There were three reasons why I wanted to love this album.
The first reason, and the most pressing one, was that one of the members of Extra Golden, Otieno Jagwasi, died last year of liver failure after five years of illness. I know that if I were dying of liver failure I’d want people to look back on the things I’d done and say, “This is an excellent piece of work. What a talented person. What a loss.” And why should I expect people to extend me that courtesy if I don’t extend it to Otieno Jagwasi?
So, I’ll start by telling you that “Ilando Gima Onge”, which Jagwasi sings, and which, I suspect, he’s primarily responsible for composing, is the best song on this album. There’s a squiggly buzzing guitar at the beginning that’s just masterful and perfect, and then it moves into a lighter sound, wandering with purpose, all of this before he opens his mouth.
His voice is not powerful. It doesn’t have a wide range and it threatens to go flat sometimes, but it does its job. Its weaknesses might be the fault of his illness. (You could argue that you’re not paying money to listen to an ill man sing, but if you want the music then you’ve got to take the whole man or nothing at all, and if that includes a weakened voice, then so be it.) Towards the end of the song, the instruments harp on one little riff for too long, but then they straighten up and redeem the repetition with a quick series of back-and-forth notes, and then the buzzy guitar comes back again, so the repetition turned out to have a purpose—it was setting us up for the ending. So that’s all right. Despite the things I said about extending courtesy to the dead, I’m not just being polite: it really is a great song.
The second reason I wanted to love Ok-Oyot System is that the CD looks as if it was produced on the cheap. It’s the fruit of independent determination and resolve. I want to be able to say, “See? Determination and resolve are as good as a big budget any day.” In one way I can. The sound quality is fine. The guitars sparkle. The CD cover looks as if it was produced with scissors and a Letraset, but who cares? The music is well-mixed and clean.
But a big budget would have bought them time, and time is something this album needed. The two English-language songs, “It’s Not Easy” and “Tussin and Fightin’”, sound underdone and bland. “Most of the record was recorded in one afternoon,” says the press kit, “at the Annex Club, a small, crudely constructed nightclub in Nairobi’s Kariobangi South estate.” Two afternoons, or three, or four, would have given them more material to choose from. The blander songs could have been taken out or improved. There would have been more time for improvisation, more time to give “It’s Not Easy” and “Tussin and Fightin’” the spark they need, and more time to find a replacement for the noisily robotic drum machine that barges in on “Tussin and Fightin’” and overwhelms it. “Bunk bunk BUNKA,” it goes. “Bunk bunk BUNKA.”
The third reason is that Extra Golden is a collaboration between two people from a rich country (America), and two people from a poor country (Kenya), and it’s biased in the poor country’s favour, which is unusual. No one is going to accuse Ian Eagleson and Alax Minkoff of using foreigners for their talents and then taking the credit, the way critics did when Paul Simon introduced Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s singing to Graceland. Of the six songs on this album, two are performed by the Americans, three are dominated lyrically and musically by Kenya, and the sixth is a mixture of the two, with benga verses sung in Luo and American rock choruses sung in English. I wish I could say that it’s a wonderful song, but the easygoing pairing is the best thing about it. Again, I mourn the strictures of that one afternoon. More time, and the song could have been striking.
I didn’t love the album. I loved “Ilando Gima Onge”. My advice (if anyone was asking for it) would be to cut back on the straight soft rock, and work on those songs that bring an American flavour into the benga. Perhaps, if they get a chance, Eagleson and Minkoff could find other members of Jagwasi’s band to work with, and enough time to create another album? I’d listen to it if they did.
// Notes from the Road
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