Hera Ma Nono (Thrill Jockey)
Introducing Kenge Kenge (World Music Network)
Fans of world music often trust in terminology. If they’re told they’re listening to something called sou-kous, or morna, or rai, who are they to argue? But the casual listener might be puzzled to hear the bands Extra Golden and Kenge Kenge and learn that they both purportedly play a Kenyan music called benga, because the two groups hardly sound anything alike. They’ve taken the music in wholly different directions.
Extra Golden plays a rock-benga hybrid, a natural result of its cross-cultural roster: two Americans and two Kenyans. This approach is true in a sense to benga’s pedigree, since the style began more than two decades ago as an electric pop form based on the guitar. In Extra Golden’s music, that instrument’s snaky lead lines are the highlight, echoing a sound that’s familiar to Western ears from other crossover African styles such as juju and Afrobeat. With a standard rock drum kit and strong influences from funk and soul, Extra Golden’s music is comfortable and fun.
Kenge Kenge’s music, on the other hand, is surprising and downright exuberant. An all-Kenyan band, the octet forgoes guitars altogether and takes benga back to its roots in the music of the Luo ethnic tribe. Traditional instruments such as a one-stringed fiddle sit alongside wind instruments such as horns and flutes; earthy, wild-sounding drums; and ensemble singing that capitalizes on the members’ choir training. The result is visceral, rough-edged but lovable music.
In both cases, one might ask: Is it really benga? And the correct answer is probably that it doesn’t really matter.