Benga music has simply refused to fade away. Kenya’s young men and women frequently revel in the joints where live bands and artists perform, renowned artists such as Johny Junior, John Njagi, Sukuma Bin Ongaro, Ken Wamaria among others.
The genre’s most distinctive feature is its fast-paced rhythmic beat, and bouncy finger-picking guitar technique. At the core of Benga is the lead guitar, which essentially follows the track of the vocals. The singing is at some point separated from the climax—the instrumental expanse that combines three or four guitars and percussions. Benga is loosely linked to Congolese Rumba and West African highlife, but differs sharply from South African Kwela, taarab, chakacha and kidumbaak, the most well-known Swahili music forms from the coastal strip of East Africa according to Kete Bull Music an association which defines Kenya’s artists.
Benga music is frequently played in most Kenyan entertainment joints, and revelers always demand the genre to be played in between Hip-Hop, Bongo (Tanzanian Swahili music) and dancehall (a popular genre associated with Caribbean countries).
In the past, the music has been looked down upon, seen as backward and “uncivilized”, associated with the uneducated and village folks in Kenya. However, with the advent of new technologies, which have continued to modernize the music industry, Benga music been reinvigorated, and continues to gain popularity. The negative stereotypes associated with the music are being constantly challenged by the country’s elite.
Eric Otieno, 28, a regular reveler at Zanze Bar in the Central Business District of Nairobi where live Benga is played every evening, reveals that the music is much more than entertainment, and he appreciates the soothing, and rich lyrical content.
Otieno singles out Johny Junior as one of his favorite artists. Johny Junior is one of the most popular and renowned Benga musicians in Kenya, and he has been a leading figure, who has helped to mainstream Benga music. Johny Junior’s popular albums ‘Nyoremo’ has several songs which touch on love, relationships and the beauty of women.
The origin and evolution of Benga music in Kenya
Benga music can be traced to the early 1940s, originating among the Luo community in Kenya. The Luo Benga music became Kenya’s most vibrant music genre that spread across the country and East African region. By the 1980s’ the great Benga maestros such as the late Ochieng Kabasella, Achieng Nelly and George Ramogi were already recognized across the Africa and the world. The music’s popularity quickly grew across Africa because of its rich melodies. The one man guitar with a mixture of dance craze is still sweeping the continent.
Some of the biggest and popular Benga musicians include the late Musa Juma of Siaya Kababa, Daniel Kamau of Wakumbuke Wazazi, Sukuma Bin Ongaro of Maximila, Dolla Kabari of Sela among others.
As the late veteran Kenyan, Swedish based journalist Moussa Awuonda wrote, Benga artists have continued to produce tunes in Luo, Kikuyu, Kamba, Kalenjin and Luhya bringing the continent together, and the music is regularly played on the country’s radio stations.
Benga music has remained hugely popular in rural communities, and the genre has kept its roots with strong connections to various rural communities in Kenya.
As critics argue, the contemporary urban artists will always come and quickly disappear as compared to the enduring Benga genre, which is deeply rooted in various cultures of different ethnic groups in Kenya.
“Our modern young artists who are taking up music in Kenya these days are hardly playing the true Benga that we are talking about. They are playing all these things from the West which does not relate with our societies or culture, which lacks composure, identity and with poor production,” a renowned Benga producer and composer based in Nairobi, Oluoch Kanindo says.
While it is difficult to predict the future of Benga music, one thing is certain, the genre has indeed stood the test of time, and if the genre’s current popularity is anything to go by, the music has a promising future.