From simple traditional village entertainment to a national and regional music genre, this is the story of Benga music – a genre that has come to define the authentic Kenyan sound, influencing the music of the region and beyond…
Setting the Background
A characteristic of popular music the world over is the element of mystery surrounding the origins of the genre and sometimes also, the real meaning of its name. Great icons of jazz, blues, RnB, reggae, rumba and even the much revered Western country music are famous for performing in their respective genres rather than expounding on meanings and origins. Rarely does one find consensus among fans, let alone among musicologists when it comes to interpreting the history, art and emotive power of a particular music. Still, the imperative of building an archive of a people’s past—including their popular histories—compelled us to search and ask, to travel far and build connections, to collate documents and present available evidence relating to the roots of popular Kenyan music.
Many historians and musicologists agree that the cradle of the benga genre of Kenya popular music is Nyanza province in western Kenya. This region is home to the fishing community of Luo-speaking people, many of whom live around Lake Victoria—known locally as Nyanza. Lake Victoria straddles the three East African countries—Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania—covering an area of over 68,000 square kilometers. The Luo who live around its shores in Kenya speak a western Nilotic tongue distinctly different from their Bantu neighbours to the north and south, and their Kalenjin distant cousins to the east. The Luo comprise close to 3 million people. Their forefathers migrated south from the Bahr al Ghazal region in what is today know as Southern Sudan in a steady stream until the 19th Century. Some live in neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania.
Today, benga music is played across a fair share of Kenya—from the lake shores in the west, across the vast floor of the Rift Valley to the slopes of the imposing 5,199 metre Mount Kenya and into the plains of eastern Kenya. From a genre that was previously considered low class, it has managed to establish its hold as a definite Kenyan style and beat. Sprinklings of it are to be found in DR Congo. It has been borrowed, repackaged and found a new form in Zimbabwe. From its humble rural beginnings, this music has been nurtured into a club circuit affair in numerous urban areas in East, Central and Southern Africa.
What, exactly, is Benga Music?
Benga’s most distinctive feature is its fast-paced rhythmic beat and bouncy finger-picking guitar technique. Indeed, the core of benga is the lead guitar, which essentially follows the track of the vocals. Without exception, the singing is at some point separated from the climax—the instrumental expanse that combines three or four guitars and percussions. Benga is loosely linked to Congolese rumba and West African highlife, but differs sharply from South African kwela, taarab, chakacha and kidumbaak; the most well-known Swahili music forms from the coastal strip of East Africa.
The peculiarity of the benga beat comes from the combination of a sharp lead guitar overriding the rhythm and bass. The pace of the guitars, with a steady rise to a climax or crescendo and an equally quick refrain, together with the arrangement and sectioning markbenga apart from other music. Luo guitarists long cultivated a unique technique of playing the guitar. They commonly do not massage the strings as their Congolese counterparts do but rather they pluck and pick single notes rapidly in a fashion akin to playing a nyatiti—the traditional lyre of the Luo people.
Benga is undoubtedly dance music because of its fast tempo. Dancers commonly do not hold hands or embrace as is the case with other music, for instance Congolese rumba. Benga fans will be seen dancing alone or forming a group, but not holding hands. Often the dancers break off from the circle of their partners and slink away, doing their own thing, sometimes becoming theatrical in their movements—flexing their muscles, feet and shaking their heads. They dance with freedom and even total abandon.
Attentive benga audiences point out the importance of its themes especially where a song chronicles or even instigates an important social event or political drama. Many lyrics dwell on love, either extolling a woman’s beauty and praising her virtues or expressing the disappointment of an ardent suitor. Some songs sing about money and personal experiences of hardship and struggle. Occasionally, the lyrics are in praise of a person of high standing in the society. Those in political leadership are frequently the subject of such praise, even though occasionally they are the subject of biting censure. Modern benga vocals sections are long and the story winding and repetitive, with some of the more accomplished songwriters employing clever allegory, generating witty memorable phrases or coining new idioms.
Tradition— Adaptations and Innovations
The traditional benga sound is about 60 years old with its formative years occurring between the late 1950s and the 1960s. Its roots run deep in age-old Luo musical instruments. Of the many traditional instruments that the Luo played, the most enduring and widely used is the nyatiti, an eight-stringed traditional lyre.
In elaborate traditional Luo ceremonies, the nyatiti was accompanied by a set of traditional drums, cow horns, gourds, sticks, shakers and other improvised instrumentation such as whistling, feet-stamping, and clapping or a melody created from someone blowing through the hollowed chamber of clasped hands. Sometimes the single-stringed orutu, from the viol family, would also be used. This combination of musical instruments and vocal accompaniment provided entertainment for a range of ceremonies long before the first European explorers and missionaries appeared on the scene.
The winding mournful sound of the orutu, which was easily imitated by the modern benga lead guitar upon which the music rides, is considered by many as the single most crucial link between that instrument and modern benga. The tempo of the nyatiti playing along with the sound produced from the rhythmic thumping of an iron ring harnessed to the toe of the lyre player is the rhythm and percussion respectively in modern benga. The nyatiti which had been made popular by musicians like Otuoma Ogolo, Mbui Jachur and later Ogola Opot also influenced the acoustic guitar in terms of moulding single-note picking rather than strumming. Its playing technique, together with that of the orutu formed the root of the high-pitched electric lead guitar and bass that was the vogue of mid-1970s benga bands. Today, one typically finds up to four guitars interplaying in synchronized harmony and the high-pitched lead still typifies the benga beat.
Benga pioneers were, in local parlance, ‘one-man guitarists’ accompanied by a conductor-an improvised instrument in the form of a wooden box which maintained the rhythm. Later, novel accompaniment was discovered in the form of the rhythmic strumming of the grooves of the 1960s Fanta soft drink bottle. This kind of performance shared many similarities with that of a nyatiti player and his ankle shaker.
Transition to Benga
Soon after the end of the Second World War, a handful of demobilized soldiers who had been conscripted from Luoland arrived back home with an instrument that would herald new practices of entertainment amongst their people—the Spanish guitar.
Though the fairly sophisticated accordion had penetrated Nyanza after the First World War, its chords did not quite capture the emotions, popular imagination and the creative impulses of the locals in the way the strings of the acoustic guitar did. Musicians like Nyangira Obong’o, Achwal, Aton Mito and later Oguta Lie Bobo attained some success with their accordion music, but it soon paved way for what the locals called a ‘box guitar’, which truly appealed to the Luo ear. Interestingly the accordion had a far greater appeal and impact amongst the Kikuyu people of central Kenya.
In the late 1940s individual guitar players began plucking away at the chords as they would the nyatiti, all the while singing in the language of the lake shore people. Traditional Luo dance forms and songs were fused to produce new and distinct guitar-generated beats and riffs. The foreigner’s instrument was slowly becoming an indispensable part of the leisure and entertainment of the local community.
The ex-soldiers and their students particularly liked to play the guitar next to a granary. These traditional food stores were often erected a distance away from the main houses, the better for naughty lyrics to escape the ears of the innocent. The Luo word for granary is ‘dero’ while the expression ‘tie dero’— the local reference to early guitar-music— denotes the idea of being ‘around and about’ the granary.
The Ogara Years
By the early 1950s, pioneering Luo musicians like Obuondo Atwanga , John Odula, Oyugi Tobby, Ojwang Bathlomeyo, Owiti (Dewitts), the group Lango Obiero, John Lang’o, Olulo Ochenya and Olima Anditi were already recording songs, the latter producing the memorable track Sabina. But it is the late John Ogara Odondi ‘Kaisa’ who is regarded as one of the trail-blazing benga pioneers who spread it beyond local village confines, ingeniously shaped its style and nurtured a new crop of benga artistes.
The next step was to unfold when John Ogara founded Ogara Boys Band in 1960 with Aketch Oyosi. With the recruitment of Nelson Ochieng’ Orwa two years later, Ogara transformed his group into a three-piece acoustic and vocal group. Ochieng’ Orwa was a young and extremely talented guitarist who would come to be known by the stage name of Ochieng’ Nelly. He must be distinguished from another accomplished performer bearing a similar name, Ochieng Nelly Mengo, who was one of the founders of the 1970s Victoria Kings Band.
Other pioneers and contemporaries of Ogara at that time were Adero Onani, Owiti Origo, and Festo Ochuka.
In 1963, the Ogara trio recorded the song Selestina Juma at the African Gramophone Stores, famously known as AGS, in Nairobi. Curiously, the song bears a distinct beat of ska, the precursor of today’s reggae. The trio’s guitar work was evidently inspired by influences from way beyond Luoland and was pretty much ahead of its time. It is possible that its ingenuity came from itinerant guitarists from the Congo, Uganda and Zambia who were already visiting Nairobi in the 1960s. Musicians such as Jean Bosco Mwenda, Edward Masengo, Nashil Pichen, Peter Tsotsi and Ugandan bassist Charles Sonko introduced exotic styles which were snapped up by their local collaborators who included Daudi Kabaka, Fadhili William, John Mwale, John Nzenze and Gabriel Omolo.
Another illustrative recording by the ambitious Ogara Boys was the 1965 track titled Samuel Aketch in which Aketch is praised and the word ‘benga’ mentioned in animation. Apparently the song was composed after Aketch briefly left the group. In the same way as this lyrical utterance ties Ogara to the emergence of a genre, veteran Kericho-based music producer and retailer A.P. Chandarana, is on record as remarking, “Benga is Ogara.” John Ogara died in 1998 in Kandiege Village in Karachuonyo, South Nyanza.
Origin of the Word
The debate over the actual origins of the word ‘benga’ has been raging since the 1960s when it first became a mainstream genre. Typical of many other music genres worldwide, the struggle to pinpoint the origins of a style is especially difficult when its name is unrecognizable in any known ethnic language.
Some of the musicians who were interviewed claim the word originated from the Congo. In the 50s a number of Luo people travelled to that vast country for work and adventure and came back home with the term.
Other players and enthusiasts maintain that the term is derived from a Luo word, arguing that, in the Dholuo language, describing something as ‘obeng’ore,’ for instance, implies it is in a state of looseness, lacks rigidity or seriousness. They advance that in music, this can be understood in the context of one being relaxed and happy- which is the very basis of dance and celebration.
Other people associate the word ‘benga’ with the dress fashions of the 50s and 60s. In particular, they single out a skirt that was in vogue at the time. Aketch Oyosi and Ochieng’ Nelly are in agreement about this. The skirt was known as the ‘Ogara Skirt,’ named after their band leader, John Ogara.
1970s benga producer, Oluoch Kanindo concurs with the former members of the Ogara Boys Band about the skirt style that lent its name to the musical genre. According to him benga skirts were so fashionable in the 60s that women would travel long distances from their homes to have them made.
The late benga maestro D.O. Misiani at one time said the term was derived from his mother’s maiden name, but that claim has been dismissed by most people. However, pundits agree that Misiani was clearly the king of benga. But to add to the confusion on its origin, the word benga features prominently in the lyrics of DR Congo’s Franco’s song, Tcha Tcha Tcha de mi Amor which was released in the 50s.
At the turn of the 60s, benga was still in its infancy. No one could possibly tell that a particular genre was being developed. Although the Ogara Boys helped shape its style, marrying it with new elements from a fast urbanizing Nairobi, they unwittingly left it to others like George Ramogi and D.O. Misiani to develop the genre further and gain acclaim for shaping a genuine Kenyan sound.
Electric Bands and Big Producers
Out of the Ogara years came a marked proliferation of the first proper bands, which were now outfits of at least three guitars and a drum set. With them came the 45 rpm vinyl records and the debut of the now well-known names in benga, who include George Ramogi, George Ojijo, D. O. Misiani, Orwa Jasolo, Ochieng Nelly Mengo, Collela Mazee, Paddy Onono, Brother Charley, Peter Owino Rachar, Leonard Omedo, Cheplin Kotula of Kawere Boys, John Otonde of Kiwiro Jazz, Kaudha Twins, Awino Lawi, Opiyo Emma and Musa Olwete. Later Ouma Omore, the Victoria Chomeka band, Ouma Jerry, Kassongo Polo Menyo, Osito Kalle and Okatch Biggy emerged.
Many of these musicians had now dumped their acoustic guitars and snapped up electric ones; as it was said, “the power had been turned on.” Most of these pioneers have since passed on with only a handful left in active music.
The era of 78 rpm discs and His Master’s Voice (HMV) gramophones had been ushered in by European producers when Kenya’s first recording studio was set up in 1947. This is the magical year in which pioneer guitarist, Fundi Konde, who was a member of the Entertainment Unit during the Second World War reportedly played Kenya’s first electric guitar. European recording companies were to hold a monopoly over the East African music industry for many years to come before independent Kenyan producers made real headway.
Rivaling the Europeans at the time was Kenyan producer of Indian ancestry, A.P. Chandarana, who set up base in Kericho, lying in the lush tea-growing regions east of the Rift Valley, and has remained there since. It is at Chandarana’s studios that a vast number of musicians from western Kenya first put their work on spool tapes. Chandarana’s business acumen was in large part responsible for the replication of the benga sound by singers from the mid-Rift Valley region. His shop and recording premises in the town are still in operation, though he has retreated into reclusive old age and is hardly keen on granting media interviews.
The pre-Ogara period saw the emergence of the first influential indigenous African producers. At the time, they were more of talent scouts in the employ of big multinationals such as AIT, Andrew Crawford, Polydor and EMI. By the turn of the 60s, they had set up their own labels and throughout the 70s they were pivotal forces in the emergence of new groups and evolving sounds. David Amunga of Kassanga and Phares Oluoch Kanindo, who worked under numerous record labels like AIT, EMI and later his own label POK, are amongst the key producers of that era. Amunga is the one African producer to whom a myriad of Kenyan musicians owe their success. He knew how to identify talent and nurture it, and signed on musicians from different ethnic backgrounds and styles. However, most of them later fell out with him because of his brash style of management.
From the late 60s, substantial stakes in the local music industry were also held by Indian-owned record retail shops and recording studios such as Assanands & Son, which moved from Mombasa to what was then Government Road (present-day Moi Avenue) in Nairobi and Melodica on the busy Tom Mboya Street. Although depressed today by technological advances that have significantly stunted music sales by making reproduction quick and cheap for music pirates, Melodica remains in operation stocking numerous ‘zilizopendwa’ golden oldies.
Melodica’s precursor was known as Bonanza Music Store located on Luthuli Avenue. Founded by Mzee Daudia in 1963, the name was inspired by the American cowboy TV series of the time and it quickly became a benga musician’s Mecca. The shop moved to its present location on Tom Mboya Street in 1971, with Daudia renaming it Melodica. He was passionate in his promotion of local artistes. One of his sons, Abdul Karim, now runs the outlet with no less great passion. It is a shrine for many Kenyans who have either been away from the country for long or reside outside the capital. They visit it to collect old hits every time they are in Nairobi. Melodica has also received numerous musicians eager to experiment with Kenyan styles and Western-based researchers anxious to locate a local music archive.
Melodica produced Juma Odundo, Adams Nyahone and Ochieng’ Kabaselleh, a Luo pop artist who occasionally teamed up with Laban Juma Toto, formerly of the Hodi Boys band, to produce some of the best rumba melodies sang in the Luo language. Kabaselleh’s love for rumba saw him adopt the name of Congo’s celebrated pioneer musician, Joseph Kabaselleh ‘Le Grand Kalle.’ Some of Ochieng’s sons like Babu Kabaselleh and Reggie Kabaselleh are now well-known musicians in their own right, same to his siblings who make up the Bana Kadori band. Ochieng’ Kabaselleh died in 1998, leaving a vacuum in the leadership of the Luna Kidi band which he founded almost three decades earlier.
By the mid-1970s, studio recording in Nairobi and a handful of other towns was big business. Big studios like Andrew Crawford and Polygram had set up shop in the capital. Polygram, which was based in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, later held record-pressing monopoly. Other big music labels locally were EMI and CBS, and these attracted artists from as far away as the then Zaire.
But the activity at these multinationals could never rival the volume, spirit and camaraderie that reverberated from the independent studios on Nairobi’s River Road, which nurtured raw talent and threw together new bands in the flash of a recording session. Musicians from far and wide across the country would congregate at these River Road studios, sometimes recording a song in just one take and cutting the new record in the space of a day.
These independent outlets have remained in business long after the multinational record companies closed shop in the mid-1980s. With the rise of local video production, the vibrant River Road studios have acquired the name ‘Riverwood,’ riding on the success of Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood.
1960s—1970s: the Golden Decades
Benga was for a long time regarded as the music of the lower classes— the subaltern Luo living in the rural areas and urban slums. Indeed, early benga was known as music of the ‘rural and uncultured.’ The expressions, jomaranda or jonjore (meaning low class) -used by musicians and fans alike- are pejorative and fairly snobbish ways of describing benga music.
The emergent African elite shunned these ethnic sounds in favour of Western music, which was viewed as being synonymous with ‘progress’ and modernity. In later years, Congolese music would come to be viewed as more suitable entertainment for an emergent urban middle-class. These attitudes in part explain why artists who saw themselves as urbanites, preferred rumba, jazz and Western styles. They include Sila Gwada, father to Rocky and Paddy Gwada of the famous Ashanti Band, Ben Blastas Bulawayo, who worked as a senior manager at Kenya Meat Commission, and the Russia-educated Jose Kokeyo, who was a District Officer.
The seventies were the era in which Oluoch Kanindo, a former technician with the Kenya News Agency and the Voice of Kenya (KBC) grew into a massive music production guru whose dominance and supreme authority over benga generated many controversies. One of the first big benga bands of that decade, Victoria Kings, was Kanindo’s brainchild and it grew into a key pillar of the Kanindo stable. Victoria Kings eventually split into sub groups, most of them with the ‘Victoria’ tag appended to them— Victoria A, B, C and D Kings. Kanindo also had a plethora of labels such as Lolwe, Sungura, Oyundi, Duol amongst others.
By 1979, Kanindo had become a household name in the region, controlling an industry worth several million shillings, and determining the fate of benga musicians besides setting their standards. He is said to have, at times, played bands against each other, dropping some suddenly and giving bigger recording opportunities and visibility to others. It has been suggested that his management style— no doubt motivated by business interests and familial or clan-based loyalties—triggered unprecedented mass production of benga releases.
He also embarked on the ‘Congolization’ of benga by encouraging bands under his stable, who included his brother-in-law Dr. Collela Mazee’s Victoria Kings, to copy Congolese bands like Orchestre Kiam and Lipua Lipua that were being promoted by Congolese musician and businessman Verkys Kiamuangana, who was his business associate. Many of their recordings blatantly lifted recognizable sections of these Congolese songs. This copying was also being replicated at Verkys’ end. A case in point is the mid-1970s hit Nouvelle Generation by the Kinshasa-based Lipua Lipua. The high-pitched notes of the rhythm guitar by veteran guitarists Vata Mombasa and Lele N’Sundi of Orchestra Kiam were frequently imitated by these benga groups. This borrowing created a new trend where the spark of the bengaguitars was fused with rumba to create a potent form of dance music.
This experimentation later saw Sam Mangwana together with other Congolese musicians like guitarists Lokassa ya Mbongo, Ringo Moya, Nyboma Mwandido, Bopol Mansiamina and Syrian Mbenza form the African All Stars in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, in 1978. By this time, the popularity of benga had spread as far as West Africa and as Mangwana once confessed, it was this sound and West African highlife that the people loved.
The African All Stars added elements of this energetic rhythm to the existing Congolese rumba. In the 1980s some members of the African All Stars moved to Paris and formed the Four Stars (Les Quatre Etoiles) and became the base for the fast-paced Congolese music production spiced with additional Caribbean influences like zouk. This music came to be known as Paris soukous, a lively and compelling beat that was different from the one played in Kinshasa.
Their signature of intricate guitars could be heard on virtually every soukous record out of Paris, which became the recording capital for Congolese music. Stars from Kinshasa like Pepe Kalle and Madilu System couldn’t resist this new trend, and they all trooped to Paris to record with this group of musicians.
Benga spreads its wings beyond the region.
But perhaps Oluoch Kanindo’s most important contribution to benga was the fact that he took this genre to southern Africa, thanks to his distribution acumen.
In Zimbabwe, the music became so popular that the locals named it ‘kanindo’ after the music producer. All the records bore the label ‘Kanindo’. Another of Kanindo’s benga labels was called Sungura, Swahili for ‘rabbit’ and it too became the name given to a faster variation of the music, a spin off from kanindo. Currently sungura is one of the biggest music genres in Zimbabwe. It is said that many fighters during the independence war in Zimbabwe used to dance to kanindo records during the night vigils known as pungwe.
However, it should be noted that Zimbabweans have their own traditional beats like mbira and chimurenga music which have been popularized by big names like Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi.
Does Benga have a Future?
Despite all this success benga has refused to shed the rural tag, with the urban youth preferring Western music. The typical bengamusician will still travel to the capital for recording sessions and a few gigs, but he or she is more comfortable doing gigs in the siwadhas(temporary shelters) of Kenya’s provincial agricultural shows and seedy small-town pubs or at rural market centres.
Although clubs like the Carnivore have opened up to benga acts, it is still an occasional thing. Save for the culturally-themed nights–‘Mugithi night’ for the Kikuyu, ‘Kililimbi night’ for the Kamba, ‘Mulembe night’ for the Luhya and ‘Ramogi night’ for the Luo – which are few and far apart, the rest of the entertainment fare is dictated by the DJs, who have no choice but to play what appeals to the mostly youthful urbanite audience. Benga musicians’ problems are further compounded by the fact that they can no longer make money like their forebears did from record sales.
The intricacies of vinyl production in the 1970s allowed artistes to gain reasonable remuneration from good sales. In a country where copyright laws are blatantly flouted, cassette tape and CD technology have given the largest share of music profits to music pirates, thereby plunging benga artistes into near poverty. Benga artistes are also witnessing a ‘raid’ on their primary audiences. The style is being suffocated by the profusion of emergent genres such as the popular Ohangla, named after the traditional Luo set of drums though the music is in fact a scaled down version of benga played on the electronic keyboard.
In a sense, benga music is at a crossroads. It has largely failed to capitalize on technology to grow. It has also failed to adapt to new trends, thereby losing its appeal to the youth.
Normally benga is dominated by men, but a few female musicians have managed to break through. Notably, they have emerged after the deaths of their musician husbands. A good example is Princess Jully, who took over her husband’s Jolly Boys Band and went on to make a success of it. Others are Queen Jane of Queenja Les Les, Emily Nyaimbo, Benta Ogwe Chalre, Queen Babito and Linet Aluoch Pamba, among others.
Benga is still shrouded in mystery. One major misconception is that any popular music in Luo is benga, which normally is not the case. Eldoret-based Awilo Mike won the Kisima Award for Best Benga in 2007 though several observers point out that the group leans more towards rumba. Other prominent musicians who sing in Luo but who do not necessarily play benga are Gabriel Omolo, Juma Toto, Ochieng Kabaselleh, Mazadijo, Jamnazi Afrika’s Milton Ongoro, Musa Juma and his brother Omondi Tony, and the current sensation John Junior.
There is no doubt that the benga beat still pulsates in urban and rural Kenya. The Kondele ‘Beer Belt’ in Kisumu comes alive every night, peaking on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Almost every pub has some make-shift band and some groups have been lucky enough to make a breakthrough nationally. But in many ways, benga is caught in a time-warp.
Shapers of Benga
Perhaps the best-known benga artiste in Kenya and abroad is Daniel Owino Misiani, commonly known as D.O. Many benga musicians, including those from other communities, regard him and George Ramogi as their greatest influences. DO’s iconic status stems from his powerful compositions and the numerous controversies generated by his polemical, often anti-establishment lyrics. Despite him being Tanzanian, he always immersed himself in Kenyan politics to the chagrin of the Kenyan government, which on several occasions tried to have him deported.
It was the cruel hand of death that finally silenced the man, achieving what the authorities had failed to do. Misiani died on May 17, 2006 in a road accident in Kisumu. His body was repatriated to his hometown of Shirati in Tanzania, where he was laid to rest.
However, what most people do not know is that there were many Luo and Luhyia session musicians who created a unique benga sound on River Road that the musicians from other communities simply adapted to their lyrics. They were known as the River Road session musicians, and usually they would be found around the famous recording studios on River Road waiting for clients to hire them for a recording. These musicians-for-hire included Osumba Rateng, Owacha Willy, Okech Ombasa, Berry Guya, Vincent Bunde ‘Redman’, Ondiek Nzoi, Juma Othech, Steven Sakwa, soloist Zachariah, Peter Owino Rachar Roland Isese, bassist Swalleh Yussuf, solo guitarist Anzino Osundwa, drummer Issa Juma and Odongo ‘Manila’ Guya.
These session musicians were rarely given their due credit. But it is thanks to them that benga spread to the Rift Valley, Eastern and Central Kenya as they propelled into stardom artistes like D.K. Kamau, Joseph Kamaru, John Ndichu, Kakai Kilonzo, Katitu Boys, among others. These stars wholly relied on them to shape and refine their music. Some, like the soloist Zachariah, were in such high demand he had to shuttle by taxi between sessions on River Road and at the Polygram Studios in Industrial Area.
Because of his dexterity with the guitar and his ability to improvise on the fly, solo guitarist Vincent Bunde was nicknamed ‘Readyman’, which was later corrupted to ‘Redman’ by the Kikuyu musicians who worked with him because of difficulties pronouncing the name. The fact that he could speak kikuyu and Kamba fluently also made him a darling of the musicians from the two communities.
Peter Owino Rachar featured in most of the early recordings by D K Kamau Mwai, who was considered the biggest success in Kikuyubenga with his cross-over national hit I Love You that was released in 1970. According to Osumba Rateng, who we interviewed, the song featured him on lead guitar, Zachariah Shivachi on the rhythm guitar, Juma Othech on the bass and Steven Sakwa on drums. Osumba also played the lead guitar on many of Joseph Kamaru’s hit songs. Business was so good that Roland Isese left the Army’s Ulinzi Band to fully concentrate on River Road. Others like Anzino Osundwa played so well he was at times hired to play for Congolese bands like Bana Ikanga.
Currently, the big benga names have instrumentalists from their own communities who got the skills from the original River Road ‘sessionists’. However, occasionally they rely on the few surviving aces.
Over time benga has managed to spread to various parts of the country, adapting new flavours as it is transformed to fit into the music of the various communities. Among the Luhyia the most successful benga artist has no doubt been Sukuma bin Ongaro, thanks partly to the promotional efforts of Art Point’s Eric Ndeche. The other benga giants are Jacob Luseno, Shem Tube, Nyongesa wa Muganda and Fanuel Amimo. The baton has since passed on to a younger generation that includes Lisanga Generation Band’s Emmanuel Musindi, Musungu wa Muganda and Phonotex Success band’s Julius Itenya.
Across in Ukambani the benga sound was largely shaped by two musicians, Kakai Kilonzo and later Francis Danger. Now the leader of Kangundo Dangerous Brothers, Danger was drawn to the vigorous beat and melody of D O Misiani’s Lala Salama and Harusi ya MK, which he first heard in 1972. Later musicians who adapted the genre include Katitu Boys, Kimangu Boys, Kalambia Boys, Peter Mwambi and his Kyanganga Boys Band, and the current sensation, Ken wa Maria, among others.
For the central region, the key shaper is undoubtedly D K Mwai. CDM Kiratu was another success in this genre. Joseph Kamaru’s experimentation with benga was not as successful as his dalliance with mwomboko. D K influenced latter-day musicians like Albert Gacheru, John De Mathew, Timona Mburu, Wamumbe, and Peter Kigia.
In Kisii, the most successful artiste was Christopher Monyoncho Araka, who was nicknamed the ‘Skin of the Python’ because of his ability to reinvigorate his music over the years. He died in 2013.
Angelica Chepkoech and her Kalenjin Sisters band, which she co-founded with the late Elizabeth Chepkorir, is perhaps the best known non-Luo benga musician in the Rift Valley. But her success was midwifed by the work of earlier musicians such as the Kipsigis musicians Kipchambai arap Tapotuk with his Koilonget Band, Chebaibai who sang the song Dot.com and the famous Kipchambai arap Butuk.
Although some young Luo musicians have lately switched their allegiance to rumba, there are others who have stuck to the originalbenga. They include Aluoch Jamaranda, Dola Kabarry, Atomi Sifa, Omondi Long Lilo, Odhiambo Tusker, Oginga Wuod Awasi and Jerry Jalang’o.
When the multinationals made their exit in the 1980s their place was taken by independent record labels such as POK, Doromy Instrumental Company, Jaca (ACK) Productions, Oula Recording Company, Matunda Records, Studio Sawa, Sibuor Records, Sokota Music Store, Wamenyo Productions, Umoja Store, Diploma, and Jojo Records. Most of these indie labels were based on River Road. However, due to their lack of experience in the music industry and lack of access to the international distribution network, they soon found the going tough. Piracy and the market’s preference for Congolese music also added to their woes and soon some started closing shop. The few that are still in active business include Jojo Records and Studio Sawa.
With most indie labels closing shop the demand for session musicians went down. Many of these pioneer ‘sessionists’ have since passed on. Only a few of the sessionists are still in operation. They include Osumba Rateng, who has since relocated from River Road to his rural home in Sega, Siaya County.
And as new trends emerge on the market and technological advances pose new challenges, benga continues to hold its own as the definitive Kenyan sound.