project

in Nairobi.

Peter breaks down what they did to host Yo-Yo Ma in Kenya but also turning that performance into a festival that went beyond its original scope. He also shares the motivations of the teams that brought the project together including the artists that created the posters for the project. Find out how Nairobi ended up being the final stop of the tour. 

This is the 22nd episode under the ‘Shifting Narratives’ program supported by the British Council SSA Arts.

*For the best experience, please use a headset/earphones.

Instagram: @ afrika.housekenya

Website: Afrika House

             The Bach Project

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Peter Holmes à Court: The finishing in Nairobi was all about the spreading the message of Nairobi around the world. And then you have the final bit, which is the poster exhibition after 36 cities, 37 posters from around the world, a snapshot of design and Nairobi fits in that. And again, for everyone involved, how bloody proud we were to see Nairobi and the beautiful poster and the whole event fit in a global context. 


[00:00:31] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): We're discussing the Bach project poster exhibit that took place as a celebration of Yo-Yo Ma coming to Nairobi. I think the posters that brought out, not just some of the heart of the artists, but also the music. It was a real privilege to see and not only did we get to see Yo-Yo Ma, but we also got to see kenyan performers. There was Cellobration, and as we came out after the performance of Yo-Yo Ma, Cellobration and other guys were playing there and they were playing a lot of

movie soundtracks and theme music, I know they played Game of Thrones once. I think that was their finale. And they got asked for an encore because people enjoyed it so much, so they played it again for people. And that was a group of 20 plus cellists. They say it was probably a large percentage, maybe a quarter of all the cellos in Kenya or something like that. 

[00:01:32] And then there was a performance as well. Yo-Yo Ma came back on, he was

performing with Muthoni Drummer Queen and doing some kind of live cello stuff as well. I got to speak to one of the drummers, but I can't remember their name. Maybe Peter will enlighten us.

[00:01:51] They lined up African drums and really gave it everything. And I think Yo-Yo Ma was there as well for part of that. There was also Kenyan clothing, Kuiyu with his brand. Liquid Lemon was there at the Kenyan National Theater. There was Mobius as well. And it was really well organized. Credit to the team, it was clear that everyone had really thought about everything.

[00:02:16] And the poster exhibit itself, Yo-Yo Ma actually signed a copy of each of the

posters, most of them are quite large. They're like A0 size and they're signed by the musician and they're actually available as well for purchase directly from Afrika House or on Hustle Sasa.

[00:02:39] I know Hustle Sasa is selling the non signed copies, I believe as well. 

[00:02:44] Welcome Peter. I can hear you. Really great to hear you. 

[00:02:48] Peter Holmes à Court: Adrian, I just want to you to know that I have been listening to what you're doing. You might not know that I had a career presenting artists around the world before I moved eventually to Nairobi. This is the first artist I've done here and on various different occasions the show was about to go on, but it wasn't ready and somewhat really pushed out on stage to explain to the audience that something has happened. You know, an artist had been delayed on his flight from New York, or the soundboard had blown up and someone would have to keep talking until, you know, the rest of the team arrived.

[00:03:27] So I just wanna say, I think you've done an exceptional job to keep talking and that you actually saved the day 'cause it was you who said this thing could not be done on a computer. So I switched to my phone. So you not only were the technical staff, but your verbal skills, you know, kept people from throwing tomatoes at the stage.

[00:03:47] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Uh, thank you, Peter. Appreciate it. Yeah. You know, I can talk about design, art and music as well. So really grateful for everyone's patience. Thank you all for joining us. Peter, why don't you tell us then about this career that's brought you here to host Yo-Yo Ma in Nairobi?

[00:04:07] Peter Holmes à Court: Yeah, I mean, I think there's two things we're talking about, right? We're talking about Yo-Yo's actual performance and what we did to make an event out of that. We're talking about how it extended out from the stage performance into his day of action and the poster exhibit here.

[00:04:28] You know, something wonderful happened when this started that Yo-Yos team said that they were committed to playing the national theater. This is the last stop on the tour. They wanted to play, you know, the Kenya National Theater, the last stop of 36 cities, and they wanted to give the performance that sort of, you know, the gravitas rather than play.

[00:04:50] There were some other, you know, university halls or school halls, halls that

were a bit bigger. But they wanted to really respect Kenya in that way. So then we said to them, well actually, you know, there's not a lot of seats. Can we get some more seats outside? And we'd use screens and everything. And they agreed to that.

[00:05:08] They agreed to having the screens outside, speakers outside, and 400 people sat outside and watched it and a couple of times people gave standing ovations

outside to a screen, you know, I mean it was fantastic. And I think, you know, in terms of a blend of production it couldn't have gone better.

[00:05:29] The sheer physical strength, stamina to play for two and a half hours at the

age of 70. No, no, it's not even a sip of water. It's quite extraordinary. And then we had to turn it in, as I heard you say, Adrian, before, into a bit of a festival, which is the way we saw it. Performers starting in the afternoon at four 30 and going to 1130 at night.

[00:05:51] Like, wow, we are so lucky that yo-yo chose to highlight, you know, Kenya and highlight what was going on here. That leads to the second part. Which is his day of action. He gets into the matatu, his own action and the poster exhibit. He gets in a matatu, he drives around town, jumps out of his matatu and plays his million dollar cello on the streets of Nairobi.

[00:06:14] Goes with artists, sits with artists, makes content video that all will be

coming out over the next few months. Goes into a vinyl record store. I say this and I, I don't wanna put anybody any other country down, but where else in Africa can you do this? Where else can a guy jump off a bus in the local markets and play a million dollar cello and the security be chilled and be okayed with that? Where else can he have this explosion of art and activity come together. And he wanted to show Nairobi to the world. So a big piece in The Guardian, a big piece from the New York Times writer here, spreading the word around the world about Nairobi.

[00:06:52] And that was really what this whole event was about. The finishing in Nairobi

was all about the spreading the message of Nairobi around the world. And then you have the final bit, which is the poster exhibition after 36 cities, 37 posters actually, because one of the posters was for Istanbul and Istanbul was canceled as the concert was falling during a period of government censorship, so 37 posters from around the world, a snapshot of design and Nairobi fits in that. And again, for everyone involved, how bloody proud we were to see Nairobi and the beautiful poster and the whole event fit in a global context. So I guess that's a summary of Yo-Yo's performance and of the other pieces and hopefully that gets the conversation rolling.

[00:07:46] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Yeah, really. Great. Thank you, Peter. What was the reasoning for Yo-Yo Ma to do this tour at this stage in his career? And then what brought him to want to make it happen as well in Nairobi? 

[00:08:00] Peter Holmes à Court: Look, I think from a cello payer's perspective, there's a specific thing around the Bach cello suites, right?

[00:08:07] It's iconic, Right? Now what's amazing to me and I throw this out to all

artists in the room, is that artists can continue to flourish and grow at quite an advanced age. In fact, my next project is at Picasso's residence in France. In some ways, Picasso's best work came out towards the very end, right?

[00:08:35] When you are all the person, all the feelings, all the experience. Now the

challenge with that is that sometimes the actual trade that you do, and in Yo-Yo's case, it's sitting on a seat and playing for two hours 40 minutes, sometimes the physicality starts to slow down, even though your connection as an artist to your craft increases.

[00:08:55] If I had to give my view of this, this is when the artist is approaching his

peak as an artist and physically he can still do this incredible task. So we got to see in Nairobi, the 36 cities around the world. Got to see a man at his best.

[00:09:13] The greatest cellist of our time, playing the hardest stuff at his absolute

best when he still had the absolute physical capacity to play at his best. So how's that sound, Adrian? 

[00:09:26] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Yeah, really great, really great. I was really moved by some of the stuff he said as well during the performance. Actually the performance is available online, right? At least some of it is available. The Nairobi one I saw on YouTube, I believe. 

[00:09:41] Peter Holmes à Court: Yeah. It's not supposed to be. No, no. We had the live stream at the... so when he did the original tour, I think he recorded it in London. So the London performance is meant to be the definitive performance. I mean, it's at the, you know, whatever magnificent theater on the whatever perfect stage, and it's got whatever the perfect sound equipment is.

[00:10:02] We know that we can't compete for all those things in Nairobi. We can compete for passion and creativity and other things, but we don't have the best theater or best tech set up. So the best version is the London version. 

[00:10:17] Why Nairobi? 

[00:10:18] And what happened was we weren't gonna be the last stop on the tour. He was coming here 2020. And COVID got in the way. Now what happened was when they

started to put the tour back, you know, together again, they actually then made a conscious decision to come to Nairobi last because they wanted to play in somewhere that spoke volumes to both the past and the present.

[00:10:43] And they saw Nairobi as being that place. And they took a more conscious

decision in a post covid, post pandemic post the world being shaken up and down world. And they said, well, we really wanna finish this somewhere really special. Somewhere that represents the past and the future.

[00:11:03] And it worked it, like they got it. When they came here one of his crews said,

this is the youngest audience we've played to. That's the future. When you play to a mature audience in some cities, you're not playing to the future.

[00:11:16] In Nairobi, he was playing to the future, and that is really, really, really

exciting. Really exciting.

[00:11:23] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): And what gave the idea then to do the posters and was there a poster exhibition in any of the other cities as well? Was that a component to the performances? 

[00:11:34] Peter Holmes à Court: Adrian, you know, that at the heart of a person who loves design is someone with OCD. And I opened the files that showed the posters from around the world, and I looked at them and I was blown away. And I was blown away by just the explosion of creativity from around the world. And I approached the organizers and said, hey, I'd love to do an exhibition of these posters. Put them all up at the same

time. No one had thought of doing it. 

[00:12:07] The tour hadn't stopped performing. So maybe it was a combination of that and we were able to do this retrospect. And I love design. You asked me for some of my experiences, look for about a year I was chairman of Brand Sydney and the Greatest Sydney partnership. And I looked after the iconography, logos, et cetera, of Sydney, and we looked to address those and change those, and I got to meet some of the greatest designers in the world.

[00:12:32] I traveled around the world and I met amongst others, you know, Milton Glazer, who designed the iHeart New York logo, who's a giant in the industry. Tucker

Max, Remo Giuffré. Just these amazing designers and creators around the world. And to talk to them about design and the origins of design and so I'm a bit of a design fanatic.

[00:13:00] For me, 36 posters from fantastic designers in different parts of the world,

all working within a, literally a five year span is to me just it's such an opportunity to see the state of design and art around the world.

[00:13:16] So it was a no brainer to do. No brainer at all.

[00:13:19] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Yeah. And love that you, like you said earlier, kind of made a festival of the whole experience as well. So it wasn't just one performance, it was a lot of other interactive parts and aspects to it. Was there a particular process to curating those designers? Do you have any insight into how the team gave direction? Yeah. 

[00:13:40] Peter Holmes à Court: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Your final comment of giving direction? There was direction, right, but it was very broad. It was ask the artist for their interpretation of music, Bach, Yo-Yo traveling their city at this time. Right. So that, I mean, that just kept it within a genre that it wasn't gonna be a poster about soccer.

[00:14:02] And it wasn't gonna be about any other city. It was gonna be about that city at that time and music. But I do know that the, this was organized by the Nest Group, N E S T. Their website is Grow A Nest, which is a US arts commissioning organization that works with different artists around the world.

[00:14:20] And what they did is they didn't go out to get the fanciest artists in every

market and the most established artists in every market. They went up to get the rising stars and creatives in each place. And I think that's why you see so much creativity. And they did their research.

[00:14:42] They approached a couple of artists to see what was available in city. So

That's how it came together. I'm sure it came together a little bit like it did in Nairobi, which was, you know, they came out here or they contacted people here. Every person gave four or five recommendations of who they thought would have a good relationship with this, who they thought was the right place in their career, who they thought could do a good job.

[00:15:06] And then same sort of name start picking up in certain baskets and then, you know, it gets more and more. And then you pick that person. It's not a perfect

science. Jibe is not the only rising great Kenyan designer. It could have been another one. There's lots of talent around. But they ran a process. They found a person and they worked with her and it came together and all of this is another part of what we are just so happy to be part of, you know, it wasn't a sponsor, you know, choosing the artwork for it.

[00:15:35] It wasn't deemed from on high. It was an organic process. It's just asking

people who's around. Yeah, that's the idea. 

[00:15:42] Wambui Mutiga: Some of the pieces are actually on sale. 

[00:15:45] Peter Holmes à Court: Yeah. 

[00:15:46] Wambui Mutiga: At Afrika House. 

[00:15:47] Peter Holmes à Court: Yeah. Except for the ones that have sold, they're all on sale. 

[00:15:49] Wambui Mutiga: We saw a few pieces that Melissa shared with us. And we can share with the team that is here, some of the pieces from Chicago. 

[00:15:58] Peter Holmes à Court: Yeah. 

[00:15:59] Wambui Mutiga: That is on display and on sale. 

[00:16:01] Peter Holmes à Court: Mm-hmm. 

[00:16:01] Wambui Mutiga: From Lima. And from Paris. So they have incredible background and stories about these posters and how the artists came to develop them. Would you want to share a little bit about them? 

[00:16:17] Peter Holmes à Court: Yeah, there's the Paris, right? Paris is the freaking coolest one. At the top of it, it has this, you know, dude in the plastic shoes and the sima top. But it has all those Frenchy references about architecture and, you know, if you're an architecture nut, which I'm not. You can get the Bauhaus and the palladium and all these other features that go in there with the extension into the stars and the

French work.

[00:16:43] The next one is... oh yeah, it's a bit darker, right? It's a bit darker and moody. And that's what's funny. They all had the same music and they came up with some very different feelings for what they're doing. I love it. Okay. 

[00:16:58] What's the next one you had in there? Yeah. Chicago. There it is. Chicago has

built a reputation because it's high rates of gun related violence, yet many people still call it home and live on to create beautiful memories in the city. Right. 

[00:17:12] Wambui Mutiga: That was a quote from the person who came up with the artwork. 

[00:17:16] Peter Holmes à Court: Sergio Befan.

[00:17:18] And you know, Chicago's going through a tough time at the moment. It's got like a lot of American cities going up, going up and down, and Chicago's going through a tough time. Some people might see it as a cartoonist take on a morrow type of picture. And might see the morrow elements in it, or they might see the street graffiti eyes around corners and the cartoon eyes as a part of the fun of the city.

[00:17:45] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): I wonder if there's any other connections that can happen across these artists. Are they connected at all? Is there something happening around that? It would be really great to... make them aware, right? 

[00:17:58] Peter Holmes à Court: Yeah. Well actually, I think there's a project for us there. Some of them did this three years ago. Or did this at the beginning of Covid or did this before Covid, and then they're like, oh, wow, this is still going. This is gonna come up in Nairobi, Kenya. You know, this is gonna be shown in a gallery and we're just

reengaging with them. But to actually create this community between them and to create and link and share some of these stories. I know some of the Afrika House teams on the call and content like today enables us to go back to them and say, Hey guys, you know, this is what's happening to your work.

[00:18:32] This is what it's grown into. It was part of this, ultimately this whole project. So yes, it's really clear that we should be doing more of that. 

[00:18:40] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Great. Maybe then you can actually take an opportunity. You mentioned the Afrika House team to tell people what Afrika House is about. How did that come about?

[00:18:50] Peter Holmes à Court: So Africa House sits in a quiet pocket on the Karen side of town and was designed to be a create a space, a gathering space for the creative community of Nairobi. And over three levels. We have dining spaces, lounge spaces, work spaces, outdoor spaces, bedrooms, and we really used the Yo-Yo Ma event to open us to the public.

[00:19:17] Before that, our largest event was Nairobi Design Week party at the end of it

but we're really now complete, finished and got a team here designed to create events that keep bringing the Nairobi creative community together. You know, you sometimes gotta find a structure for that and a way to get paid and a sponsor, and a way to make the bar cover itself.

[00:19:39] We're not a charity, we're not a foundation. We're not an NGO but we're pretty

passionate about the benefits that come from gathering creative people together across the different silos. Part of the origin story for Afrika House is that I sat with a friend of mine who I consider one of the world's best writers.

[00:19:57] Yvonne Odhiambo and I said, oh, great, you're doing this. Do you know this

person? She was like, no, I don't know them. I was like, what do you mean you don't know them? You're a legend and they're a legend. You don't know 'em. She's like, no, I haven't met 'em. Different area of the arts in Kenya. And I said, what about this person?

[00:20:12] You met them? And she's like, no, I'd like to meet them, but I haven't. I said

to her, how could you, like a global rockstar, not know some of the people in Kenya who are, you know, global rock stars in a different area of the creative arts, and she hadn't. So it was really like the first wake up call that I got that there are not many opportunities and I know that you create them Adrian at what you're doing there and opportunity factory creates them.

[00:20:38] You know, it creates connection and opportunities for collaboration. Right.

Artists now just in different parts of the world now, just call it colabs, right? Colabs does sound like a laboratory, a co-laboratory, but Colabs, like the opportunity for Colabs is just made so much better if people are actually meeting and talking and coming up with ideas and spinning them off and pitching 'em to people.

[00:21:02] So that's a bit of the origin story. We're up and going. We're looking to put

together events. So I know you've been here a couple of times Adrian, so you know how it can work and we like to have a bit of fun in and amongst all this serious stuff.

[00:21:15] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Definitely, definitely I've felt like everyone was having a lot of fun while working on the Yo-Yo Ma project. You mentioned something earlier, but are there any projects you've got coming up that you'd like to share with us? 

[00:21:28] Peter Holmes à Court: We've got some other stuff which we haven't announced yet, and working with and a bunch of partners we're enjoying developing projects with. But yeah, that's all we've got on the slate at the moment.

[00:21:38] Some of us need a bit of a holiday after all the work we put in on the Yo-Yo

thing. We didn't get a break for a while. Then we'll come back with more events and really do like working with your community, Adrian. Once you're in design, you cross over a whole bunch of different industries and it's really great that we've had this events together and look forward to working on it some more together.

[00:21:58] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Yeah, we've enjoyed the event that we got to do at Afrika House and we hope we can do that again. And also we've got quite a few projects, some quite a few partners we're talking to. Among them was New Comma. They're a creative platform. We just had to catch up this week and they seem like it could be also really interesting for you guys. 

[00:22:20] If there's anything else you wanted to add? 

[00:22:24] Peter Holmes à Court: We are just starting making this a place for great creativity that will continue for many, many, many years to come. So my final words, I just wanted to say thank you very much, Adrian, for this opportunity to talk about this. And to your team and to the projects we've done together. I just wanted to say thank you very much for all of that.

[00:22:42] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): Thank you too. We're really grateful to the entire team. Thank you for bringing us onto these projects. We'll let you catch that flight. 

[00:22:51] Peter Holmes à Court: Yeah. 

[00:22:51] Adrian Jankowiak (Host): I'm sure people won't mind, uh, letting you go. 

[00:22:54] Peter Holmes à Court: Okay, thanks mate. 

[00:22:55] Thanks everyone for joining. Take care. 

[00:22:57] Thank you. Have a great week everyone. Bye.

Episode Credits

Produced by Nairobi Design

Host: Adrian Jankowiak

Producer: David King'ori

Shorts & Artwork: David King'ori

Music: Ngalah Oreyo (@ngalah_oreyo) and Mercy Barno (@merc.b_)

Got a question or suggestion?

Leave a comment and let us know.

Subscribe on your favourite app

Search for 'Afrika Design' and leave a review!