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This was a fun project. My assignment: To create an entertaining CD of Kenyan pop music that covers it all. With a little fieldwork on my part, bar hopping from band to band in 2003 and a little help from my friend Werner Graebner to cover the taarab and coastal pop we put together my second compilation of Kenyan pop. Here are the CD notes I wrote for The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya.

A Rough History of Kenya Pop

Thirty years ago, when my love affair with Kenyan music began, the benga style had recently come into its ascen
dancy. D.O. Misiani and his Shirati Jazz had al ready been in existence for more than 10 years and already had scores of benga hits in East Africa not to mention LPs that were even sold in Europe. The word benga, from the Luo language, means "something beautiful." And, to me, it was indeed.

Benga is high-energy music with a pulsing beat, great bass lines, and luscious interlocking guitar riffs. It originated with Luo musicians coming from the area around Lake Victoria in western Kenya. With the instrumentation of modern electric guitar bands, they brought together melodies and rhythms based in their traditional music and created songs on current topics in their own Luo language. This new guitar-oriented style quickly caught on and spread across the country, with musicians from other tribes-Kikuyu, Kamba, Luhya, and Kalenjin, among others-borrowing the concept but incorporating their own local stylistic elements and languages.

In the late 70s, I was in Kenya to do anthropological research as a student. But with my Kenyan hosts having the radio on every waking moment, I quickly discovered some other tantalizing sounds from Kenya's urban areas. While benga music had a strong tribal appeal, other musicians arriving in Nairobi in the 1970s from Tanzania and Congo (then, Zaire) offered a more regional, pan-East African sound. "Swahili" and "Lingala" music were the sounds of the airwaves (the national radio service) and the top urban night clubs in Kenya. Both were based on rumba (influenced years before by Cuban music) and both were perceived as ethnically neutral since nearly everyone could understand the Swahili language songs while essentially, no one understood the Congolese songs in Lingala.

The economic opportunities of Nairobi, Kenya's capital, have long been a magnet for people of diverse backgrounds from throughout the region. During the 1970s, several of Nairobi's renowned Swahili rumba bands formed around Tanzanian musicians-groups like Simba Wanyika and offshoots, Les Wanyika and Super Wanyika Stars. Kenyan musicians took up the Swahili rumba cause as well joining these groups and forming groups like the Maroon Commandos and Nairobi Matata. On the Congolese side, there were many who came and went (the well-known, Mose se Sengo "Fan Fan" of Somo Somo, for one) but several bands like Super Mazembe, Les Mangelepa, and Samba Mapanagala & Orchestra Virunga enjoyed many years of widespread popularity in Kenya.

These styles-benga, Swahili rumba, and Congolese-were the major players in Kenyan pop during the 1980s and into the early 90s. To this already diverse musical environment, Kenya's coastal region also contributes a style known as taarab, the popular music of Kenya's Islamic Swahili people (and much of the East African coastal region beyond). Upon first hearing taarab, an outsider might confuse the Kenyan form as Indian or Arabic music. Indeed, taarab has mixed sounds from throughout the Indian Ocean region (including Indian film music) with the local rhythms and Swahili poetry of Kenya's coast. Taarab has long had a specialized role as live wedding entertainment, primarily for a female audience. But in its recorded form, it is ubiquitous on cassette and radio in the coastal region.

Today, benga, taarab, Swahili and local Congolese music are still important forces in the Kenyan scene. But, from the mid-90s onwards, some exciting new sounds have come together in Kenya. A rejuvenated and thriving music scene in new local styles is giving the older musical styles a run for the money. For inspiration, the younger generation of Kenyan musicians has turned once again to local traditions as well as to international genres like hip hop or R&B. The Rough Guide to Kenyan Music brings it all to you with some recent and classic benga gems, sparkling new taarab compositions, a little Swahili rumba, and a sampling of the most innovative breakthrough materials from Kenya's hip hop generation.


D.O. Misiani is rightfully credited with being one of the founding fathers, make that grandfathers, of benga music. Sadly, most of the other Luo benga pioneers have passed away. Dan Owino, however, is still going strong. Most recently, when I saw him perform at Klub Oasis just outside of Kisumu town, a large banner behind the stage proclaimed him "King of History." Well it's true. He's been a presence for the entire history of benga. And watching him play, he was indeed like a king; having command over his band, his audience, and the music. The moment I heard his live rendition of Beatrice #4, its rough, raw, earthy feel just ripped into me. I knew it was something that had to be included in this collection.

[Author's note: Misiani was tragically killed in a road accident near Kisumu in May, 2006. Jon Lusk provides a tribute in The Independent.]

Jane Nyambura came up through the ranks getting plenty of experience but not much compensation as a vocalist in Mbiri Young Stars. She comes from Murang'a District, a Kikuyu area to the north of Nairobi. Now known as Queen Jane, she's been heading up her own benga group since 1990, a band which now includes her sister on vocal and her brother as the solo guitarist. In addition to love songs, her compositions are about events and the behaviour of people she observes, both good and bad. Jane's songs have won several awards from the Music Copyright Society of Kenya and Music Composers Association. In Nduraga Ngwetereire (I'm Still Waiting for You), she sings of a boyfriend who has left her to go study in Europe. The lovers have agreed to wait out the separation in the hope of getting married later on. Meanwhile, she is taunted and insulted in Kenya by people telling her she is a fool to wait for this man. She remains faithful to him and he reassures her by writing letters and promising to bring back a wedding dress and a ring and to marry her immediately upon his return to Kenya. She begs him to hurry up because the insults are becoming too much to bear.

Kakai Kilonzo comes from the Kamba speaking region to the east of Nairobi. Though it's written in Swahili, Kakai's song, Mama Sofi, is included as a superb example of Kamba benga music from the early 80s. Originally released as a 45 rpm record, the song is structured to be split down the middle for the A and B sides of a single record. The B side is typically where the band members get to express themselves in the music with extended solos and a flat out jam. Kakai, who passed away at the age of 32 in 1987, was one of the rare exceptions in benga music of an artist who was loved by Kenyans of all different tribal affiliations. The fact that he often wrote lyrics in Swahili, instead of Kamba, goes part of the way to explaining his popularity. But more so, his lyrics truly caught the pulse of the common people and their concerns. This song, Mama Sofi, is about a wife who brings home other men while her husband is out and it provides a moral commentary on such behaviour.


Taarab is the favorite Swahili popular music all along the coast. It is usually performed as part of the lavish Swahili weddings celebrations, there is also a brisk trade in recorded cassettes. The Jauhar Orchestra and Zuhura Swaleh represent two eras of Mombasa taarab. Jauhar was founded in the early 1930s and is currently the oldest music club on the Kenya coast. Originally featuring a large orchestra in the Zanzibari style, the club now works with a reduced line-up. Singer Miraj Juma, actually of Comorian origin, came to live in Mombasa in the 1940s and joined the club in the early 1950s. Muhogo was one of his biggest hits, re-recorded many times. On its surface "Muhogo" is a song in praise of 'cassava' as a staple food, but as is usual with taarab lyrics, there are many layers of meaning. Zuhura Swaleh's is one of the outstanding female voices in Mombasa taarab, as well as one of the music's main innovators. It was Zuhura who in the 1970 started to introduce elements of female wedding ngoma-dances and their sharp tongued songs into the taarab repertoire, creating the basis for the chakacha-taarab which developed into the most popular type of taarab for female wedding celebrations. This form of female taarab is also at the root of the currently popular mipasho (backbiting songs) phenomenon. "Tweta" (Panting for Breath') is a song in the latter style, challenging its addressee to just calm down and talk sense.


With well-known groups such as Simba Wanyika, Les Wanyika, and Maroon Commandos, Swahili rumba had a glorious run in Kenya from the mid-70s into the early 90s. Since that time, the ranks of the rumba musicians have been decimated by illness and death-some of it likely to be AIDS-related and some simply the result of the harsh lives some musicians face without sufficient health care and the necessities of life. These bands leave behind a brilliant legacy of recorded materials but there are very few left to carry on the rumba tradition these days. The Maroon Commandos and Everest Kings are examples of two of the few Swahili rumba bands remaining today. Our selection for the Rough Guide to Kenyan Music is from Golden Sounds Band. Led by Twahir Mohamed, originally from Zanzibar, the GSB was a superb group of innovative musicians probing and extending the boundaries of rumba, while remaining true to its calling. Sadly, the band is no longer together and the rumba style has taken another blow with Twahir's death in early 2004. The onetime Orchestra Virunga sax player was not only a master at the saxophone but he was a brilliant arranger. In his song, Hasidi Hana Sababu (Hasidi Has No Reason), Hasidi is a "friend" staying with the singer but he is malicious, lying, and telling stories for no particular reason except to cause trouble.


Despite the occasional successes of individual Kenyan artists in international arenas; on the broader scale, Kenyan music has never been particularly well-known or publicized outside the country. Indications are that this is starting to change. Most recently, Kenyan artists have been participating in international recognition programs such as the annual Kora Awards in South Africa, actually winning a couple of awards in 2002. They've also been receiving numerous invitations to perform in festivals in Africa and Europe. A number of our Rough Guide artists including Nyota Ndogo, Yunasi, Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, Suzzana Owiyo, and Kenge Kenge have all been on such tours. What's going on? It isn't a simple formula that musicians are following. Rather, each individual artist or group is developing something that is uniquely their own. One of the commonalities, however, is to explore elements of traditional music and culture and blend it with modern instruments and new cultural messages.

Nyota Ndogo
Mwanaisha Abdallah Mohamed, aka Nyota Ndogo (Little Star) was working as a house girl when her melodic voice and song writing skills were first brought to the attention of Andrew Burchell a producer based in Mombasa Kenya. Her first album Chereko from which this song is taken was in fact recorded during her time off at weekends. Now 21 years old and a mother, Nyota Ndogo now has two album releases the second, Natoka Mbali na Wewe, and now has established herself as one of the leading female singers of East Africa. She has performed at various East African festivals including the Zanzibar International Film Festival, and at the end of 2003 won the Kenyan Kisima Awards as Best Taarab singer. Beware, it's not your mother's taarab. She is now in the final stages of recording new songs for inclusion on a 'best of' album that is to be released by Riverboat UK.

Gidi Gidi Maji Maji
Of all groups making waves in the new Kenyan music, it is the duo of Gidi Gidi Maji Maji who have arrived with the impact of a tidal wave. Gidi Gidi (Joseph Ogidi) and Maji Maji (Julius Owino) launched their career together with the song that is our selection for the Rough Guide, the 1999 hit Ting' Badi Malo (Throw Your Arms Up in the Air). This straight-out dance number with an infectious rap in Luo language was easily the song of the year, if not the next year as well. Their follow-up CD, Ismarwa (It's Our's), explored quite fruitfully the possibilities of mingling traditional rhythms, instruments, and melodies with multiple languages and the high tech sounds of modern keyboards and technobeats. During the 2002 political campaigns in Kenya, their next hit, Who Can Bwogo Me?, better known as simply "Unbwogable," became the unofficial song of the National Rainbow Coalition's opposition to the ruling party. The notion of "un-scare-able" invincibility caught hold of the Kenyan populace. The concept of "unbwogable" quickly permeated the whole of Kenyan culture. By the end of 2003, Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, had released a new international release, Many Faces, on the South African Gallo label. They continue to innovate and test the boundaries of Kenyan musical and cultural experience.

Yunasi began as an capella gospel group in 1998. Today their six vocalists are backed by a five man live band. The once " capella" harmonies now are blended with traditional instruments and rhythms and the appropriate mix of instruments from the modern musical toolkit. Yunasi has been receiving quite a bit of international attention lately, performing at the 15th International Festival of African Music in Wurzburg, Germany in 2003, the 6th Zanzibar International Film Festival, as well as performances in Paris during Kenya culture week. In Yunasi's song, Yamala (Responsibility), a father leaves his family in the village and moves to the city (for employment). However, he becomes self-indulgent in his new city life and loses track of his responsibilities to home, leaving his family to fend for themselves. .

Suzzana Owiyo
In December, 2001, Kisumu town on the shore of Lake Victoria was celebrating its 100th anniversary with a festival. Suzzana Owiyo, a vocalist and guitarist of Luo descent wrote a song to commemorate the centennial and honor the new status to be bestowed upon Kisumu: city status. The singer-song writer played her composition, Kisumu 100 (or Kisumu Ber). The recording became an instant hit and launched her career nationally and internationally. Once again, the musical theme of a simple Luo melodic line, acoustic guitar, and traditional instrumentation proved very popular among Kenyans and beyond. Back to the studio and in 2002 and what emerged was a beautiful, self-title CD, Suzzana Owiyo. With recent performances in Paris (along with Yunasi) and then the Fespam Music Festival in Brazzaville, Congo at the end of 2003, Suzzana capped off 2003 with the (Kenya) Music Composers Association "Singer of the Year" award. Her second CD is about to emerge.

Kenge Kenge Orutu Systems
It was a weeknight, a Thursday as I recall, and some friends were taking me to the Green Hotel, well outside the city centre in Nairobi. As we entered the hotel's packed car park, I knew something special must be going on here. Then I could hear the thumping of the drums and the scraping of the fiddles and as we rounded the corner to the entrance, the place was overflowing with people. It was traditional Luo music, or at least, it was music played solely on traditional instruments. Kenge Kenge Orutu Systems (KKOS) was in the house. Formed 1996, KKOS wanted to preserve traditional music in the face of globalization (in fact, in response to the hip hop and rap that is so popular now in Kenya). The group is made up young Kenyan musicians vastly talented and skilled in traditional music of the Luo community from western Kenya. The group's thorough mastery of the traditional Luo fiddle (orutu) has, in effect, resulted in a new way and approach to how this age-old instrument is played, much to the appreciation of the enthusiastic crowd. Kenge Kenge's lyrical arrangement reflects plenty of influence from the popular benga musical style, infectiously inviting one to the dance floor. Their instruments are drawn from a fine medley of various self-made traditional bul drums, the nyangile sound box, ongeng'o metal rings, asili flute, and the oporo horn blower. All these instruments are arranged and played in a melodic format that mainly provides backup to dominant interchange lines between several orutu fiddles tuned to different pitches. Listen for similarities between the electric style in Beatrice #4 and our Kenge Kenge selection, Obura Abilo. In the song, a renowned and widely respected medicine man, Obura Jabilo, is praised and exalted for his special gift of healing. The original song contained a spoken introductory preamble (not contained here), a dialogue in which the musician advises an ailing patient to seek out obura-the medicine man-and describes how to find his place. The rest of the lyrics enumerate the medicine man's various gifts of healing and ends up by generally advising all who are sick and suffering to seek out obura for permanent cure.

Compilation by: Douglas Paterson and Werner Graebner Thanks to Ian Eagleson for his help ironing out last minute details with musicians in Nairobi.

CD notes by Douglas B. Paterson ©2004.

East African Music - African Radio

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To contact Douglas Paterson, send email to DPaterson@EastAfricanMusic.com.

Last updated 19 January, 2009.

Copyright 1996-2008 Douglas B. Paterson, All Rights Reserved.