First, the gas explosion. He was 14, just a boy. A gas leak at the neighbour’s house that they had gone to investigate. He was standing behind his neighbour who had discovered that the leak was coming from the servants’ quarters. This was almost 29 years ago, November 25th, 1993, on Wanyee road just off Ngong Road. The sky was a cloudless blue, no birds gliding in the sun. A perfect day for a boy to die.
How he recalls the explosion; there was a whoosh sound, like air being sucked and the void being replaced with something else, something dense and overwhelming, like being blown by an elephant’s trunk. This was way before he felt the heat, way before some of that heat found its way into his lungs and his body. This was when adrenaline was doing what adrenaline was supposed to do in such situations. In hindsight, the explosion itself was actually quite unremarkable, non-dramatic even. He recalls turning around and seeing the neighbour’s daughter who was behind him, burnt in patches of red and black, screaming her head out. Outside, a small crowd had gathered and they looked at him like they had seen a ghost. This compelled him to look down at his arms, this is when it dawned on him that something terrible had happened to him because his skin was torn from his arm, revealing raw flesh, strips of skin hanging from his arms.
He recalls bits and bobs of the journey to the hospital, because he kept losing consciousness; perhaps there was the howling of a siren, maybe honking of cars, there could have been agitated voices, fragments of strange voices speaking in urgent terms. There might have been moments where he came to recall being laid on a casualty stretcher, the stinging cold of its steel, him screaming because now the pain was like someone tearing at his skin from his body…bright lights overhead, masked faces peering down at him, the sound of instruments against kidney dishes, doctors, lots and lots of doctors.
He recalls waking up briefly and seeing his mom; hysterical, completely out of her mind. Blackness. Mostly he associated consciousness with pain. Oh the unimaginable pain. The type the Bible might mean when it talks about gnashing of teeth. He stayed slightly over a month in hospital, just lying there smelling his own charred skin falling off his body. They injected all manner of drugs in him to keep him sedated and to fight off bacteria, beating down his defences.
All this while he’d not even seen his face. This one time he was scheduled to have a saline bath, which is when they lower you into a saline solution in order to peel off old skin. “I asked the nurse if I could look at myself in the mirror,” Aaron Rimbui says. “She hesitated. She obviously didn’t think it was a great idea. But she allowed me eventually. I looked at my face for the first time after the accident and I couldn’t recognise the face that stared back at me. My face had been disfigured, it had also swollen twice its size.” He stood there, numb, staring at the man in the mirror.
Then came the long journey of specialists and reconstructive surgeries. The keloids, big bumpy lumps, sprouted on his face, his ears and neck. His face sometimes looked like it was boiling. He went under the knife a few times, skin grafting; they peeled skin off his thighs to patch areas of his face and hands.
“I’m 43 but my skin is 29 years old.” He chuckles.
We are seated in a sort of a popular upscale Nigerian restaurant called – without irony – Lagos Restaurant and Lounge on 49th street. This is where Aaron holds court on most Sundays, nursing his drink of pineapple juice or eating their Suya burger. He’s taller than he looks seated at the piano on TV, rushing towards ceilings and chandeliers at 6 ‘3’’. It’s Fall so he’s in a brown blazer over a polo shirt and hightop Nikes, looking like an inner city villain, albeit a villain who drinks pineapple juice which could be the worst sort of villainy because pineapple is a tropical fruit for happiness and sunshine.
Being a teenager wasn’t easy with a medium-rare to well-done face. (Too soon?) It’s hard enough dealing with pimples, now imagine going to high school with a burnt face. Nairobi School was gracious enough to allow him to be a day scholar while he sought treatment and therapy. He harboured great insecurity. “I thought how I looked defined how the world saw me. I felt like nobody would ever see me as Aaron.”
He drifted towards church, Nairobi Baptist Church. “My dad had earlier bought me drums, a 4-piece drum set which I’d mess around with. I loved playing the drums, then in Nairobi School, I picked up the piano and I liked it. I had an ear for tunes. There was something about the piano that he didn’t find in drums. There is something about the sounds from the keys, how they seemed to linger in him longer than any sound from any instrument. The piano seemed to know the pain he was going through, the loneliness of being a teenager with a burnt face and the nightmares that he would have at night. Nightmares of him running while burning, engulfed in flames. Or massive, furious balls of fire coming at him. Things blowing up. Burnt faces that resembled his. When he sat at a piano it soothed him like a lover who knows your language without speaking a word.
“Only problem was that my fingers had been badly burnt so I couldn’t move them very well.” He held up his slightly darkened hands. “The weird thing is that when I started doing physiotherapy my therapist said, look, I need you to be exercising these fingers frequently to bring back the functions of the tendons. I told him that I actually played the piano and he suddenly snapped his fingers excitedly and said, that’s it! Keep playing the piano, it will help with the healing of your mobility!”
So he started playing the piano not only because he loved it but also to heal.
I gasped. OK, I didn’t gasp, I sort of sat straighter in my chair and remarked in a Eureka fashion, at the unique trajectory of his story. I mean, I said, it’s because of the gas explosion and the fire that led you here as a musician. One had to happen for the other to happen and the other couldn’t happen if the other didn’t happen. The fire turned out to be a blessing. “It’s like a great irony, isn’t it?” I said.
“Yes,” he said, lifting the fried eggs from his burger with his fork and placing them on a side plate. I stared at the poor egg, rejected and cast aside by the virtuoso. “You could say that the fire accident led to the piano. Sometimes bad things have to happen to you for your purpose to become clear. Of course at that time of happening you don’t understand or appreciate it. You are bitter and you are angry and you ask yourself why me? Why does it have to be me who burns?”
Of course we all know his ascent to fame as producer and performer, working with Eric Wainaina, Kanji, Kijiji records, worship team member at Nairobi Chapel, Mavuno, Youth For Christ USA tour, Four winds band, two albums out, Safaricom Jazz Festival, Tusker project fame, Winter Jazz festival Copenhagen, concerts in SA and tours in Europe, production of commercials and involvement in political campaign, Tinga Tinga Tales, capital jazz club, Sauti Sol, just many balls tossed in the air. His piano led him by his hand into rooms where he was recognised and adulated. “Fame is like this big wave that you need to know when to ride and when to get off. Because it can take you anywhere.”
Through all this he met a girl in church and married her. Years rolled by but no baby came along. “I can tell you something about infertility and about how it reflects on you and it impacts on you as a person.” He says. “We tried everything and we kept trying and trying but we just couldn’t get a baby. You want something so badly but it doesn’t happen for you and at some point you say, well, this is not for me, I have accepted this fate, I surrender. We tried for close to 10 years and then suddenly one day my wife fell pregnant.”
In 2016 while playing at a gig in SA it dawned on him that he had gotten off the rails. He was crashing with a friend or a relative, I don’t remember which one, and he was in the bathroom brushing his teeth while seated in the toilet seat, which is not a normal thing to do; sit on the toilet while brushing your teeth. He felt heavy and burdened. “I was doing something that I loved doing, playing shows but increasingly I was feeling a great sense of loss, of emptiness.” He stopped brushing his teeth and with his toothbrush stuck in his mouth, he realised that the feeling was actually sadness. “I was unhappy,” He said. “Being an artist in Kenya is difficult and often thankless. We don’t appreciate artists and artists work hard, man. I was working hard, taking on shows and things, sometimes paying for my flight abroad so that I could perform. Being an artist often felt like you constantly had to start from scratch. It didn’t matter that you had done shows that people knew of, you have been on TV, people know your work and your name, but you still have to do a dance for corporates. You still have to prove yourself over and over again. That collective cynicism does something to you. I had been filing away things for years, my burn accident that although I had been to therapy I still had a lot that I hadn’t dealt with. Then the general industry abuse, maybe abuse isn’t the right word, but just the feeling of having to constantly do more and more to be recognised as a professional but not process how that made you feel. These things were piling around my life, around me and in SA, I finally crashed. Not soon after I was diagnosed with clinical depression.”
He had reached the ceiling of his career. “You also get to a point in your art where you feel there is nothing else to do. That there is nothing more to move to. It makes you question your journey and your fate.” He decided he would try it out in the US. And where would you take your talent that is both inspirational and scary, something that would challenge your artistry? New York. “It’s where all the creatives go to make it. I felt like I needed to test my art once again.” He applied for a Green Card which would end up taking a few more years, years that his depression also ate at him. “I put so much importance on going to the US that the thought of not moving filled me with dread and anxiety.”
Papers came through and they moved to the US as a family but shortly after the pandemic hit and he was rendered gigless. “Not long after, my marriage that I guess had been chipping away slowly, disintegrated and ended. I had to move out from our home in New Jersey, leaving behind a daughter I love. I can’t tell you what that did to me or how hard this period was, staying with friends, not knowing if things would ever get back to normal and I’d play again. The sense of failure and fear was immense.” He chews on his burger. “Divorce is like two sellotapes that were together suddenly being ripped apart and essentially when that happens each sellotape leaves with a part of the other. I remember standing at a store, choosing a mattress…a mattress! That’s how my life had flipped on me.”
The lounge is playing Nigerian music. Inside the lounge might as well be midnight with its purple moody lighting, but outside in the loud, screeching streets of New York, it’s 2pm. It’s full of West Africans eating and talking and girls in skimpy clodhez, lacy black things, gyrating and taking selfies.
I ask him about divorce and the opinion of the church seeing as he is born again. “People who knew us were pretty shocked, understandably. But I can’t control what people think or say. I don’t live for people. I think when your marriage doesn’t work, there is an unspoken feeling of failure on your part. That there was something that you could have done better. But you learn that you can’t hide from judgement. You take it and you find a way to move on. It isn’t easy, of course, in fact sometimes it feels near impossible. I was 41 when my marriage ended and sometimes it comes to a point where you all have to accept that you believe in different things, that you are on different journeys and that God is sovereign and there might be no immediate answers to questions; questions like, why want a baby for so long and then when I finally get a daughter, things collapse? But each time I have gone through a difficult time in my life, what I suffered in that gas explosion gives me context, because I always say, “If I survived that, surely I should be able to survive anything.”
He’s rebuilding now. He has his music, his piano, to help him through this journey. He just finished a tour of the US by Tiwa Savage. He teaches music to public schools in the Brooklyn area. He’s busy. “I’m starting to like being alone, I’m working on myself. I’m trying to figure myself out even now. I’m enjoying the silence now. I have chosen myself. You have to choose yourself before you are chosen.”
“What would the Aaron of Nairobi tell the Aaron of New York?” I asked him.
He chuckled at that and gave it a long thought. A very long thought while the music filled our table and the cutlery on it. “I would tell him that you can plan but sometimes you don’t have control. Things will change but you have to be aware that things might go in a different direction, you can’t be in charge of all outcomes. I have been trying to protect myself from the pain of the fire and all other pains that have visited me in my life, but maybe I should be more attuned to the pain of others, to live daily and be mindful of others.”
He considers that answer a bit. I asked him about marriage, what he has learnt. “If you notice subtle things, don’t ignore them. Be more assertive with what you want regarding how you feel about things and your needs.”
We pay and step outside in the noisy streets of New York with all the sirens and feet and cameras hungry to document experiences. He has long graceful strides, his long hands hang loose by his side. He crosses streets purposefully, with the same attitude and confidence of a pimp going to set a record straight.
“So who are you now?” I asked him, “are you able to answer that question?”
“I’m Aaron, I’m a father and a guy figuring out life.” He says, stopping at a light. Monstrous American cars zoom past. “My mission is to give people hope and music is what gives hope. I’m a man. A dude. I have emotions and feelings as a human being and not just one who plays the keyboard. I’m a living organism.” He’s walking again. “ I’m in the business of healing. The colour of my life now is violet. I’m an artist, but it’s not who I am. What I do comes from who I am.” He turns to make sure that I’m getting this distinction. I tell him I really love that. I really really love that. ‘It speaks to me,” I tell him.
“You know the rebirth story of the eagle?” He casts a sideway glance. The reflection of the man in his sunglasses nods. That man is me. “For the eagle to reach its lifespan of 70 years it must make some hard decisions. In its 40th year its long talons can no longer grab prey for food. Its beak is bent and its wings are heavy due to its thick feathers. It makes it hard for it to fly. It can die or change, but the change lasts for 150 days. If it chooses to live it flies to a mountain top where it knocks its beak against a rock until it breaks it, then it waits for a new beak to grow. When it grows it pulls out its talons and when new talons grow it starts plucking old feathers. This process is self brutalising and painful but the eagle has to do it to live longer. After five months the eagle is reborn and can live for 30 more years. This story means that sometimes we need to get rid of old memories, habits in order to survive.” That sideways glance again, only this time it’s laced with a faded sly smile, “ I’m an eagle.”