Extra Golden is an international collaboration between Kenyan and American musicians. Americans Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff were formerly of the band Golden; Kenyans are Otieno Jagwasi, Opiyo Bilongo and Onyango Wuod Omari joined in collaboration.
Since 2000, Otieno had been assisting Ian in documenting benga, a guitar-heavy kind of dance music (similar to Congolese rumba) that has been popular in Kenya since the 1960s. In 2004, Ian was in Kenya for a year-long visit to do research for his doctoral thesis on benga, and again was working closely with Otieno. This time, they had a portable laptop studio at their disposal, and did several recordings of Otieno’?s latest band, Orchestra Hit Sounds International, as well as many other groups that Otieno helped arrange. Alex and Ian had already planned on meeting up in Kenya to do some recordings, so this offered them a unique opportunity to explore some of the benga-inspired ideas that had been present in some of Golden’s music. In April of 2004, following a UK tour with his other group, Weird War, Alex visited Nairobi, and Extra Golden came to be.
The group’s future was uncertain after the unfortunate loss of singer/guitarist/co-founder Otieno Jagwasi in 2005. The release of the band’s debut, Ok-Oyot System, in 2006 seemed to be a posthumous affair, but an invitation to perform at the 2006 Chicago World Music Festival presented an intriguing opportunity for a US concert debut and a return to the studio. The group called on Opiyo Bilongo to fill the void, a singer/guitarist who has been a dangerous presence on the Kenyan Benga scene for over a decade. Guitarist Ian Eagleson had helped Bilongo record two albums with his group Bilongo Golden Stars back in 2004, sessions that are highlighted on Bilongo’s debut U.S. release, What Do People Want? released on Kanyo Records. Onyango Wuod Omari, whose singular drumming punctuated Ok-Oyot System, would also make the trip.
For several months and through almost interminable hassles, Eagleson and guitarist Alex Minoff worked feverishly with Onyango Jagwasi (brother of the late Otieno) to make Extra Golden’s concert debut a reality. After countless international phone calls, a great deal of hustling and some help from people in high places (the office of Illinois Senator Barack Obama helped the group clear their final visa hurdles), Opiyo Bilongo and Onyango Wuod Omari got their visas just a few hours before their scheduled departure. This would be the first journey outside of East Africa for both benga stars.
Six weeks of memorable performances followed at both rock venues and private Kenyan functions. Afterwards, Extra Golden retreated to an isolated location on Lake Wallenpaupack in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. As with Ok-Oyot System, the band recorded using their ?Nyathi Otenga Flying Studio,? but the session for Hera Ma Nono couldn?t have been more different. Instead of three hours in an open-air Nairobi nightclub, the group had five days in a private house. They had access to a variety of guitar amplifiers and effects, and perhaps the biggest difference was the drumkit. The set that Onyango used on Ok-Oyot System was, to be kind, broken. In Pennsylvania, he had a fully-functional kit with a large assortment of tom-toms. These new amenities helped to take the band?s sound in a new direction.
Hera Ma Nono is Luo for Love in Vain, is one theme that reverberates throughout the album. While on “I Miss You,” “Love Hijackers” and the title track, it refers to the love that exists between two people. This same theme applies in less traditional ways in other songs. “Jakolando” and “Brothers Gone Away” illustrate the cruelty of prematurely losing family members and friends. “Street Parade” praises the citizens and culture of New Orleans, who despite a passionate allegiance to their home are punished by its harsh ecology. In a more upbeat lyrical turn, “Obama” is in thanks to the senator and others who helped Extra Golden reunite to make this recording. Such songs of praise are benga custom, and in keeping with that custom. Obama’s wife and mother received thanks as well. Finally, “Night Runners” contemplates the jajuok, the creepy, nocturnal creatures of Luo folklore.
Through it all, Hera Ma Nono shows that, while the defining element of Extra Golden may be its cross-cultural cooperation, styles of rock and benga are not quite as disparate as some may believe. Both arose from people cranking up electric guitars and singing melodic songs over propulsive rhythms in an attempt to entertain an audience. Though they may have to cross seas and petition governments just to play a few shows, the members of Extra Golden go about their work with a few simple goals in mind – to write songs that tell stories of life, love and loss; to praise people and places that are dear to their hearts; and, most of all, to create a sound that people of different backgrounds and generations can enjoy.