The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya

Various Artists

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The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya Review

by Chris Nickson

No one's going to deny that the music of Kenya can be complex, drawing from many sources, but this compilation successfully and credibly reduces it to four main elements -- the home-grown, guitar and bass-driven benga sound, East African rhumba, which takes its inspiration from Congolese rhumba (which in turn is rooted in Cuban rhumba), the coastal Islamic taarab music, and some newer material which offers ideas ranging from updates of traditions to hip-hop. For Western listeners, the benga pieces are possibly the easiest on the ear, pulsing and rhythmic, with elastic basslines that curiously recall South Africa. It's infectious and very danceable, from the pioneering work of D.O. Misiani (who still presides over the genre), to singer Queen Jane. There's only one example of the rhumba style, which has mainly been the province of older musicians like the no longer extant Golden Sounds Band, whose "Hasidi Hana Sababu" is a prime example of the laid-back style. Rhumba does still exist in Kenya, but it's very much a dying art. That's not true for taarab, which is far more hypnotic, inflected with Arab and even Indian modes. Uniquely Swahili, it's most evident on the coast and in Zanzibar, and although it's most often heard at weddings, it's become a popular recorded music. Thankfully, a good portion of this CD is reserved for younger artists who are leading the way into the future. Nyota Ndogo, for instance, updates the taarab sound gorgeously, while Suzzana Owiyo proves to be a wonderful singer with a strong acoustic and traditional base to her music while still sounding contemporary. Gidi Gidi Maji Maji opt for hip-hop, and have become very popular in Kenya. However, the track included here seems to be nothing special, drawing more from America than anything at home. The excellent liner notes are succinct and straightforward, while still offering full explanations and background.

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