Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya
"Go east" could be the next slogan of fans of African music the world over, as evidenced by the infectious celebratory music on this compilation. East Africa has its own distinct set of longstanding traditional musical styles. There is the energetic pop of benga, the more recent music of Islamic Swahili people, taarab, and a modern hybrid being formed with heavy outside influence from hip-hop and R&B. West African music has established a wide audience outside the continent with the pulsing, endless grooves of Afrobeat music and its contentious star Nigerian Fela Kuti. Mali's Ali Farka Toure is known as the African John Lee Hooker, and now there exist contemporary American disciples like the Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. South Africa is well known for its political fervor and large ensemble vocal groups. Their counterparts to the East in Kenya and surrounding areas suffer from less exposure, so this release is a welcome introduction to many folks. Old World meets New World on this compilation, and it's an ecstatic meeting.
Benga is a percolating, vibrant music with strong bass lines and electric guitar binding the ululating rhythms. It was originally started in the Lake Victoria area in western Kenya. Members of the third largest tribe in Kenya, the Luo, who are known for their firm customs including polygamy and lavish ceremonies, developed the guitar-centric benga. In this collection, there are fine examples of the originators of benga. D.O. Misiani is one of the original pioneers, called the "The Professor" by fans. He and his group Shirati Jazz perform "Beatrice #4", a rough jewel. Queen Jane group in benga, eventually becoming the grand dame of the scene as a vocalist. Her "Nduraga Ngwetereire" is a fine opener here, with beautiful harmonies and tinkling percussion. Benga has crossed tribal boundaries on occasion, and "Mama Sofi" by '80s benga star Kakai Kilonzo is a perfect example in its story of an unfaithful wife.
The Swahili popular music of taarab, often used in resplendent wedding celebrations, is exemplified here as well. Mombasa group Mirai Juma and Jauhar Orchestra, performs "Muhogo", a song with many layered meanings, and Zuhura Swaleh and Mombasa Party do the pleading "Tweta". The Golden Sounds Band expand the traditions of Swahili rumba with saxophone threads, in "Hasidi Hana Sababu". Swahili rumba has been in decline in recent years, due to musicians' illness and passing -- many from AIDS-related sickness. Twahir Mohamed, the Zanzibar-born leader of the Goden Sounds Band, died just this year.
The influences of R&B and hip-hop cannot be understated in the modern palette of African music, and Kenyan and East African musicians have also felt this surge in the music community. Nyota Ndogo is a young singer whose take on taraab mixed with moderately-paced hip-hop beats in "Chereko" feels like a slick, African version of African-American singers like Lauryn Hill or Mary J. Blige. Gidi Gidi Maji Maji rocketed to fame in Kenya with their 1999 hit, "Ting Badi Malo", a variation on the hip-hop crowd-warming style of "throw your arms in the air". Their exciting beat-driven music experiments with multiple languages in the rap style of call-and-response, while infusing modern technology like keyboards and programmed percussion, are fantastic. Gidi Gidi Maji Maji became a focal point during the political campaigns of 2002, with their fiery "Who Can Bwogo Me?" Yunasi delivers the gospel-styled "Yamala (Responsibility)", while Suzzana Owiyo, Luo vocalist and guitarist, honors the town on Lake Victoria's shores, Kisumu, on its centennial, in "Kisumu 100".
There is so much to be had on this introduction into the world of Kenya and East Africa. It provides many starting points into entirely separate tribal musics and styles, so that, for instance, a new benga fan can seek out the history of this traditional music's heritage, digging deep for its forebears. Providing perspective and creating respect for other cultures' music is the most important role in bringing this music to an international audience. So take hold of this thread of African music and pull, and see where it leads.