By Steve Biko Abuya
Published May 17, 2014
The debate on the origin of Benga music, touted as being Kenya’s ‘most authentic sound’, is not ending any time soon if ‘newly concluded’ research on the subject is anything to go by.
The research, titled Retracing the Benga Rhythm and comprising a 24-page narrative booklet, a 13-track music CD, and a 69-minute documentary DVD by Ketebul Music of Nairobi may have concluded that the genre has its origin in Luo Nyanza of western Kenya. But despite this assertion, the origin of the name Benga is still in contention as veteran Benga musician Ochieng Nelly says that pioneer Luo artists of the 1950s adopted it from the Congo.
“Benga has its root in Congolese Rumba music,” Peter F Kenya, a Community Development lecturer at Kenyatta University says. “The Luo adopted it from a Congolese Rumba musician called Edward Masengo. However, the youngsters of the 1960s found it to be rather slow and boring forcing enterprising musicians to fuse the fast-paced Luyia Omutibo style with Congolese Rumba to generate Benga.”
Attributing the origin of Benga to John Ogara Odondi ‘Kaisa’, Kenya appears to contradict himself when he says that Ogara “fused Luo Nyatiti with Luyia Omutibo to create Benga; when Ochieng Nelly who’d been playing Congolese music joined Ogara Boys Band, the band abandoned Benga in favour of the Congolese style.”
Nelson Ochieng (aka Ochieng Nelly), says “The music was initially called Mach before we called Benga. It was a Congolese Rumba break-away style.”
“Benga refers to a popular woman’s dress that was in vogue at the time when Benga music was born,” says Oluoch Kanindo, a producer who is said to have been in the forefront of promoting and ‘Congolising’ Benga.
“Benga is borrowed from a Congolese dance,” says music producer George ‘Jojo’ ouma of Nairobi.
Daniel Kamau ‘DK’ Mwai, a Central Benga musician who says he first recorded in 1968 says his Kikuyu audience didn’t like his music at first as they said it was ‘Congolese’ but that they later came to like it when it was played massively on the only radio station in Kenya, Voice of Kenya (VoK).
While Benga is said to be derived from Daniel Owino Misiani’s mother’s name—Obengo—Ochieng Nelly says it is derived from ‘Obengore’, a Luo term meaning ‘the skirt is loose’.
Music producer Tabu Osusa does not shed any more light on the controversy when he simply says, “Though the term may have been borrowed from the Congolese, Benga music is embedded in the tradition of the Nyatiti and Orutu styles of the Luo of western Kenya. I however hasten to add that it has borrowed freely from many genres of music, especially from Congolese Rumba.”
But just what is this style of music that is said to be the ‘original sound of Kenya’ that sprang from rural villages in Nyanza and has spread across eastern and central Africa?
The research says the Benga rhythm is set apart from other music styles by its combination of a sharp lead guitar overriding the rhythm and bass. That it comprises a fast-paced rhythmic beats and a bouncy finger-picking guitar technique borrowed from the eight-stringed Nyatiti lyre.
Another characteristic that distinguishes Benga from other genres is that dancers on the floor hardly ever hold hands as is common in other dance style like Rumba; dancers normally break away from their circles and explore the floor while becoming theatrical in their own capability, sometimes shaking their head, flexing their muscles or even flexing their feet, the documentary says.
Based on Moussa Awuonda’s research and compiled and edited by Tabu Osusa, Paul Kelemba and Njeri Muhoro for Ketebul Music, this Dimitri Croella-directed documentary is complemented by a narrative booklet that singles out a series of mini-biographies of some of the pioneer Benga musicians such as John Ogara Dondi ‘Kaisa’Sukuma bin Ongaro, Ochieng Nelly Orwa, Samuel Aketch Oyosi Jabuya, Daniel Kamau Mwai and DO Misiani.
However, in as much as the documentary states that Benga is a fusion of the local Luo nyatiti and the omutibo style played by the Luyia community who neighbour the Luo on the north, there are no illustrations for the impact of the latter on Benga.
Benga is said to have been popularised among the abaGusii when Luo artists such as Okatch Biggy set base in Kisii Town, thereby whetting the appetite of the locals for Benga rhythms who later adopted them.
The style spread to the Luyia of western Kenya, the Kalenjin of Rift Valley, the Kikuyu of central Kenya and the Kamba of eastern Kenyan plains besides going to eastern, central and southern Africa, the research says.
But the research is hardly conclusive on the origin of Benga. That the likes of musicians Samuel Oyosi and Ochieng Nelly Orwa of Ogara Boys Band were taught how to play the guitar by Congolese musicians such as Jean Bosco Mwenda and Adolf Banyora begs the question as to who really composed the original Benga beats.
The theme most common in Benga songs is usually the praise of individuals of high status from whom individuals and society benefit. As is deeply rooted in the Luo culture, praise songs do normally go to the benefactors of society. Many Benga songs dwell on material wealth, personal hardships and praise of women’s beauty and virtue.
While women were involved in Benga mainly as vocalists and dancers, the future of this type of music seems to carry mixed signals.
While veteran music producer David Amunga says Benga is a work in progress—“it is in a raw form calling for a professional approach” to take it to the next stage—George Ouma says it is a very rich form of music with great potential; “if it gets better promotion and marketing it can do much better than any other genre of music.”
On his part, Osusa says Benga has a great future if it were rebranded. And musician Dave ‘Mobb’ Otieno concurs, saying that some southern Africans used to copy Benga songs from Kenya and use their own lyrics in them to show that it is a valuable product.
Some of the new kids-on-the-block in the Benga realm, such as Dan ‘Chizi’ Aceda are modernising the beat.
Aceda, who refers to himself as the ‘Crown Prince of Benga’, says that if the genre is promoted and archived, Benga would rise again to its internationally recognised position as Kenya’s originally coined genre.
With an eye-catching cover by cartoonist Paul ‘Maddo’ Kelemba, Retracing the Benga Rhythm captures in a single picture what 1000 words couldn’t have achieved: an orginal Benga music band on stage with revelers dancing with abandon and without a care to their favourite tunes.
Though this Ford Foundation in Eastern Africa-supported research set out to trace the rhythm known as Benga the documenting the history of music in general in eastern Africa, highlighting the role of musicians from Congo, Zambia, Uganda and Tanzania, the contribution of producers like Peter Colmore (Peter Colmore Productions), Charles Worrod (Equator Sound Studio), AP Chandarana (Chanadarana Records Co Ltd), Oluoch Kanindo and David Amunga, touched on how Nairobi was—since 1947 when Kenya’s first music recording studio was set up here—a music recording hub of the region and how it—once again through the advancement in technology!—came to lose this status.
It is exciting to come across literature that, though unintentionally, pays tribute to musicians like Jean Bosco Mwenda, Adolf Banyoro and Edward Masengo from the Congo, Nashil Pichen from Zambia and Charles Ssonko of Uganda, Kenyans Daudi Kabaka, Fadhili Williams, Isaya Mwinamo and George Mukabi and Charles Worrod, the man whose Equator Records immortalized Malaika.
Though this music collector’s item is quite resourceful, it does not exhaustively solve the mystery that is Benga’s origin. More research on the subject is clearly needed.