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“Renaissance” of Akamba Benga Music in Postcolonial Kenya

Fidelis Kioko Makali

Résumé

This article presents a discussion on the reappropriation of benga musical style by the Akamba musicians, in the postcolonial period in Kenya. It analyses how ideas of the benga genre spread from Nyanza Province in Western Kenya thanks to its diffusion through the increased mobility of the Luo benga music pioneers, and its popularity with Nairobi audiences. This paper argues that Akamba musicians, often groomed in the village religious choirs, were attracted to benga music, and began to adopt it, fusing it with elements of previous musical styles, in innovative ways which contributed to its renaissance in Machakos, Makueni and Kitui areas of the Ukambani region. Sources for this paper were based on in-depth interviews with selected Akamba benga musicians. The findings of this research establish that the process of transformative reappropriation of benga music in Ukambani took place in local settings, and suggests that the influence of foreign genres was not determining. Specifically, this discussion revisits the history of the benga music genre in Kenya, by adopting a micro-social history perspective to explain how this reappropriation was possible, and how it occurred.

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1Akamba benga music can be traced back to the mid-1970s when the benga genre was taking shape in different regions in Kenya. This music style originated from Nyanza Province in the western part of the country after the Second World War (Osusa and Odidi 2017, 73). The impetus for its emergence was the development of the Entertainment Unit of the King’s African Rifles which recruited men from all over Africa to perform in small strings bands and variety shows to entertain troops in East Africa, India, Burma and Ceylon (Eagleson Ian 2014, 30). The demobilised soldiers conscripted from Luoland arrived back home with a guitar, that heralded new practices of entertainment among their people. Nyatiti players integrated this guitar within Luo traditional music forms, leading to a new benga music style. This adaptation involved several key aspects, notably Luo nyatiti players used finger picking techniques to pluck the guitar strings with thumb and fingers in intricate patterns creating a unique sound that retained the essence of nyatiti playing. Additionally, Luo guitarists often sung lyrics that reflected Luo cultural themes and narratives, similar to how nyatiti players incorporated storytelling into their music. This aspect added depth and meaning to this adaptation, and allowed for a transition to the new benga genre in the Luo music scene which was often characterised by a fast-paced rhythm guitar, anchored on a high energy bass guitar that supported a recurrent interlocking solo guitar upon which the vocalist conveys the message. At the climax of the song, vocals and the lead guitar normally drop off, leaving percussion of other instruments (Osusa and Odidi 2017, 65).

Figure 1

Figure 1

Nyatiti Musical Instrument.

Source: Fidelis Kioko Makali

Figure 2

Figure 2

Playing a guitar.

Source: Fidelis Kioko Makali

2

Rapasa plays 'Ukalo Matek' on Nyatiti

The Singing Wells project, uploaded November 9th, 2017. 

Crédits : The Singing Wells project

3

Alex Katombi Kisinga Trace Performance Hosted by Biado

Alex Katombi Kisinga, uploaded September 28th, 2021

Crédits : Wakwitu TV

4Benga music ideas transcended Nyanza Province as the Luo benga musicians increasingly interacted with musicians from other parts of the country in the postcolonial period. The encounter between these Luo musicians and Akamba artistes created a space for musical exchanges and innovation that led to the adaptation of benga styles in the Akamba music scene. The Akamba’s vibrant drum-based kilumi musical heritage provided fertile ground for reappropriation of guitar-based benga music styles. In the rural areas, young musicians, often self-taught, blended traditional Akamba melodies and rhythms with influences of tunes performed by Luo and Kisii benga musicians, resulting in a unique benga sound that become popular in the region.

5Previous studies on the history of the benga music genre in Kenya have highlighted several issues, especially regarding its origins. Scholars affirm that benga music was originally a musical articulation of the cultural identity of a generation of Luo who lived in late colonial Kenya and in the early years of Kenya’s independence. For example, Gregory Barz (2001, 108) argues that benga music references the traditional culture of the Luo people in the area surrounding Lake Victoria. According to Barz, benga is a style of Luo music that was first popularised in the 1960s, and spread to other communities in the 1970s. Similarly, Eagleson Ian (2014, 29) maintains that throughout its initial development among the Luo music bands and subsequent adaptation to other languages, the benga genre provided many Kenyans with a malleable platform for enjoying a novel, emergent style that resonated with traditional poetics and musical sensibilities in both rural and urban life.

6The urban locations of performances also feature prominently in some of the scholarly works, and help in the understanding of the expansion of the benga genre in cosmopolitan settings. Bettina Ng’weno (2018, 32) notes that musicians from various regions in Kenya frequented social halls in African urban residential areas in the 1950s, where they expressed diverse forms of music art. Music that was created in the new housing estates and older African residential areas was influenced by internal vernacular influences from different regions of Kenya that workers in Nairobi brought with them (Owen 2016, 146). Moreover, David Coplan (1982, 115) asserts that the confluence of social, economic and political conditions in urban spaces transformed popular African music. Some local African musicians attempted to reach out to the urban African working class who sought to express their identity through music that integrated remote American jazz styles with culturally familiar African musical compositions and performances.

7The extant literature explores fundamental themes in the musical history of Kenya, particularly the intersection of ethnicity, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, which represented critical issues in building national identities in music in the post-colonial period. Nonetheless, scholars have overlooked the musical ferment that was mounting in Kenya’s rural towns and village markets, which would manifest against the background created by political independence in 1963. In contrast, this article elucidates the social circumstances that led to effective reappropriation of benga style in local settings in the Ukambani region, in which it was not initially appreciated, or at least was not common. In-depth interviews with Akamba benga musicians who were purposely sampled because of their role in reshaping the benga genre were conducted for this article, which is divided into three parts. First, it will discuss an array of historical contexts under which ideas of the benga music genre spread from Nyanza Province in Western Kenya. Second, it will argue that the local church choirs provided critical spaces for the emergence of the Akamba benga musicians, despite negative stereotypes against secular guitarists held by the Christian fundamentalists in the rural villages. Drawing on the data collected in the field, this paper argues that the nascent reappropriation of benga music styles in the Ukambani region took place in the rural settings, before cosmopolitan facets came into the matrix.

Benga: a Story of Circulation, Competition and Adaptation

8Though the accordion had reached Nyanza after the First World War, it did not fully captivate the emotions, popular imaginations or creative impulses of the locals, the way the strings of the acoustic guitar did. Early musicians attained some level of success with the accordion, but it soon gave way to the “box guitar”, an instrument that was readily accepted by the local musicians in this region (Osusa and Odidi 2017, 73). Subsequently, in the 1940s, Luo musicians incorporated the guitar into the Luo culture of professional praise-singing rooted in the nyatiti songs and other folksongs performed at social gatherings. Furthermore, in developing an approach to playing the guitar to accompany Luo songs, these musicians adhered to conventions of melodic phrasing and rhythmic organisation that had existed in Luo music traditions. As a result, by the 1960s musicians singing in Dholuo had experimented with guitar styles and techniques for over twenty years, and had a well-established benga sound (Eagleson 2014, 34).

9In contextualising the emergence of benga music bands in the 1960s, it is important to note the role of multinational record companies in Kenya which were recording in several vernacular languages in the late 1930s. By 1939, the East African recording market had grown quickly, with CBS selling 80,000 records in these languages (ibid., 30). By the beginning of 1950s EMI subsidiaries had issued 479 recordings of East African musicians, with HMV concentrating on music in Dholuo, Kikuyu and Luganda. These recording companies were pivotal in the management of benga music from Western Kenya.

10The late John Ogara Odondi “Kaisa” (born in the 1940s and died in 1998) is acknowledged to have trailblazed benga music band ideas in the Luo Nyanza region (Osusa and Odidi 2017, 75). He founded the Ogara Boys Band in 1960 where he played bass guitar, with Sammuel Aketch Oyosi playing lead guitar. Nelson Ochieng’ Orwa (b. 1942, d. 2014) joined the duo in 1962, specialising in rhythm guitar. With the recruitment of Ochieng’, the group became a three-piece guitar troupe with all three musicians collaborating on the vocals. In 1963, the Ogara trio recorded their debut song, “Selestine Juma”, at the African Gramophone Stores, famously known in Nairobi as AGS. The trio released several albums in the subsequent years and dominated benga music in the Lake Victoria region (Muleka 2018, 62). Their music influenced other young artists, and consequently led to the expansion of benga music performances in Western Kenya. Remarkably, the schism among these pioneer founders of the Ogara Boys Band contributed to the spread of the budding ideas of the organisation of a benga music band, as they went on to perform elsewhere, and to start their own ensembles. It was at this time that the 45 rpm vinyl records appeared in the music industry, and it saw the debut of notable Luo benga musicians such as the late George Ramogi (b. 1945, d. 1997), D.O. Misiani, (b. 1940, d. 2006), and Gabriel Omolo (b. 1939, d. 2018), among many others (ibid.).

11The spread of benga music in the late colonial period in Kenya coincided with the state of emergency in the 1950s. As a way of countering the Mau Mau insurrection, the colonial government-initiated reforms in its urban labour and social policies which aimed at regaining the loyalty of the urban African workers (Owen 2016, 3). For instance, the Carpenter Committee Report of1954 urged the colonial government in Kenya to harmonise salaries for men and women of all origins which brought to an end the colour bar in public sector employment, and led to a significant increase in African wage rates (Newsinger 1981, 178). Furthermore, increased demand for skilled and semi-skilled African labour by local European and Asian businesses led to the emergence of African urban elites who occupied a privileged position in the urban economy. In particular, the payment of modest salaries and wages to African urban workers led to the emergence of a stabilised and relatively affluent African proletariat in Nairobi by the late 1950s. As E.S Adhiambo (2001, 254) notes, these African workers had a disposable income, which enabled them to “kula raha,”- that is, to consume leisure through the consumption of music items such as jukeboxes, radio sets and gramophone records.

12Correspondingly, to control African urban dwellers the colonial government initiated social projects involving the expansion of recreational facilities in African residential areas (Owen 2016, 26). In Nairobi, an outstanding characteristic of African residential housing estates was a social hall. The African recreational facilities that were built were apparently designed as infrastructures of control (ibid.). Colonial officials believed that an idle African worker was a threat to law and order. They concluded that if Africans were not busy working, they had better be dancing, watching films or playing football. These were the “morally uplifting” forms of leisure that would prevent African workers from plotting hijinks or planning unrest (ibid.). As a result, the 1940s and 1950s were periods of extensive expansion of recreational spaces in towns such as Nairobi and Mombasa, as the colonial state sought to co-opt its African urban population into a vision of imperial stability, exemplified by notions of development and modernity. Social halls built in the African residential areas provided crucial spaces for exchanges among musicians from different parts of Kenya and enabled expression of varied forms of local African music. The unique way in which this diverse spectrum of musicians gathered in Nairobi to forge new styles and market their work, while successful, would help to entrench an ideological conflict between urban sophistication and rural parochialism in discourses surrounding popular music in the years to come (Eagleson 2014, 34).

13Other regions in Kenya embraced benga music and intertwined it with their own styles and flavour. Specifically, musicians from other cultural backgrounds appropriated benga styles in different ways according to their regions and local cultural features, creating several benga variants (A.P Chandarana, 2020). For instance, Kisii musicians in Western Kenya became enthusiastic listeners and players of benga music. In this area, Christopher Monyoncho (b. 1945, d. 2013) became a force to reckon with in benga music performances. In the Rift Valley region, Charles arap Chepkwony (d. 1984) founded the Kolu Band and recorded songs in Kericho town in the 1970s. Similarly, Anjelica Chepkoech (d. 2013) and her fellow musician Elizabeth Chepkorir formed the Kalenjin Sisters Band, effectively challenging the notion of the benga music scene as a male enclave. In Central Province, Daniel Kamau Mwai popularly known as “D.K” (born in 1949), had a breakthrough in the benga scene in 1968. Alongside D.K, other Kikuyu benga musicians such as Joseph Kamaru (1939-2018) emerged in this region during this period (Muleka 2018, 64).

14Likewise, the Akamba musicians of the Lower Eastern region took advantage of their proximity to Nairobi. These artistes creatively adapted benga music in the mid-1970s to fit in with their traditional rhythms, localised and expanded it in ways that made it identifiable with them (ibid.). With the assistance of the Luo guitarists and music producers, the Akamba musicians fused benga styles into their traditional music elements such as the drum, rhythms and lyrical themes, as Francis Danger recounts:

  • 1 Francis Kavuu Nzioki, popularly known as Francis Danger, is a rhythm guitarist, and was a founder m (...)

15“In the pioneer years of Kilimambogo Brothers Band, Luo artists from Nyanza Province played the lead guitar, the rhythm guitar, and drums in the studio during live music recording sessions. These were highly talented guitarists who dominated benga music recording studios in Nairobi’s River Road Street. They included the likes of Odhiambo Rateng’, Pius Oketch and Juma Othetch among others. These musicians trained us to play these instruments. Later we were able to play music instruments during live music recording sessions.”1However, it is important to note that the transformation of benga style by the Akamba musicians was also informed by the need to challenge the monopoly of Luo artists in the benga music industry. The overreliance on the Luo guitarists especially during live music recording sessions was expensive, and sometimes unreliable because the demand for instrumentalists exceeded the supply as the recording business expanded. This forced the Akamba guitarists to actively become more imaginative, and to continuously hone their skills to become independent during benga music recordings and performances, as Dickson Mulwa remembers:

“We were forced to learn and sharpen our guitar plucking skills because sometimes the Luo guitarists whom we depended on during live music recording sessions in the studio disappointed us. In one occasion, I was forced to play the lead guitar when I was recording my first album, when one guitarist refused to finish the recording session. From that day, we started doing practice and we were able to play the instruments in the studio. This led to emergence of skilled guitarist such as the late Kakai Kilonzo, the late Joseph Mutaiti, and the late Jacob William Maunda among others.”

16These musicians persistently ingrained innovations in their compositions, often modifying Luo benga tuning styles to create distinct tunes, and dancing styles in their performances. This continuous evolution helped in the renaissance of benga music, and made it more appealing and distinctive with the Akamba musicians. Consequently, several popular Akamba benga music bands emerged in the 1970s, each coming up with their distinct melodies, which set them apart from others. They included Kilimambogo Brothers Band led by Kakai Kilonzo (b. 1954, d. 1987), Mukaa Super International Band led by Jacob William Maunda (b. 1950, d. 2012), Kalambya Boys and Sisters Band led by Onesmus Musyoki (b. 1950s, d. 2017) and Joseph Mutaiti (b. 1959, d. 2009), and Kyanganga Boys Band led by Peter Muambi (b. 1960s, d. 2013). Others included Lower Mbooni Boys Band, Muthetheni Boys Band, and Super Kaiti Boys Band led by Joseph Mutaiti, who broke away from Kalambya Boys Band. Other bands that emerged in 1989 included Kakuku Boys Band led by John Mutua Muteti, and Ngoleni Brothers Band led by Dick Mutuku Mulwa (b. 1950s), after he left Kalambya Boys Band. More Akamba benga music bands continued to emerge in the subsequent decades because of the influence of these early benga music bands (Muleka 2018, 65).

17However, during the period of expansion of the benga music genre between the 1970s and 1990s, Kenyans experienced a crisis of musical identity leading to a fragmentation of the pop music market, and the overshadowing of local musicians by artists who sang in Kiswahili and other foreign languages (Eagleson 2014, 26). Kenya’s emerging engagement between rural parochialism and urban superiority was apparent in the output of popular music recordings in the post-independence epoch. Consequently benga songs faced stiff competition from other established genres such as twist, shake, pachanga, sukusu, rumba, among others. For example, musicians such as Fadhili Williams, Fundi Konde, John Nzenze, and Daudi Kabaka had dominated the music space in Kenya. Furthermore, musicians from other African countries added fuel to this competition. They included among others Tanzania’s Mbarak Mishekhe Mwaruka with his Morogoro Jazz Band, and a Congolese superstar Luamba Luanzo Makiadi, popularly known as Franco (Ogude 2012, 157). The threat to the existence of benga music in Kenya was intensified by state-backed restrictions on vernacular songs in postcolonial Kenya. Specifically, the second president of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi, discouraged musical genres such as benga whose lyrics were in Kenyan African Languages other than the lingua franca and the national language, Kiswahili (Mboya 2021, 84). This state restriction aimed at curbing the rise of ethnic nationalism which the president detested as detrimental to national unity, did not affect languages beyond Kenya’s borders such as Lingala in former Zaire. For instance, in the 1983 Jamuhuri Day celebrations, despite having vibrant and popular Kenyan musicians, the committee that organised this event hired the Congolese star Franco Luambo Makiadi and his TPOK Jazz to entertain the attendees (Eagleson 2014, 26).

18Nonetheless, in the 1990s the “golden” era of this viable Kiswahili and Lingala music that had provided Kenya with a distinct musical identity to accompany its new statehood in the 1960s came to an end in the late 1980s. This was a reflection of the unfolding events in Kenyan history: the difficult economic period in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Kenya occasioned by the global oil crisis (Makali 2023, 2) forced a number of these foreign music bands to fold and move to other countries. Moreover, the Africanisation of the River Road recording industry made it difficult for expatriates to operate, opening up space for African musicians and entrepreneurs to establish recording labels. As a result, new labels operated by Africans sprung up. These included among others: Joseph Kamaru’s City Sounds, Daudi Kabaka’s African Eagles Recording and Kasanga Star Productions. Musicians from throughout the rift valley, eastern, central and western regions in Kenya seized this opportunity to create superlative vernacular songs that would make the simple Kiswahili songs of the 1960s a fading memory (Eagleson 2014, 39). Seemingly, the style of this early music, while loved, was largely an outcome of the colonial experience and the supervision of foreign music producers rather than an expression of a sustainable national music identity.

19Vernacular radio stations that emerged in the 1990s also encouraged a renewed appreciation for benga music tunes, as they were important outlets of promotion for old and new benga musicians. This was in direct antithesis to the situation during the preceding era of political totalitarianism, where state actors, in their efforts to marinate the public space with the state’s notions of national unity, relegated local music. While in previous years the Voice of Kenya (VOK), the only broadcasting radio station in Kenya, mostly played music from Europe, North America and Congo, the upcoming local radio stations focused on benga paving the way for the proliferation of this genre among different ethnic groups in the country, marking a period of revival of benga music in Kenya (Ogude 2012, 153).

20The ensuing period in the 1990s was epitomised by stunning music performances by self-styled Akamba benga musicians. They included the likes of Charles Musyoki (b. 1972, d. 2000) of Kimangu Boys Band, David Kasyoki wa Mutoo (b. 1968, d. 2004) of Katitu Boys Band and Paul Muthama (Kana Mbovi) of Maluini Boys Band. Arguably, these band leaders became influential benga icons who created an aura of stardom around themselves through their music compositions and shows. They underscored the fact that local audiences could appreciate local music if it was properly packaged. Additionally, they opened up the space for young Akamba artists to join the benga music scene.

Akamba Benga Music Careers: Starting from the Church

21For most young musicians, learning the basic skills of playing guitar at school or church was the beginning of their benga music career. Before the advent of Kikamba FM radio stations in the early 2000s, these young musicians were inspired by the contemporary popular songs that the radio presenters at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) played live on air. Despite limited airplay, these presenters began to popularise early Akamba musicians, making many listeners become lifelong music fans, and inspired others to learn guitar-plucking skills, as Francis Danger says:

“Early Akamba Musicians sparked my music interests in the late 1950s. These included among others, Nzuve wa Katama, Nzioki, and Ancent Munyambu. These musicians played picking guitar popularly known as the 'one man guitar' before the Akamba musicians learned the benga style from the Luo artists in the mid-1970s. Because of their creative performances, I developed an intense interest in music at a very tender age.”

22Just like the case of Francis Danger, listening to live music played at K.B.C. and from jukeboxes aligned Dicky Mulwa with a music career. Consequently, he started making tin imitations of an acoustic guitar which he used to practice the contemporary songs he heard on the radio:

“I teamed up with my peers with similar music interests and fashioned a guitar from an oil can, and wires from vandalised telephone wires from the nearby coffee processing mills. We used that guitar to practice hit songs that were released by Kilimambogo Brothers Band at that time”.

23Even though the tin-made acoustic guitars enabled these young musicians to practice, they were not really satisfactory. Consequently, some joined nearby churches which had a guitar to satisfy their insatiable quest for this instrument. Based on reports of the instruments being played at the Kenyan Coast by freed slaves in the late nineteenth century, it would seem that the guitar first found its way to Kenya at the onset of colonialism, and that it was brought by the Christian missionaries (Mboya 2021, 89). Its spread upcountry appears to have been slow but steady and to have largely moved from church to church, and from one church-influenced community to the next (ibid.). In the local church choirs, young people got an invaluable opportunity to interact for longer with both acoustic and electric guitars, as Martin Mulwa of Mananja Boys Band recalls:

“I was formerly a Catholic Church member at Kasuvilo but later changed to the Kasuvilo Salvation Army to be able to access the guitar. Here, I became a member of the church choir, in which we played gospel music. After the choir sessions, together with John Muasa who later founded Simba One Boys Band, we went home with the guitar, under the guise of practising choir music”.

24The church guitar produced fine melodies compared to the tin-made acoustic guitar. However, instead of using it to practice choir songs at home, these young musicians often turned to secular music under the cover of darkness, something that did not sit well with the church administration, and which led to their inevitable expulsion from the religious choir. John Muasa, the leader of Simba One Boys Band, narrates how together with his friend Martin Mulwa he was expelled from the local church choir:

“After going home with the church guitars, we would play hit songs like those of Katitu Boys Band, Kyanganga Boys Band, and Kimangu Boys Band, which were very popular at that time. We played these choir guitars in the bush. Unfortunately, the church elders realised what we were doing, and expelled us from the choir.”

25The predicament of the young guitarists at the church was due to the Judeo-Christian moral stand on secular music in the colonial era which continued in the postcolonial period that viewed secular guitarists as pagans. To force this message down the throats of the people, Western missionaries disparaged African traditional songs and dances and associated them with the evil people in the society. For instance, Father Cagnolo, writing about the Gikuyu songs in the Central Province in Kenya, argued that the dancing sessions in this community were a platform where people engaged in alcoholism, seduction and adultery that promoted immorality in the society (Muhoro 2002).

26Most members of the clergy carried these critical attitudes with them to the pulpit and embedded them among the Christian converts in the rural areas. As a result, the local people scorned the upcoming secular guitarists in their communities. Arguably, the fanatical evangelists misinterpreted the biblical quotation in Psalms 98:5-6, which refers to the playing of the harped instruments to glorify God (ibid.). These Christian fundamentalists did so to stigmatise secular guitar players as composing and performing songs to glorify the body of humankind. Consequently, they proclaimed that benga musicians were doomed to eternal perdition.

Rural Benga Music Amateurs: the Challenge to Gain Respect

27These emerging musicians then organised themselves into village-based music troupes which they used to entertain a growing base of fans in the rural areas during market days and in the night-time dances known as tumandiko or tumisonge. Tumisonge then was a modern rendition of Kamba traditional dances named kituto that were frequented by young people. In former times, this was a nocturnal and moonlit dance that was not only a fun activity for the youth, but also played a strong mate-selection function in the society as the choice of husband and wife would be made according to one’s grooming, dancing prowess, and the ability of the boys to win the occasional violent but non-fatal fights over girls (Hobley [1910] 2010, 53). During these earlier times, kituto sessions were marshalled by a dance session leader known as ngumei, who was responsible for composing songs, leading the singing, and maintaining dance floor discipline (Kavyu 1977, 1). These budding guitarists assumed the roles of ngumei and their fame went far beyond their villages, attracting huge crowds wherever they went, as Sir K of Mitamboni Boys Band narrates:

“Mutaiti and his friends moved from one rural market to another, playing live music with acoustic guitars which were often accompanied by the rasp and ring of a rhythm section made up of a Fanta bottle.”

28Unsurprisingly, these young troupes were at loggerheads with the local authorities because of the large crowds which followed them. As argued earlier, this was at a time when both the church and the local administration, suffering in the colonial aftermath, perceived young guitarists as outcasts, incapacitated, and people with manic or evil spirits, and encouraged other members of the society to sever ties with them, as John Kioko of Mukuyuni Boys Band recounts:

“It was in the late 1990s when guitarists gained some respect in our community. Before then, there were many stereotypes against us. It was even difficult to get a wife. Our people labeled us as bhang smokers, and as immoral people who committed fornication with school-going girls. That was the common perception against guitarists, even when you were innocent, you would be treated with a lot of contempt by your people.”

  • 2 Peter Muambi recorded his first track “Kyai kya Mukuyuni” in early 1970, where he narrates his ord (...)

29Tellingly, in their compositions, Akamba musicians told tales that resonated well with this negative stereotyping and outward rejection by some of their families, neighbours and friends. A good example is the hit Kyai Kya Mukuyuni”2 (loosely translated to mean “Tea at Mukuyuni Market”) where Peter Muambi laments the seeming indifference of the local administration to the plight of musicians in the rural areas. These were relics of the colonial officials’ perspectives which associated African dancing sessions with idleness, drunkenness and rebellion. For instance, in the colonial days two political prisoners, Syotune wa Kathuke and Kiamba wa Mutaovio, were deported from Ukambani Province to Wasini Island in the Coast Province in 1912 for conducting kilumi dance sessions, which the provincial administration considered subversive (Kenya National Archives, 1912). Similarly in 1914, the Mombasa District Commissioner advised the Provincial Commissioner that restrictions on ngoma dances were necessary because these dancing sessions led to drunkenness and extravagant expenditure among the Africans in the area (Kenya National Archives, 1914).

30The unwillingness of these young guitarists to dedicate their time to school activities vindicated the position held by the church and local administration. Their preoccupation with music made them disregard education and instead preferred attending nighttime discos. Because of this, most Akamba musicians did not complete primary school education in the 1970s and 1980s, as John Kinama of Mbiuni Boys Band tells:

31“I used to hide my guitar in the fence while going to school in the morning. That time I was in standard two at Nzololo Primary School. After school hours, I used to take my guitar and go to the riverbank, where I played it until darkness came. Finally, I dropped out and went to Matuu town when I was in standard three.”

32Just like Kinama, Joseph Mutaiti was a standard three dropout. During this time, most upcoming musicians did not value education. Rather, they were attracted to music, hence dropping out of school. Nevertheless, their blossoming music ambitions did not fade away, but that was just the genesis of their illustrious music career. Equipped with fine guitar plucking skills, and unable earn any significant income from their rural amateur performances, Akamba musicians moved to urban areas to look for better prospects, as Dicky Mulwa of Ngoleni Brothers Band remembers:

“Locals hated our music troupe. The chief always trailed us wherever we went, because of the kind of crowds we would attract during market days. This forced me to decide of going to town to look for another job.”

33Similarly, John Muasa relates:

“After dropping out of school in 1988, together with my friend Martin Mulwa, we started planning of going to Nairobi. We burnt charcoal and got fare to Nairobi.”

34Subsequently, young Akamba musicians moved to urban areas with the obsession of music still in their hearts. The ambition was to conquer new music frontiers and get a chance to record their songs and be heard on the radio. As a result, most of these artistes did not leave their acoustic guitars behind, but carried this most personalised tool, which opened new opportunities in the towns where they went.

Conclusion

35This paper has established the local and social conditions which influenced the rebirth of benga music style in the Ukambani region. The growing radio culture in Ukambani villages turned some music listening fans into amateur guitar players, who later became actively involved in reshaping benga musical styles through their creative guitar-plucking techniques, compositions and music performances. These artistes adapted the original Luo benga tunes in inventive ways which resulted in distinct Kamba benga melodies. Moreover, they composed songs which highlighted social challenges that caused tensions and contradictions in the society. Furthermore, this article highlights that Akamba benga musicians started as amateur guitar players, performing at local gatherings, community events, and celebrations. These performances often took place in open-air settings, creating a festive and communal atmosphere. These rural settings were critical in the renaissance of the Akamba benga music, which continued to evolve in the urban settings which the Akamba musicians migrated to. This article adopts a micro-social history perspective on the history of benga music to expound the agency of the local musicians. Starting from the lived experiences of the Akamba benga musicians is necessary in order to place the history of Akamba benga music in its proper perspective, while exploring the global dynamics in the benga music industry in Kenya.

I am particularly grateful to Mutisya Maweu. His insights through Mutisya Maweu Bench contributed important insights for this research. I also gratefully acknowledge comments on the previous drafts from Dr. Clélia Coret, the Director at the French Institute for Research in Africa - Nairobi (IFRA-Nairobi). Her ideas continuously shaped this article.
I am grateful to IFRA- Nairobi for funding this research.

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Bibliographie

Oral interviews3 & primary sources

Peter Muambi. 1970. Kyai kya Mukuyuni, performed by Kyanganga Boys Band. Audio cassette.

Dicky Mulwa (band leader, Ngoleni Brothers Band), at River Road in Nairobi, 10 March 2023.

Francis Danger (band leader, Kangundo Dangerous Band), in Machakos Town, 4 March 2023.

Franco (band leader, Kisasi Boys Band) at Muzik Poa Headquarters in Nairobi, 15 May 2023.

John Kioko (member of Mukuyuni Boys Band) in discussion at Mlolongo in Machakos County in Kenya, 10 April 2023.

John Muasa (band leader, Simba One Boys Band) at Umoja, a neighbourhood in Nairobi, 29 March 2023.

Kiio Munya (manager, Athusi Bar) in Nairobi, 22 May 2023.

Martin Mulwa (band leader, Mananja Boys Band) at Mananja in Masinga, Machakos County in Kenya, 15 March 2023.

Peter Kinama (band leader, Mbiuni Boys Band) at Kitengela in Kajiado County in Kenya, 16 April 2023.

Peter Nguma (band leader, Kavata Nzou Boys Band) at Mlolongo in Machakos County in Kenya, 16 April 2023.

Sir-K (band leader, Mitamboni Boys Band) at Kitengela in Kajiado County in Kenya, 3 May 2023.

Kenya National Archives, File No. 15, PC/Coast/1/17/39, 1912.

Kenya National Archives, File No. 152/45, PC/Coast/1/3/66 - 1914.

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Annexe

Akamba Musicians Featured in the Article

The following are examples of local artistes who were actively involved in shaping benga music in Ukambani through their creative song compositions and guitar-plucking skills.

Francis Nzioki Kavuu

He was born in the early 1950s. He is popularly known as Francis Danger, a rhythm guitarist and the band leader of the Kangundo Dangerous Band. He started playing his home-made guitar in the 1960s. In 1969, he went to Nairobi where he met with musicians from different parts of Kenya. Francis Danger, together with the late Kakai Kilonzo, the late Sila and the late Joseph Mwania, formed the Kilimambogo Brothers Band which dominated the music scene in the 1970s and early 1980s. Danger, as a rhythm guitar player, played a pivotal role in Kimangu Boys Band, one of the leading music troupes in Ukambani in the 1990s. His hit songs include among others; Hesabu Gharama, Dafrau ya Kenya and Welcome Kenya. Today Francis Danger is the only remaining founder musician of the Kilimambogo Brothers Band.

Dicky Mulwa

Dicky was born in the 1950s and comes from Ngoleni Village in Kathiani Sub-County, in Machakos County. He developed an interest in music in 1960s from listening to music played on the radio. From a rural background, Mulwa went to Ruiru town to play live music in a club known as Amingo Bar. He later moved to Nairobi where he teamed up with other established musicians such as the late Onesmus Musyoki and the late Joseph Mutaiti of the Kalambya Boys Band. In 1982, Dicky Mulwa formed Ngoleni Brothers Band, and released several love hits songs such as Ngilesi and Munyiva, among others.

John Muasa

He was born in the 1970s, and is popularly known as Mauda. He comes from Kasuvilo in Masinga Sub-County in Machakos County. He started his music career as a choir member at Kasuvilo African Inland Church, where he honed his guitar-plucking skills. Later he took up secular music and went to Nairobi in 1989 where he joined Katitu Boys Band in 1992, which offered him an invaluable apprenticeship opportunity. There, he met other notable musicians of that time such as the late Peter Kisaa, the late Peter Nguma, the late Wa Kaitho, and Bosco Mulwa, among others. He later joined Kimangu Boys Band before starting his Simba One Boys Band in 2000. His second volume, known as Jane Nduku gave Muasa popularity in the benga music industry. It is a love song dedicated to a girl, but in an interview, John Muasa claims that he composed this song while still in the village, and it is his guitar that he refers to as Jane Nduku, the girlfriend. By the time of this interview, John Muasa had produced nineteen albums, which is about one hundred and ninety songs.

Peter Kinama

Peter started his music career in Mbiuni, his rural home. He started playing guitar while at lower primary school. His preoccupation with the guitar made him drop out of school in Class Two. He then went to Matuu Town, where he worked as a hotel attendant. Peter joined Kimangu Boys Band when they came to perform in Matuu Town. Charles Musyoki, the band leader of Kimangu, recognised Peter’s outstanding guitar-plucking skills and recruited him into his troupe.

John Kioko

John was born in the 1960s, and was popularly known as Simba Mundu (referring to himself as a Lion). He was the band leader of Mukuyuni Boys Band. He attributes his music to his family lineage. His mother was a Kilumi dancer, and his forefathers were actively involved in Akamba traditional songs and dances. John Kioko, a vocalist, worked with other music troupes such as Mbooni Boys Band, Kyanganga Boys Band of the late Peter Muambi, and Katitu Boys Band among others. Together with the late Jacob William Maunda of Mukaa Boys Band, Simba Mundu trailblazed other Akamba music bands in live music performances at Athusi Bar in Nairobi in the early 1990s.

Peter Nguma

Peter was born in 1963, and died in 2023. He was the leader of Kavata Nzou Boys Band. Before he started his band, he was a vocalist and a songwriter in several music bands in Ukambani such as Kalambya Boys Band, Kyanganga Boys Band, Katitu Boys Band and Kimangu Boys Band.

List of Selected Labels and Themes

The following summary identifies themes that emerged from the oral interviews, and helps to analyse rural settings of the renaissance of benga music style as heralded by the Akamba benga musicians.

  • Radio-listening culture: Listening to live music played on the radio led many listeners to become lifelong music fans, and inspired others to develop an interest in guitar playing.
  • The church as a space for the beginning of careers of young Akamba musicians: In churches, artistes got invaluable opportunities to access both electric and acoustic guitars which enabled them to hone their guitar plucking skills. However, these young guitarists were soon expelled from the church because of the Judeo-Christian negative stereotypes of secular music, which informed Christian fundamentalists in the rural areas, who proclaimed that upcoming secular benga musicians were predestined to eternal perdition.
  • Village-based troupes: Young Akamba musicians organized themselves into village-based music bands which entertained local audiences during market days, and nighttime dances. However, the local administration were suspicious of their activities because of the huge crowds which they attracted. As a result of this discrimination, most Akamba musicians moved to urban areas, to look for other prospects.
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Notes

1 Francis Kavuu Nzioki, popularly known as Francis Danger, is a rhythm guitarist, and was a founder member of Kilimambongo Brothers Band in the mid-1970s.

2 Peter Muambi recorded his first track “Kyai kya Mukuyuni” in early 1970, where he narrates his ordeal with the local authorities. He was arrested and taken to the court of law in Machakos, where he was accused of performing dance music without a permit and also corrupting school girls.

3 All interviews were carried out by the author, unless indicated otherwise.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1
Légende Nyatiti Musical Instrument.
Crédits Source: Fidelis Kioko Makali
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/eastafrica/docannexe/image/4395/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 469k
Titre Figure 2
Légende Playing a guitar.
Crédits Source: Fidelis Kioko Makali
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/eastafrica/docannexe/image/4395/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 146k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Fidelis Kioko Makali, « “Renaissance” of Akamba Benga Music in Postcolonial Kenya »Les Cahiers d’Afrique de l’Est / The East African Review [En ligne], 59 | 2024, mis en ligne le 28 mars 2024, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/eastafrica/4395 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/eastafrica.4395

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Auteur

Fidelis Kioko Makali

PhD Candidate, University of Nairobi, Kenya.
https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2393-2348

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