Extra Golden would be a remarkable band in any era. The semilocal Afropop quartet coalesced in 2004, when two members of the D.C. underground rock act Golden reunited in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. That’s where singer-guitarist Alex Minoff and singer-guitarist Ian Eagleson befriended the two benga musicians who appear on Extra Golden’s 2006 debut, Ok-Oyot System, a unique marriage of American indie rock and East African dance music. One of the Kenyans on that record, singer-guitarist Otieno Jagwasi, died of liver failure before Extra Golden could make its American debut (“Postrock and a Hard Place,” May 19, 2006). And the singer-guitarist who replaced him, Opiyo Bilongo, might have missed the same concert—not to mention the recording sessions that led to band’s second and latest full-length, Hera Ma Nono (Luo for “Love in Vain”)—were it not for the efforts of a certain senator and presidential candidate from Illinois.
It’s quite a story, and one that’s made even more remarkable because it’s happening now. In a recent essay in the New Yorker, pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones argued that indie rock is suffering from a lack of “musical miscegenation.” The thrust of his article is that the genre is too white and too self-involved, a controversial charge that addresses only a small part of a larger problem. Granted, indie rock’s most popular acts—Arcade Fire, the Decemberists, whatever Zach Braff is listening to—are more insular than their predecessors. But they’re no more insular than the world around them. At a show last month at the Black Cat, I saw face after face illuminated by cell phones and digital cameras. Would any of these people know how to interact with strangers in the event of a network failure or corrupted hard drive?
Eagleson would. The Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology made friends in Kenya the old-fashioned way. He ventured out to studios and nightclubs. He traveled to sketchy neighborhoods after dark. Most important, he talked to people he didn’t already know. One of the folks he encountered on his first trip, in 2000, was Jagwasi, who taught him how to play benga-style guitar—a technique marked by bright, melodic fingerpicking—and wrote many of the songs that appear on Extra Golden’s debut. That record, which was recorded on the fly in a Nairobi nightspot and features a couple of indie-rock clunkers, is at times a better example of good intentions than good fusion. There’s a reason why the title of the album, Ok-Oyot System, begins with a popular Kenyan phrase that translates to, “It’s not easy.”
The making of its follow-up, Hera Ma Nono, was no cakewalk either. But judging from its more thoroughly integrated music, Extra Golden’s latest suggests that this kind of bicontinental collaboration gets easier with practice. Consider the song “Obama,” an eight-minute track dedicated to the politician who helped Bilongo and drummer Onyango Wuod Omari get the visas they needed to travel to the United States, where most of the new album was recorded. (The group bounced from Pennsylvania to D.C. to New York to Louisiana to Texas to work on the disc.) The tune begins in typical benga fashion. Extra Golden’s three guitarists build a buoyant theme around several subtle melodies, and the drummers play as if they’re trying to fit a hi-hat or snare beat in between each of the guitarists’ fingerpicked notes. It all seems quite traditional. That is, until one of the guitarists busts out a fuzz-toned riff and, with that one gesture, transforms the second half of “Obama” into something that would no doubt upset a benga fundamentalist.
If such a type exists, they’ll find plenty to dislike about “Jakolando,” as well. The first half of the Hera Ma Nono opener is more or less American in outlook. The beat is big and generous and betrays none of benga’s frenetic charm. The rhythm guitar is simple and direct and wouldn’t feel out of place on a Bob Dylan album like The Basement Tapes or John Wesley Harding. And the piano, played in a barrelhouse fashion by a Louisianan named David Egan, sounds as if it came rumbling out of whatever swampland Dr. John calls home. Just about the only thing that pegs this music as a product of more than one continent is the lead vocal, which is sung in Luo by Jagwasi’s brother Onyango.
That is, of course, until the whole song changes. Like “Obama,” “Jakolando” is about twice as long as most singles, and its second half is quite different from the first. Around the four-minute mark, the band switches from poppy Americanisms to syncopated rhythms and latticelike guitars. This sort of bifurcation happens throughout Hera Ma Nono, and yet it’s not as formulaic as it might sound. Much of
the variety the band achieves is attributable to the lyrics, which are sung in both Luo and English, and to the vocalists—Bilongo, Eagleson, and Minoff—all of whom sing in both languages. No matter what it plays—whether it’s roots-rock with Luo lyrics (“I Miss You”), benga-rock with English lyrics (“Street Parade”), or all of the above (“Night Runners”)—the band always seems to come up with an unexpected juxtaposition.
In that sense, Hera Ma Nono is a good example of the kind of cross-fertilization that Frere-Jones is longing for. Either that or it’s a step beyond. In an Oct. 15 blog post on the New Yorker Web site, the pop critic cites several recordings that blur the lines between black and white influences. One of those is “Custard Pie,” a lurid funk track from Led Zeppelin’s 1975 double album, Physical Graffiti. As Frere-Jones points out in his indie rock article, it might’ve been easier for a band like Led Zeppelin to get away with “musical miscegenation” back then. But during the PC wars of the ’90s, he notes, indie rock acts that showed an obvious debt to black culture were often accused of misappropriation, if not outright minstrelsy. It’s possible that Minoff experienced such charges firsthand when, in the late ’90s, he joined one of those controversial outfits, D.C. gospel-punk act the Make-Up.
You can hear echoes of that band’s liberal approach to race relations in “Street Parade,” a song about New Orleans and Katrina. “There’s a hurricane down South/But it’s hard to leave your house,” Eagleson sings. The white musician’s vocal conjures ’60s soul, and his backup chorus, which follows with the line, “Lake is dangerous,” evokes the bellowing of a Baptist church. The song is most notable because it serves as a reminder of an approach that some have tried to discredit. Few will wince when they hear Bilongo singing over the countrified slide guitar on “I Miss You.” But Eagleson’s vocal on “Street Parade” is exactly the sort of thing that led one prominent critic to call Jon Spencer, the white Ivy-league educated frontman of ’90s indie rock act the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, an asshole. Perhaps Hera Ma Nono is a sign that the climate is shifting away from that kind of bitterness. Or perhaps Extra Golden is one of the bravest bands around.