San Francisco, USA – The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya
spans styles such as classic benga, new taarab
and Kenya’s hip hop generation. High-energy benga music, with its pulsating beat and funky interlocking
guitar riffs, has been at the forefront of Kenyan pop since the late 1960s. More
recently, contemporary artists, such as Gidi Gidi Maji Maji and Nyota Ndogo,
have been exploring the possibilities of merging traditional melodies,
instruments and rhythms with new sounds from R&B and other international genres.
In addition, taarab music – a mixture of Indian Ocean and coastal traditions –
and rumba-based Swahili and Lingala music are phenomenally popular.Benga originated when Luo musicians, from the area around Lake Victoria, began
playing traditional based melodies and rhythms in modern electric bands. D.O.
Misiani is one of the founding fathers of benga music and, alongside Shirati
Jazz, has had scores of hits in East Africa. ‘Beatrice #4’ has a raw and earthy
feel, and D.O. Misiani commands the band and music perfectly. Originally from
the Murang’a District (a Kikuyu area to the north of Nairobi), Queen Jane has
headed up her own benga group since 1990. She has won several awards from the
Music Copyright Society Of Kenya and the Music Composers’ Association, and she
writes about love, events and people’s behaviour. ‘Nduraga Ngwetereire’ (‘I’m
Still Waiting For You’) is about a girl waiting for her boyfriend to return.
Coming from the Kamba-speaking region east of Nairobi, Kakai Kilonzo was an
exception in benga music, as an artist who was loved by Kenyans of all different
tribal affiliations. ‘Mama Sofi’ is a superb example of Kamba benga music from
the early 1980s, and is about a wife who brings home other men while her husband
Today, benga, taarab, Swahili and local Congolese music remain popular, but
since the mid-1990s younger musicians have been turning back to local traditions
as well as to international genres such as hip-hop and R&B for inspiration.
Established as one of the leading female singers of East Africa, Nyota Ndogo
(‘Little Star’) has performed at various East African festivals and won the
Kenyan Kisima Award for Best Taarab Singer in 2003. This song is taken from her
first album, Chereko, which she recorded at weekends when working as a house
girl. The duo of Gidi Gidi (Joseph Ogidi) and Maji Maji (Julius Owino) exploded
on the Kenyan music scene with the 1999 hit ‘Tíng’ Badí Malo’ (‘Throw Your Arms
In The Air’). This song is a straight-out dance number with an infectious rap in
Luo that was the hit of the year. A vocalist and guitarist of Luo descent,
Suzzana Owíyo’s song ‘Kisumu 100’ was an instant hit and launched her career
nationally and internationally. Taken from her beautiful self-titled first
album, ‘Kisumu 100’ has a simple Luo melodic line, acoustic guitar and
traditional instrumentation. In 2003, she won the (Kenyan) Music Composers
Association ‘Singer Of The Year’ award. The Rough Guide To The Music Of Kenya
also features Kenge Kenge Orutu Systems who formed in 1996, and Yunasi, a group
of six-vocalists backed by a five-man live band.
Taarab is the popular music of Kenya’s Islamic Swahili people and that of the
East African coastal region. Originally of Comorian origin, Miraj Juma came to
live in Mombasa in the 1940s. ‘Muhogo’ sees the singer perform with the
orchestra of the Juahar club – the oldest music club on the Kenyan coast – and
this song was one of Miraj Juma’s biggest hits. One of taarab’s most outstanding
female voices, Zuhura Swaleh is one of taarab’s main innovators – she introduced
elements of female wedding ngoma dances and their sharp-tongued songs into the
taarab repertoire. ‘Tweta’ (‘Panting For Breath’) challenges the subject to just
calm down and talk sense.
Tanzanian and Congolese musicians brought the hugely popular rumba-based Swahili
and Lingala music into Kenya in the 1970s. Golden Sounds Band were a superb
group of innovative musicians, led by Twahir Mohamed, who probed and extended
the boundaries of rumba, while remaining true to its calling. ‘Hasidi Hana
Sababu’ (‘Hasidi Has No Reason’) was written by the sax player and is about
someone who lies and tells stories to cause trouble.
Buy The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya
and also The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya & Tanzania.
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. Angel is currently based in Durham, North Carolina.