The Kenyan music of yesterday and today

If something is characterized by Kenyans is to make good music. In fact, one of the projects that we support from KUBUKA, because we believe it has great potential, is the music producer Made In Kibera (MIK). Today, we go deeper into the types of music that originate in this country and its current reality at the hands of the Kenyan music journalist, Joy Ruguru.

How is Kenyan music? The best way to describe it is eclectic. India has their distinct Bollywood music while South America is known for “Latina” music. Unfortunately or fortunately, we do not have one sound. Though it wasn’t always like that.

In the 60s Kenya gained independence from Britain, and also got the electric guitar. This marked the rise of popular music. Musicians from Congo, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa crowded to the vibrant capital city of Nairobi to record fresh music. Their different African influences gave birth to Benga, characterized by fast guitar fingering. This new sound also had contributions from the Luo community of Lake Victoria, who imitated their nyatiti (eight-string lyre) melodies on a bass guitar.

It was in this era that Benga stars shone – Daudi Kabaka and John Nzenze from Western Kenya prospered while Joseph Kamaru became a well-known legend from the Kikuyu community in Central Kenya. Interestingly, his grandson KMRU is now a music producer and DJ based in Nairobi.

Kenyan music continued to evolve throughout the late 1900s. Them Mushrooms, an all-male band made taarab – a blend of Tanzanian and Indian music – cool. They are mostly known for their 1982 hit song Jambo Bwana, from which the popular tourist phrase “Hakuna Matata” (there’s no worries in Kenya) came from. Meanwhile, Mighty King Kong who grew up as a street child rose from rags to riches developed into a popular reggae artist of his time. Them Mushrooms were known for telling everyday stories through their Swahili music.

By the 1990s, Kenyans were singing less folk and more hip-hop thanks to television and radio.  Street groups Kalamashaka and Ukoo Fulani are remembered as hip-hop veterans. Eric Wainaina, a Berklee alumni and , also came up with conscious music that inspired political activism.

As more artists arose, Kenyan hip-hop transformed into Genge by Nonini and Jua Cali and kapuka by Nameless and E-sir. What made this music unique is that they rapped in English, Swahili, sheng (Kenyan slang) and local languages.Reggae artists Nazizi and Wyre were also widely popular and their relatable music dominated mainstream media.

No wonder the 2000s are fondly remembered as the golden age of Kenyan music.

This is still a Kenyan favorite from  kapuka legend E-Sir who left us too early

Thanks to the Internet, we are now more exposed to music from the rest of Africa and the world. Kenyan music is full of outside influences from Nigeria to Jamaica. If you want live hip-hop, Jemedari and Juliani have a lively show for you. There’s always a debate on who’s the rap king between Octopizzo and Khaligraph Jones. Trap kids like Barak Jacuzzi are emerging everyday just like in the West. Some artists have gone the indie folk way such as Tetu Shani and Wanja Wohoro. There are even rock bands like Crystal Axis and Murfy’s Flaw for the hard rockers in Nairobi.

There are still traditional music bands who’ve stuck to their roots. Afro Simba carry on their indigenous Coastal Swahili feel while Kenge Kenge Orutu System excite crowds all over the world with music and instruments of their Luo ancestors. Other artists have found a way to fuse the old and the new to create Afro fusion. The young male musician Ayrosh blends mugithi, a one man guitar Benga music style from Kikuyu land, with modern pop music. Makadem, a living legend who is called the Kenyan Fela Kuti, takes his nyatiti everywhere from Germany to Tanzania. Another world artist Fadhilee mixes his vernacular Luhya language with English to create a unique Kenyan sound. None of them is afraid to experiment with various genres from reggae to R&B.

This unique fusion of Luo Benga and EDM beats was nominated as song of the year at Gilles Peterson Worldwide Awards 2018

How does one discover all these diverse artists?”

Nairobi hosts so many music events that one is spoilt for choice. There are free weekly events like Jamhuri Jam Sessions and Thursday Nite Live that are strictly for live African bands. The EDM scene is quickly growing thanks to monthly underground events dubbed Gondwana and Temple where you meet Suraj, Euggy, Chucky and other DJs. You will also find your pop artists from Sauti Sol to Muthoni Drummer Queen performing on bigger stages at Blankets and Wine and Koroga Festival. Meanwhile, the grand Safaricom Jazz Festival, now in its fifth year, exposes young Kenyans to upcoming Afro Jazz bands like Shamsi Music and Nairobi Horns Project.

Kenyan music isn’t just one thing. It’s a fusion of different genres and different languages at different times. From the beginning, it was influenced by outsiders and continues to be. Kenyan artists who fuse traditional benga styles with western influences stand out and are celebrated by music lovers all over the world.

Be assured. Whatever kind of music you like, you will find it in Kenya. Yes, even Latin music.

By Joy Ruguru, a Kenyan music journalist at LaMusicJunkie

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