By Prudence Minayo
Hellen Mtawali is a voice coach, musician and lecturer at Daystar University. She promotes African music and is credited with designing a curriculum suitable for the continent’s style of music. For more than 30 years, she has written songs and made music a great part of her world.
The 52-year-old burst into the limelight in the 90s thanks to her appearance in gospel shows like, Sing and Shine, and Joy Bringers on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. Later, she featured on Tusker Project Fame and became a household name.
In her quest to promote authentic African music, she fluently speak in sixteen African languages and a number of international ones. They include: Zulu, Ndebele, Kikuyu, Arabic, French, Giriama, Lingala, Luhya, Kinyarwanda, Luo, Swahili, Pidgin English, Kamba, Sukuma and Shona.
Here is her story as told by WoK.
She was born and raised in Mathare slums alongside her brothers. They would often come up with various sheng words which would become popular among their peers.
In high school, Hellen Mtawali enjoyed writing songs for music festivals and her teacher encouraged her to apply to a university that offers music. Unfortunately, she was unable to join Kenyatta University as she missed one point. She went on to join Daystar University for a Bachelor’s Degree in Education and Bible and a minor in music. She was also able to get a mentor from Pan African Christian University who helped her a lot.
In 1995, she got a job at Daystar University to teach Music to diploma students. During this period, she pursued a Master’s degree in Communications and worked on a Music curriculum that was a merge between contemporary and classical.
She had observed and found out most Kenyans were not huge fans of classical music and the music curriculum out there was based on Western songs. They didn’t incorporate the African styles of music. One of her lecturers had also noted that most African songs were not unique and people were simply copying Western styles. This inspired her to come up with her own curriculum.
In 1998, her husband was working on an album and she and her students got involved in the project. They then embarked on a Coastal tour once the album was launched. This experience helped her define her objectives for the group. Hence, she formalized the group and named it Afrizo, the short form for African Zone.
Today, Afrizo comprises non-denominational members who sing in different African languages. They perform both local and international tours in order to raise funds for the needy students at Daystar University.
As the founder of the group, she earns nothing from them. This is a way of giving back since when she joined Daystar, she received a school fees waiver because her father was a staff member. She also had a reprieve during her Masters as it was part of the staff Development program .
In 2007, Afrizo had the opportunity of touring the United States. They were able to bring millions in funding for Daystar University. Impressed, the institution offered Hellen a deal where she would use the group as a marketing tool for the University. Since then, they have toured numerous places, and performed in various shows and conferences including Coke Studio Africa season 3.
In 2007, Hellen Mtawali gained countrywide notoriety after being employed as a principal and voice coach on Tusker Project Fame. The reality music competitions not only employed her but also used her curriculum during its five seasons. This was the first time she was teaching voice and performance since at the time she couldn’t teach the same as she didn’t have formal papers.
In 2015, she partnered with Premier Academy to launch her show named Premier Voice on Youth TV. The show was signed for 11 seasons.
Currently, she continues to be a mentor to many. She believes in uplifting others and bringing the spotlight to them.
She is married to Alfred Mtawali and they have a daughter named Neema.