Music of Kenya
Out of all the African countries, Kenya has perhaps one of the most diverse assortment of popular music forms, in addition to multiple types of folk music based on the variety over 40 regional languages.
Zanzibaran taarab music has also become popular, as has hip hop, reggae, soul, soukous, zouk, rock and roll, funk and Europop. There is also a growing western classical music scene and Kenya is home to a number of music colleges and schools.
The guitar is the most dominant instrument in Kenyan popular music. Guitar rhythms are very complex and include both native beats and imported ones, especially the Congolese cavacha rhythm; music usually involves the interplay of multiple parts and, more recently, showy guitar solos.
Benga music has been popular since the late 1960s, especially around Lake Victoria. The word benga is occasionally used to refer to any kind of pop music: bass, guitar and percussion are the usual instruments.
Partially from 1994 and wholly from 2003 Kenyan popular music has been recognised through the Kisima Music Awards. A number of styles predominate in Kenya including Benga and Reggae have separate categories, and a multitude of Kenyan artists are awarded each year.
Early 20th century
The guitar was popular in Kenya even before the 20th century, well before it penetrated other African countries. Fundi Konde was the best-known early guitarist, alongside Paul Mwachupa and Lukas Tututu the middle of the 1920s, dance clubs had appeared in Mombasa, playing music for Christians to dance in a European style.
During World War II, Kenyan and Ugandan musicians were drafted as entertainers in the King's African Rifles and continued after the war as the Rhino Band, the first extremely popular band across Kenya. In 1948, the group split, with many of the members forming the Kiko Kids or other bands.
By the 1950s, radio and recording technology had advanced across Kenya. Fundi Konde, the prominent guitarist, was an early broadcaster and influential in the fledgling recording industry.
Congolese finger-style and the development of benga
Beginning in about 1952, recordings from legendary Congolese guitarists like Edouard Massengo and Jean-Bosco Mwenda were available in Kenya. Bosco's technique of picking with the thumb and forefinger (finger-style) became popular. Finger-style music is swift and usually based around small groups, in which the second guitar follows the first with syncopated bass rhythms. This style of music became extremely popular later in the decade.
The next decade saw new influences from kwela and rumba become more popular than finger-style. The Equator Sound Band was the most popular band of the period. In Nairobi in the late 1960s, bands like the Hodi Boys and Air Fiesta were popular, primarily playing cover versions of Congolese, British and American hits. Other musicians were innovating the benga style, with Shirati Jazz the most popular of the early bands.
Swahili and Congolese pop
The two biggest genres of pop music played by Kenyan bands are called the Swahili sound or the Congolese sound. Both are based on soukous (rumba) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Swahili music can be distinguished by a much slower rhythm, though the styles have had a tendency to merge in recent decades. The genres are not distinguished by language, though Swahili pop is usually in Swahili or the related Taiti language. Both are sometimes in Lingala or one of the native languages of Kenya.
Congolese musicians were the most popular performers in Kenya during the 1970s and 1980s, only losing their mainstream acceptance in the early 1990s. Orchestre Virunga was perhaps the most popular and long-running of the Congolese bands. During this period, Swahili musicians (many from Tanzania) were mostly based around the Wanyika bands. This group of often rival bands began in 1971 when a Tanzanian group named Arusha Jazz came to Kenya, eventually becoming the Simba Wanyika Band. The band first split in 1978, when many of the group members formed Les Wanyika. Other notable Congolese groups in Kenya included Super Mazembe and Les Mangelepa.
Tourist-oriented pop covers are popular, and employ more live bands than more authentic Kenyan folk and pop genres. Them Mushrooms, who began playing the Nairobi hotel circuit in 1987, are probably the most popular of these bands. Lately, hotel bands like Them Mushrooms and Safari Sound Band have begun playing reggae.
The Kamba people live to the south and east of Nairobi. Their pop music is closely related to benga, but includes a second guitar that plays a melodious counterpoint to the primary guitar. The most popular Kamba pop bands arose in the middle of the 1970s and include Les Kilimambogo Brothers Band led by Kakai Kilonzo, Kalambya Boys & Kalambya Sisters led by Onesmus Musyoki and Joseph Mutaiti and Peter Mwambi & His Kyanganga Boys. Other groups also include Lower Mbooni Boys Band, Muthetheni Boys Band and Ukia Boys Band.
Other Akamba Pop Bands were formed in the 1980s and included Kakuku Boys Band vocalled by John Mutua Muteti whose lyrics consisted of religious, domestic, and court humour, Ngoleni Brothers which was formed by Dick Mutuku Mulwa after he left Kalambya Boys & Kalambya Sisters. It can also be noted that Kalambya Boys original members were Onesmus Musyoki (vocals), Joseph Mutaiti (vocals), Dick Mutuku Mulwa (rhythm guitar), James Maisha Muli(Drums) and Peter Kisaa (solo guitar). Kalambya Boys split and Joseph Mutaiti formed Super Kaiti and Onesmus Musyoki went gospel to form Emali Town Choir.
The Kikuyu, one of the biggest ethnic groups in Kenya, have their own form of pop music. Kikuyu pop can be distinguished by female back-up singers, who are rare in the rest of Kenya. The biggest Kikuyu pop star is Joseph Kamaru, whose 1967 hit "Celina" launched the field. He remained popular, inviting controversy with topical lyrics that criticised the Kenyan government, until becoming a born again Christian in 1993 and switching to gospel music. Kikuyu pop played a major role in the development of benga, largely due to the activity of Daniel Kamau.
Also highly popular is Mugithi, a distinctive style usually performed by a single singer with guitar accompaniment and whose singers often adopt some of the dress code of Country music singers with cowboy hats a popular accessory for Mugithi performers.
Hip hop is a hugely popular style of music in Kenya. Artists normally rap in English, Swahili or the local Sheng slang. One of its many popular genres is Genge which is showcased through artists such as Jua Cali, Nonini and Jimwat. There is also Kapuka rap, which is found with artists like Nameless.
Camp Mulla, an alternative hip hop group, has had more success than any other Kenyan artist in history. As of 28 September 2012, they have won two CHAT Awards and have been nominated for prestigious awards such as the BET Awards, the MTV Europe Music Awards and the MOBO Awards.
Reggae is one of the most popular genres of music in Kenya. Reggae elements are often mixed with local hip hop and pop music, yet there have not been many mainstream reggae musicians in Kenya. One of the best known local reggae musicians is the late Mighty King Kong. Upcoming reggae artist "priest fari" is the artist to watch out for. With two albums "warrior" and "Pressure" under his belt, Priest fari is arguably the next big thing on the Kenyan reggae scene. His touch remains the original Jamaican roots reggae.
Others include Jahkey Malle and Prince Otach. Reggae Ras Naya, is one of the best reggae artists from Kenya and abroad, based in Paris. His last album "Shine" was recorded in Orange Street, Kingston, Jamaica, in 2012. The other albums are called "Freedom", "Mau Mau" and " Black and White". A new album called "Mama" is coming on 2013. Ras Naya represents Kenyan reggae in Europe and the rest of the world.
Other Reggae icons in Kenya who have risen in the recent past include the talented Wyre and Red San. The massive love for reggae in Kenya has led to inception of other talents including Reggae music Deejays. The most remarkable Dj who shines in the hearts of all Kenyan Reggae music lovers is Dj Stano. Dj Stano has grown to be Kenya’s biggest reggae music dj. His talent and love for music has developed to major parts of Kenya and beyond.
Dj Stano’s career was catapulted to great heights on one of the largest radio shows in Kenya with millions of listeners live and online. As co-host and DJ on Riddim Base, a daily show on the pioneer reggae station Metro FM, Dj Stano’s expertise gained him huge support from reggae music lovers. He also hosted Club Metro, a weekly show on the all reggae station ‘ Metro Fm’. Dj Stano has taken his talents worldwide with a variety of live shows in places like the UK and Dubai. Currently he hosts a weekly show “The Rave” on Venus FM. Dj Stano is also part of the Music Unit at the State Broadcaster (KBC).
Rock music has found a home to a growing fan base and with a number of locally established as well as emerging rock bands (there are over twelve active local rock bands in Nairobi alone) further cementing this genre by engaging in different as well as mutually organised rock themed events. Foreign international rock bands (Jars of Clay, Casting Crowns, Parachute Band, 38th Parallel, Zebra & Giraffe)Skinflint-Heavy Metal from Botswana) have also graced the local scene which reflects on the growing influence and acceptance of this genre. Arguably the most popular band in Kenya is ParkingLotGrass.
Organized member bodies such as Wiyathi (now defunct) and Roffeke (Rock 'n' Roll Film Festival Kenya) were fundamental in initially marketing local rock bands in the country by hosting regular shows and helped to establish a vibrant rock community. Recently, the bands also by social event groups like Kenya Rock Fans, have widely assisted the bands to gain popularity and increase their fan base, subsequently the founding of a governing body, the Rock Society of Kenya, which serves to promote the interests of member bands. The society spearheads numerous rock related events like the Battle of the Bands and live rock club shows that has spurred constructive level of activity for bands.
Over the past few years many entertainment spots have also independently incorporated rock music onto their programs further indicating a genuine interest from the public. In addition there are radio stations that play rock music: 98.4 Capital FM and 105.5 X FM, the latter being a 24-hour rock station. KTN (Str8up), STV (The Rumble) and K24 (The Rumble) also play regular weekly rock shows. Popular prominent local rock bands include acts such as Parking Lot Grass, Murfy's fLaw, Dove Slimme, M20, Rock of Ages, Last Years Tragedy, Seismic, The Itch, The Beathogs, Crystal Axis, Bedslum and kick ass metal band Mortal Soul.
There is a growing interest in other genres of music such as house and drum and bass. Acts like Just A Band have also dabbled in numerous alternative genres.Neo soul music has also gained a huge audience with recurrent events such as Blankets and Wine promoting upcoming Neo soul bands and artistes such as Sauti Sol and Dela respectively all from a recording stable known as Penya. Genres such as Genge with artistes such as Juacali and Nonini acting as ambassadors of this genre.
Genres such as Kapuka also have an audience with acts such as Nameless, the late Esir and the late K-rupt sampling from these genres. The Kenyan music scene has been regarded as diverse but of late music fans cite unoriginality in Kenyan music content of late the scene has been on a downward trend in terms of distinctively Kenyan music with fans looking outside Kenya for good music.
Kenya's diverse ethnic groups each have their own folk music traditions, though most have declined in popularity in recent years as gospel music became more popular. The Turkana people of the north, the Bajuni, Akamba, Borana, Chuka, Gusii, Kikuyu, Luhya and Luo, the Maasai and the related Samburu and the Mijikenda ("nine tribes") of the eastern coast are all found within the borders of Kenya.
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- Richard Trillo: The Rough Guide to Kenya. 8th Edition, Rough Guides 2006, ISBN 1-84353-651-X (page 720)
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- Paterson, Doug. "The Life and Times of Kenyan Pop". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East. pp 509–522. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
- Dj Stano is an iconical reggae music dj and currently, fans can download reggae music mixes online from his website for Free
- Senoga-Zake, George. Folk Music of Kenya. Nairobi: Uzima Press, 1986.ISBN 9966-855-02-5