If there’s one thing Kenyans are known for, it’s making good music. In fact, one of the projects that we support from KUBUKA, because we believe it has great potential, is the musical producer Made In Kibera (MIK). Today we go deeper into the types of music originating in this country and its current reality with the help of the Kenyan music journalist, Joy Ruguru.
What is Kenyan music like?
The best way to describe it is: eclectic.
India has its own Bollywood music, while South America is known for Latin music. Unfortunately or fortunately, we don’t have a single style, although it wasn’t always like that…
In the 1960s, Kenya became independent from Great Britain and also from the electric guitar. This marked the rise of popular music. Musicians from Congo, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa gathered in the vibrant capital of Nairobi to record unpublished music. Different African influences gave birth to the “Benga”, which is characterized by using the electric bass.
This new sound also featured contributions from the Lake Victoria “Luo” community, who imitated their nyatiti (eight-string lyre) melodies with the bass. It was the time of the “Benga” stars: Daudi Kabaka and John Nzenze, from western Kenya, Joseph Kamaru who became a legend among the “Kikuyu” community in central Kenya. Curiously, his grandson KMRU is now a well-known music producer and DJ in Nairobi.
Kenyan music continued to evolve until the end of the 20th century. At that time, Them Mushrooms, an all-male band, made “taarab”, a mix of Tanzanian and Indian music, absolutely brilliant. This group is best known for their 1982 song “Jambo Bwana”, from which comes the popular tourist phrase “Hakuna Matata” (no worries in Kenya). Them Mushrooms were known for telling everyday stories through their Swahili music.
Meanwhile, Mighty King Kong, who grew up as a street child, moved from poverty to wealth and became a popular Reggae artist of his time.
In the 1990s, Kenyans sang less folk and more hip hop thanks to television and radio. Street groups Kalamashaka and Ukoo Fulani are remembered as hip-hop veterans. Eric Wainaina, a Berklee alumnus, also created “Music Conscience,” which inspired the political activism of the time.
As more artists emerged, Kenyan hip-hop became “Genge” in the hands of Nonini and Juacali and “Kapuka” thanks to Nameless and E-sir. What made this music unique is that they played in English, Swahili, Sheng (Kenyan slang) and local languages.
No wonder the 2000’s are fondly remembered as the golden age of Kenyan music.
Thanks to the Internet, we are now more exposed to the music of the rest of Africa and the world. Kenyan music is full of external influences, from Nigeria to Jamaica. If you want live hip-hop, Jemedari and Juliani have an animated show for you.
There is a debate about who is the king of Kenyan rap between Octopizzo and Khaligraph Jones. Trap stars like Barak Jacuzzi are emerging every day, just like in the West. Some artists have followed the path of “Indie folk” like Tetu Shani and Wanja Wohoro. There are even “Rock” bands like Crystal Axis and Murfy’s Flaw for the hardest rockers in Nairobi.
There are also traditional music bands that have remained true to their roots. Afro Simba continues its coastal Swahili Indian sentiment, while Kenge Kenge Orutu System excites crowds around the world with music and instruments from their ancestors Luo.
Other African artists have found a way to fuse traditional and modern to create Afro fusion. For example, young musician Ayrosh combines “Mugithi,” a style of Benga guitar music from the Kikuyu land, with modern pop music.
And how do you discover all these diverse artists? Nairobi hosts so many musical events that there is always a choice.
There are free weekly events like “Jamhuri Jam Sessions” and “Thursday Nite Live” which are strictly for African live bands. The EDM (Electronic Dance Music) scene is growing rapidly thanks to the monthly clandestine events called “Gondwana” and “Temple” where you can enjoy Suraj, Euggy, Chucky and other DJs.
If pop is your thing, you’ll also find artists Sauti Sol or Muthoni Drummer Queen performing on bigger stages like “Blankets and Wine” and “Koroga Festival”. Meanwhile, the great Safaricom Jazz Festival, now in its fifth year, showcases young Kenyans from emerging Afro Jazz bands such as Shamsi Music and Nairobi Horns Project.
Kenyan music is not just one. It is a fusion of different genres and languages at different times. From the beginning, it was influenced by foreigners and continues to be influenced by foreigners. Kenyan artists who fuse the traditional “Benga” styles with Western influences are highlighted and recognized by music lovers all over the world.
You can be sure that whatever kind of music you like; you will find it in Kenya. Yes, even “Latin music” has arrived here too.