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Trends in Kenyan Popular Music

by Douglas B. Paterson

The Best Kept Secret in Africa?
An Introduction to Kenyan Pop
The Benga Wagon: The Regional Bands Jump Aboard
Swahili and Lingala: The National/Urban Sounds
Recent Trends in Kenyan Pop
To the Kenya Discography

This article is a mid-90s look at what was going on in Kenyan music. Trends in Kenyan Popular Music gets you almost to 1997. To bring you a little closer to the present, I've added a second article: The Evolving Music Scene in Kenya which gets you up to 2006.

Trends in Kenyan Popular Music
(Last updated 07 December, 1996)

The Best Kept Secret in Africa?

Kenya's pop music is undoubtedly one of most diverse in Africa. Unfortunately, by the time her music has passed through the long filtering process of the international "market," only a handful of titles make it into the shops. For those who must rely on "the market" to bring Kenyan pop music to their local record shop, this amazing diversity of pop sounds is one of the best kept secrets of Africa. Certainly, for those taking the time to search out record shops in Europe and North America, one will likely come up with a few CDs of Kenyan music. However, these hardly do justice to the amazing diversity of pop sounds heard on the streets or in the clubs of Nairobi. The purpose of this review is to introduce the reader to the major forms of popular music found in Kenya today and to provide some of its historical background. For those who may wish to hear examples of this music, several compact discs featuring Kenyan styles (and available internationally) have been cited.

An Introduction to Kenyan Pop (1)

Popular music in Kenya encompasses a wide range of styles of both local and international origin. Among Kenyans, language is one of the crucial factors in defining their music. There are over 40 regional languages in Kenya and musicians from at least a quarter of these (usually, those with the largest populations) are making recordings in their mother tongues. Along the streets of Nairobi, songs in Luo, Luhya, Kamba, and Kikuyu can be heard blaring from the cassette sellers' sidewalk stands as they compete for the attention of passers by. Bands with this regional orientation are, no doubt, the majority in Kenya. However, not all Kenyan musicians play to a regional/ethnic audience. Furthermore, many of Kenya's best known musicians are immigrants from other African countries, most often, from Tanzania or Zaïre. Without a regional focus, the lyrics of these musicians are usually in Swahili, the African language of wider communication across Kenya. A few of the Zaïreans occasionally sing in their own language, Lingala, but in recent years, most have found it advantageous to use Swahili in their new compositions.

A sampling of these various styles is available in several compilations: Guitar Paradise of East Africa and Kenya Dance Mania, both on the Earthworks label, The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya, and Rounder Records' The Nairobi Beat: Kenyan Pop Music Today.(2) Although the melodies, languages, and rhythms may vary from song to song, one of the common traits through all three CDs is the preeminence of the guitars. They weave their way through the vocal portion, meshing with the melodic line or answering it and, nearly always, they finish out the last minute or two with some ear-catching solo jam.

The Benga Wagon: The Regional Bands Jump Aboard

When Kenyans discuss their music, they aren't likely to be talking about "regional/ethnic" styles. They simply call it (almost interchangeably) either benga or cavacha (to be explained later). Benga refers specifically to the dominant style of Luo pop music that has reigned champion in the lands around Lake Victoria since the late 1960s. The term is also used in a general sense to cover the other regional styles, all of which have been greatly influenced by the Luo version.

In Luo benga, the bass, guitar, and vocal interweave is all-important. The bass, in particular, is especially active, pulsating, starting and stopping in bursts of rapid fire. Sometimes it mimics a flowing melodic line with syncopated hesitations. Other times, it's just hanging around the bottom keeping a fast-paced rhythm. Meanwhile, guitars are coming in at the end of each vocal phrase with some catchy riff or a repeat of the melodic line.

As benga caught on among the Luo people, musicians from other regions of Kenya borrowed elements of it to suit their own music. Some of these early benga adaptations such as those from Daniel Kamau (DK) are featured on the Guitar Paradise and Kenya Dance Mania CDs. DK, one of the 70's biggest stars, is cited as the first Kikuyu musician to jump onto the benga band wagon back in the late 1960s. A good example of contemporary Kikuyu benga is Kickin' Kikuyu Style by Sam Chege's Ultra-Benga (CDBaby.com).

Although these regional groups share a number of common components in their instrumentation, rhythms, the beat of a throbbing kick drum, and aspects of the guitar work, these are all features which overlay unique traditional elements in melodic structure, harmony, and song composition. Thus, each of the different regional bengas, has its own distinctive flavor. For a taste of several regional styles, The Nairobi Beat samples two songs each from Luo, Luhya, Kikuyu, and Kamba artists.

D.O. Misiani and his Shirati Jazz, the premier Luo benga practitioners and the only benga group to ever tour Europe, has two CDs available; Benga Blast, again, on Earthworks and Piny Ose Mer, an original recording for Globestyle. One of Misiani's long­time rival bands also has a recent compilation of late 70s and early 80s benga on Globestyle, The Mighty Kings of Benga by the Victoria Kings. Aside from these two CDs and the selections on the Earthworks and Rounder compilations, Kenya's regional benga groups have no representation in the international market.(3)

Swahili and Lingala: The National/Urban Sounds

From World War II onwards, Kenyan musical history is filled with examples of individual musicians and whole ensembles settling in Kenya from neighboring countries and beyond. In the 1950s, for example, Congolese finger-style guitarists Edouard Masengo and Jean Bosco Mwenda became household names throughout Kenya. Peter Tsotsi and Nashil Pichen from Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) played a critical role in the development of the Equator Sound Band's "twist" style, modeled after the South African kwela rhythm (see Before Benga Vol. Two: The Nairobi Sound, Original Music).

Congolese groups were performing in Nairobi night clubs as early as 1964. As conditions in the Congo (later, Zaïre) deteriorated in the 1970s, more groups made their way to Nairobi. By the mid-seventies, several Zaïrean groups were playing rumba music at night clubs on a regular basis. Examples of their music are not readily available for this period but one characteristic of their style caught on in Kenya and remains a key feature in most Kenyan music today. That element is the cavacha rhythm, popularized through recordings of Zaïrean bands such as Zaiko Langa Langa and Orchestra Shama Shama. The Kenyan definition of cavacha covers a family of rhythms, something akin to the "shave­and­a­haircut, six­bits" clavé beat. This fast paced rhythm played on the snare drum or high hat quickly became a hallmark of the Zaïrean sound in Nairobi and is frequently used by many of the regional bands.

The late seventies and early eighties was an extremely creative time for the Zaïrean groups in Nairobi. This period also corresponded with the beginning of Europe's new-found interest in African music. Virgin records got involved in a couple of projects in Nairobi that produced two highly acclaimed LPs from the Tanzanian-Zaïrean group, Orchestra Makassy and the Kenya-based Zaïrean band, Super Mazembe. About this same time, the French label Afro Rythmes had just released Orchestra Virunga's Malako LP recorded in Nairobi. Of these, a wonderful example of the Mazembe style is captured on the Earthworks Dance Mania CD in the now classic "Shauri Yako" (It's Your Affair). In what may be the finest song craftsmanship to come out of Nairobi, the Virunga Malako recording has been reissued as an Earthworks CD titled Virunga Volcano. At nine or ten minutes each, the four original songs are superbly arranged in a flowing, leisurely fashion allowing plenty of time for them to progress through beautiful vocals, innovative sax solos and duets, and precision guitar and bass work (not to mention a good dose of the cavacha on high hat). The Orchestra Makassy release hasn't reached the divine status bestowed upon Malako, although there are fans in Europe who might argue to the contrary. Unfortunately, Makassy's Agwaya LP is out of print and has not yet been reissued as a CD.

Before the breakup of the East African Community in 1977, there was a continuing flow of Tanzanian musicians visiting Kenya to record and perform. The Tanzanian variety of rumba music was extremely popular and widely accessible through radio and records in Kenya. But with many bands under state or corporate sponsorship and providing their musicians a regular salary, there was little incentive for Tanzanians to settle in Kenya's uncertain, laissez-faire environment. A few did, however, including the founding members of Simba Wanyika who took up Kenyan residence in 1971.

Like most Tanzanian bands, Simba Wanyika played rumba with Swahili language lyrics. In contrast to the emerging benga style of the period, Simba Wanyika's music had a much gentler feel; smoother, flowing. Their first recordings didn't even have a drum set. The rhythm was carried along on congas together with clavés and a fast, cavacha-like rhythm on high-hat. The rhythm guitar was active and fluid, but very light in its presence. The lead guitar came in only intermittently for soloing. Likewise, the saxophone was used sparingly in solos and to elaborate instrumental portions.

The Simba Wanyika sound, as the prototype of Kenya's "Swahili music" proved to be quite popular and durable.(4) Along the way, other Kenyan groups such as the Maroon Commandos and Nairobi Matata joined in with their own "Swahili" styles. While the Kenyan variety was already diverging from its Tanzanian roots, the border closure after 1977 may have speeded the process by further isolating musicians in the two countries.

In 1978, a new "Wanyika" group, Les Wanyika, split off from Simba Wanyika and a short time later, a third group was created called variously, Super Wanyika, Wanyika Stars, Waanyika, etc. All of these maintained elements of the rumba/cavacha style with delicate rhythm guitar, congas, horns, etc. (although the latter group moved considerably in the direction of benga).

Examples of these Swahili rumba styles are found on Guitar Paradise with Simba Wanyika's "Wana Wanyika". The Maroon Commandos have selections on both Nairobi Beat and Kenya Dance Mania. Also featured on Dance Mania are songs by Les Wanyika and Super Wanyika.

Swahili rumba remains one of the popular urban sounds of the mid-nineties and the Maroon Commandos and Les Wanyika continue to have steady employment. Since the early 1980s, the Swahili bands have experimented with various stylistic innovations but even today, their music remains closely tied to their rumba origins. While Les Wanyika continue to have major hit recordings in Kenya, they are almost totally unknown and their music unavailable outside of East Africa. Simba Wanyika, on the other hand, did finally attain some notice on the international scene in the early 1990s but tragically, the group's two founding brothers passed away -- George Peter Kinyonga, in 1992 and Wilson Peter Kinyonga in 1995. With their departure, Simba Wanyika lost its creative genius and has since broken up. The group has, however, left behind one very fine CD recorded in Holland. The release, called Pepea (on the Kameleon label), celebrates the band's twenty years up to 1991 with updated versions of some of their most famous songs.

Recent Trends in Kenyan Pop

The benga, Zaïrean, and Swahili styles are not the only musical forms competing for the attention of the Kenyan audience.

International pop music is very popular in Kenyan discos and a number of clubs featuring live music are using bands that play "international" styles. This music can be sampled on the compilation, Top Hits from Kenya. Among many of Kenya's educated and working elite, Kenyan pop is seen as tired and out of fashion. Many of the top night clubs of the seventies and eighties have not survived into the 90s. Clubs that used to feature Zaïrean or Swahili music have closed for lack of customers.

Gospel music has been around a long time in Kenya in various musical styles. It is Christian music that could be choir music combining both European harmonic elements and African rhythms and melodies (as in Muungano National Choir) or it might be a choir featuring a lead vocalist, guitars, bass, and drum kit (as with IFC choir). Or, gospel music might come from small ensembles like guitar bands, but playing songs with religious or inspirational content. Several of Nairobi's most famous stars have gone from pop to gospel. Joseph Kamaru, a pillar of Kikuyu pop music since the 1960s, recently disbanded his band and reformed a gospel group. The style is so popular at the moment that the newspapers recently added top a ten weekly gospel chart to their African and International top ten lists.

Taarab, the popular music of the East African coast, has recently experienced a resurgence as a national pop form across Kenya (or at least some cross-over versions of taarab have been quite successful). Samba Mapangala adapted a version of the taarab standard "Vidonge" on his Feet On Fire CD. The same tune in two other versions has propelled vocalist Malika (in collaboration with the international pop group Them Mushrooms) and Zaïrean vocalist Moreno Batamba to number one status on the Kenyan pop charts. The song is popular because the various versions with different words argue the important topic of the status of women and their relationship to men. At the same time, Malika's tremendous success (including singer of the year honors) demonstrates the receptiveness of the larger Kenyan population outside the coastal zone to taarab.

For such a small country, the great diversity of musical styles and language interests in Kenya has created an extremely fragmented recording and performance market. On the subject of music policy, Kenya's government has been reluctant to get involved at an organizational level (although they have assisted in anti-piracy enforcement and copyright matters). For the industry participants; the producers, club owners, and broadcast programmers; the situation has always been chaotic, though lucrative for a few. For the average musician, however, making a living off music remains a difficult proposition at best. Although the Kenyan people may not always fully appreciate the musical choices available to them, Kenya is still a musical treasure house.

The story continues here with my 2006 article: The Evolving Music Scene in Kenya.


1. For more on the Kenyan pop music scene see the author's "Kenya: The Business of Pleasure (Parts 1 & 2)," African Beat (London), Issue 5 Summer 1986 and Issue 6 Winter/Spring 1986-87; notes accompanying the compact disc, The Nairobi Beat (Rounder 5030); and "Kenya" in The Rough Guide to World Music, Broughton, S.; M. Ellingham; D. Muddyman; and R. Trillo; eds. London: Rough Guides Ltd., 1994. [Return to text]

2. Selections for The Nairobi Beat were compiled by the author in 1988. [Return to text]

3. In 1987, Günter Gretz released a compilation singles by Les Kilimambogo Brothers Band, the leading Kamba group of the time. The LP was titled Simba Africa on the Popular African Music label. [Return to text]

4. The most popular Tanzanian artist of the 70s (perhaps, of all-time) for both countries was guitarist and vocalist Mbaraka Mwinshehe, leader of Morogoro Jazz and later Orch. Super Volcano. His music was revered in Kenya and certainly served as an inspiration and model for other Kenyan groups. In 1978, he died in a tragic auto accident. Compilations of his "greatest hits" are still sold in Kenya. [Return to text]

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

Last updated 09 January, 2009.

Copyright © 1996-2009 Douglas B. Paterson, All Rights Reserved.