Kenya is rich in musical history, from the much loved taarab through to caracha and more recently cumulating reggae and even rock scenes. Stripping Kenyan music back to its origins however, reveals the culture shifting style of benga, a beautiful finger and thumb guitar style originating in Eastern Kenya in the 50’s.
The benga sound is heavily influenced by the nyatiti, a traditional Luo instrument eight-string wooden-framed instrument, also drawing on Congolese guitar music and more rural sounds, hence during the late 1970s and 1980s many Congolese musicians made Kenya a second home. There was a particularly large following in Kisumu and the Western region, with benga still having a firm place in Congolese musical history. Famed Congolese acts who looked to benga as inspiration include Franco, Mbilia Bel and Tabu Ley.
The most well known benga maestro, the late D.O Misiani, was at the forefront of shirati jazz, whose much loved album Benga Beat is still praised over East Africa today. Misiani however was no stranger to controversy though his innocent sounding light guitar riffs sound otherwise, His political and social commentary got him into trouble many times including spending time in jail and being denied a passport. Other groups such as Victoria Jazz Band, TP OK Jazz and Lulus Band also drove the benga sound across Central Africa, rocking dance floors and hotels in Ghana and Cameroon.
The actual origins of the name benga has been disputed throughout its rein, with Misiani claiming it was derived from his mothers name, Obengo, however Nairobi label Ketebuls translation seems much more apt, suggesting its translated from the Luo for ‘beautiful’. A fitting name for a stunning genre.