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continental drift 11/13/23 - kenya

by Kirby Wilkerson



Welcome to Continental Drift! I thought to myself this week “Kirby, whenever you do Africa, you always do West Africa.” So today we’re doing Kenya, look at me diversifying! You can find the playlist here and listen back to the episode here!

The Republic of Kenya is an East African country bordered by South Sudan to the northwest, Ethiopia to the North, Somalia to the east, Uganda to the west, Tanzania to the south, and the Indian Ocean to the southeast. Its capital is Nairobi, and with a population of over 51 million, it is the 28th most-populous country and the 7th most-populous country in Africa. The official languages of Kenya are Swahili and English.

As with many other African countries, Kenya is a very diverse country with a multitude of ethnic groups, all with their own musical traditions. I’m going to play a few of them for you, and then we'll discuss what exactly is going on once they're done!

Nyatiti - Wikipedia
Nyatiti! Look at this beautiful lute!

Traditional Music Segment

Hoyiaa Hoo (Lullaby) // Maasai People of East Africa

Three Year Old Sings // Maasai People of East Africa

Isikuti (Kenya) // Adzido

Ooko Ogutu // Ogwang’ Kokoth

So all of the music thus far has been folk music of various ethnic groups. The first couple songs you heard were from the Maasai people, who historically have been nomads, which means much of Maasai traditional music is strictly vocal, in contrast to this evening’s other songs. Isikuti is the name of a dance and associated drum used in traditional Isukha and Idakho music, so you begin to see more instrumentalism. The last song of this segment, Ooku Ogutu, is from the Luo people, who have a string instrument called a nyatiti whose music lends itself well to being adapted for other similar instruments, like the guitar, which you’ll see in the first song of our next segment.

Popular Music (Native Influence) Segment

Wendo Ti Mbia // Gatanga Boys Band

Mwiitu Beth // Kakai Kilonzo & Les Kilimambogo

The music scene in Kenya is interesting in that it’s a reflection of more traditional music styles. This isn’t anything particularly new, especially on this show, but what makes Kenya really stand out is how much this tends to be the case because of how diverse it is. The first song of this segment is from the genre called benga, which evolved in the mid-20th century, and it’s basically what happens when you take Luo traditional music but you use a bass and guitar in place of a nyatiti. And that second song, courtesy of the Kamba people, was pop music closely related to benga but with more complex guitar countermelodies. Despite all the cool stuff at home, though, Kenyan musicians eventually would start to pick stuff up from elsewhere. 

Popular Music (Foreign Influence) Segment

Jambo Bwana // Them Mushrooms

Jiji // Orchestra Super Mazembe

Pamella // Remmy Ongala and Orchestre Super Matimila

That last song was actually from a Tanzanian artist, Remmy Ongala, who gained significant popularity in Kenya; due to geographic closeness, there definitely was a bit of cultural exchange between Tanzanian and Kenyan pop music. Same goes for the Congolese music genre soukous, which was adopted by some Kenyan musicians in the 70s and 80s. In fact, Congolese musicians were at the forefront of Kenyan music at that time! And then you have hotel pop, catered towards tourists but still a jam in its own right without really losing artistic integrity. Let’s look at some more Kenyan music with a foreign influence, shall we?

Kenyan Reggae Segment

Afrika Mashariki // Mighty King Kong

Definition of a Lovechild // Wyre and Kanjii Mbugua

Don’t have too much to say about this, other than that reggae found very deeply-rooted success in Kenya (I say, proudly and Jamaicanly 🤭). Listening to the songs, you can sort of see where it sounds like traditional reggae but also where it diverges a little. Particularly, the second song of this segment, by Wyre, it’s like a nice fusion of reggae and R&B, really drives home the ways in which these genres can combine and produce something entirely new somewhere outside of their countries of origin.

That’ll be it for our show, except, of course, for the obligatory “play on-theme songs that I want to play because I can totally do that” segment. The first track is by a Kenyan alt rock band called Murfy's fLaw, which was a very welcome surprise when looking through music for this episode, and the second is the song Baba Yetu from the game Civilization VI; gospel is a significant genre of music in Kenya, and I figured that since Baba Yetu is a sung Swahili rendition of the Lord's Prayer it was tangentially Kenyan gospel-y, so here it is! That'll be today's show!

Wanted An Excuse to Play This

Nafasi // Murfy's fLaw

Baba Yetu // Christopher Tin and the Soweto Gospel Choir