Open-air bars with corrugated-tin walls don’t make for the best recording studios.
But Ian Eagleson, a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at Wesleyan University, learned to make do during the times he spent in Kenya documenting the country’s relentlessly upbeat style of pop music, benga. Using his makeshift “Nyathi Otenga Flying Studios”—just a laptop and a mixer—Eagleson has made 27 multitrack recordings of various bands in sundry dives in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and in Nyanza province to the west, home of the Luo people, benga’s most renowned practitioners. He also used it to record his own project, Extra Golden, a benga-rock hybrid band whose debut CD, Ok-Oyot System, was just released by Chicago’s Thrill Jockey label.
Eagleson, 32, co-founded Golden with his freshman-year roommate Alex Minoff in 1993 while an undergraduate at Oberlin College in Ohio. The rock-funk group moved to D.C. the year after Eagleson’s first trip to Kenya, in 1995.
Even as an underclassman, Eagleson knew he wanted to become an ethnomusicologist, but his eventual focus on Kenyan music was unplanned. “I’m not really sure why I decided on Africa. I think I just enjoyed the music the most,” he says. “Nairobi sounded interesting—a cosmopolitan city, a high altitude. Usually you think of a tropical environment; this sounded like it was a little more diverse, so I gravitated toward that.”
Eagleson received a master’s degree from University of Texas-Austin and returned to Kenya in 2000. There, he first met singer and guitarist Otieno “John” Jagwasi, a popular session player in Nairobi who introduced Eagleson to numerous bands, and drummer Onyango Wuod Omari, the two musicians who round out Extra Golden.
“They were playing in a bar in Nairobi in the east side of the city,” Eagleson remembers at the 32-year-old Minoff’s LeDroit Park apartment. “They were also playing in this neighborhood called Dandora—it’s pretty famous for being a rough place. You shouldn’t be walking around there at night, no matter who you are. I had a portable DAT recorder that I borrowed from my school. I recorded those guys in that bar, and that was my first introduction to the music. And John started teaching me to play that style back then.”
When Minoff found himself on his bandmate’s side of the Atlantic following a 2004 British tour with his main band, Weird War, Eagleson didn’t have to work hard to convince him to try to record something in Kenya. “We recorded in this bar-restaurant during the day because the club owns all the gear the band uses,” Minoff says. The sessions had to be done quickly—not only because Minoff had just three weeks before he had to fly home but also because the musicians had to clear out each evening before the bar opened for business. The album’s title attests to the difficulty of the process: Ok-oyot, a popular saying in Kenya, means “It’s not easy.”
But under those trying circumstances, the group came up with a sound that’s genuinely unique. “Extra Golden has entered into new territory,” says Doug Paterson, who’s produced several definitive compilations of East African music, including The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya. “Where you usually find hybrids is with the intersection of benga pop and traditional African music.”
The meeting of East and West on Ok-Oyot System isn’t unprecedented in Golden’s work; the band had already begun incorporating the nyatiti, a Kenyan lyre, into its songs. “The songs on the Extra Golden record could very well be on a Golden album,” says Eagleson. “In fact, ‘Ok-Oyot System’ is a song we had been working on in Golden that never really made it anywhere. It had a lot of benga ideas in it already.”
Still, Kenyans didn’t necessarily take to the D.C. band’s eclectic and often instrumental mix of porn soundtracks, hard funk, and African-tinged jams. “I’ve played some Golden for people over there, and it really doesn’t make any sense at all to them,” Eagleson says. “The things that matter for their music is danceability—all benga music is dance music—and good melodies.”
“If you think about instrumental music as art for art’s sake—benga seems like it’s a little more functional,” says Minoff. “People there don’t really have the resources or the time to do things for the sake of doing them. People there don’t sit around and think about banal shit like we do.”
East African music doesn’t enjoy the same sort of recognition around the world as its continental cousins—no Kenyan equivalent of Mali’s Amadou & Miriam or Ali Farka Touré is racked at your local Starbucks.
“It’s a historical accident that Kenyan music isn’t well-known,” Paterson says. “Part of that accident is the economic reality of the recording industry in Kenya, which didn’t give much freedom to innovation because of financial constraints and the fact that there haven’t been [many] Europeans or Americans who really cultivated the Kenyan sound for outside consumption.”
Benga’s chief influences are indigenous Kenyan folk styles and pan-African pop music, such as Congolese rumba. “The kick drum is always going,” Eagleson says, “so the bass kinda plays around that, puts a lot of cross rhythms on top of it. Then you have the rhythm-guitar guys just fingerpicking chords, and the lead guys play what the singers are doing. Then they’ll have a section at the end that they call the climax; it’s like the dance section. It’s mostly instrumental soloing, playing a repeated lead, then the singers will start doing shouts during that time.”
That recognition of the audience is key in benga, which dates to the late ’60s. “When [benga musicians are] playing at the bar, and they see people there, they’ll give them shout-outs,” Eagleson says. “Their songs are usually love songs or they’re praising someone. Like someone who’s a great bus driver or something.”
“A lot of songs sound like they’d be really exotic. But then if you knew the lyrics, they’d be about a regional manager,” says Minoff, citing one number that big-ups the director of an insurance company.
Extra Golden brings some of that shout-out tradition to Ok-Oyot System’s last tune, “Nyajondere.” It starts off as a slow, benga-like song but picks up toward the end, when you can hear someone call out, “Alex-o, say hi to Michelle,” a reference to Minoff’s Weird War bandmate and roommate Michelle Mae.
In fact, all of Ok-Oyot System is a shout-out of sorts to Jagwasi, who died the year after the album was recorded. HIV-positive and in his early 30s, he’d been consulting an herbalist—“which a lot of people do in Kenya,” Eagleson says—and was in good shape during the recording sessions. But his health took a turn after Eagleson and Minoff returned home. “I think his liver just failed,” Eagleson says. “I never got the full story.”
It took Eagleson and Minoff another year to finish overdubbing Ok-Oyot System, working around their musical and academic schedules, and the fact that one of the album’s creators isn’t around to hear the results makes its release bittersweet for the Americans. “This record was going to be a way for [Jagwasi] to visit the United States. We were really excited about that,” Eagleson says. “It’s a real shame. I think the good thing is that we got it out. I know that he would be happy.”
Jagwasi wrote or co-wrote four of Ok-Oyot System’s tracks, including the album-opening “Ilando Gima Onge,” which Eagleson and Minoff arranged in a minor key—unheard of in benga—to reflect the song’s dark lyrics. Jagwasi tells the story of how a few people began collecting money on his behalf, ostensibly for his burial. Eventually, the song reveals that they were “just doing it to get beer money. That song is a pretty harsh story, but it rings true, with the way things are in Kenya,” Eagleson says. “A lot of bad things happen in desperate times.”
While making Ok-Oyot System, Extra Golden experienced some of those bad things firsthand. Minoff had just arrived in Nairobi, where he was staying in Eagleson’s two-bedroom apartment. One morning, Eagleson walked out of the shower to find his living room filled with guests, including a Kenyan acquaintance who had popped over that morning carrying a cigarette pack filled with about 10 joints, as well as three newcomers wearing suits. Despite the interlopers’ fancy threads, there was no reason for Eagleson to be suspicious—he often let musicians crash at his pad and was used to strangers dropping by.
But then somebody motioned toward the three suits and said, “Those guys are police, and they want to talk to you.”
One cop picked up the cigarette pack and said, “What’s in here?”
“They were going to arrest us, charge us—just the Americans,” Eagleson says. The police probably didn’t show up, as they claimed, because of a noise complaint—it’s more likely that they were tipped off about the marijuana by someone who knew about it: “The guy who brought the stuff over, I didn’t really see him too much after that,” Eagleson says.
The police asked the Americans for huge sums of money in exchange for their freedom, so they emptied their pockets. After paying about $3,500, Eagleson and a literally penniless Minoff decided enough was enough and caught an overnight train to the coast, where they waited for the cops to lose interest. “Ian had to pay for everything I did,” Minoff says. “You’re walking down the street and the little kids are asking you for money, and you feel pathetic saying, ‘No, I really don’t have any money.’”
Extortion and poverty are parts of daily life in much of Nairobi, but, Eagleson says, “I don’t want to come off as saying that Kenya is a deplorable place. It’s not. I love it there.” CP