How to tell your benga from rumba

What you need to know:

  • Origin of Kenyan music genre is not very clear, but its influence on music in other countries is not in doubt

Musa Juma, who passed away 10 days ago, was a great Kenyan musician, and there is no doubt about that. But was he a benga or rumba star?

It turns out that most ordinary mortals could not tell between benga, which is Kenyan, and rumba, which has Congolese roots – and media reports did not help much.

During an interlude in a rare performance in Nairobi last weekend, renowned Kenyan nyatiti player Ayub Ogada spoke about the origin of the name benga. He said the word benga was derived from Obengo, the name of the mother of the legendary musician D.O. Misiani.

A few people in the audience, including veteran music producer Tabu Osusa, exchanged knowing glances, fully aware of this oft-repeated fable.

The origin of the word benga remains a matter for conjecture even though, unlike rumba, the founding fathers of benga are still alive today.

Much of the credit for the benga sound goes to pioneer guitarist John Ogara, who shaped it in the early 1960s, fusing its rural roots with elements from urban centres.

The first use of the word benga in any recording was in 1963 in a song called Monica Ondego by The Ogara Boys. Ochieng Nelly, who played with Ogara, says the word was brought back to Kenya by the Luos who travelled to Congo in the 1950s. Others say the word refers to a popular skirt at the time, which was also known as the “Ogara skirt.

Whatever the case may be, Osusa — whose work in the documentary Retracing the Benga Rhythm provides the most extensive research on this genre of music — says the name benga cannot be linked with D.O. Misiani because he was still in his birthplace in Shirati, Tanzania, at the time Ogara co-recorded the first benga songs.

Ogara experimented with other genres and was deeply influenced by rumba, which had found its way to East Africa through musicians like pioneering Congolese guitarist Jean Bosco Mwenda and his cousin, Edward Masengo. The two lived in Kenya in the late 1950s and early 60s.

Just what distinguishes benga from other genres of popular East African music, like the Congolese rumba?

The 1960s and early 1970s was a period of transition in East African music. The National Service radio was awash with the slow tempo Congolese rumba while the fast-paced sound of benga was limited to the Vernacular Service.

The meeting of benga and rumba happened against a socio-economic backdrop. Benga was at the time regarded as a rural sound. Kenyan historian Atieno Odhiambo says by contrast, Congolese rumba and African twist was the entertainment for the emerging urban middle-class of the 1960s.

Benga musicians were thus compelled to flirt with rumba due to its easy recognition and the urban prestige associated with it.

Gary Stewart notes in Rumba on the River, a history of popular music in the two Congos, that the rumba sound became prominent at the end of the Second World War. It grew from the influence of imported Cuban records in Kinshasa as musicians abandoned traditional instruments for the acoustic guitars brought by Congolese sailors around 1914.

Benga moved from the shores of Lake Victoria in the 1950s when Luo musicians began adapting traditional dance rhythms of the nyatiti (lyre) and the orutu (fiddle) to the acoustic guitar.

The most distinctive benga sound is that of the bouncy finger-picking guitar technique, where the lead follows the track of the vocals.

Pioneer benga guitarists cultivated the technique from the nyatiti, where single notes would be plucked. This was unlike the Congolese rumba guitarists who ‘massage’ and strum the guitar. But the great Franco Luambo Makiadi, king of Congolese rumba, also used to pluck his guitar.

In Congo, the arrival of the electric guitar in the 1950s distinguished their sound from jazz and Latin bands. Joseph “Grand Kalle” Kabaseleh dominated the scene in Kinshasa and Brazaville with his African Jazz.

A decade later, a Kenyan musician’s love for rumba led him to adopt the stage name Kabaselleh, after the Congolese maestro. Ochieng’ Kabaselleh’s style was rooted in the slower rumba tempo.

By the 1970s, benga was attracting record buyers across the continent. Gabriel Omolo’s 1972 blockbuster hit, Lunch Time, sold well in West Africa. Retracing the Benga Rhythm talks of the music selling as far as Southern Africa. In Zimbabwe, it was called ‘kanindo,’ because the labels bore the name of preeminent benga producer Phares Oluoch Kanindo.

It is Kanindo, who is credited with the ‘Congolisation’ of benga through the adaptation of rumba elements by bands like Victoria Jazz, fronted by his brother-in-law, Collela Mazee.

The flamboyant George Ramogi, who straddled between benga and rumba, formed C.K. Dumbe Dumbe Jazz band to counter Orchestre Lipua Lipua in the 1970s.

Back then, the names of the bands and the membership provided a riveting distinction between the rumba and the benga bands. Anything close to 10 members and you had moved from threadbare benga “boys bands” to the robust Rumba “jazz bands” or “Orchestres.”

The benga sound has since evolved from the old single guitarist to the modern trend where bands now have as many as four guitarists interplaying in synchronised harmony.

Political upheavals in 1970s Zaire drove many musicians to East Arica. Classic examples from this era include Embakasi by Orchestre Les Mangelepa, Les Wanyika’s Sina Makosa and Shauri Yako by Nguashi Ntimbo. Some of these bands incorporated aspects of Kenyan benga, creating a unique musical style that some have called the latter-day Soukous, a name adapted from the French verb secousse, meaning ‘to shake.’

Soukous was defined by a mid-song rhythmic change called sebene, which gave the dancers a chance to shake while the guitarists showed off their skills.

Zaiko Langa Langa, led by Papa Wemba, perfected the sebene style with an energetic sound and a sense of fashion that won them a huge youthful fan base.

The exodus of Congolese musicians continued through the 1980s. The first destination for Nyboma and others like Bopol Mansiamina and Syran Mbenza was Abidjan. Abidjan marked not only a launching pad to Paris, but also the beginning of a whole new sound.

In the 1980s, some of these musicians settled in Brussels and Paris and their music sounded more international and less Congolese.

Congolese rumba purists feel the music lost some of its most appealing characteristics, replacing it with coarse rhythms, repetitive sebenes and the endless atalaku chanting that typifies the ndombolo dance.

Ivorian producer Ibrahim Sylla developed the ‘Paris Soukous’ that reverberated throughout the 1990s with its repeated guitar riffs and some salsa. A perfect example can be heard on Anicet, the classic album by Nyboma.

In a sense, what the Congolese call soukous resembles the fast-paced benga rhythm more than it does the original rumba. Congolese guitarist Syran Mbenza and vocalist Nyboma have both acknowledged that benga inspired the modern sound of Congolese music.

D.O. Misiani’s song Kiseru Pek Chalo Kidi was adapted by the Soukous Stars for the 1994 album Nairobi Night. The internationally famous Sam Mangwana was among the first African artistes to recognise the influence of benga on rumba.

D.O. Misiani is arguably the best-known benga artiste both in Kenya and around the world. He stands out as the only popular artiste to have remained true to benga in its purest form. Benga expert Tabu Osusa argues that it is because, unlike other musicians like George Ramogi and Collela Mazee, who were experimental, Misiani was not musically versatile and was thus forced to play only that which he knew best — benga.

It is because the origins of benga are traced to Nyanza Province that there is a common belief that all popular Luo music is benga.

The same is also said of Congolese music, erroneously referred to by its dominant language, ‘Lingala’ rather than by the wide variety of its genres.

The reality is, if you are looking for a musical identity, then you need to listen to a song beyond the language in which it is sung. Ironically benga music is today more popular outside its cradle Nyanza, where it plays second fiddle to rumba.

Many bands that sing in Luo have developed a style from Congolese rumba, in a trend that started with Ochieng Kabaselleh in the 1970s and continued with the social commentary of Okatch Biggy, Musa Juma and Tom Kodiyo. Indeed many of these musicians have had several Congolese musicians in their bands.

Now in its sixth decade, benga has spread its wings to many regions. In 1970, it was Daniel Kamau Mwai (DK), who popularised Benga in Central Kenya with his massive hit I Love You.

His success was the result of a multi-ethnic sound, where session musicians based on Nairobi’s River Road, like lead guitarist Owino Rachar, blended their melodies with DK’s catchy lyrics.


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