Local musician wins "genius grant"

September 23, 2008 7:04:46 PM PDT
A San Francisco man is celebrating a major honor, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, better known as a "Genius Grant."

Walter Kitundu is a multi-media artist at the Exploratorium. He creates some of the fascinating exhibits that challenge our minds, and his.

"I think I have a restless curiosity; it's not that I get bored easily, I try to find connections between different things," Kitundu said.

"Whenever Kitundu is curious about something, he takes his whole heart and head and moves into exploring it," Mikel Petrich of the Exploratorium said.

One of his inventions was an original musical instrument. Called a phonoharp, it is a combination of a turntable and a string instrument. His invention is what caught the eye of the MacArthur Award Foundation.

"A lot of times, when I build an instrument, I don't know what it's going to sound like; I just know that I want to build a particular type of instrument," Kitundu said. "And then I go through the journey and at the end it sounds like what it sounds like and I have to learn how to play it."

Kitundu has built turntables powered by water, fire and air. The resulting sound has been described as a blend of African, Asian and hip-hop influences.

The 35-year-old Kitundu does not know how to read music, but that has not stopped him from composing pieces for renowned artists like the Kronos Quartet. He performed with them at Carnegie Hall.

Kitundu is also a photographer, furniture maker and visiting professor at the California College of the Arts.

Kitundu is the only Bay Area recipient out of 25 people chosen nationwide for the award. He will receive $500,000 over the next five years, no strings attached.

"I've had a really wonderful 35 years and put that into my work, and now I think that this grant will allow me to go out into the world and create a palette of new experiences.

There was a party Tuesday at the Exploratorium for Kitundu, where friends and colleagues celebrated the public recognition of what they have always known: Kitundu is a genius.

Related Links:
Visit Walter Kitundu's Web site
Listen to Walter Kitundu's music


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