|Article by Ogova Ondego and Phylis Luganda
Published December 10, 2007
The Lake Victoria region of Kenya not only has enormous musical resources but is also said to be the cradle of the popular but controversial benga style of music that is believed to have been borrowed from the pulsating and danceable Congolese styles like rhumba and soukous. “A World View of Benga: Truths and Lies About the Region’s Popular Music”, a paper by Crispo Caleb Okumu of the Department of Creative and Performing Arts at Maseno University, was presented at the Lake Victoria Festival of the Arts in Kisumu in May 2005 in attempt to unmask benga but, OGOVA ONDEGO and PHYLIS LUGANDA write, it ended up dressing it further in mystery instead.
In his paper, Dr Okumu traces the genesis of benga to the 1950s before presenting several definitions of this well loved music style by several sources but which he punches holes into as not being embracing enough.
While the online Encarta describes benga as -the contemporary dance music of the Luo people of western Kenya- that became popular in the late 1950s and is driven by a deep bass rhythm and clipped, clear-toned guitar patterns and Graeme Ewens describes it as “the bass-heavy, up-tempo guitar pop originally associated with the Luo people”, Dr Okumu says the outstanding elements of benga are the vocals and the lead guitar, supported by the percussive underlying beats. But this definition hardly leaves any one any wiser. And it certainly is weakened even further when he says “the Kenyan benga beat is synonymous with the Congolese soukous in academic circles.”
Having concluded that benga musicians are always begging for favours, Dr Okumu then wonders if benga musicians should be treated as villains or heroes for incorporating foreign elements in their work to keep abreast of the times. And the first to receive a salvo from him is the late Hajulas Nyapanji Ochieng (Ochieng Kabaselleh) whom he refers to as having been a victim of multiple identity crises that saw him move from benga to Congolese rhumba and soukous through which he castigated and denigrated “his own musical identity of benga.”
Even before concluding his thrust on reforms and identity of benga, Dr Okumu moves to the Congolese stage names adopted by benga musicians. He explains this practice of benga musicians adopting the names of their Congolese counterparts due to admiration and their perception as role models.
If, indeed, benga started around Lake Victoria and was copied by Congolese dancers, one fails to understand why musicians like Tabu Ley, Koffi Olomide or Awilo Longomba do not adopt Luo names like Gabriel Omolo, Owino Misiani, Okach Biggy or Princess Jully for stage. Could it be because benga started in Congo and spread to western Kenya hence the awe with which benga performers in Kenya hold those of the Congo? Dr Okumu is silent on this.
In early 2007, budding musician Zippy Okoth took issue with ArtMatters.Info for stating that her 2006 debut album, Tugo Lona Nindo, had congolese rhumba and soukous beats. She vehemently argued that hers is benga and not soukous or rhumba. And such is the debate benga raises when compared with the highly danceable congolese rhythms.
Though concluding that benga musicians are heroes since they have given Kenya a unique music style, have influenced other Kenyan communities to adopt benga, and others have stuck to their classical benga roots and cut a niche for themselves in the world of music, Dr Okumu’s paper falls short of being conclusive, preferring to dabble in pure academic exercise that theorises without being committal on any issue. At the end of the paper, for instance, one still feels unsure about the definition and origin of benga.
One would also have expected that Dr Okumu would follow up his assumption that “The Lake Victoria region of Kenya has enormous musical resources” with ample illustrations drawn not just from among the Luo but also the Luyia community that, he said at the outset, produced “some of the most prolific guitarists where musicians were celebrated for their skill with harps and lyres.”