One of the best compilations of African popular music I've come across in a long time, Kenya Special _ Selected East African Recordings From The 1970s & 1980s (Soundway, UK, 2013), found its way on to the World Beat desk recently. The 3-LP vinyl set is part of Soundway's African Special series which has so far produced gems on Ghanaian and Nigerian music.
"Looking beyond the mainstream," writes Doug Paterson in the liner notes, "Kenya Special brings new life and recognition to some little known gems and forgotten classics of Kenya's past."
Kenya has one of the most diverse musical cultures in Africa, yet it is one of the least known outside the region. Each tribal group, and there are many, has its own musical rituals. One of them, the Luo, are well known as the originators of benga, and players of one of Kenya's most distinctive instruments, the nyatiti, a doubled-headed eight-stringed lyre.
Benga is a heady fusion of nyatiti-like basslines, finger-picked, intertwining guitars, Cuban rumba brought by immigrant musicians from the Congo, Swahili and Kikuyu lyrics and singing styles that sometimes sound even Arabic. It's Kenya's most recognisable pop music. Nairobi emerged as the key place for the development of East African popular music, and for benga groups, it was the River Road business district, which in the 1970s was lined with record shops. This was the heart of the benga boom, where musicians would record in their own languages or in Swahili and Kikuyu. The advantage of using the latter two languages is that they are understood by most people across the country, particularly in towns and cities, and so have broad appeal.
Tanzanian bands, much revered in Nairobi for their Swahili rumba style, would record in Nairobi but mainly for local units of international record companies, and two on the album, Super Volcano and Afro 70, show just how versatile they were with the tribal rhythms of the Wagogo people from central Tanzania featuring on Cha-Umheji, Sly Stone-style afro-soul on Afrousa and, one of my favourites, the languid Swahili rumba Week End by Afro 70, which the liner notes explain is one of those songs that remain "permanently etched in the memory" _ I don't know about that but I've been singing it to myself all week.
The city's vibrant nightlife in the 1970s not only attracted musicians from other East African countries, it also attracted many African stars to the city, like Congolese stars Franco and Tabu Ley Rochereau, and Nigeria's Fela Kuti. West African bands were also popular. Big Western acts also performed there and the booming tourist trade provided many bands with regular gigs and the chance to meet and experiment. Coastal tourist bands as they were known created a rhythm called chakacha. Listen to the Hodi Boys' Mtoto Nyara or The Mombasa Kings' Kibe Kibe and you'll hear the pulsing bass and percussion of the chakacha rhythm.
Congolese musicians from eastern Congo arrived after escaping the political uncertainties of Zaire in the 1970s, with some settling in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Uganda. But some made it to Nairobi, like early pioneer Nashil Pichen and Baba Gaston, the latter of whom set up Orchestra Baba National and paved the way for well-known Congolese bands to settle in the city; Congolese music remains popular in Kenya to this day. Both have tracks on the album and Paterson highlights Gaston's Sweet Sweet Mbombo as a "great example of how elements from all over Africa were forming some very unique music in mid-1970s Kenya". The song seamlessly blends West African highlife, rumba and some hot afro-jazz. I find it hard to pick stand out tracks when every time I listen to the 24 songs on this fine collection, I find a new favourite. At the moment, I'm addicted to Kikuyu dance floor sizz-lers, powered by the hi-hat cymbal, percussion and hypnotic bass that flows through each track like the Haruma Boys Band's Teresia.
There is a "lightness" to the sound that is so distinctive, so different to the "deep bottom end" sound of West African music styles like afrobeat. I like Zimbabwean music for the same reason _ jit music from a band like the Bhundu Boys has a very similar hi-hat driven rhythm. It has the same light feel to it.
The liner notes are illustrated with cool photos of the musicians in their heyday and the well-researched text provides social context for the music and the musicians who created it _ it must have been a fabulous time to be part of the Nairobi music scene in the 1970s before economics, politics and the cassette ended the party.
Kenya Special is available in vinyl or CD format. My vinyl copy came with a bonus 7-inch single and a download card. Highly recommended. Visit www.soundwayrecords.com for more information.
This columnist can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author
- Writer: John Clewley