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Music fusion as benga meets urban genres

Githuki wa Nyokabi performing at Golden Dreams Grill, Murang'a. [Boniface Gikandi, Standard]

A few years back in Kenya, vernacular music was becoming a marginalised affair at the expense of urban music genres.

Most youngsters prefer to associate themselves with Trap, Drill, Shrap and Amapiano as they look down at the likes of Benga, Mugithi, Ohangla and Rhumba.

Lately, though, the tables have turned and these songs are no longer a reserve for the older generation. And with the music scene changing, and new genres creeping up, we have seen the fusion of genres across the board.

When Kikuyu legendary musician John Boniface Maina, best known as JB Maina, featured dancehall artiste Wyre in his hit song Mwanake, it was a big deal because such collaborations were unheard of.

JB, popularly known for songs such as Ni Sorry Muno, Tiga Kumute and Mundia Tawe did a remix of Mwanake, which was not just another Kikuyu song, but became a club banger as well. Wyre brought out his Jamaican lingo and the final blend was pure bliss.

Another act that was not only surprising, but also showed how different versatile worlds could come together is when 125 dropped the track How We Do with backing from the ‘King of Mugithi’ Mike Rua.

The danceable tune shot at the Alchemist Bar bringing out two very different genres of music to a perfect blend, with the one-man guitarist known for his lewd lyrics and guitar skills almost outshining the youngsters.

Kenyan music combines established worldwide genres such as Soul, House, Reggae, RnB, Hip Hop, Trap, Country, and Rock with local sounds such as Benga, Rhumba, and traditional folk.

Traditional musical instruments like the Orutu, Nyatiti, and Ajawa, as well as classical instruments and arrangements, are used to create a rich, unique sound.

Pioneers of what we would call the alternative acts such as Makadem have experimented with, and adjusted their lines from Ohangla and jazz to ‘nyatititroniks’.

This is a tendency among alternative acts that are redefining the music sphere.

A few months back, bengatronics, a retrofuturist exploration of Benga music in Kenya, dropped their album Kiunga 2, also dubbed Kiunga Fire.

Many are familiar with the Benga sound; elaborate guitar licks often too quick to catch, and crisp percussion, which has the feet and hips moving almost of their own volition.

This particular musical masterpiece, a 10-track cultural exchange album was a clash of African folk and pop cultures.

This project was a first of its kind and incorporated traditional instruments such as Adungu, l’Mqess, Nzumari, Bongos, Bendir, Benga Guitar, Masinqo, Orutu, Guembri, Tam Tam (Tbilats), Taarija, Tbal and Nakouss, just to celebrate the rich diversity of African cultures.

And early this month, 254 Brewery hosted a one-of-its-kind event dubbed ‘Folk Fusion Extravaganza’ that was headlined by top afro-fusion artistes in Kenya including; Yaba, Ayrosh, Akoth Jumadi and Winyo.

This goes to show how artistes are embracing their different cultures and bridging the gap between vintage hits and urban releases.

Winyo

Shiphton Onyango aka Winyo (Luo word for bird), started off as part of the critically acclaimed and accomplished trio Rateng’, cutting his teeth as the composer, vocalist and guitarist for the group. Winyo is now a much sought-after composer and songwriter, who has penned songs for many chart-topping artistes in Kenya including Tusker Project Fame winner Valerie Kimani and received critical acclaim as the writer and vocals behind Ukoo Flani Mau-Mau’s hook on Angalia Saa. As a solo artiste, he released his first album Benga Blues while on tour in Europe, performing in Germany, Italy, Romania, and France, which then launched the following year in Kenya and internationally. More recently he worked with Afro House legends Suraj and Kate Chege, dropping a five-track EP with Gondwana KE.

Samidoh

Samidoh, a well-known Mugithi musician, has been in the music industry for some time now. He first started out as a backup vocalist for Kamande wa Kioi before he debuted his solo career with the release of Ndiri Mutwe Mwega in 2016. He has since become a household name, with his songs receiving millions of views. His musical roots may be traced back to his younger years when he was a member of the Christian Union worship group.

Prince Indah

Evans Ochieng’ Opiyo is also known as Janabii. He is CEO of Musical Masters Empire and band Leader at Malaika Musicals. Indah started his career as Emma Jalamo’s drummer before graduating as a backup singer. The Luo artiste released his debut album Cinderella in 2015  and immediately dropped his sophomore album Tenda Wema in 2016. Since then he was catapulted to fame due to his controversial Nyakisumu Part 2, which catapulted him to massive fame. Some of his recent songs include; Te AMo, Kido Mar Hera and Mama Watoto. He has done some collaborations with mainstream artistes including Khaligraph Jones and Bahati.

Emma Jalamo 

Austine Odhiambo is a Kenyan Luo-Ohangla singer and songwriter whose success in the music industry is due to the unique genre of his composition. Emma combines Benga, Ohangla, and Rhumba songs into a new blend that attracts fans of all categories. The special genre of his collection prompted him to name his band Ramogi Ohangla Rhumba (ROR).

Ayrosh

Ayrosh is best known for his futuristic approach to Mugithi (a local genre derived from Benga). In addition to organising the event, he plays alongside other folk musicians revisiting old classics and fusing them with popular genres. He is proud to have graced numerous stages in Nairobi including Africa Nouveau, Story Moja and Slam Africa. Having already been nominated for various awards - Sondeka Awards (Fusion Artiste of the Year), and Café Ngoma Awards (Folk Artiste of the year) - in 2022, Ayrosh is taking things to the next level with new tracks and bigger crowds beckoning.

Akoth Jumadi

Jumadi is an architect of the future, crafting ethereal folk sounds with contemporary and tribal elements. Her work involves weaving together various aspects of Luo folk, Afro-soul, Tribal Fusion, Jazz, Taraab, and Benga. In her music, she explores themes of love, healing, spiritual emancipation, political liberation and cultural integration in the arts. Her debut EP Ere Yo released in 2020 saw her music shaping the East African soundscape and pushing boundaries of what the Kenyan musical identity is today. The Ere Yo tour saw Akoth play multiple festivals and shows around Eastern Africa and beyond.

Yaba

Yaba debuted into the music industry with the neo-benga duo, Red Acapella, before launching a solo career that led to him being crowned Prince of Rhumbacane, fusing the genres of Rhumba, Trap, and Soulful Benga. His collaboration with local group 125 on the 2016 track Tabbu, led him to widespread appeal among Kenya’s trap-loving youth. His music has themes ranging from storytelling, youth, love, self-awareness, feel-good motivation, and activism.