The life and times of Kenyan pop, introduced by Doug Paterson
Note that this Rough Guide to World Music article has not been updated since it was originally published. To keep up-to-date with the best new music from around the world, subscribe to Songlines magazine.
Kenya has always had one of the most diverse and intoxicating musical cultures in Africa. Yet the immense talent is rarely acknowledged internationally and seldom given the resources it needs to flourish. Doug Paterson, who has been observing and documenting the scene for more than thirty years, provides the low-down.
There is no single identifiable genre of popular Kenyan music, but rather a number of styles that borrow freely and cross-fertilize each other. Many Kenyan musicians direct their efforts towards their own linguistic groups and perform most of their songs in one of Kenya’s indigenous languages, while others, aiming at national and urban audiences, sing in Swahili or the Congolese language Lingala.
Up to the mid-1990s, the common denominator among all these styles was the prominence of guitars – interweaving with each other, or delivering dazzling solos – and the cavacha rhythm: the Bo Diddley-esque beat popularized in the mid-1970s by Congolese groups such as Zaïko Langa Langa and Orchestra Shama Shama. This rapid-fire percussion, usually on the snare or hi-hat, quickly took hold in Kenya and continues to underlie a great sweep of Kenyan music, from Kakai Kilonzo to Les Wanyika and Orchestre Virunga.
However, the music scene in Kenya today is very different from that of only five or ten years ago. Sadly, this is at least in part down to veterans dying away – including a startling number of men in their forties or fifties. Though AIDS may be a factor in many of these cases, it is rarely confirmed; more often, we hear about deaths caused by TB, malaria, diabetes or heart problems. Either way, the effects have been devastating – not only the direct loss of talent, but also the loss of musicians who anchored the Kenyan musical scene in its historical context.
A new generation of musicians and producers is beginning to make its mark, though it remains to be seen where this new direction will lead.
Kenya's tribal music
Kenya has a rich network of tribal (a term used widely in the country) musical cultures, though not all have survived intact into the twenty-first century. Throughout the country, music has always been used to accompany rites of passage and other events, from celebrations at a baby’s birth to songs of adolescence, warriorhood, marriage, harvest, solar and lunar cycles, festivities, religious rites and death. Nowadays, however, the majority of Kenyans are Christian, and gospel music reigns supreme – sadly not the uplifting version of the US or South Africa, but a tinny, synthesized and homogenous form.
Gospel has all but obliterated traditional music, and among the Kikuyu (Kenya’s largest tribe) or the Kalenjin (who comprise much of the government), the old tribal music is almost extinct. Elsewhere, to hear anything live, you need a lot of time and patience, and often a local family’s trust, though there’s a certain amount of recorded music available. The following is a very brief tribe-by-tribe rundown of more easily encountered traditional music and instruments. Obviously, there’s much more available if you know where to search and what to ask for: essential reading for this is George Senoga-Zake’s Folk Music of Kenya (Uzima Press, Nairobi, 1986).
The tradition of the Akamba, best known for their skill at drumming, is sadly now all but extinct. There’s only one commercial cassette available, Akamba Drums (Tamasha); it covers many styles and can be ordered from the Zanzibar Curio Shop in Nairobi.
The Bajuni are a small ethnic group living in the Lamu archipelago and on the nearby mainland, and are known musically for an epic women’s work song called “Mashindano Ni Matezo”. One of only very few easily available recordings of women singing in Kenya, this is hypnotic counterpoint, the vocals punctuated by metallic rattles and supported by subdued drumming. You can find it in Lamu, Kilifi or Mombasa.
The Borana, who live between Marsabit and the Ethiopian border, have a rich musical tradition. The Arab influence is readily discernible, as are more typically Saharan rhythms. Most distinctive is their use of the chamonge guitar, a large cooking pot loosely strung with metal wires. On first hearing, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is funky electric guitar, or some earthy precursor to the blues, depending on the context.
Once again, sadly practically extinct, Chuka music from the east side of Mount Kenya – like that of the Akamba – is drumming genius. Your only hope is to catch the one remaining band, who currently play at the Mount Kenya Safari Club near Nanyuki.
Gusii music is Kenya’s oddest. The favoured instrument is the obokano, an enormous version of the Luo nyatiti lyre which is pitched at least an octave below the human voice and can sound like roaring thunder. They also use the ground bow, essentially a large hole in the ground covered in a tightly pegged animal skin with a small hole cut in the centre. A single-stringed bow is placed in the hole and plucked, and the sound defies description. Ask around in Kisii and you should be able to pick up recordings easily enough.
Luhya music has a clear Bantu flavour, easily discernible in the pre-eminence of drums. Of these, the sukuti is best known, sometimes played in ensembles, and still used in rites of passage such as circumcision. Tapes are easily available in Kakamega and Kitale.
The Luo are best known as the originators of benga (for more on which see the main article). Their most distinctive musical instrument is the nyatiti, a double-necked eight-string lyre with a skin resonator which is also struck on one neck with a metal ring tied to the toe. It produces a tight, resonant sound and is used to generate complex, hypnotic rhythms. Originally employed in the fields to keep tired workers alert, the music typically begins at a moderate pace and quickens progressively; the player also sings, the lyrics covering all manner of subjects, from politics to moral fables.
The nomadic lifestyle of the Maasai tends to preclude the carrying of instruments and as a result their music is one of the most distinctive in Kenya, characterized by astonishing polyphonous multipart singing – both call-and-response, sometimes with women included in the chorus, but most famously in the songs of the morani (warriors), in which each man sings part of a complex multi-layered rhythm, more often than not from his throat. The songs are usually competitive (expressed through the singers alternately leaping as high as they can) or bragging – about how the singer killed a lion, say, or rustled cattle from a neighbouring community.
The Maasai have retained much of their traditional culture, so singing is still in use in traditional ceremonies, most spectacularly in the eunoto circumcision ceremony in which boys are initiated into manhood to begin their ten- to fifteen-year stint as morani. Tourists staying in big coastal hotels or in game lodges in Amboseli and Maasai Mara often have a chance to sample Maasai music in the form of groups of morani playing at the behest of hotel management. Cassettes are difficult to find.
The Mijikenda of the coast have a prolific musical tradition which has survived Christian conversion and is readily available on tape throughout the region. Performances can occasionally be seen in the larger hotels. Like the Akamba, the Mijikenda are superb drummers and athletic dancers. The music is generally light and overlaid with complex rhythms, impossible not to dance to.
Like their Maasai cousins, whose singing is very similar, Samburu musicians make a point of not playing instruments – at least in theory. In fact, they do play small pipes, and also a kind of guitar with a box resonator and loose metal strings, though these are played just for pleasure, or to soothe a crying baby, and are thus not deemed “music”. Listen out also for the sinuously erotic rain songs, peformed by women in times of drought. For cassettes, ask around at the lodges and campsites in Samburu/Buffalo Springs National Reserves, or – better still – in Maralal.
Until the 1970s, the Turkana were one of Kenya’s remotest tribes, and in large part are still untouched by Christian missionaries. Their traditional music is based loosely on a call-and-response pattern. The main instrument is a kudu antelope horn with or without finger holes, but most of their music is entirely vocal. A rarity to look out for are the women’s rain songs, sung to the god Akuj during times of drought. Visitors are usually welcome to join performances in Loiyangalani, for a small fee.
The Early Days
Even before 1900, guitars were being played among the freed slaves around Mombasa, and by the 1920s the instrument had a group of quite well-known exponents, including such names as Lukas Tututu, Paul Mwachupa and Fundi Konde. Their songs dealt with secular topics but were similar in form to church music, with several verses and a refrain.
In a separate development, from around the mid-1920s there were several dance clubs in the Mombasa area playing music for Christian Africans to do European dancing. The Nyika Club Band was one such house band, comprising guitars, bass, banjo, mandolin, violin and sax/clarinet. As for the rest of Kenya, there’s little in the historical record of this period about what was happening musically, apart from singing and drumming – and a bit of accordion among the Kikuyu.
During World War II, many African soldiers were sent to fight in Ethiopia, India and Burma, and some of the coastal musicians were drafted into the Entertainment Unit of the King’s African Rifles. With a couple of Ugandan recruits, the group comprised guitars, mandolin, accordion and drums, and after the war they continued as the Rhino Band. Based at first in Kampala, they soon worked their way down to Mombasa. After they split in 1948, some of the members formed the distinguished Kiko Kids, and other dance bands.
From the early 1950s, the spread of radio and a proliferation of recording studios pushed genuinely popular music across a wide spectrum of Kenyan society. Fundi Konde was a prominent broadcaster and also recorded on HMV’s Blue Label series. His early songs, and especially his chord sequences, were closely allied to those of contemporary European dance bands, and it’s a fair guess that if they had been in English rather than Swahili, much of his tight, melodic, very rhythmic output would have found favour with the pre-rock’n’roll tastes of Europe and America.
While Fundi Konde’s urbane style was much in demand, the “second generation” of Kenyan guitarists were making their names, often with a different playing technique: the thumb and forefinger picking style first heard in the music of eastern Congolese players like Jean Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Massengo. Bosco’s recordings were available in Kenya from 1952 and by the end of the decade he and Massengo had moved to Nairobi.
This “finger”-style music has a lively, fast-paced bounce, especially where a second guitar follows the lead guitar with syncopated bass lines. The Kenyan finger-pickers sometimes pursued solo careers, but more usually they formed small guitar-based groups, with two-part vocal harmony and simple percussion using maracas, tambourines, wood-blocks or even soda bottles. From the mid-1950s, this new sound gained a huge following and produced spectacular record sales. AGS, the African Gramophone Store, one of the bigger labels, claims to have sold 300,000 copies of John Mwale’s “Kuwaza Sera” 78rpm.
By the mid-1960s, however, finger-style acoustic guitar bands were losing ground to other electric guitar styles. The rhythms of the new urban Swahili music were also influenced by Congolese rumba and South African kwela, or what was locally called twist. Twist’s underlying rhythm is the beat of “Mbube” (The Lion), a faster version of the internationally better known “Wimoweh”.
The old styles were absorbed in part into the new music, and many ideas taken up by the electric bands were based on the finger-picking and soda-bottle percussion. One of the most important groups of the new electric era of the 1960s was the Equator Sound Band, first formed in 1959 as the Jambo Boys, a studio and performing combo for the East African Records company. Led by Fadhili William, they went on into the 1970s as African Eagles and Eagles Lupopo. Some of the most famous names of the period – Daudi Kabaka, Gabriel Omolo, Sylvester Odhiambo and the Zambian émigrés Nashil Pichen and Peter Tsotsi – distinguished the line-up. Typical Equator elements were the two-part vocal harmony, a steady, often “walking” bass and a bright, clean lead guitar. There’s often a strikingly American feel in the guitar solos and chord patterns, suggesting pervasive rock and country influences.
The late 1960s and early 70s was a time of transition in Kenyan music. While the African Eagles and others continued to play their brands of Swahili music, many top Kenyan groups, such as the Ashantis, Air Fiesta and The Hodi Boys, were playing Congolese covers and international pop, especially soul music, in the Nairobi clubs. At the same time, a number of musicians were honing the benga style, which was soon to become Kenya’s most characteristic pop music.
Although benga originated with the Luo people of western Kenya, its transition to a popular style has been so pervasive that today practically all the local bands play variants of it and most of the regional or ethnic pop groups refer generally to their music as benga. As a pop style, it dates back to the 1950s, when musicians began adapting traditional dance rhythms and the string sounds of the nyatiti and orutu to the acoustic guitar and later to electric instruments. During its heyday, in the 1970s and 80s, it dominated Kenya’s recording industry and was exported to western and southern Africa, where it was very popular.
By any measure, the most famous benga group is Shirati Jazz, led by D.O. (Daniel Owino) Misiani. Born in Shirati, Tanzania, just south of the Kenyan border, Misiani has been playing benga since the mid-1960s. His style is characterized by soft, flowing and melodic two-part vocal harmonies, a very active, pulsating bass line that derives at least in part from traditional nyatiti and drum rhythms, and stacks of invigorating guitar work, the lead alternating with the vocal. Misiani, who is rightfully credited as one of the founding fathers of the genre, is still going strong, with a full performance schedule that included European and American tours in 2005.
Tragically, many of the other big names in benga music have passed away. Between 1997 and 2001, a whole raft of stars disappeared: George Ramogi, leader of the Continental Luo Sweet Band; pioneers Collela Mazee and Ochieng Nelly, who performed either together or separately in various incarnations of Victoria Jazz and the Victoria Kings; and crowd-pleasing bandleaders Okatch Biggy (Elly Otieno Okatch, of Heka Heka), and Prince Jully (Julius Okumu, of the Jolly Boys Band). All in all, a devastating loss of talent and knowledge of benga music and its history.
Promisingly, however, Heka Heka, various Heka Heka offshoots and the Jolly Boys have continued to flourish, moving into more risqué benga performance. With Jully’s wife, Lillian Auma, assuming control of the group and fronting the Jolly Boys as Princess Jully, the response has been nothing short of phenomenal.
One Luo name which doesn’t fit neatly under the benga banner is Ochieng Kabaselleh and his Luna Kidi Band. His songs were mostly in Luo, but sometimes with a liberal seasoning of Swahili and English. Likewise, his melodies and harmonies were from the Luo benga realm but the guitar, rhythm and horns suggest Congolese/Swahili influence. Kabaselleh, who languished in prison for several years for “subversion” in the 1980s, returned to the music world with a flood of new releases in the 1990s. In 1997, he toured the US with his group and recorded his first international CD release, From Nairobi with Love. In 1998, however, he too died – in this case from complications related to diabetes.
A related group that Kabaselleh started in the late 1970s with several of his brothers continues today as Bana Kadori. The name, meaning “children of Dori”, refers to Kabaselleh’s mother, Dorcas, a respected musician of her day. Originally brought together as a recording group, they are now an active performing band. Their music runs the range from Kabaselleh’s hybrid benga-rumba style to mainstream benga.
Many of Kenya’s famous guitarists and vocalists come from the Luhya highlands just to the north of Lake Victoria and Luo-land. In addition to the early finger-picking guitarists like John Mwale and George Mukabi, it was the ancestral home of Kenya’s “King of Twist”, Daudi Kabaka (who died in 2001) and still-active twist proponent John Nzenze. While these musicians fostered broad appeal through Swahili language, other Luhya musicians stayed closer to their home areas, musically and linguistically – such as Sukuma bin Ongaro, famous for his humorous benga-esque social commentaries in Luhya.
Another key Luhya artist is Shem Tube, the vocalist and guitarist leader of Abana ba Nasery (The Nursery Boys). The group are still active, but their omutibo style is best known in Europe via the 1989 GlobeStyle retrospective, Abana ba Nasery, focusing on their heydey in the 1960s and 70s. Back then, the band blazed a path, combining traditional Luhya rhythms and melody lines with a two-guitar line-up and three-part vocal harmonies in a way that foreshadowed today’s Kenyan pop.
More recently, Abana ba Nasery have had a string of local hits as an electric band under the stage names Mwilonje Jazz and Super Bunyore Band (listen, for example, to Super Bunyore’s “Bibi Joys” on the Nairobi Beat compilation). And in 1990, they explored the compatibility of their music with strands of European folk in Nursery Boys Go Ahead!, with guests including members of the Oyster Band and Mustaphas as well as Ron Kavana and Tomás Lynch.
Kikuyu: Prayers for the Country
As Kenya’s largest ethnic group, the Kikuyu-speaking people of Central Province and Nairobi are a major market force in Kenya’s music industry. Perhaps because of their built-in audience, few Kikuyu musicians have tried to cross over into the national Swahili or English-language markets.
Kikuyu melodies are quite distinct from those of the Luo and Luhya of western Kenya and their pop manifestations also differ significantly in harmonies and rhythm guitar parts. In contrast to Luo and Luhya pop, women vocalists play major roles as lead and backing singers, and many of the top groups have women’s auxiliaries – duos and trios invariably called the something-or-other sisters. Most often, Kikuyu pop takes the form of the benga/cavacha style, but popular alternatives are also based on country and western, reggae and Congolese soukous.
The king of Kikuyu pop is Joseph Kamaru, who has been making hit records since the release of “Celina” in 1967, performed, on one guitar and maracas, with his sister Catherine Muthoni. Since then he has carved out a small empire for himself – including his Njung’wa Stars band and the Kamarulets dancers, two music shops and a recording studio. He sees himself as a teacher, expressing the traditional values of his culture, as well as contemporary social commentary, in song. In the early 1990s, his recording “Mahoya ma Bururi” (Prayers for the Country) gently criticized the Kenya government, resulting in his shop being raided and his songs being banned from the airwaves. This, however, did little to harm Kamaru’s popularity: his band was fully booked, playing regular “X-rated, Adults Only” shows to packed nightclub crowds. Thus his announcement in 1993 that he had been “born again” came as a bombshell for his fans. Much to their disappointment, Kamaru abandoned the pop scene to devote his efforts to evangelical activities and gospel music promotion.
The void created by Kamaru’s departure from the pop market has at least partly been filled by one of the rare female headliners in Kikuyu pop, Jane Nyambura. Known these days simply as “Queen Jane”, she’s a staunch advocate for the inclusion of traditional folk forms and local languages within contemporary pop. Her use of tribal languages has limited her radio exposure (such music is deemed “tribal” in official circles) but Jane and four of her brothers and sisters now make their living from her band.
Another key figure is Daniel ‘DK’ (Councillor) Kamau – the hit-maker regarded as having brought Kikuyu music to the mainstream. DK released his first three records in 1967, while still at school, and continued with a highly successful career throughout the 1970s, after which he moved into politics. He returned to the stage in the 1990s, with a new group, the Lulus Band, but has continued to address political and human-rights issues, sometimes in partnership with singer-composer Albert Gacheru.
East and southeast of Nairobi is a vast, semi-arid plateau, the home of the Kamba people, linguistically close relations of the Kikuyu. Kamba pop music is firmly entrenched in the benga/cavacha camp, though with its own unique elements. One is the delicate, flowing rhythm guitar that underlies many arrangements. While the primary guitar plays chords in the lower range, the second guitar, often in a high register, plays fast patterns that mesh with the rest of the instrumentation to fill in the gaps. The result, which has the seemless flow of an old carousel calliope, is discernible in many of the recordings of the three most famous Kamba groups: the Kalambya Boys & Kalambya Sisters, Peter Mwambi and his Kyanganga Boys and Les Kilimambogo Brothers Band, led by the late Kakai Kilonzo.
These groups dominated Kamba music from the mid-1970s. Mwambi, although he can get into some great guitar solos, has a following that comes largely from within the Kamba community, his pound ’em-out musical style lacking the variation needed to keep non-Kamba speakers interested. The Kalambya Sisters are a different story. Backed by Onesmus Musyoki’s Kalambya Boys Band, the Sisters were famous, even notorious, throughout Kenya and even had a minor hit in Europe with “Katelina”, the comic tale of a young woman who drinks too much uki home-brew and gets pregnant with annual regularity. The soft, high-pitched, feline voices of the Sisters whine engagingly in unison over the sweet guitar work of Musyoki and the Boys. A phenomenon of the 1980s, the Kalambya Sisters are long gone as an active group. These days, the mantle of Kamba female pop star belongs to Peris Mueni and her Kakongo Sisters band, who have released a very successful string of cassettes from the late 1990s to present.
To reach a larger audience, a number of local-language artists have turned to Swahili, which is widely spoken throughout East and Central Africa. Kakai Kilonzo and Les Kilimambogo Brothers band were always identified as a Kamba band, but once Kakai started recording in Swahili, the group enjoyed widespread popularity in Kenya. With socially relevant lyrics, intricate guitar weaves and a solid dance-beat backing, Les Kilimambogo were national favourites until Kakai’s death in 1987.
These days, another generation of musicians, relative newcomers to the Kamba hall of fame, is drawing most of the limelight away from the old guard. The Katitu Boys Band has come to dominate the Kamba cassette market. Leader David Kasyoki, a former guitarist with Mwambi’s Kyanganga Boys, won the 1992 Singer of the Year award for “Cheza na Katitu” (Dance with Katitu). Other groups of the new generation include Kimangu Boys Band, Kiteta Boys and Mutituni Boys Band.
Congolese & Swahili: Big-Name Bands
The big-name bands in Kenya can usually muster sufficiently large audiences for shows in sprawling, ethnically diverse towns like Nairobi, Nakuru or Mombasa. Unlike the groups with a particular ethnic leaning, the national performers can appeal to a broad cross-section of the population with music that tends to be either a local variant of the Congolese sound or Swahili music, a Kenyan-Tanzanian hybrid sound, unique to Kenya.
In Congolese and Swahili popular music, songs typically open with a slow-to-medium rumba, the singer ambling through verses, backed by a light percussion of congas, snare and hi-hat. Then, three or four minutes in, the song shifts into high gear, with rumba and verse giving way to faster rhythms and prominent instrumental parts (especially solo guitar and brass). Swahili music, particularly, has remained fairly faithful to this two-part structure, though today both Swahili and Congolese musicians often dispense with the slow rumba portion altogether.
While Swahili pop is usually associated with Swahili lyrics, it isn’t distinguished by the language. Indeed, one of the greatest Swahili hits of all time, the Maroon Commandos’ “Charonyi Ni Wasi” is sung in Taita (a related but distinct language). Today, Nairobi’s Congolese music, almost exclusively sung in Lingala in the mid-1970s, is also linguistically diverse, with artists such as Samba Mapangala and Orchestra Virunga making a conscious effort to bring their music closer to the Kenyan audience through the use of Swahili.
There are some significant points of divergence in the Swahili and Congolese styles in Kenya. The tempo of Swahili music is generally slower, and while the Congolese musicians are famous for their vocals and intricate harmonies, Swahili groups are renowned for their guitar work: demon solos and crisp, clear guitar interplay.
Congolese musicians have been making waves in Kenya since the late 1950s. It was the Congolese OS Africa Band that opened Nairobi’s famous Starlight Club back in 1964. But it wasn’t until the mid-1970s, after the passing of the American soul craze, that music from Congo began to dominate the city nightclubs. One of the first musicians to settle in Kenya during this period was Baba Gaston. The rotound Gaston had already been in the business for twenty years when he arrived in Nairobi with his group Baba National in 1975. A prolific musician and father (he had twelve children), he stole the scene until his retirement as a performer and recording artist in 1989.
While Gaston was getting settled in Nairobi, the Congolese group Boma Liwanza was already on the scene at the Starlight Club and the popular Bana Ngenge were about to leave Nairobi for a year in Tanzania. Super Mazembe, meanwhile, had just completed their migration from then Zaïre to Kenya (by way of Zambia and Tanzania), and soon to follow were Samba Mapangala and Les Kinois.
The latter were an early prototype of Orchestre Virunga, the supergroup that Samba Mapangala put together with Super Mazembe singer Kasongo wa Kanema. In 1984, the band ran into problems with work permits, and broke up, but guitarist Sammy Mansita soon put together a new all-star group, Ibeba System. When Ibeba first took over from Virunga at the Starlight, the group sounded almost exactly like its predecessor, but over several years performing at the JKA Resort Club they became an act in their own right, with a good mix of soukous and covers of African pop.
The ultimate Congolese crossover band in Nairobi, and darlings of Kenya’s young elite, were Vundumuna. The group formed in 1984 – with guitarist Tabu Frantal, Ugandan vocalist Sammy Kasule and ex-Virunga bassist Nsilu wa Bansilu – and quickly gained institutional status, packing in the crowds with their performances at the Carnivore. With the best equipment in the city, they presented a clean, hi-tech sound fusing Congolese soukous, benga rhythms and elements of Western jazz. Their flawless horn arrangements blended beautifully with the keyboard playing of leader Botango Bedjil (BB Mo-Franck) and Frantal’s guitar. After three LPs and a rising tide of popularity, the future was looking bright until, once again, the Immigration Department struck. The group played its farewell concert at the Carnivore in late 1986 and since then have worked abroad in places as far afield as Japan and Oman. Between jobs, they return to Kenya (several band members have Kenyan wives and children), where they’ve been allowed to play short stints as guest performers. BB Mo-Franck and sax player Tabu Ngongo have stayed on in Japan, playing African music in BB’s groups – Bitasika and MAMU (Modern African Music) – and releasing a couple of nicely produced CDs.
The loss of Vundumuna set the stage for the return of Orchestre Virunga, and when they took up residence in Nairobi’s Garden Square Club in 1988 they were greeted with the same abundant enthusiasm they had left behind three years earlier. With a captivating stage show, they played dazzling renditions of all their familiar hits and new compositions. Sadly, in 1993, Samba gave up on the local nightclub scene and disbanded the group, though he still performs for special events in Kenya, tours abroad and makes records. Although the musicians continue to change, nothing has altered Samba Mapangala’s formula: a catchy, not over-complex melody, faultless vocal harmonies, innovative, interlocking guitar lines and superbly crafted horns floating over light, high-tensile percussion.
Samba Mapangala was not the only one disillusioned by the business of music in Nairobi. By the early 1990s, Nairobi’s status as an island of opportunity for Congolese musicians had fallen flat. With harder economic times, a declining record industry, fewer live venues and restrictive work rules, Nairobi had become a departure point for greener pastures rather than the promised land itself. Some musicians headed to Tanzania, while others signed up to play outside Africa – particularly Japan, in recent years, where a number of Nairobi’s Congolese musicians have formed touring groups such as Angusha Band.
In the last decade, however, the Kenyan Congolese music scene has been on the upswing once again, with a host of new names and places to work. Congolese artists on the current scene include Rhumba Japan International, Tindika Umba and Bouger-Musica International, and Bilenge Musica, whose CD, Rumba Is Rumba, places them among the top soukous bands anywhere. There are also some new permutations on familiar names, such as Orchestra Les Mangelepa and Orchestra Mazembe Academia, while Lessa Lassan and Orchestra Popolipo are comfortably installed in the Motherland Bar.
Songs with Swahili lyrics are part of the common currency of East African musical culture. Kenya’s own brand of Swahili popular music has its origin in the Tanzanian styles of the 1970s but has followed a separate evolutionary path since then. It retains some classic Congolese elements (light, hi-hat-and-conga percussion and delicate two/three-guitar interweave), but is instrumentally sparse, with the bass filling in gaps, often in syncopated rhythms. Trumpets and saxes are common in recorded arrangements but usually omitted in club performances because of the expense.
One of the first Tanzanian groups to migrate to Kenya was Arusha Jazz, which later became the legendary Simba Wanyika Original (Lion of the Savanna). Founded by Wilson Peter Kinyonga and his brothers George and William, the group began performing in Mombasa in 1971 and started recording singles for Phonogram the following year, quickly making a name for themselves. In 1975, with Tanzanian recruit Omar Shabani on rhythm and Kenyan Tom Malanga on bass, the band shifted their base to Nairobi and released their first album, Jiburudisheni na Simba Wanyika (Chill Out with Simba Wanyika). Over their twenty-year history in Nairobi, the group were favourites of the city’s club scene and made scores of recordings. They broke up in 1995 after the deaths of first George (in 1992) and then Wilson Kinyonga.
Interestingly, Simba Wanyika’s international releases present a rather different sound from their typical recordings for Polygram in Nairobi. In both Simba Wanyika Original: Kenya Vol I and Pepea, the group has taken a page from the benga handbook and quickened the pace considerably, albeit without giving up their great guitar work, creamy sax (on Vol I) and pleasing, listener-friendly vocal lines. For purists interested in their local, live sound, the albums Haleluya and Mapenzi Ni Damu are more representative.
The name “Wanyika” is also associated with various other related bands. In 1978, for example, the Kinyonga brothers’ core supporting musicians left to form Les Wanyika – including rhythm guitarist “Professor” Omari Shabani, bassist Tom Malanga, drummer Rashid Juma and vocalist Issa Juma (who had only joined a month before). The new group signed up Tanzanian lead guitarist John Ngereza, who had been playing in Kenya with the Congolese group Bwambe Bwambe, and after six months’ practice began performing at Garden Square. They soon found fame across Kenya with the massive hit “Sina Makosa” (It’s Not My Fault), and went on to became one of Nairobi’s top bands for two decades. Their Swahili-language rumba was distinguished by imaginative compositions and arrangements – a lean, clean sound and the delicious blend of rhythm, lead and bass guitars. In their studio tracks (many of them more than ten minutes long), the guitars don’t really solo in the usual sense but playfully embellish, aided by a pair of trumpets or a saxophone. Their vocals are great, too, handled by Ngereza, with solid harmonies from Mohamed Tika and other Swahili session vocalists.
Ngereza’s inclusion as a guest artist on Orchestre Virunga’s 1997 US tour finally brought him some international exposure outside Africa – as well as his first international CD, Amigo, in 1998. Sadly, the same year saw the death of Professor Omari, who had composed many of the group’s early hits, and Ngereza himself died in 2000.
Other incarnations of the Wanyika brand included the various groups – Super Wanyika, Super Wanyika Stars, Wanyika Stars, Waa-Nyika, L’Orchestra Waanyika and Wanyika Super Les Les – headed up in the 1980s by Issa Juma, who had established himself as a premier vocalist back in the early days of Les Wanyika. He is forever associated in Kenya with Sigalame, the eponymous character of his 1983 single. Sigalame (now part of Kenyan vocabulary) is a mysterious character who has disappeared from family and friends but is rumoured to be “doing business” in Bungoma. What kind of business? (“Biashara gani?”) With so many illegal activities to choose from, it was up to the listener to choose an answer.
One of the most productive artists of the 1980s, Issa released many numbers in the Swahili-benga fusion style of “Sigalame”. Yet, he has been more adventurous and creative than most of the Swahili artists in his willingness to take his music in different directions. With producer Babu Shah, some of his songs sound very much like the Conglese music of the time, while others are closer to the old rumba style of Simba Wanyika.
Although the Wanyika bands have been dominant in Swahili music, it is not their exclusive domain. Foremost among other Tanzanians and Kenyans performing in the Swahili style are the Maroon Commandos. Members of the Kenyan Army, the Commandos are one of the oldest performing groups in the country. They came together in 1970 and initially focused on covers of Congolese hits. But by 1977 they had come out as a strong force in the Swahili style, and had huge success with the Taita-language song “Charonyi Ni Wasi”. Within their genre, the Commandos do not limit themselves to any sort of rigid formula – like many of the Swahili groups, they use trumpets and sax liberally, but at various times have added keyboard and innovative guitar effects. At their most creative, they mingle Swahili and benga styles.
In Kenya today, however, the Swahili rumba sounds of groups like the Wanyika bands and Maroon Commandos are nearly extinct. From time to time, new bands form but, currently, the only serious proponents of the genre (aside from Maroon Commandos) are Abdul Muyonga and Everest Kings. The style, however, remains widely available in recordings, including a recent release from the late Twahir Mohamed’s Golden Sounds Band, appropriately titled Swahili Rumba.
International influences have always been a part of Kenyan music but where Kenyan pop meets the tourist industry, at the resorts to the north and south of earthy Mombasa, another distinct style can be heard. Here, a band can successfully make a living just playing covers at hotels. Tourist pop bands typically have highly competent musicians, relatively good equipment and, overall, a fairly polished sound. In live performances, the best of them play an eclectic selection of old Congolese rumba tunes, popular international covers, a few Congolese favourites of the day, greatest hits from Kenya’s past and some original material that leans heavily towards the American/Euro-pop sound but with lyrics relating to local topics.
The most successful group in this field has been the oddly named Them Mushrooms, recently renamed Uyoga (Swahili for “mushroom”). At the time of their formation, in 1972, Them Mushrooms were a reggae band without an audience. However, as they gravitated towards the hotel circuit for work, they switched to a more commercial sound encompassing international covers, African pop standards, a little soca and reggae and some Kenyan variants of benga and the coastal chakacha rhythm.
Them Mushrooms graduated from the coastal hotel circuit when they moved to Nairobi in 1987, but their music lives on at the coast, most notably their crowning achievement: the perennial tourist anthem “Jambo Bwana”, with its unintentionally ironic refrain “Hakuna matata” (No problems). However, while Uyoga are proud to take credit for this insidiously infectious bit of fluff, they also have more serious musical intentions.
Uyoga have been one of Kenya’s most prolific bands. Over three and a half decades, they have produced a series of successful collaborations, highlighting artists ranging from the pioneering Fundi Konde, taarab star Malika and the Kikuyu singer Queen Jane (Nyambura). They now own and operate one of the best studios in the country, and their recent work has taken them back to their first love – reggae – with the CD Kazi Ni Kazi (Work is Work), released on the Kelele label.
Uyoga’s long-time counterpart in the hotel circuit, Safari Sound, has also joined the reggae brigade with another Kelele release called Mambo Jambo. This group already has the distinction of having Kenya’s best-ever selling album in The Best of African Songs, a veritable greatest hits of hotel classics.
In the early 1990s, the Kenyan music business was at a low point. Diminishing sales and competition from music pirates meant that, in a business sense, recording music was hardly worth the effort. And much of what was released was hardly worth buying. By the middle of the decade, however, a number of factors came together to set the stage for something of a musical revolution. The take-off of commercial FM radio boosted the profile of foreign styles such as ragga, house, dancehall, hip-hop and R&B, while computers and other equipment became more affordable, enabling a new wave of artists to explore a new wave of production techniques.
Groups emerged combining local elements – language, subject matter and sometimes melody and instrumentation – with American and European styles. Some of the pioneering names of the mid-1990s include Five Alive, Hart, Shadz o’Blak and Hardstone (Harrison Ngunjiri), who had a smash hit with “Uhiki” – an ambitious but successful offering mixing parts of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” with Kikuyu folk music and rap.
Producer Tedd Josiah was one of the creative forces behind this explosion of new styles. Sensing the shifting tide in Kenyan music, he put together two compilation CDs – Kenyan: The First Chapter (1998) and Kenyan: The Second Chapter (1999) – of emerging artists, such as the hip-hop outfits Kalamashaka and Gidigidi Majimaji. The latter had a hit with “Ting Badi Malo” (Throw Your Hands Up), which they followed up by a superb solo album, Ismarwa, blending hip-hop with traditional African instrumental sounds and melodic Luo verses. The latter, in 2002, became part of the cultural fabric of the nation with their hard-hitting rap “Who Can Bwogo Me?” (Who Can Scare Me?). Though not written as a political statement, the song was adopted as the theme of the successful opposition party in the country’s election. The word “unbwogable” has since entered the Kenyan lexicon.
Josiah and other producers, such as Bruce Odhiambo and Suzanne and Gido Kibukosya, are working with a diverse set of artists. Mercy Myra, for example, has attained star status in the Kenyan R&B field, while Eric Wainaina’s 2001 album Sawa Sawa combined the social commentary of the Redykyulass TV comedy team with songs about life in Kenya performed in a rock-soukous style. Thanks to the album, Wainaina was co-winner of the East Africa prize at the Kora awards (an honour he shared with Kenyan gospel/R&B artist Henrie Mutuku).
More recently, other production companies have come on the scene. In much the same way that Josiah’s Chapters CDs introduced a host of new artists to the public, Ogopa Deejays have put out various compilations with a focus on the style known as kapuka – a mixture of Kenyan hip-hop, ragga and house. The tracklists read like a who’s who of the pop charts: the late E-Sir, Redsan, Kleptomaniaks, Wahu, Big Pin and Mr. Lenny to name just a few.
Kapuka gets plenty of radio play, but Kenyan hip-hop artists are keen to distance themselves from the genre, which they criticize for its shallowness and lack of meaningful social content. They point out that a great many kapuka practitioners come from relatively privileged backgrounds – such as rapper CMB Prezzo, the self-proclaimed “president” of the younger generation who once hired a helicopter to drop him at an award ceremony. In contrast, most of the “true” Kenyan hip-hop scene centres around the youth of urban housing estates and slums, and gets little exposure.
Another segment of Kenya’s new music scene are the musicians looking to incorporate traditional instruments, rhythms and melody into contemporary pop music. Yunasi, Kayamba Afrika and US-based Jabali Afrika are groups that blend rich vocal harmonies with “traditional” African percussion and string instruments, plus varying levels of guitar, bass and keyboards. Nairobi City Ensemble takes a slightly different approach, incorporating what they term “authentic melodies” and touches of traditional instruments into a generally contemporary sound with modern instruments and guest rappers. Finally, singer-songwriter Suzanna Owiyo brings together contemporary sounds with traditional melodies and instruments of her Luo culture. Her first album generated a lot of excitement (and was picked up for international release under the title Mama Africaby the ARC label), and her second album, Yamo Kudho, released in Kenya in 2004, is even more polished, delivering sublime melodies in a bright acoustic sound.
This latter category of artists has received financial support from organizations such as Nairobi’s Alliance Française, and generates a certain amount of interest on the international World Music scene, but is less popular among the Kenyan youth. As for the future, it’s hard to say which of the new styles will dominate, or whether the hip-hop generation will one day return to the rumba and benga fold. The one thing that is certain is that we’re in the midst of an interesting time, with lots of new players, many of them still learning the game. And it will be fun to hear the music evolve.