When I heard about the struggle Extra Golden went through to get their first album done, I didn’t seriously think they would make a second one. Ok-Oyot System was recorded in a building that has been diplomatically described as “an open-air Nairobi nightclub” but in pictures looks ratty and decrepit. One of the band’s co-founders capped off a debilitating illness by dying. Their drum kit was a wreck, and they had less time to record than they really needed. The band’s selling point is its blend of benga with American rock, but on OK-Oyot the two genres didn’t sound so much blended as pasted clumsily together. And yet, they got the album out. These people are amazing. They must have the tenacity of ticks.
Then the Chicago World Music Festival invited them to perform in the US and they took the opportunity to make Hera Ma Nono. For this album they had a private house to work in and whole, plump days at their disposal. Otieno Jagwasi’s death still hangs on them (the album opens into a mourning song with his nickname for a title, “Jakolondo”, and later there are other references in “Brothers Gone Away”), but their most pressing practical problem was getting the Kenyan musicians’ visa applications to go through in time. Headache that it was for them, it’s left us with an interesting cross-cultural artifact—one of the tracks on Hera Ma Nono is an African praise song dedicated to the Illinois senator whose office made the process easier for them. “As is benga custom,” his wife and mother are thanked as well. The song is called “Obama”.
Everything on this second album is better than it was the first time around. The melange of American rock and Kenyan benga seems natural at last. Now they sound less like two different bands taking it in turns to do riffs and more like an actual fusion. There are still some moments when the seams show, but overall it’s a terrific improvement.
You can hear the progress they’ve made from the start. “Jakolondo” opens with western strumming—straight and hard, up and down across the strings—then moves into a ‘70s disco rock beat and finally a wonderful bubble of African guitar. It’s as if the notes are rolling down a horizontally frilled waterfall. The rock beat keeps running along underneath, the guitar continues to bubble. They complement one another. A balancing act has been pulled off. Even the sudden thunder of a drum kit isn’t too overbearing. The drum introduces a strategic hitch to the song, restarting the guitar and preventing the ripple from becoming too monotonous. The title song is closer to straight benga, and it’s lovely and springy with a light, almost calypso touch.
Opiyo Bilongo in Nairobi
Saying, “They’re trying to fuse Kenyan music with rock,” makes it sound as if the group might be pandering to an imagined non-African audience but frankly, if they had wanted to pander then there would have been a hundred better ways of going about it than this. The rock that inspires them is stuck in the 1970s, and the fact that they’re combining it with benga doesn’t make it sound any less dated. To really pander properly you’d need the techno remix, the hip hop guest artist, the eccentric neo-hippie whiz kid producer-DJ, some equivalent of Missy Elliot singing “Git’cha git’cha git’cha freak on,” over her favourite tabla, Tom Waits, Bjork, or just more dynamic rock musicians. (My resident layman cocked an ear at the two American members of Extra Golden singing on “Street Parade” and said that they reminded him of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.)
It’s strange to be so innovative and yet old-fashioned—old-fashioned but not fashioned-old. Kenge Kenge, the Kenyan group that recently released Introducing …, did it the other way around, producing benga that sounds restless and contemporary on tribal instruments developed from ox horns. Meanwhile Extra Golden, performing on electric guitars, sound mild and a little out of date. It raises an interesting question: does Extra Golden’s benga sound as dated to a Kenyan audience as the rock does to me, or does it sound, as some mimicries of ‘70s music do, nuts enough to seem interesting again (see also: Wolfmother)?
If I had someone from East Africa here I’d ask them. I do not, and the layman is probably too busy trying to get his undead warlock up to level 15 to speculate.
The songs themselves are trimmer and sweeter than they were on the first album, and the outro is inspired. “Say hi to Michelle Mae!” Oyango Wuod Omari laughs. “Extra Golden! Extra Golden!” Everything skips off over a beesting buzz and jinky percussion. If only all albums could fade away as perfectly as this.
// Notes from the Road
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