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The Evolving Music Scene in Kenya

Trends in Kenyan Music was written in 1996. Much has changed in the intervening years. The following section is an early draft of a portion of my chapter on Kenyan music in The Rough Guide to World Music. It gives my perspective at the beginning of 2006:

Kenyan pop is in the midst of a revolution. It's far too early to describe the eventual outcome of this transitional process but, what is for sure is that there is a changing of the guard in Kenyan music. The ranks of the elder generation of pop musicians have thinned all too quickly in recent years. Part of this is simply the inevitable result of aging: elder musicians retiring from the scene or passing on. But a startling number of younger veteran musicians have also died; men in their forties or fifties with twenty or thirty years experience in the music business. One suspects that HIV/AIDS may be a factor in many of these cases, but it is rarely confirmed. More often, we hear the cause of death as TB, malaria, diabetes, heart problems, etc. Whatever the causes, the effects have been devastating and it's not only for the loss of creative musical talent, but also because with these musicians goes the living memory of the historical context and evolution of Kenyan music. Indeed, the music scene in Kenya today has a much different landscape than that of only five or ten years ago. A new generation of musicians and producers with quite different backgrounds, training, and experience is beginning to make its imprint on the scene.

In the early 90s, the Kenyan music business was at a low point. Diminishing sales and competition from the music pirates meant that, in a business sense, recorded music was hardly worth the effort. And turning that around to the consumer, the music that was produced hardly seemed worth buying anyway. By the mid-90s however, a number of factors came together which set the stage for a radical departure from the styles of previous generations of Kenyan pop musicians.

For one, Kenya experienced the take off of commercial FM radio. Initially, the new stations wouldn't play much Kenyan music but they did acquaint Kenyans with current styles from abroad in reggae, ragga, house, dancehall, hip-hop, and American R&B. These sounds had great appeal to Kenya's youth and young adults though they weren't totally new, having already become a distinctive feature of local public transport as on-board entertainment.

At about this same time, new studio production techniques were also taking hold as computers, software, mixing boards, and so on became more affordable. Suddenly, one didn't need an expensive studio and tape machine to make music or produce CD quality discs (though there are certainly plenty of expensive, well-equipped studios in Kenya nowadays). Multi-track layering became the tool of a new breed of independent producers recording directly to computer hard drives for keyboards, guitars, drum machines, and other synthesized sounds and effects.

Slowly, the new productions began to emerge. New groups came together performing styles inspired largely from abroad, but adding local elements in language, subject matter, and sometimes melody and instrumentation. Some of the pioneering names of the mid-90s include Five Alive, Hart, Shadz O'Blak, and Hardstone who had the groundbreaking CD Nuting but de Stone in 1997. Rapping in a ragga style, Harrison Ngunjiri, alias Hardstone, was an inspiration to many wanna-be music stars. He had a smash hit with his song "Uhiki." The innovative Pinye remix of Uhiki drew a lot of attention appropriating parts of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" and mixing it with Kikuyu folk music and rap - a strange combination but one Hardstone pulled off nicely. The song earned him the "Best New Artist of the Year" award in 1997, in Kenya's Kisima Awards. Still riding the crest of immense popularity, Hardstone left Kenya for the USA with his American wife and manager in 1998. Now divorced and suffering a number of setbacks in the States, Hardstone has released a CD reflecting on this period called Hardstory.

Producer Tedd Josiah was one of the creative forces behind this explosion of new groups and new music in the 90s. Sensing the shifting tide in Kenyan music to new local sounds, he put together two CDs of emerging artists in Kenyan: The First Chapter (1998) and Kenyan: The Second Chapter (1999). Notable from The First Chapter is Kalamashaka's "Tafsiri Hii" (Interpret this), the rap trio's trend setting song for Swahili language hip-hop based on the reality of street life. The Second Chapter introduced the hip-hop duo Gidigidi Majimaji and their hit song, "Ting Badi Malo" (Throw your hands up), a track now featured on The Rough Guide to Kenyan Music. This was followed-up by their superb solo album, Ismarwa, which has a distinct earthy, acoustic feel as it blends hip-hop and traditional African instrumental sounds with melodic Luo verses and rap.

In 2002, the work of Gidigidi Majimaji entered into the cultural fabric of the nation with their hard hitting rap number titled "Who Can Bwogo Me?" Bwogo comes from the Luo language meaning "to scare." The song expresses the notion of self-determination as they answer their question: "I am unbwogable." I am unshakable or un-intimidate-able. The song was not written as a political statement but in the year of a national election, it was adopted as the theme of the opposition to then-President Moi and his party and played constantly. With President Kibaki's victory, the word "unbwogable" has now entered the Kenyan lexicon: resolute determination without wavering.

Josiah and other producers such as Bruce Odhiambo and Suzanne and Gido Kibukosya are working with a diverse set of artists with quite different musical interests. One song might be a hip-hop cover of an African pop classic. Another might be a rhythm and blues gospel ballad. The next one blends traditional instruments with keyboards and rap. Mercy Myra is one Kenyan artist who has attained star status largely in the R&B field. Eric Wainaina's 2001 CD, Sawa Sawa, mingles the cutting social commentary of the Redykyulass comedy team with songs about life in Kenya. The music is a cross between American style soft rock, acoustic rock, and Congolese soukous. In particular, Kenyans really connected with the song "Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo" (Nation of kick-backs) a song decrying (all be it, with great humour) the way bribery has permeated Kenyan society. The CD and that song made Wainaina a winner at the 7th Kora Awards ceremony in South Africa in 2002. He was a co-winner with Kenyan gospel artist Henrie Mutuku for Best Artist from East Africa. Mutuku was riding a wave of popularity generated by her beat-laden gospel R&B hit, "Nakuhitaji" (I need you).

More recently, other production companies have come on the scene. In much the same way that Josiah's "Chapters" CDs introduced a host of new artists to radio and the public, Ogopa Deejays have three compilations (thus far) that read like a who's who of the pop charts: the late E-Sir, Redsan, Kleptomaniaks, Wahu, Big Pin, and Mr. Lenny are just a few many successful Ogopa artists. Much of the Ogopa sound is encompassed by the style known as kapuka, built on a mixture of Kenyan hip-hop, ragga, and house music. Kapuka gets plenty of radio airplay and the kapuka artists are often featured at corporate-sponsored events and festivals.


Kenyan hip-hop artists make a distinction between their music and kapuka, criticising kapuka for its shallowness and lack of meaningful social content. They point out that a great many kapuka practitioners come from relatively privileged backgrounds and have never experienced the hardships of the poor in the urban slums. Their love songs and party music represent the African middle class. And indeed, one of the biggest stars at the moment is the wealthy rapper, CMB Prezzo, who offers himself as "president" of the younger generation. In his music, Prezzo (Jackson Makini) actually brags about his fortunate circumstances. Always the showman, at his concerts Prezzo makes it a point to be seen arriving with his well-dressed entourage in the finest automobiles. For his arrival at the Kisima music awards, he actually hired a helicopter to drop him at the event (scoring points for style, but no awards).

In contrast, most of the "true" hip-hop scene in Kenya centres around the youth of urban housing estates and slums. Their music gets little exposure on radio and not much press. It's not surprising that their music is so often referred to as "underground." This is music with a message; music that expresses the reality of the slums and speaks to people's everyday concerns. One of the finest representations of this music to emerge is the Kilio cha Haki (A cry for justice) album released in Europe in 2004. Working with the Dutch foundation, UpToYouToo, a collective of thirty-eight musicians and rappers from Nairobi's Eastlands slums spent a month recording in a makeshift studio with three producers from the Netherlands. The results are a superbly produced diverse hip-hop album that nicely accomplishes the mission of giving these young people a voice to express themselves in a positive way. Proceeds from the sale of the CD will be devoted to the development of a permanent, locally run, studio in Eastlands.

Another segment of Kenya's new music scene shares little in common with either kapuka or hip-hop. These are musicians looking to the traditional past for instruments, rhythms, and melody that they can reshape into contemporary pop music. Yunasi, Kayamba Afrika, and USA-based Jabali Afrika are groups with an emphasis on rich vocal harmonies blended with "traditional" African percussion and string instruments along with varying degrees of guitar, bass and keyboards. Nairobi City Ensemble takes a slightly different approach in their album Kalapapla. The group begins with what they term "authentic melodies" from traditional roots but makes the sound completely contemporary with modern instruments, guest rappers, and the thoughtful use of traditional string instruments like the Luo nyatiti (eight string lyre) and orutu ( one string fiddle). Finally, singer-songwriter and guitarist Suzzana Owiyo deserves special mention for her innovative way of bringing together melodies and instruments of her traditional Luo culture. She generated a lot of excitement with her first recording celebrating Kisumu's 100th anniversary and it's elevation to city status. The track, "Kisumu 100," is featured on The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya and her follow-up CD was picked up for international release under the title Mama Africa by the UK's ARC Music label. Her second album, Yamo Kudho, released in Kenya in 2004, is a delightful package, even more polished, delivering sublime melodies in a bright acoustic sound (even with electric guitar and bass) that mix in traditional Luo orutu, oporo (horn), and percussion.

It's interesting that while there seems to be a lot of intellectual interest in these efforts and financial support from organsations such as Nairobi's Alliance Française, once again Kenyan radio and Kenya's under-thirty set largely ignores their work. Much of the media focus seems to be on celebrity and image and less reflection on the quality of the music. At the same time, quite a number of these trailblazers such as Suzzana Owiyo, Yunasi, Abbi (Absalom Nyinza), Achieng' Abura, and the more widely publicised Eric Wainaina and Mercy Myra have received multiple invitations to perform in major music festivals in Europe and other parts of Africa.


Since the mid-1990s, Kenyan music has experienced a radical transformation. The music of the older artists and their corresponding age groups has not gone away, but a whole new set of younger players has come on the scene and they're moving in a much different direction. The question is where that audience will go as they turn older. Will the kapuka, hip-hop, and Afro-fusion proponents starve the older styles of their audience base? Or will they reach a new equilibrium where an aging hip-hop generation returns to the rumba and benga fold? At this stage, it's way too early in the game to predict an outcome. The one thing that is certain is that we're in the midst of an interesting time, with lots of new players, many of them still learning the game. And it will be fun to hear the musical play by play.

This was how I saw it in 2006. But already, I have seen new sounds and new names appear on the scene, some old names and established sounds continuing to flourish, and some falling by the wayside. Stay tuned and when I get the inclination, I'll fill-in a little more of the story. Meanwhile, Jim Curupt has offered his assessment of some important and "Untold Facts About Benga Music" in the 1990s.

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

Last updated 22 August, 2010.

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