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Kenyan Music Playlist

Songs from East Africa

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The music of Kenya is both diverse and inclusive. People of the Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, Kalenjin, Kamba, Kisii, Meru, Swahili, and Maasai cultures, as well as hundreds of smaller tribes, make up the local population. There's also a substantial international population, though, who have migrated to Kenya over hundreds of years to work in Nairobi, on coastal ports, or in mines. This musical diversity gives Kenya a unique, and really fun, musical landscape. Here are some songs to get you started in your musical exploration of Kenya.

1. Kenge Kenge - "Kenge Kenge"

I first saw Kenyan band Kenge Kenge in, of all places, Malaysia, at the Penang World Music Festival. They had everything you want from a great African band, with their churning rhythms and wild dancers. Though you can't get the full live effect out of a recorded track, this eponymous number is still a great one for the music collection. Clocking in at over nine minutes, it's true to the extended, improvised Afropop form, and shows a good mixture of traditional Luo instruments with modern electronic ones.

2. Ayub Ogada - "Kothbiro"

I first heard this beautiful sparse ballad in the film The Constant Gardener, and it struck me so deeply that I actually stayed in the theatre to watch the closing credits (shocking, I know) so I could try to figure out what it was. I actually ended up having to look it up at home, and I discovered that the artist, Ayub Ogada, is not only a noted singer, composer and nyatiti (a traditional East African lute) player, but also happens to be an actor who goes by the stage name Job Seda. It turns out that Ayub Ogada - aka Job Seda - was the fella who played Robert Redford's Maasai warrior sidekick in Out of Africa. Movie trivia aside, though, this song is definitely a spine-tingler.

3. Eric Wainaina - "Dunia Ina Mambo"

Eric Wainaina is one of Kenya's favorite musical sons, and he's been recognized with dozens of awards and special commendations both in Kenya and abroad. His sound leans toward the poppy side of African music, and this tune has a great upbeat sound which features both Eric's great singing and a really nice background choir.

4. Suzzana Owiyo - "Mama Africa"

Suzzana Owiyo, the husky-voiced reigning queen of Kenyan pop music, is actually better known on an international level as an advocate for African social issues. Her work on numerous charity initiatives is equally as impressive as her music, though. Between her vocal skills (think Angelique Kidjo meets Tracy Chapman) and her clever, catchy songwriting skills, she is most definitely an up-and-comer on the international scene. This sultry song is the title track from her 2004 CD.

5. Gidi Gidi Maji Maji - "Who Can Bwogo Me?"

This banging hip-hop anthem from duo Gidi Gidi Maji Maji has been used as a theme song by a number of Kenyan politicians. Bwogo means (roughly) beat - in the sense of conquer - and comes from the wildly popular album Unbwogable. The song might be too hard-core hip-hoppy for people who prefer the lighter rhythms of Afropop, but it's decidedly more African than American rap, and it's really fun.

6. Samba Mapangala and Orchestra Virunga - "Nyama Choma"

Samba Mapangala is actually Congolese by birth, but after moving to Nairobi in the late 1970s, became a huge star throughout Kenya. This catchy song, from the 2006 album Song and Dance is a great example of the Virunga sound - a combination of African rhythms and Afro-Cuban music, particularly rumba.

7. Yunasi - "Jambo Africa"

Yunasi is a relative newcomer on the Kenyan music scene, having only formed in 2004, but they've made their mark as a hugely popular Afro-fusion band who've really found a nice balance of the traditional and the contemporary. This feel-good number is an upbeat pro-Africa number that talks about various African heroes (including Nelson Mandela and Haile Selassie) and uniquely features the accordion in the instrumental line-up.

8. Daniel Owino Misiani - "Wuoro Monono"

Tanzania-born Daniel Owino Misiani gained fame in Kenya with his band Shirati Jazz, eventually becoming known as the "grandfather of benga," as his innovative guitar-playing, use of international (particularly Cuban) influences and use of electric instruments made him the first hit-maker of the genre. He was a proud member of the Luo people, and often used his songs to teach Luo history. Wuoro Monono means "greed is useless," and though the song isn't in English, the positive message is clear in the music itself.

9. Them Mushrooms - "Jambo Bwana"

Them Mushrooms are a seminal Kenyan band, who have been recording since the late 1970s (more recently under the name "Uyoga") and who combine reggae with Kenyan pop music styles. "Jambo Bwana" ("Hello, Sir") was their first big hit, and has subsequently been covered by musicians all over the world.

10. Extra Golden - "Hera Ma Nono"

Extra Golden is a band which is comprised of both Kenyan benga musicians and American rock musicians, who blend the two genres into something fresh, new and very cool. The high production value on "Hera Ma Nono," from the 2007 album of the same name, is refreshing, and it's clear that all of the participating musicians are having a fairly ludicrous amount of fun playing together.
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