Benga, Kenya’s big beat

Monday May 25 2009


By Bamuturaki Musinguzi

ONE OF KENYA’S GREATEST CONTRIBUTIONS TO the global musical cultural heritage has finally been captured in the form of a narrative, music CD and documentary DVD.

Benga is intricately tied to the cultural memory of East Africa and the commemorative package titled Retracing the Benga Rhythm celebrates the legacy of the ethnic traditions that shaped Benga, documents the controversies of the art, the artistes and their influences and pays homage to its foremost makers — cultural icons of real distinction.

This work inscribes these stars of old into Kenya’s hall of artistic and cultural fame. The beautifully illustrated booklet, audio CD and documentary DVD trace the roots of Benga music, arguably the most distinctive sound to have come out of Kenya’s 70 years of creating urban guitar music.

Benga’s spread from the shores of Lake Victoria in the west to the highlands of central and eastern Kenya and its contact with itinerant Congolese and Tanzanian musicians has infused it with many linguistic and instrumental variations.

These borrowings and adaptations speak of the fluid nature of modern African culture and demonstrate the largely unconscious fusion that is at the heart of contemporary Kenyan identities.

The hour-long documentary DVD captures riveting images and interviews of the major players (musicians and producers) while the CD carries 13 carefully selected tracks fused with the nostalgia of the 1960s and 1970s.


The CD has hits like “Samuel Aketch” by John Ogara and Ochieng’ Nelly (1965), “I love you” by D.K. Mwai (1970), “Lala Salama” by D.O. Misiani (1973), “Sabina ya Nelly” by Nelson Ochieng’Mengo (1977), “Wakumbuke Wazazi” by Kakai Kilonzo/Francis Danger (1989), and “Maximilla” by Sukuma Bin Ongaro (1990).

“It may still not be considered an upmarket genre, but it has managed to establish its hold as a definite Kenyan style and beat,” the researchers note.

“Sprinklings of it are to be found as far south as Zimbabwe and it has been borrowed, repackaged and offered in big-name music countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon. From its humble rural beginnings, this music has been nurtured into a club circuit affair in numerous urban areas in East, Central and Southern Africa.”

Benga’s most distinctive feature is its fast-paced beat and the bouncy fingerpicking guitar technique.

Indeed, the core of Benga is the lead guitar, which essentially follows the track of the vocals. Without exception, the singing is separated from the instrumental climax that combines three or four guitars and percussion.

BENGA DIFFERS SHARPLY FROM CONGOLESE styles, South African kwela, West African high-life and even taraab and kidumbaak, the best known Swahili music forms.
Benga gave Kenyan music an identity of its own.

For musician Dave “Mobb” Otieno, all guitars in Benga music derive their lines from the lead vocals as compared with other forms like rumba where the rhythm guitar does not follow the lead vocals. “This enables Benga music to retain its identify all the way to the simplest person on the ground,” he says in the film.

The peculiarity of the Benga beat comes from the combination of a sharp lead guitar overriding the rhythm and bass, experts have noted.

“The pace of the guitars, with a steady rise to a climax or crescendo and an equally quick refrain, the arrangement and sectioning, mark Benga apart from other music.

“Luo guitarists long cultivated a unique technique of playing the guitar. They commonly do not massage the strings as their Congolese counterparts do, but rather Luo instrumentalists pluck and pick single notes rapidly in a fashion akin to playing a nyatiti — the traditional lyre of the Luo people.”

The commemorative package, which took close to one year to put together by Nairobi-based Ketebul Music, was launched on December 4, 2008 at the National Museums of Kenya. Funded by Ford Foundation, the principal researcher was the late Moussa Awounda, while the documentary was directed by Dimitri Croella.

BENGA IS UNDOUBTEDLY dance music. Dancers commonly do not hold hands or embrace, as is the case with other dance music such as Congolese rumba. Benga fans can be seen dancing alone or forming a group, but not holding hands.

Dancers often break off from the circle of their partners and slink away, doing their own thing, sometimes becoming theatrical in their movements. They dance with total abandon.

One of the pioneers, Samuel Aketch Jabuya alas Aketch Oyosi, says Benga is all about working up a sweta. “Benga is not a slow paced music. It is a very fast one and after dancing the people are always sweating all over.”

“Originally Congolese music was based on song and melody with the solo guitar playing a major role in leading the people to dance,” Congolese guitarist Syran Mbenza notes, adding: “On the other hand, in Kenya the music accompaniment, especially the rhythm guitar, was a driving force. In Congo we began to be influenced more and more by Benga, which has long dance sections leading up to the climax.”

Benga songs may chronicle or even instigate an important social event or political drama, love, money and personal experiences of hardship or struggles. Modern Benga vocal sections are long and the story winding and repetitive, with some of the more accomplished songwriters employing clever allegory, generating witty memorable phrases or coining new idioms.

Its roots run deep in age-old Luo musical instruments, the most enduring being the nyatiti, an eight-stringed traditional lyre.

In Luo traditional ceremonies, the nyatiti was accompanied by the ohangla (a set of drums), cow horns, gourds, sticks shakers and other improvised instrumentation such as whistling, feet-stomping, clapping or a melody created from someone blowing through the hollowed chamber of clasped hands.

The tempo of nyatiti playing along with the rhythmic thumping of an iron bangle harnessed to the toe of the lyre player is considered by many as the single most crucial link between that instrument and modern Benga.

The nyatiti also influenced the acoustic guitar in terms of moulding single-note picking rather than strumming. Later, its formed the platform for the high-pitched electric lead guitar and bass that was the vogue of mid-1970s Benga bands. Today, one typically finds up to four guitars playing in synchronised harmony.

Benga pioneers were, in local parlance, “one-man guitars” accompanied by a conductor — an improvised instrument in the form of a wooden box that maintained the rhythm.

Later, novel accompaniments were devised in the form of the rhythmic strumming of the grooves of the 1960s Fanta soft drink bottle. This kind of performance shared many similarities with that of a nyatiti player and his ankle shaker.

By the early 1960s, pioneering Luo musicians like Oyugi Tobby and Olima Anditi were already recording songs, with the latter producing the memorable track “Sabina.”

But it is the late John Ongara Odondi “Kaisa” who is regarded as the trail-blazing Benga pioneer, the one who spread it beyond village confines, ingeniously shaped its styles and nurtured a new crop of Benga artistes.

Out of the Ongara years came a marked proliferation of the first proper bands, which were now outfits of at least three guitars and a drum set. With them came the 45 rpm vinyl records and the debut of the now well known names in Benga such as George Ramogi, D.O. Misiani, Owiti Origo, Juma Odundo and Jose Kokeyo.

By the mid-1970s, studio recording in Nairobi and a handful of other towns was big business. Larger studios like Andrew Crawford, PolyGram, EMI and CBS had set up shop, attracting artistes from as far away as the then Zaire.

The big producers were later to close shop in the mid-1980s as a result of the stiff competition from River Road and the advent of piracy, among other changes.

Benga was for a long time regarded as the music of low-income social classes – the subaltern Luo living in rural areas and urban slums. Indeed, early Benga was known as music of the “rural and uncultured.”

ALONG WITH LEGENDARY country music artistes such as Shida Gikombe and Joseph Kamau, Daniel Kamau Mwai (D.K.) is among the first musicians from central Kenya to gain crossover national acclaim. But it is his wholesome embrace of Benga that launched a new phase in Kikuyu popular music.

Perhaps the best-known Benga exponent in Kenya and abroad was Daniel Owino Misiani, commonly known as D.O. Many regard him as the king of this music style.

His iconic status stems from his powerful compositions and numerous controversies generated by his polemical, often anti-establishment lyrics and his Tanzanian ancestry.

D.O, who passed away on May 17, 2006, frequently commented on local politics. In 1969 he sang about the assassination of Tom Mboya and other suspicious deaths such as those of Argwings Kodhek and Oruko Mak Asembo.

He had his share of brushes with the law and on one occasion he was denied a Kenyan passport on the eve of an international tour. D.O upset the local authorities to the point where they ordered his deportation back to Tanzania.

Indeed, to politicians, D.O was a Kenyan as long as he sang love songs and a Tanzanian whenever he criticised them.

Women have always been part of Benga, mostly as back-up vocalists in the early male-dominated years. The first woman to cut a niche for herself in this style of music is probably Princess Jully, whose late 1990s hit “Dunia Mbaya” is an admonition to the promiscuous in the face of HIV/Aids.

Other Benga ladies include the widow of D.O Misiani, Queen Babito, who leads a splinter group from his D.O Shirati Jazz Band. From Central Kenya there is Queen Jane, who heads the successful Queenja Band.

Although many historians and musicologists agree that the cradle of Benga is Nyanza Province in western Kenya, others claim it came from outside Kenya. The debate over the actual origins of the word “Benga” has been raging over the past four decades.

“Benga, I would say has its roots in Congolese music in the sense that when people like Edward Masengo came to Kenya from Congo they started playing music which was Benga-like but more rumba. Well, some Luos like Jose Kokoyo got involved with this concept,” Peter E. Kenya, a lecturer in community development at Kenyatta University says in the film.

Francis Danger, a musician with Kilimambogo Band, however argues: “Benga is different from other sounds like Ndombolo. he difference comes from the solo guitar and the drums. The person playing the solo guitar uses only one or two chordss while the drum has a more constant beat.”

Ochieng’ Nelly Orwa, a Benga pioneer disagrees, saying the word Benga came from Uganda.

“The word Benga started in Uganda. We went to play our music there, which was called Ongara style… As they danced, the women’s clothes billowed around them and we started seeing Lawa bengore, which means, ‘The clothes are loose,’ in Luo. That is when we started using the word Benga.”

The most controversial claim on the origin of the word Benga came from D.O Misaini. He long maintained that it was a variation on his mother’s name, Obengo.