The climate in Nairobi is cool and perfect all year round, despite being on the equator, due to its high altitude. The East African Rumba sound is also often cooler, sans the fiery horn sections of Congolese Soukous. The focus here is on a reduced palette of rhythmic guitar and vocal refrains over driving, insistent 4 on the floor kicks. The motoric, hypnotic motifs and modular progression of this original minimalist dance music here is mostly from 1950s to 1970s, and I play it in the seamless style of techno.
There is a lot more going on here than the predominantly Luo popular style known as Benga; there are also golden classics from the Kikuyu, Kamba, Luhya, and other tribes of Kenya. Grooves so sweet they ache the heart as they move the feet… Sounds difficult if not impossible to find outside of East Africa.
“I started playing music in school, and I had a cousin, Aoka Meja, who had a guitar. We copied the style of Adero Onani, who played traditional music on the guitar. In 1958, I got my first acoustic guitar and played Rumba. In 1965, I started to play Benga.
Benga was influenced by the beat of the nyatiti, and we interpreted that on the guitar. We also borrowed from the orutu, which followed the voice of the singer … I formed Sega Sega, and we … did a huge amount of studio work. And as Benga became popular, the three of us played on a lot of other people’s songs. This meant that our Luo sound was getting on a lot of records. The early ‘60s was mostly about studio work, but by ’70 to ’71, when Benga was really at its peak, the Sega Sega band was very big. We were always performing at events and functions. We did okay, and I made enough to buy my farm and build the house in which I still live . . .”
and the following is from the liner notes of D.O. Misiani and Shirati Jazz, The King of History, Classic 1970s Benga Beats from Kenya (Sterns Music):
“Guitars had started gaining popularity in Kenya in the 1950s and it wasn’t long before Benga started taking form in the Luo speaking areas surrounding Lake Victoria in the early 60s. Misiani [commonly known as the “King of History” and father of Benga, whose band is also on the cover of this mix – Zhao] was actually born across Kenya’s southern border in Tanganyika in 1940 in the Luo community of Shirati. His earliest years as a musician brought him numerous clashes with authority and several escapes to safer ground to avoid punishment. It seems he and his music were very popular with schoolgirls and young women, but the parents weren’t too keen on his seductive love songs and the authorities didn’t appreciate the fights among the young men over the girls. Misiani recounted several times that his guitars were seized and smashed, and that he had to leave the village quickly. He would disappear for a while, wait for things to settle down and then return.
The songs of the early 70s have a lighter percussion with the beat kept by tapping on the rim of a snare drum. They also mastered a rhythmic clicking sound using the electric guitar pick-up that is heard in a number of pieces. From about 1976 this sound changes with the use of a full drum kit and the deeper sound of the kick drum, with now the high hat receiving most of the attention from the drummer’s sticks. The saxophone heard in some of the earlier songs is gone. By the late 70s, we’re into the mature benga sound exemplified by Wang Ni To Iringo that propelled benga through the 80s and into the 90s.
Misiani was a composer without fear in an environment that threatened free speech and critical thought. In his early years, it was his love songs in his home village that had got him in trouble, and in the Shirati Jazz years (essentially the rest of his life after leaving the village), he was known for biting commentary on Kenya’s political, social, and economic institutions. However such criticism was never direct. His songs convey meaning at a deeper level. He would use a theme such as a verse or parable in the Bible, a piece of African history, a prophecy, or an animal fable that would allow listeners to draw a meaning relevant to the current events of the day. Periodically, when one of his songs could be interpreted as presenting the government or a politician in an unflattering way, the authorities would pick up Misiani and take him off to jail. At one point he was deported to Tanzania. Another time he was arrested – though not convicted – of being an illegal Tanzanian immigrant. Nairobi’s Nation newspaper quotes him in 2006 as saying: “Tell me, is there anything wrong with singing about what’s going wrong in our society? I just sing about what is happening and if some people are not happy, I can do little about it.” It is in this arena, I think, where Misiani really merits his King of History title. With its multiple layers of meaning, it accurately portrays both the status and the mechanism by which he achieved that status: keep it sweet, keep it entertaining but, at all times, keep it relevant.”
These tracks came from many different sources, sorry for lack of artist and title for some:
01 Kakai Kilonzo & Les Kilmambogo – Kilinga Munguti
02 Kakai Kilonzo & Les Kilmambogo – Ngungu Na Muol
03 Les Kilmambogo – Serah Ngungembeti
04 Kakai Kilonzo & Les Kilmambogo – Mutwawa Niwatwawa
05 Ken Wa Maria – Unknown
06 Ken Wa Maria – Unknown
07 Unknown Kamba Song
08 Ken Wa Maria – Syaamba Kala
09 Ken Wa Maria – Kuu Ni Ilovi
10 Unknown Kikuyu Song 1
11 Unknown Kikuyu Song 2
12 Unknown Kikuyu Song 3
13 Osito – Jehova Kings
14 George Ramogi – Unknown
15 Owino Misiani & Shirati Jazz – Piny Ose Mer
16 (Luo) Emily Makaya – Fagilia To Ipar Odi
17 Elisha Nyarugenya – Mazadijo
18 Princess Julie – Dunia Mbaya
19 Princess Julie – Unknown
20 (Luhya) Misiko – Come We Stay
21 Misiko – Khubekha Mukhali
22 Unknown – Unknown
23 Unknown (Mukunguni) – Pepo Mlume
24 Kapere Jazz Band – Lando Nyajomere
25 Jacob Omolo – Ogwang Lelo Okoth
26 Owiny Sigoma Band – Nyiduonge Drums
27 Kalambia Sisters – Katilina