It's official - we've got one of the sons of Kenya sitting on top of the world. So let's get to know a little Kenyan culture, shall we? After all, some of the oldest known human fossils have been found there - we may all have a little Kenya in us.
The late, great guitarist Daniel Owino Misiani is responsible for one of my favorite African albums. It's actually one of the few Kenyan releases I own. Though it's capital city Nairobi is as cosmopolitan as any on the continent, Kenya's current pop scene seems to me (and correct me if I'm wrong) largely dominated by reggae, rap, and West African styles like Congolese soukous. Hence, it hasn't really carved out it's own identity. Misiani's "benga" style does indeed favor the soukous influence that swept African music in the '80s and '90s, but he puts a brilliantly unique Swahili spin on it.
On paper, soukous/benga looks a lot like punk: electric guitars, drums kits, simple chord progressions, furious energy level. But the off-kilter rhythms, and dazzling guitar melodies (Misiani tosses off killer licks seemingly at will) take the old guitar/drum/bass lineup to a whole other place. Like soukous, the songs start melodically, shifting from vocals to guitar workouts for the second part of each song. In fact, if you're short on time and just want to skip to the "good parts," you may want to just listen to the last couple minutes of each song. But it's all good.
The lyrics often are derived from the tradtional practice of the "praise song" - only now, instead of praising tribal chiefs, the all-Swahili lyrics (according to the liner notes) praise their friends, a judge, even a furniture seller who employs many local citizens, and whose sofas are so comfortable that "you soon fall asleep."
Daniel Owino Misiani and Shirati Band - Benga Blast!
I'm posting the entire album because I see that it's now out-of-print. In fact, the entire Earthworks label seems to have gone under. Shame, they released some great stuff. Well, what the heck, here's another classic Earthworks release then:
Dudu Pukwana - In the Townships (1973)
This album is totally different - it hails from way down South Africa way, features sax and piano instead of guitar, is mostly instrumental, and is based on the "township jive" mbaqanga style. It does, however, share the same infectiously joyous spirit and unique (to Western ears) rhythms, all serving to create high-energy dance party mayhem. Pick hit: "Nobomyu."