Kenya's pop music is undoubtedly one of the most diverse in Africa. Unfortunately, by the time her music has passed through the long filtering process of the international "market," only a handful of titles make it to people's houses.
Popular music in Kenya encompasses a wide range of styles of both local and international origin. Among Kenyans, language is one of the crucial factors in defining their music.
There are over 40 regional languages in Kenya and musicians from at least a quarter of these (usually, those with the largest populations) are making recordings in their mother tongues. However, not all Kenyan musicians play to a regional/ethnic audience.
Furthermore, many of Kenya's best known musicians are immigrants from other African countries, most often, from Tanzania or Zaire. Without a regional focus, the lyrics of these musicians are usually in Swahili, the African language of wider communication across Kenya. A few of the Zaireans occasionally sing in their own language, Lingala, but in recent years, most have found it advantageous to use Swahili in their new compositions.
In Luo benga, the bass, guitar, and vocal interweave is all-important. The bass, in particular, is especially active, pulsating, starting and stopping in bursts of rapid fire. Sometimes it mimics a flowing melodic line with syncopated hesitations. Other times, it's just hanging around the bottom keeping a fast-paced rhythm. Meanwhile, guitars are coming in at the end of each vocal phrase with some catchy riff or a repeat of the melodic line.
As benga caught on among the Luo people, musicians from other regions of Kenya borrowed elements of it to suit their own music. Some of these early benga adaptations such as those from Daniel Kamau (DK) are featured on the Guitar Paradise and Kenya Dance Mania CDs. DK, one of the 70's biggest stars, is cited as the first Kikuyu musician to jump onto the benga band wagon back in the late 1960s.
Although these regional groups share a number of common components in their instrumentation, rhythms, the beat of a throbbing kick drum, and aspects of the guitar work, these are all features which overlay unique traditional elements in melodic structure, harmony, and song composition. Thus, each of the different regional bengas, has its own distinctive flavor.
Congolese groups were performing in Nairobi night clubs as early as 1964. As conditions in the Congo (later, Zaire) deteriorated in the 1970s, more groups made their way to Nairobi. By the mid-seventies, several Zairean groups were playing rumba music at night clubs on a regular basis. Examples of their music are not readily available for this period but one characteristic of their style caught on in Kenya and remains a key feature in most Kenyan music today. That element is the cavacha rhythm, popularized through recordings of Zairean bands such as Zaiko Langa Langa and Orchestra Shama Shama.
The late seventies and early eighties was an extremely creative time for the Zairean groups in Nairobi. This period also corresponded with the beginning of Europe's new-found interest in African music. Virgin records got involved in a couple of projects in Nairobi that produced two highly acclaimed LPs from the Tanzanian-Zairean group, Orchestra Makassy and the Kenya-based Zairean band, Super Mazembe. About this same time, the French label Afro Rythmes had just released Orchestra Virunga's Malako LP recorded in Nairobi. In what may be the finest song craftsmanship to come out of Nairobi, the Virunga Malako recording has been reissued as an Earthworks CD titled Virunga Volcano.
Before the breakup of the East African Community in 1977, there was a continuing flow of Tanzanian musicians visiting Kenya to record and perform. The Tanzanian variety of rumba music was extremely popular and widely accessible through radio and records in Kenya. But with many bands under state or corporate sponsorship and providing their musicians a regular salary, there was little incentive for Tanzanians to settle in Kenya's uncertain, laissez-faire environment. A few did, however, including the founding members of Simba Wanyika who took up Kenyan residence in 1971.
Like most Tanzanian bands, Simba Wanyika played rumba with Swahili language lyrics. In contrast to the emerging benga style of the period, Simba Wanyika's music had a much gentler feel; smoother, flowing. Their first recordings didn't even have a drum set. The rhythm was carried along on congas together with clavés and a fast, cavacha-like rhythm on high-hat. The rhythm guitar was active and fluid, but very light in its presence. The lead guitar came in only intermittently for soloing. Likewise, the saxophone was used sparingly in solos and to elaborate instrumental portions.
The Simba Wanyika sound, as the prototype of Kenya's Swahili music proved to be quite popular and durable. Along the way, other Kenyan groups such as the Maroon Commandos and Nairobi Matata joined in with their own Swahili styles. While the Kenyan variety was already diverging from its Tanzanian roots, the border closure after 1977 may have speeded the process by further isolating musicians in the two countries.
International pop music is very popular in Kenyan discos and a number of clubs featuring live music are using bands that play "international" styles. For quite sometime, kenyan music has been seen by many of Kenya's educated and working elite, as tired and out of fashion but a recent spate of budding local talent has put an end to this thinking. Artistes such as Harry Kimani, Mutinda, Ringtone and others are setting a new pace in the markeplace for a new genre of afrofusion and gospel tunes making heads turn.
Taarab, the popular music of the East African coast, has recently experienced a resurgence as a national pop form across Kenya (or at least some cross-over versions of taarab have been quite successful). Samba Mapangala adapted a version of the taarab standard "Vidonge" on his Feet On Fire CD. The same tune in two other versions has propelled vocalist Malika (in collaboration with the international pop group Them Mushrooms) and Zairean vocalist Moreno Batamba to number one status on the Kenyan pop charts. The song is popular because the various versions with different words argue the important topic of the status of women and their relationship to men. At the same time, Malika's tremendous success (including singer of the year honors) demonstrates the receptiveness of the larger Kenyan population outside the coastal zone to taarab.
For such a small country, the great diversity of musical styles and language interests in Kenya has created an extremely fragmented recording and performance market. On the subject of music policy, Kenya's government has been reluctant to get involved at an organisational level (although they have assisted in anti-piracy enforcement and copyright matters).
For the industry participants; the producers, club owners, and broadcast programmers; the situation has always been chaotic, though lucrative for a few. For the average musician, however, making a living off music remains a difficult proposition at best. Although the Kenyan people may not always fully appreciate the musical choices available to them, Kenya is still a musical treasure house.