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The Nairobi Beat was my first CD project for the American and European markets. One of the founders of Rounder Records, Bill Nowlin, spent a few days with me in Nairobi and on the coffee estate where I lived in Machakos. After sampling the local music with me, he invited me to put together a compilation of Kenyan pop. Even though I was based in Kenya, it was quite a task to track down all the musicians and producers and get their agreement to license their songs for the CD. There were a few songs that never made it onto the CD because I could never find the rightful owner or, in the case of Polygram, they just thought it was too much trouble to license one or two songs for the project.

Below I've reproduced the notes that I wrote for the booklet back in 1988.

By the way, while Bill Nowlin was visiting, we signed up as extras for a made-for-TV movie called The Lion of Africa (1987). In two or three days work, I think we both made it into the film for a few seconds.

The Nairobi Beat, Kenyan Pop Music Today, Rounder CD5030


Various Artists: The Nairobi Beat
Kenyan Pop Music Today
(See it at Amazon.com)

The Kenyan popular music of today spans a diverse range of styles, melodies, instrumentation, lyrics and languages. Over the years, Nairobi, Kenya's capital, has been a meeting point fornot only Kenyan musicians of different backgrounds but also for musicians from throughout eastern, central, and southern Africa. While they have borrowed freely from one another, they have not come together to create any single, readily identifiable, "Kenyan sound". What actually exists today is a number of "Kenyan sounds".

Much of this musical diversity is simply a reflection of the multiplicity of ethnic groups. In what is not a large country (in area, it is about the size of Texas), Kenya has approximately forty linguisticlethnic groups. Each of the largest half dozen ethnic groups has its own artists recording and performing in their own group's mother tongue. Melodies, rhythm, harmonies, and themes of the lyrics often reflect the ethnic identity of the musicians. Alongside this, Tanzanian and Zairean musicians now based in Kenya play their own hybrid styles for the urban and national audience.

In broad terms, such differences within Kenyan pop music can be outlined as follows:

1. Regionally focused bands: These bands identify their audience as coming primarily from one ethnic constituency (in the old days, called tribes). Generally performing and recording in the mother tongue of that group, their songs will often draw on their specific musical traditions and cultural heritage. Thus, it is common to hear Kenyans speaking of Luo, Kamba, Luhya, Kalenjin, or Kikuyu music. However, a number of bands in this category have extended their popularity well beyond such ethnic boundaries by recording in Swahili, a language widely understood throughout Kenya and not strongly identified with any particular ethnic group.

2. National and urban focused bands:

a. Swahili bands. Here the word Swahili refers to the language and not the coastal people. In contrast to the regional bands, Swahili bands are seen more as linguistically and ethnically neutral. Their members may represent a diverse mix of backgrounds. The bands are often affiliated with local or national institutions such as the army, prisons and government administration, schools, churches, and occasionally, businesses. Their songs are primarily in Swahili and, as such, appeal to a wide audience across Kenya. Compared to the regional bands, the tempo of the Swahili music is likely to be slowerand the rhythm more flowing with the addition of conga drums and brass instruments smoothing out the melody lines. Some of the most creative and productive bands within this category are Tanzanian groups that have made Kenya their permanent base.

b. Zairean bands. For years, Zairean bands have dominated the night club scene in Nairobi and other urban centers in Kenya. In the 60s and 70s, they brought the rhumba beat and later, soukous. Singing in Lingala (a national language of Zaire) and later, Swahili, their intricate harmonies and brass accompaniment, often incorporating elements of regional and Swahili music, provided a sound urban residents found hard to resist. More recently, tighter controls on work permits for foreign musicians have weakened the Zairean hold on club work forcing some to leave Kenya.

3. Tourist bands. Performing mainly at tourist hotels on the coast, the "ethnic" focus of these bands is the foreign visitor. Amidst a great deal of international pop music, the tourist bands do play some Swahili language music that has proved quite popular among visitors. The tunes are typically simple, but often quite catchy, with high tech production and easy lyrics that even beginning Swahili speakers can understand.

This album brings together a sampling of current sounds in Kenyan pop music from regional and nationallurban bands. By far, the most active segment of the recording industry in Kenya has been the local singles market, a wide open, fiercely competitive field, powered by scores of independent producers. Most of their activities are centered around the regionally based musics. Because of their small independent status, few of these producers have ever been in a position to market their products abroad and, as a consequence, very little of this Kenyan music has found its way to Europe and North America. In highlighting some of Kenya's most popular independent recordings of recent years, this compilation makes an exciting first step in acquainting the rest of the world with one of Kenya's best kept secrets.

Notes on the songs, groups, and their music: Jamoko Wange Tek [1] and Tabitha Awuor [7] highlight the unmistakable benga beat. Emerging from western Kenya's Luo area around Lake Victoria in the late 60s and early 70s, benga music with its pulsating bass lines, rapid fire guitar, and soft melodic lines was an instant success. During the 1970s, musicians from other parts of Kenya quickly jumped on the benga bandwagon creating local variants reflecting the rhythms, melodies, themes, and language of their own ethnic traditions. Today, all these benga variants operate side by side in what is a truly chaotic but lively music scene. Also from western Kenya, but to the north of Lake Victoria, an area that has produced some of Kenya's best-known guitar players of the 50s and 60s, there are two somewhat different examples of Luhya styles. With Bibi Joys [3], Shem Tube (pronounced, TOO bay) and his Super Bunyore Band show off the typical light, but fast-paced, Luhya music of Western Province. Slower and rhythmically more complex, the Mayanja Sungoma Jazz Band exemplifies the merging of a traditional Bukusu (Luhya) music with modern instrumentation in Ese Omulebe Wenywe [10].

In Luo and Luhya pop bands, women singers are rare. However, among the Kikuyu and Kamba, neighboring peoples to the north and east of Nairobi, women vocalists are extremely popular. Many of the most successful recording bands feature duos (and trios) invariably known as the "something or other" sisters. Thus, Simon Kihara's Mbiri Young Stars perform with the Kihara Sisters (Mwana wa Ndigwa) [2] and Onesmas Musyoki's Kalambya Boys Band has its Kalambya Sisters (Kopulo Onesi) [8]. Other examples of Kikuyu and Kamba music come from Dick Njoroge's Ururu-Ruru Mwana [6] in Kikuyu and Original Kilimambogo Stars' Mama Sheria [4], the latter, in Swahili. The very upbeat Madio Zaina [9] by the Zairean band Bana Likasi represents a whole genre of a distinctly Kenyan brand of Zairean music — lots of brass and the snare drum setting the fastpace. Bana Likasi is a recent casualty of the general difficulties faced by foreign bands in Kenya. Currently, lead singer Lovy Longomba is trying his luck from a new base with a new band in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Finally, the ever-present Maroon Commandos, approaching their twentieth year together, represent the Swahili band category with Amua Nikuachie Kazi [5]. This song from Kenya's 7th Battalion army band is a good example of the bright, clean guitar work over light drums (mostly high hat) common to Swahili pop in Kenya.

CD notes by Douglas B. Paterson ©1989 Rounder Records Corporation.

East African Music - African Radio

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

Last updated 17 May, 2010.

Copyright 1996-2010 Douglas B. Paterson, All Rights Reserved.