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I had seen Golden Sounds bandleader, saxophonist Twahir Mohamed, perform many times as part of Orchestra Virunga in Nairobi; at least I think I saw him perform. I didn't know him at all in his Virunga years. I was first introduced to Twahir when he and Bora Bora Sounds came to Seattle as the backing band for Samba Mapangala in 1996. After his return to Nairobi, he formed Golden Sounds Band with members of Bora Bora and other musicians on the Nairobi scene. It was a huge band with vocalists, dancers, and full horn/sax section. In 1998, they recorded the songs that became the Swahili Rumba CD. The band itself didn't last much longer. Though quite popular, the economics of keeping a large band together didn't work out. The unreleased tracks, however, made their way to me and I was quite impressed by the polished sound and new direction this group had taken the rumba genre in Kenya.

Twahir asked me to help him market the CD internationally. Initially, I tried getting the interest of the "usual" World Music labels but most labels have their own pet projects and a stable of collaborating producers they already use. In addition, labels were starting to feel the effect of the contracting CD market, so I couldn't find anyone who was willing to try this "unknown" group. The project went into cold storage for a couple years until the day I was introduced to the manager for the new Naxos World label. She had a long-term outlook and an interesting vision for the label and she was also quite interested in this recording. She accepted the project and asked me write the notes for the booklet and a complete transcription of the lyrics in Swahili with English translation. Swahili Rumba emerged in late 2003 on the Naxos World label. Sadly, just as the CD was being released, the plug was pulled on all future Naxos World projects, another casualty of the uncertainty in the music business.

Here are the notes I wrote for the Swahili Rumba CD...

Golden Sounds Band: Swahili Rumba (2003) (buy from Amazon.com)

Golden Sounds Band, Swahili RumbaKenya’s musical landscape is unusually diverse for a single country in Africa. Alongside the traditional music of Kenya’s various ethnic and linguistic groups, there is an active and, thriving popular music scene. Various Kenyan pop music styles compete for the ears of the population. All these styles draw on elements of traditional music—things such as local melodies, rhythms, language, and indigenous instruments—and these are mixed with the instrumentation of typical pop bands anywhere; guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, sax, trumpets, and so on.

In one of the hottest areas of the Kenyan pop scene today, hip hop and R&B styles from abroad have been adapted to the African setting through Swahili lyrics, local topics, and the addition of local rhythms and instruments. These styles are particularly resonant with young adults and teenagers. On the other hand, older adults and people living in rural areas might prefer benga music. As a pop style, benga originated with Luo musicians from the area around Lake Victoria in western Kenya. It quickly spread to other tribal groups throughout Kenya from the mid-60s onwards. The melodic lines are very much influenced by local musical traditions and the lyrics, sung in local languages, are closely tied to the events and cultural values of the community.

On Kenya’s coast, taarab is a popular coastal style melding Indian Ocean influences (from Arabia, Egypt, and India) with coastal musical traditions. While taarab is widely available in recorded forms, its performance is especially important as part of the women’s entertainment at wedding ceremonies. Naxos World will highlight taarab music in an upcoming release. Another delightful form of Kenyan music is the finger-picking guitar style of the 1950s and 60s spearheaded by Luhya musicians coming from western Kenya. Although benga music largely supplanted this style, it has experienced a small resurgence over the last few years, especially as bar and hotel entertainment.

Finally, there are rumba pop bands. Though the word rumba is often associated with Congolese groups, the rumba style is popular throughout Eastern and Central Africa, not to mention its importance in West Africa with such pop bands as Orchestra Baobab from Senegal. In Kenya, especially in the cities and larger towns, rumba music flourished in an environment that brought Kenyan musicians together with Congolese and Tanzanian artists. In this genre are such groups as the various Wanyika bands (Simba Wanyika , Les Wanyika, Wanyika Stars, and Orchestra Jobiso), Maroon Commandos, Bora Bora Sound, Everest Kings, and Golden Sounds Band. This Kenyan version of rumba is usually sung in Swahili with the songs divided into two distinct parts: the first part slow and melodic, the second part faster with instrumental solos and sometimes a new vocal chorus. One of the great attributes of this music (especially to listeners who can’t understand the words) is the way in which the music evolves throughout the song. Apart from the lyrics, the music will go through a series of subtle and not-so-subtle changes that keeps songs sounding fresh and interesting over the length of seven or eight minutes. Most Swahili rumba groups also feature brass instruments such as saxophones and/or trumpets, giving the bands a chance to add ornamental flourishes during the verses and instrumental solos in the faster portion. Despite these additional instruments, one notable characteristic of Swahili rumba has been its relatively sparse and open sound. The Golden Sounds Band featured on this CD share most of these characteristics except for the sparse sound. Their complex vocal harmonies, interlocking guitars, and sizzling saxes produce a full, rich sound.

Golden Sounds saxophonist and bandleader, Twahir Mohamed, has been a part of the Nairobi music scene since his arrival in 1984 from Tanzania. Twahir hooked up with Samba Mapangala and Orchestra Virunga and played with the group over most of the group’s active years in Nairobi. After Virunga disbanded in the early 90s, Twahir joined forces with Shabani Dogo Dogo (d. 1999) in Bora Bora Sounds. In fact, Bora Bora became the backing band for Samba when he toured the United States and Europe in 1996. Later that same year, Twahir and several of the musicians from Bora Bora formed the Golden Sounds Band. The group has been a favorite in such Nairobi night clubs as Coco Beach and Makuti Park. Depending upon economic circumstances, Golden Sounds Band has had as many as 16 members including dancers.

Core members of the group were as follows:

Twahir Mohamed, saxophone and leader
Ramadhani Issa, keyboards
Juma Iddi Mikulandi, drums
Rashidi Mwenzingo, vocal
Msichoke Kombo, bass
Farida Mahfudh, vocal
Miraji Shakashia, solo guitar
Mwinjuma Muumini, vocal
Tindika Umba, vocal
Rashidi Matawa, rhythm guitar
Zena Mahfudh, dancer

CD notes written by Douglas B. Paterson, from Swahili Rumba by Golden Sounds Band. NAXOS 76055-2 - KENYA Golden Sounds: Swahili Rumba © 2003.

Shortly after the release of this CD, bandleader Twahir Mohamed passed away on 29 January, 2004. I wrote a short tribute to him here.

East African Music - African Radio

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To contact Douglas Paterson, send email to DPaterson@EastAfricaMusic.com.

Last updated 19 January, 2009.

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