[21 April 2009]
Ian Eagleson wasn’t the first Western musician to trek to Africa, but he might be the Western musician who took his visit the most seriously. It was far from a mere jaunt aimed at adding a little extra musical flavor to his band Golden’s recordings. Eagleson traveled as part of his doctoral research into the music of East Africa. In 2000, while in Kenya for that research, he began documenting the popular, guitar-heavy form of dance music known as benga. While in Africa, he was assisted by Otieno Jagwasi and Onyango Wuod Omari, members of a Kenyan band called Orchestra Extra Solar Africa.
Eagleson returned to East Africa in 2004, bringing a portable studio and bandmate Alex Minoff (more famously of Weird War) with him. The two Chicago-based garage rockers decided to record with Jagwasi and Omari. Extra Golden was born.
Jagwasi died before the result of their initial sessions – Ok-Oyot System – were released. The tragedy ensured that Eagleson, Minoff and Omari redoubled their efforts to keep the music alive. They recruited Opiyo Bilongo to help record 2007’s Hera Ma Nono. Extra Golden made their first global tour last year, before working on Thank You Very Quickly, their third album.
From their history of playing tiny clubs in Washington and Chicago, Eagleson and Minoff have always held that tight quarters lead to tight grooves. And so Thank You Very Quickly was recorded in a single day. The group set up in the hallway and laundry room of Eagleson’s parents’ house and recorded half a dozen danceable anthems, all just over the five minutes mark, that were written in the wake of political, social and economic upheaval in Kenya. The album may have been recorded in Chicago, but Nairobi remains the band’s focus. Despite their recent global tour, Kenya is clearly Extra Golden’s musical and spiritual home.
“Piny Yore Yore” is inspired by the songs Kenyan children are often heard singing. The title track expresses heartfelt thanks to all the group’s fans who made donations to keep Extra Golden’s families safe and well amidst Kenya’s post-election violence of early 2008. In the song, Eagleson explains their plight simply and succinctly, “so many people split up, driven from home, under cover of the night / no food, no money, just left all alone to choose between their life and a fight.” Despite the somber lyrics that detail in two languages the tragedy of the political situation in Kenya, it’s still an ass-shaking dancefloor behemoth.
“Fantasies Of The Orient” is the album’s most jaunty moment, a track with a real spring in its step, where Eagleson imagines, “a life in the jungle just to see like monkeys do” and decides that you don’t need to be a monkey swinging through the jungle to be happy. On “Ukimwi”, Onyango Wuod Omari, usually employed solely on drums, steps out to the front for the first time and delivers a passionate plea to destroy AIDS. Even this, however, is played in a cheerful, joyous manner.
As with the previous two albums, this isn’t an attempt at playing true benga music. Eagleson and Minoff’s Blues Explosion affectations never stray too far from the surface, but there’s a very strong African feel throughout. While the songs are about the difficulties of life, the music contains the lightness and joy that is common to so much African music. The album’s length, the organic guitar tones and live-sounding drums all recall the pre-digital age. But this is more than a charming throwback. It’s a power statement made all the more remarkable when one considers the political and geographic obstacles the band continues to overcome.