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Music of Kenya
Music of Kenya

Kenya’s music is as varied as the East African country’s ethnic groups, regional languages, and natural environments—from the humid coast to dry savannahs and rapidly growing and changing urban areas. As a cultural crossroads at the edge of the Indian Ocean, Kenya has been enriched by musical influences from the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, other parts of Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

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This playlist shares representative examples of that global influence in contemporary Kenyan music whose roots remain in Kenya’s many ethnic song and dance traditions. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings documents and disseminates musical traditions from all over the world, while Nairobi-based Ketebul Music has a similar mission focusing on the music of Kenya and East Africa. Many of the Kenyan artists on this playlist performed at the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

1. Kenya

From African Rhythms: Songs from Kenya (Folkways Records, 1970)
By David Nzomo

Kenya gained its independence in 1963, after seventy-four years under British rule. This song was written as a celebration of Kenyan independence by David Nzomo, who later became known for his social activism through music.

2. Vijana Niwambie

From Black Music of Two Words (Folkways Records, 1977)
By Williamu Osale

Many Kenyan musicians have developed a distinct style of guitar-playing, as musicians have transposed techniques and patterns from native stringed instruments. In addition to these traditions, this song also demonstrates influences from Cuban music.

3. African Politics

From African Politics: More Songs from Kenya (Folkways Records, 1973)
By David Nzomo

Following Kenya’s independence in 1963, David Nzomo continued to advocate for greater political union among all of Africa. In Kiswahili he sings, “Viable independence in Africa can never be without unity/ We cannot thwart neocolonialism when we are still balkanized.”

4. Kenyatta Aliteswa Sana

From Black Music of Two Words (Folkways Records, 1977)
By John Mwale

The 1960s saw a shift in Kenya’s music from traditional to popular styles which included the use of electric guitars and the praising of popular political figures. This song, which translates to “Kenyatta Suffered Greatly,” honors Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta.

5. Samuel Aketch

From Retracing the Benga Rhythm (Ketebul Music, 2008)
By John Ogara and Ochieng’ Nelly

Benga is a popular musical genre that grew out of the Nyanza Province that borders Lake Victoria in western Kenya in the 1950s and 1960s, after soldiers returning from World War II introduced the Spanish guitar to the Luo people in the region. Characterized by fast rhythms and bouncy finger-picking on the guitar as on the nyatiti (lyre), benga is distinct from other African pop musical styles.

6. Nana

From Retracing Kikuyu Popular Music (Ketebul Music, 2010)
By DK Mwai

The Kikuyu people are the largest ethnic community in Kenya, making up approximately one-quarter of the population. Their music incorporates influences and themes reflecting the change that impacted Kenya throughout the twentieth century and continues today. As in all communities, Kikuyu music exists not only to entertain but to document their communities’ existence and their forms of artistic expression. DK Mwai is one of Kenya’s most well-known Kikuyu musicians who promotes the pure entertainment and enjoyment value of music throughout civil society.

7. Tarab

From Music of the Waswahili of Lamu, Kenya, Vol. 3: Secular Music (Folkways Records, 1985)
By Famau and the Harambee Music Club

Taarab, meaning “having joy with music” in Arabic, is a popular genre in Kenya and Tanzania that illustrates influence from the Middle East, South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond. This song uses the harmonium and single-headed drums, instruments imported from Asia, while the lyrics are sung in the native Kiswahili and arranged in traditional Swahili verse forms.

8. Kuliepuka Shari

From Spotlight on Kenyan Music, Vol. 6 (Ketebul Music, August 2014)
By Lelele Afrika

This example of taarab music reflects cultural influences from the Middle East and India that also are present in many coastal Kenyan foods and crafts. Lelele Afrika is a band originally from the coastal town Lamu, and this song is a new contribution to the Spotlight on Kenyan Music series, which is an initiative of the Alliance Francaise de Nairobi in partnership with Ketebul Music and others that seeks to identify and promote musical talent from Kenya.

9. Chakacha

From Safarini in transit: Music of African immigrants (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2000)
By Frank Ulwenya

This song’s namesake is a Swahili women’s song and dance style, native to Mombasa and the Kenyan coast. Chakacha has since been appropriated as an element of Afropop music. In this version, the singer asks a woman named Kamitina to dance the chakacha, and she agrees.

10. Obotaka

From Ekayaba (Ketebul Music, 2008)
By Ontiri Bikundo

At a young age, Ontiri Bikundo lost both his parents, dropped out of school, and began teaching himself to play the obokano, an eight-stringed harp of the Kisii people in western Kenya. He often sings about political and social issues facing contemporary Kenyan society.

11. Mandolina

From Ohanglaman (Ketebul Music, 2005)
By Makadem

Charles Odero Ademson is a versatile musician from Mombasa on Kenya’s southern coast. Under the performance name Makadem, he performs a variety of genres, including hip-hop, dancehall, and a blend of Afro fusion he calls “Anglo-Ohangla”: traditional instruments punctuated by modern African beats and lyrics.

12. AIDS Wadila

From Weapon of Mass Reconciliation: Spotlight on Kenyan Music Experience (Alliance Francaise de Nairobi and Ketebul Music, 2011)
By Bismillahi Gargar

Gargar, consisting of Somali women based in the northeastern city Garissa, strives to preserve traditional culture and empower women through music as well as by making woven mats, baskets, and other crafts. This song is part of the group’s contribution to a growing movement in Kenya to spread HIV/AIDS awareness and education among all ethnic communities.

13. Ok Mit

From Osuga (Ketebul Music, 2005)
By Olith Ratego

Olith Ratego is an Afro fusion performer inspired by dodo, a singing style popular in southwestern Kenya. He combines traditional rock band instruments like guitars and bass with a stringed lyre with gourd resonator that he built himself.

14. Safarini

From Safarini in transit: Music of African immigrants (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2000)
By Frank Ulwenya and Afrisound

The Safarini album is a compilation of artists originally from Africa now living in the United States. Frank Ulwenya, who was born in the Maragoli region of western Kenya among the Luya people, says this song is not just about the journey of immigration but the journey through life: “We are on a journey/safarini. Take your time, stay cool. Only the Almighty knows our fate.”

Compiled by Elisa Hough

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