Last year as I was reviewing a CD by a Kenyan-American group called Extra Golden, I wished that I could think of a better example of a benga album to recommend in its place. Benga isn’t released that often or that widely in the English-speaking world. What could I point to so that the people reading the review would be able to see what I meant when I said that Extra Golden were not as good as they could have been? At the time all I could think of were some releases by Earthworks several years old and no longer available as far as I was aware, unless you wanted to scratch around in secondhand shops. I wanted to be able to say, “Go and listen to this instead,” but where was my ideal this?
I think Introducing… Kenge Kenge is the album I was looking for. Their version of benga is stormy and wild, not at all like the clean modern rock sound Extra Golden seems to have been searching for, and unlike, also, the work of classic benga musicians such as Daniel Misiani and his Shirati Jazz band. (If you would like to hear Misiani, who was an old giant of the genre, a compilation of his music called Benga Blast! is one of those Earthworks discs I mentioned earlier. Songs include “Honourable Horace Owiti Ongili”, and “Okoth is Supercool”.)
Kenge Kenge started life as the backing band for a government-sponsored Kenyan choir. During the 1990s they broke away from the choir and became an independent entity, “a neo-traditional group of dedicated musicians”, as they put it in the album’s dedication. They differ from other benga bands in that they have gone backwards instrumentally, rejecting electric guitars and using traditional instruments instead. The names at the top of the credits are those of musicians playing the asili flute, the long, curved, and ivory-yellow oporo ox-horn, the nyangile, and the orutu fiddle. The orutu‘s crooked, kicky wail is one of this album’s signature sounds.
Introducing… starts with a shrill flute, cannons into drums, then shoots up to meet a singer who lets out a long exclamation, like a cheer. The drums roll in tandem, the flute jinks and pounces, the two fiddles scriddle and interweave. The song grows layers; the deeper instruments settle to the bottom of the music and become mulch for the higher sounds. The amount of friendly distortion in the songs suggests that the people behind the processing of the disc have been listening to Vincent Kenis’ recordings of the Congotronics street bands. “Otenga” even has a noise that could be Konono No. 1’s thumb piano. That muddied fizz is turning into recognisable style. It’s a good, raw sound, much easier to appreciate than the tinniness that has marred some African recordings across the years; it is closer to the Western lo-fi aesthetic that has been around in one form or another since at least the 1970s and has never quite gone out of fashion.
The difference between the recordings of the Congotronics bands and the recording of Kenge Kenge lies in the difference between a field recording and a studio recording. Kenge Kenge are not a street band, and all the evidence suggests that this album was recorded in a studio. That slight edge of technical bleed has been deliberately cultivated. You could argue that this artificial imperfection is a European imposition, a veneer of primitivism clapped on musicians who are in fact technically accomplished. This argument gets less straightforward once you notice that the album was recorded and mixed in the studio of the Nairobian urban musician Bruce Odhiambo, a man who is in a position to have listened to the Congotronics recordings himself and decided that he liked what he heard without referring to the fancies of the album’s non-African audience. The producer is also a Kenyan: he is, in fact, one of the band’s lead singers.
However you want to view it, Kenge Kenge sound better on this album than they did when they last appeared on a World Music Network release, 2004’s Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya where they were credited as Kenge Kenge Orutu Systems. The deeps are deeper, the braying notes more resounding, the orutu sharper and more gleeful, the band sounds rowdier, explosive, stimulating. Some of the songs feel repetitive, particularly “Owang’ Winyo” with its interminable call-and-response choruses, but repetition is part of their style. In their explosiveness they’re closer to David Fanshawe’s field recordings of East African rural music, the hooting bung’o horn and so forth, than the tidier benga from Shirati Jazz. It’s an awesome noise. Seeing them live must be like sharing a room with an orchestrated thunderstorm. Bring it on down.