East African Music - African Radio

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A couple years back, I got a message from the Soundway label asking if I might be able to help them out in getting some East African music licensed for a new CD compilation. I introduced them to Kenyan music journalist Emanuel Mwendwa who agreed to take on the project. Tracking down the music owners, negotiating and explaining contracts, digging up old photos; it's not an easy task in Kenya. But after several years work, this fabulous collection has finally come together and is available now.

At the very end of the project, I was asked to come up with a short introduction to the CD that would give a little historical context to this quite diverse collection of music from the Nairobi in the 1970s and 80s. It was my pleasure to write that introduction which is reproduced below.

Various Artists: Kenya Special from Soundway Records.

Here are the introductory notes I wrote for the CD booklet:

Over the years, Kenyan music has featured in numerous compilations for the international market. Often, the focus has been on a particular genre such as classic benga, one of several rumba variants, or perhaps centering on the work of a particular artist within a genre. In the same vein as the acclaimed Soundway collections Ghana Special and Nigeria Special, Kenya Special takes a different path in that it concentrates on a collection of 32 unusual recordings that stand out as being different or unique. At the same time it includes a few standard genre classics (especially of Kikuyu guitar genre) as reference points for departure. Most importantly it demonstrates how Kenyan musicians were tuned into international sounds and all the styles around them and that, in fact, there was a tremendous amount of music experimentation and innovation during the 1970s and '80s in East Africa.

To understand where these songs come from a little background information is in order. Kenya has one of the most diverse musical environments in all of Africa. Coming out of the 1950s, there were several popular musical styles. On the one hand, there were finger-picking guitar styles by solo and duo artists from western Kenya alongside a competing finger-picking guitar style performed by Congolese guitarists from eastern Congo/Zaire based in Kenya. On the other, there were small ensembles like the Jambo Boys Band (later, reconstituted as the Equator Sound Band), hotel cover bands, company sponsored pop groups, and the like. Of course, as is often the case, the story is a little more complex than that. These bands didn't play just one style (and neither did the finger guitarists) but the Equator Sound Studio and its band were extremely influential in setting the tone for the '60s. Charles Worrod took over what became the Equator Sound Studio in 1961. The previous ownership had on staff some of the top creative names of the time including: Fadhili William (of Malaika fame) and Daudi Kabaka. Worrod kept on most of these initial members who later became The African Eagles Band (aka The Eagles Lupopo): Nashil Pichen & Peter Tsotsi-Juma (both Zambians), and Gabriel Omolo. Collaborating with Daudi Kabaka, Worrod was the creative push for twist music (by no means an exact copy of the American twist), one of the most popular beats that reigned in Kenya in the 1960s. Twist was bright, bouncy, guitar music, usually in two-part harmonies that appropriated the South African kwela beat, a fast wemoweh rhythm. The Equator guitarists (like Kabaka and Tsotsi) must have been familiar with American rock 'n'roll from the late 1950s and '60s as well. When not playing twist, their music is filled with a profusion of little riffs lifted from American pop hits. Kabaka's major hit, Harambee, recorded by Daudi with Fadhili William on guitars and Ugandan Charles Sonko on bass is a great example of the recycling a multitude of ideas to form a fresh sound. The song has a walking bass line (not common in African pop), a melody borrowed from the American song Battle Hymn of the Republic, a series of rockabilly riffs and solos, Swahili lyrics reflecting an uplifting political message of the time, and all done in the familiar two-part vocal harmony of the finger picking guitarists.

That was one aspect of the '60s. The finger-picking guitar music gradually faded out by the end of the decade and new rumba sounds from Zaire (Congo) and Tanzania were gaining traction in the record market as well. We start to hear more rumba music recorded in Kenya's local languages and Swahili, but by the end of the '60s we're also starting to hear the earliest rumblings of benga, Kenya's unique contribution to Afro-pop.

Benga originated among the Luo musicians coming from the lands surrounding Lake Victoria in western Kenya. It's most famous proponent, the guitarist/bandleader D.O. Misiani actually played with Daudi Kabaka in the Equator Sound Band for a couple of years in the mid '60s. But when he left to form his own group, Luo Sweet Voice (and later, D.O. Shirati Jazz or The D.O.7 band as on this compilation), it was the dawn of a new style that caught on like wildfire. As you listen to Misiani's H.O. Ongili, you hear the early sound of benga: in the first half of the song, the sparse instrumentation, interlocking syncopated rhythms with the guitar, bass, and snare drum, and typical Luo melody in two part harmony. Typical of benga, the end of the song opens up into a fast instrumental section and a demonstration of guitar prowess. This part is typical of the very active bass lines and the hallmark of later benga, the pulsing kick drum and, of course, some great guitar soloing.

It didn't take long before bands from other parts of Kenya were formulating their own versions of benga. One of the things you'll notice is how the melodies are tribalcentric. That is, Luo melodies are quite distinct from Kamba melodies or those of the Kikuyu musicians. The sole example of Kamba pop on the compilation, the Kalambya Boys' Kivelenge is a fabulous example of pure Kamba benga, at least for the first half. In the second alf, where we would expect the typical instrumental climax featuring the solo guitar, we're in for something completely unexpected. The solos open up to American rock influenced guitar licks and note bending that isn't normally part of "typical" Kamba benga.

The remaining benga bands on Kenya Special are all Kikuyu but, not necessarily playing straight benga music. For the best example of pure Kikuyu benga, check out the track from 1977 by The Gatanga Boys Band, Wendo Ti Mbia or the Huruma Boys' Teresia. As in other parts of Africa, the mid to late 1970s were an exciting time. Imported disco, rock and funk started to have an impact and many of the tracks featured here are peppered with innovation and experimentation. Records start to appear with genres like 'Liquid Soul' written on the labels and it's noticeable how well recorded and cut the 45s become, with local engineers getting remarkable results from the limited equipment at their disposal.

Benga groups almost always have tribal affiliations and are attached to an ancestral homeland. Thus, there are Luo bands from their home region surrounding Lake Victoria in western Kenya, Kikuyu bands are associated with the Gikuyu people in the highlands to the north of Nairobi and the home of the Kamba bands is a vast area to the east of Nairobi. Each ethnicity sings in its own regional language and mainly to fellow speakers of their language. Yet, the pulse of all this benga activity centres on multi-ethnic Nairobi, and in particular, a compact business district named for the small street that flows through it, River Road. At one time a pre-independence commercial area, in the 1960s and '70s this became Kenya's musical heart. At its peak, there were hundreds of retail record shops in River Road and a high percentage of those were owned by record producers who were churning out a vast amount of 45rpm vinyl records. This was undoubtedly the centre of the benga world. There were a few Swahili and Congolese rumba recordings from River Road but more often those styles were left to the multinational labels like Polygram, EMI, and CBS or to label proprietors of European or East Asian descent.

The singles business was well entrenched at the time of Kenya's independence in 1963 and continued through the benga boom of the '70s before cassettes came into widespread use. The fees were high but the process was fast. Musicians from the rural areas could bus into Nairobi, make a deal with a producer to record a few songs, pop into a studio for a few hours, go home the next day and a record would be pressed and ready for sale a week later. The initial pressing could be as little as 50 records, though a top selling record might sell from five to ten thousand, (or even more) copies. With hundreds of releases each month and with few long-playing full-length albums made, it is no wonder that a great many of these have been lost over time, regardless of their popularity or musical significance. Looking beyond the mainstream, Kenya Special brings new life and recognition to some little known gems and forgotten classics of Kenya's past.

During the '60s and '70s, Nairobi had emerged as the commercial centre for East Africa and the tourist portal for the region. With the rising African elite and foreign tourists came five star hotels and nightlife to match. This clientele was more interested in the pop hits of Europe and America than the music of the streets. The hotels on the Kenyan coast and in Nairobi hired bands that could play 'copyright music' (cover versions) and write their own music in a sort of international sound with African components woven in. Among the copyrights, American soul and funk as well as West African afrobeat (Fela Kuti and Orlando Julius records amongst others were pressed and distributed in Kenya and bands from West Africa often came to play in Nairobi and Mombasa) were popular and in some of the tracks included here you can hear these elements being worked into not only the music of the hotel bands, but among all the popular local genres of the time: benga, rumba, coastal sounds, etc. The Hodi Boys (both with and without vocalist Slim Ali) made a name for themselves for their straight out American influenced soul, but their track Mtoto Nyara is typical of the driving bass and percussion flowing from the chakacha rhythm. Chakacha features in the music of quite a number of the coastal tourist bands providing the perfect foundation, for example, for The Mombasa Vikings' Kibe Kibe - bold brass lines over a spacey keyboard, wahwah guitar, and solos by sax, trumpet, and guitar.

As the '70s advanced, rumba took on a bigger presence in Kenya. Tamba Tamba by Nairobi Matata is the best example here of home-grown rumba from Kenya; Swahili rumba (differentiated from Congolese rumba) is characterised by the active, yet delicate, rhythm guitar part which meshes so well with the bass, and the percussion that is concentrated almost entirely on the drummer's high hat as well as the ever present, pulsing kick drum. The Swahili language (native to the East African coast) is widely understood throughout Kenya, especially in the cities and towns. That gives Swahili rumba the added advantage of a much larger audience throughout Kenya and Tanzania who can understand the lyrics. Aside from Nairobi Matata and notable exceptions such as Kabaselleh Ochieng and the Maroon Commandos, Kenyan groups largely ceded rumba to foreign neighbouring bands. Up to the closing of the Kenya-Tanzania border in 1977, Tanzanian bands would come to Nairobi on a regular basis to record and perform. The two Tanzanian bands featured in this compilation (Super Volcano and Afro 70) made numerous recordings in Nairobi and were revered by Kenyans for their versions of Swahili rumba. Afro 70's Week End, released in 1972, is a mainstream representation of the genre but compare that leisurely rumba to the group's other two tracks on Kenya Special. Afro 70's Afrousa (Move On) from 1975 is definitely in the contemporary soul-influenced 'afro' realm with a vocal line sounding almost like Sly and the Family Stone. Cha-Umheja, on the other hand, goes to a completely different inspirational source. This is a direct afropop translation of the traditional music of the Wagogo people of central Tanzania, all be it, with added piano and wah-wah guitar. (You can hear the traditional versions of such music in the ilimba recordings of Hukwe Zawose who came from this same region).

With political and economic uncertainty in 1970s Zaire, many rumba bands from eastern Congo hit the road to take advantage of opportunities in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, and beyond. Some of these groups just kept moving until they landed in Nairobi where they found a receptive and welcoming audience. Nashil Pichen, working with Super Mazembe in Zambia was instrumental in facilitating their move to Kenya in 1975. At about the same time, Baba Gaston's Orchestra Baba National arrived in Nairobi and this paved the way for other renowned Congolese bands to settle, (such as Les Mangelepa), many of whom became hugely popular in Kenya for years to come. On Kenya Special, Gaston's Sweet Sweet Mbombo is an interesting mix and is a great example of how elements from all over Africa were forming some very unique music in mid 1970s Kenya. It starts off with what sounds like a West African highlife number on a rumba foundation but then moves into bluesy guitar and sax solos. The other Congolese number from Orchestre Vévé Star is a true departure from the classic Verckys sound. Nitarudia highlights the familiar horn parts of classic Orchestra Vévé but runs in a completely different direction with an eight minute vamp on two chords and a bass-heavy funk rhythm. The simple Swahili lyric is a reassuring "I love you" and "wherever I go I'll return to you." The fact that it was done in Swahili and English with references to Nairobi and other East African locations was clearly an effort to connect with that audience. The majority of Kenyans don't speak a word of Lingala, the language usually heard in Congolese recordings (despite many big hits of the time being sung by those bands in their mother tongue). The interesting thing about both Swahili and Lingala songs is that since these languages are not associated with particular tribal groups in Kenya, they can appeal to all Kenyans without any overtones of tribal loyalty or rivalry.

Finally, we return to the musicians of the Equator Sound Band (by the way, usually singing in Swahili). This group, so prominent in the '60s didn't simply go away in the '70s. It's true, however, that by the late '60s, their twist style had faded, displaced by the rising benga and rumba tides. In this time of musical transformation, the musicians severed ties with the Equator label and embarked on a new path for the 1970s under various 'Eagles' monikers. The core of the new band was Daudi Kabaka with Gabriel Omolo and Zambians Nashil Pichen and Peter Tsotsi. Their music defies an easy label, instead drawing on influences from far and wide. In general, we might say they joined the rumba camp, but their four tracks on this compilation demonstrate nothing of the sort. Each track seems to derive from a traditional rhythm or vocal pattern but the arrangements are truly modern in style.

The beauty of Kenya Special is that it's a treasure trove of rare and unusual compositions from some of East Africa's most revered bands, taking their music in new directions. It is a tribute to musical innovation and creativity, previously undocumented or compiled in one collection….until now.

Doug Paterson. Seattle, February, 2013.

PDF copy of Kenya Special booklet.

East African Music - African Radio

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To contact Douglas Paterson, send email to dbpaterson(at)eastafricanmusic.com.

Last updated 18 May, 2013.


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