Last year, while on a visit to South Africa, I was struck by the guitar licks I found playing in a cab in Johannesburg. “Isn’t that Kenyan music?” I asked the driver. “Yes,” he immediately lightened up. “This is Ken wa Maria! I grew up with this kind of music back in Zim,” he said.
Wisdom, as I later came to discover his name, was a Zimbabwean who had grown up listening to Kenyan guitar music, called benga, during its heyday in the 1970s. The music he was playing in his cab was from a relatively recent CD by a popular Kenyan artist called Ken wa Maria, one of the few musicians who still play anything close to the original benga sound.
In the 1970s, a Kenyan record producer called Phares Oluoch Kanindo exported thousands of benga records to West and Southern Africa and the music particularly caught on in Zimbabwe, where local musicians began to play their own variation of benga. They called it “Kanindo,” because that was the name of the label that appeared on these records from Kenya.
The roots of the genre can be traced back to the shores of Lake Victoria, in the 1950s, when musicians from Kenya’s Luo community began adapting traditional dance rhythms and traditional stringed instruments like the nyatiti (the lyre) and the orutu (fiddle) to the acoustic guitar and, later, to electronic instruments.
Much of the credit for the early development of benga goes to the pioneering Kenyan guitarist, John Ogara, who by the early 1960s was fusing rural rhythms with elements of music from urban centers. According to Retracing the Benga Rhythm, an exhaustive multimedia research project by Ketebul Music, the first use of the word benga was in 1963 in a song called “Monica Ondego” by The Ogara Boys.
The legendary benga musician D.O. Misiani often claimed that the term ‘benga’ was adopted from his mother’s name. But according to Ketebul’s research, the word had gained currency even before Misiani himself started playing the same style of music.
What is without doubt is that Misiani, with his trademark political and social commentary, went on to become the standard bearer of benga from the 1970s until his death in 2006.
Benga was borne out of various experiments between traditional music and urban styles and that first generation of benga musicians, like Ogara, were particularly influenced by rumba, which had found its way to East Africa mainly through the Congolese guitarist Jean Bosco Mwenda and his cousin, Edward Masengo. The two, who lived in Kenya in the late 1950s and early 1960s, had a profound influence on the guitarists they mentored.
The aforementioned Kanindo was at the forefront of the adoption of rumba elements from Kinshasa into Kenyan music. He admired the showmanship of the Congolese musicians and bands under his stable and he mimicked the style of the popular groups from Kinshasa, in some cases, even directly translating songs from Lingala into Luo.
The Kenyan benga bands also adopted the format beloved of the Congolese bands that called themselves “orchestra” and “jazz bands,” while musicians like Collela Maze added the prefix “Dr.” to their names. There was an implosion of splinter bands, as with the popular Victoria Jazz, which resulted in Victoria Kings, then Victoria A, B and C.
The recording opportunities in Kenya also proved to be a magnet for musicians from Tanzania and Zaire. Some of these bands incorporated some of the feeling and sound of Kenyan Benga; its punch and sparkling guitars. Added to rumba, it created a new, unique musical style that some have called the latter-day Soukous, an energetic, frenetic style whose name was adapted from the French verb secousse, meaning ‘to shake.’
A perfect example can be heard in Nairobi Night, a recording made in the late 1990s by Soukous Stars, which included various classic East African songs, including a record by Misiani.
Because the origins of benga can be traced to Nyanza Province in Kenya, there is a common misconception that all popular Luo music is benga. Ironically, today, benga music is more popular outside its cradle of Nyanza, where it plays second fiddle to rumba. Many bands that sing in Luo have developed a style from Congolese rumba, a trend that started with Ochieng Kabaselleh in the 1970s and continued with the likes of Okatch Biggy, Musa Juma and Tom Kodiyo.
The benga sound has since evolved from the old single guitarist to the modern trend, where bands have as many as four guitarists playing in synchronized harmony.
Though there are fewer and fewer musicians playing it today, benga has still spread its wings to many regions of Kenya and remains the one distinct rhythm of this East African nation.
Therefore it should not be a surprise to find the guitar grooves of a Ken wa Maria song playing in a Johannesburg cab, many thousands of miles from the birthplace of benga on the shores of Lake Victoria.