On the day that Nathaniel Rappole made his $10,000 Kickstarter goal, he was in New York playing six hours straight in 15-degree weather for a Ustream broadcast. Known as Gull, the local one-man band and street busker sings, plays electric guitar and performs on a drum kit — incredibly, all at the same time.
During the last performance in Union Square, he watched while an Occupy protester danced to his entire set, had a man offer him a million dollars to record an album and was put in rubber handcuffs by a cop for having a knife tool in his pocket. Despite the drama, Rappole says, “It was exhilarating because I’d found out earlier that day that we’d made goal.”
Making goal meant that he and two collaborators, director Meryl O’Connor and sociologist Len Albright, would have the means to go to Africa to make “Streetmuse: Kenya,” a feature-length documentary focusing on Kenya’s musical cultures. Part travelogue, part cultural analysis and part collaborative musical experiment, the film makes its Virginia debut at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery after premiering at University of California, Los Angeles, in August.
Setting out to capture what street music was like in Nairobi, Kenya, the trio spent six weeks filming at schools, in villages and in the city’s largest urban slum, Kibera.
“It’s such a mind fuck,” Rappole says. “You think you know you come from privilege, but you don’t know until you’re there and you see this.”
Everywhere, people responded. Rappole set up his scaled-down musical equipment (“It all had to fit in my rolling luggage”) and started playing.
“It was amazing how quickly bonds were formed despite language barriers,” he says. Performances in schools were followed by local musicians playing and then a discussion would ensue, enabled by Kenyan journalist Imgard Rop’s translation.
“My main goal was to capture the experience of Nate’s travels as a fluid series of exchanges that would feel like watching a conversation unfolding,” O’Connor says. “I was very wary of adding yet another documentary by white Westerners about Africa that purports to be a document of people and place.”
Rappole acknowledges a lot of naiveté on his part going into the project.
“I just wanted to make music and forge bonds,” he says. “But I quickly realized that politics, religion, sex and class were going to enter into it.”
Despite self-doubt about his purpose there and moments when he wanted to give up and go home, Rappole sees the greatest accomplishment of the project as simply seeing it through.
“I realized it was a turning point that would inform the rest of my life and what kind of person I wanted to become,” he says. “That’s important.”
Once filming ended, it took O’Connor a year to edit the film with input from Rappole, both of them determined to make a movie from the Kenyan perspective.
“Our Kenyan collaborator, Imgard, played a critical role in establishing the documentary as a dialogue, rather than a document, by facilitating honest conversations that provided the counterpoint to our foreign perspectives,” O’Connor says. “That dialogue was further made possible by the ability of music to transcend the boundaries of culture, race, socio-economics, language and traditions.”
Rappole, who spent years touring the United States, Canada and Mexico before going to Africa, sees this film as the first in a series addressing street music. He’s broadened that concept to encompass all public space, not just cities and streets, he says: “What effect does music have on animals? I played out in the Kenyan hills and birds were having a conversation with the music, making electronic sounds like Aphex Twin.”
Years of travel have inspired in him an appreciation for the importance of street music as a public display of emotion and a means to break down social barriers. He recalls being praised and condemned for playing on the streets of Carytown. But as anyone who’s seen him play in Richmond knows, the streets are his public venue for artistic experimentation and socio-political creativity and commentary.
“Music helps begin the conversation that melts away initial perceptions people have,” he says. “It’s amazing how much people drop their guard when music starts.” S
“StreetMuse: Kenya” screens March 13 at 8 p.m. with a performance by Gull afterward at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, 2408 Ownby Lane. $5. Search “StreetMuse: Kenya” for event information on Facebook.