In the 1950s some Kenyans travelled to what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo in search of better economic prospects and upon their return popularised the term “benga” (“call” in Lingala), supposedly lending a name to a music genre.
But before you swallow that as musical gospel truth, consider this other explanation: the Luo word obengore generally refers to state of looseness or lack of rigidity — but in the musical context more than half a century ago some used it to mean being relaxed and happy — just like when listening to benga.
But that’s not all, there is another tune.
In the 1950s and 1960s female fans of the Ogara Boys Band wore the fashionable “Ogara Skirt” that also came to be known as the benga skirt after the group’s music style.
Oh, let’s not forget music legend Daniel Owino Misiani once claimed without much proof that “benga” was derived from his mother’s maiden name.
The origin of benga music has been a battlefield since the 1960s but the distinctive fast-paced beat remains one of the most authentic sounds that spans ethnic and regional lines — and goes beyond the borders.
For a country that typically struggles with issues of ethnic division and collective cultural identity—including the elusive national dress — the variants of the music genre played across the country mark a rare triumph.
Shades of Benga: The Story of Popular Music in Kenya 1946-2016 by Ketebul Music (2017), a new remarkable 650-page book, outlines the significance of the beat and its place in Kenya’s entertainment scene.
“Benga is the most ubiquitous sound in Kenya and is played in Nyanza, Rift Valley, Central, Western and Eastern regions among others. It has also influenced other beats that have heavily borrowed from it over the years,” says Mr Tabu Osusa, the Executive Director of Ketebul Music who led a team of researchers in the book project that took almost four years to put together.
One concern that motivated him and his team to archive materials in the book, he says, was hearing statements “including from well-known media personalities”, that the local “show business started in the late 1990s with the emergence of the celebrity culture”.
“They point out that earlier, music production was of very poor quality and musicians had neither a sense of fashion nor stage presence. Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Mr Osusa in his preface to Shades of Benga, pointing to a vibrant and professionally run music scene dating to as far back as the 1950s.
But this is not a book exclusively about benga.
It traces the origins and influences of modern Kenyan music from World War II to the present.
From the more urban sounds of rumba, funk and hip-hop to traditional beats like mwomboko, ohangla and taarab, Shades of Benga goes into great detail to profile Kenya’s music giants alongside their pictures — including forgotten legends like River Road’s session musicians — as well as the origins and evolution of various genres.
WHERE THERE'S A VACUUM..
Then there are sections on popular clubs and producers that shaped the entertainment scene, fashion, broadcasters and debates like the business of hip-hop or commerce versus ministry in gospel music.
“Where there is a vacuum, there is likely to be fake history. We put together the book so that the present and future generations can have a credible reference point about Kenyan music. Kenya has been suffering from an identity crisis and we seem to embrace and borrow foreign, mostly Western, music thinking that our own is not cool enough. It is important to change this attitude,” Mr Osusa told Lifestyle.
In the preface to Shades of Benga, he writes: “Over the years, I have consistently challenged young people in Kenya, my beloved country, to explain why they look up solely to musicians from the west as their role models. This misplaced perception of excellence and worth is more evident among Kenya’s urban youth who tend to consider anything associated with the rural environment as primitive.”
Mr Osusa notes that unlike some Kenyan artistes “who try to sound more American than Americans even when singing in Kiswahili”, many popular artistes from countries like Nigeria and South Africa have their songs grounded in local beats.
“It is rare to hear a Nigerian artiste pronounce pidgin words like an American. They remain authentic. That is perhaps why their music is popular across the world, including in Kenya,” he says.
Shades of Benga takes readers to the beginnings of modern popular music in Kenya, right from the 13th East African Entertainment Unit of the King’s African Rifles – which is where the famed Fundi Konde began his musical career.
THE AFRICAN BAND
The East African Entertainment Unit would later become the African Band, after the demobilisation of the soldiers, led by Peter Colmore.
The African Band, the authors note, performed for audiences in sessions that also had comedy sketches. If you were tracing the roots of popular Nairobi-based military band Maroon Commandos, you would find them from the 13th East African Entertainment Unit.
The love of Congolese music dates back to the 1950s with the arrival in Kenya of Mwenda Jean Bosco and Masengo Edouard.
The authors say this about the pair: “The arrival of Congolese musicians Mwenda Jean Bosco and Masengo Edouard from the province of Katanga in Belgian Congo had a profound effect on the musical trends not just in Kenya but also in the greater East African region. Both Mwenda and his cousin Masengo plucked their guitars with the thumb and fore-finger, using an intricate finger-picking technique.”
These musicians travelled all over the country, playing to African audiences in clubs, singing in French and Kiswahili. They were also lead performers in a television show, Aspro African Variety Show, which was recorded from 1959.
And that was probably the beginning of the love affair between Kenyan music fans and Congolese musicians, a relationship that peaked in the 1970s when many talented artistes from the continent’s musical giant were based in Kenya — and remains strong.
Shades of Benga carries you along on a musical journey that is divided into several sections. For instance, there are “labels and studios”, most of which are defunct. Not many today would remember Jambo Records, which the authors note was the “first independent East African record label”, established in 1947.
East African Sound Studios established the East African Records Limited, which recorded a variety of music in the region. Several recording companies were established in the country by the 1960s but many were either wound up or sold to African producers in the late 1960s due to the Africaniasation policy. The authors note that Oluoch Kanindo of POK Music Stores is probably the “most successful music producer in Kenya”.
Mr Kanindo, a one-time MP and assistant minister who died in 2014, had musical interests that went beyond Kenya. He worked with the Congolese greats such as Franco, Verkys Kiamuangana and Tabu Ley, according to the authors.
And his name remains alive to date in Zimbabwe where the variant of benga is refered to as “Kanindo” or “Sungura” — so-called after his record labels.
All this is in what is really the “introduction” of Shades of Benga, what the authors call “the pioneers”, which is where you will meet the likes of Paul Mwachupa, Fundi Konde, Fadhili William, Ben Nicholas (a great Kenyan jazz musician, well known in Congo and other parts of Africa but hardly known in Kenya), Daudi Kabaka, Peter Akwabi, Isaya Mwinamo, Ben Blastus O’Bulawayo, Robbie Armstrong, the Ashantis, and Sam Kahiga, among others.
But ‘what is benga music?’, ask the authors. benga largely originates from among the Luo community of Nyanza. The authors argue that “Benga’s most distinctive feature is its fast-paced rhythmic beat and the staccato technique of plucking the guitar.”
In benga, the lead guitar loads it over rhythm and bass. Benga musicians seem to have borrowed the technique from their kinsmen who played the traditional Luo lyre, nyatiti.
There is no doubt that benga, like many musical forms, borrowed from other genres. But artistes refashioned the guitar to do their bidding and ended up with a product that has spread throughout the country and the region.
What Shades of Benga offers about the world of Kenyan benga is enough to whet the appetite of any lover of the sound.
But, like the genre itself, what you will read in the book is only a part of a world that is complex, thrilling, full of intrigues; a world that has produced some of the most celebrated Kenyan musicians, but also a world that remains unexploited in many ways.
DESERVES ITS OWN BOOK
It is a world that deserves its own book and archive. However, Shades of Benga does a great job of tracing the details of such names as John Ogara, Ochieng’ Nelly, Orwa Jasolo, David Amunga, George Ramogi, D O Misiani, Collela Mazee, Kakai Kilonzo, Joseph Kamaru, DK Mwai, Sukuma bin Ongaro, Kipchamba ara Tapotuk (the spiritual guide of Kipsigis popular music), Kalenjin Sisters, Princess Jully, Okatch Biggy etc.
These names are a tiny but significant representation of benga in Kenya, which should challenge other researchers to look for and record for posterity the stories of the rest of benga musicians.
In the profiles are interesting gems of information, including on controversial but talented artistes like Ochieng Kabaselleh.
Interesting connections are also revealed—like that flamboyant artiste Akothee’s father Jose Kokeyo was also a musician.
The rest of Shades of Benga takes one on a whirlwind tour of the Kenyan musical landscape as well as the world of art, culture, entertainment and its linkages to the rest of the world.
Thus one enters the world of “Rumba in the City” of Nairobi, a world populated by discos; live bands; visiting musicians; local “foreign” bands such as Orchestre Les Mangelepa, Super Mazembe Baba Gaston and Orchestre Virunga of Samba Mapangala among others.
Later one enters the world of local genres such as Ohangla, Mwomboko, Akorino music, Taarab; then one is transported back to the ‘Funky Seventies’, fusions and experiments; after which one encounters gospel music.
By the time one reaches the world of what is described as ‘urban expressions’ – jazz, Afro-fusion etc – and hip-hop, meeting the likes of K South Flava, Jua Cali, Prezzo, Octopizzo, Camp Mulla and the tens of one week wonder song bands, one would have travelled a full cycle of Kenyan music, and not just Benga.
In other words, one is able to see the connection between the old and the new, the past and future, the origins and the refashioned.
What Shades of Benga does is to offer the reader – really the listener – insight into the sounds, senses, sensibilities, fashions, politics, struggles, successes, failures, songs, dances, names, bands, moments, connections, controversies, conventions, conversions, cadences, rhythms etc, that have made Kenyan music and its cultures over the past 70 years.
This is a treasure trove not just for music lovers but to all interested in Kenyan culture and how it has fashioned our identity, collectively and individually.
Ketebul has also been involved in various well-researched projects, including Retracing the Benga Rhythm, Retracing Kikuyu Popular Music, Retracing Kenya’s Funky Hits and Retracing Kenya’s Songs of Protest. But Shades of Benga was probably the most ambitious, considering the sheer size of research involved across the country.
Mr Osusa says most of Kenya’s music and related material are poorly stored in various facilities and hopes more can be done to make it more accessible.
It is also a shame, he says, that there is no hall of fame or proper recognition for those who have played an important role in the entertainment scene.
“But it is not too late. This can be done posthumously. We cannot act as though these guys never existed,” he says. Mr Osusa hopes Kenyans can be proud of their music and says more space — both in terms of airplay and facilities like social halls — need to be provided for the diverse sounds available.
“We need to rediscover ourselves and the information in Shades of Benga is one step towards that,” he says.
Shades of Benga is available at Alliance Française, GoDown Arts Centre and selected bookshops in Nairobi. A launch event is scheduled for October 13 at Sippers Restaurant
Dr Odhiambo teaches at the University of Nairobi.