March 3, 2014
On the Opika Pende set, I included what I think is an excellent example of praise singing from Western Kenya featuring the nyatiti. This important instrument of the Luo people is an 8-stringed lyre that’s plucked like a lute, using quick repetitive phrases. The resonator is sometimes held against the player’s chest, sometimes not, but generally the player has small metallic rings attached to his foot, which are tapped against the body of the nyatiti. The short melodic phases (known as puch) and hard tapping make for a pulsing, driving musical experience, accompanied by loud and intense praise poetry. It’s a music for all significant occasions in Luo culture, and traditionally the musicians were itinerant. To hear a sample of the Opika Pende song on iTunes, click here. For a dynamic video of a present-day Luo praise poet, click here.
Today’s track is a musical development – an attempt to bring the nyatiti into the electric age via electric guitars (a lead, and a bass). It must have seemed a natural switch, to attempt to transform and update Luo praise singing with a non-traditional instrument. This certainly has happened all across Africa (and elsewhere), with often really interesting results. Sure, in some cases if a modern or more western instrument took hold, it transformed the older musical type into something that would often soon cease to exist. Varying opinions exist on that, but I am not a purist. Yet, in any case, I’m not sure if this switch to electric guitar ever really took hold – this is the only example I’ve come across. Even if it’s more common than I know, it’s something different to my ears and hopefully yours. While many link the sound of “benga” music back to the nyatiti, this is more of a precise interpretation of nyatiti praise music, just on electric instruments. It’s pretty killer.
The Mambo label was one of the first labels run by the important music entrepreneur and producer Arvindkumar P. Chandaran, who based his company and music store in town of Kericho, west of the Great Rift Valley. Chandaran’s name dots many East African 45 rpm labels (Hundhwe, Saba Saba, Stranger, Pwani, and Wachezaji, just to name a few), and as a producer he apparently was a driving force in popularizing benga, both with his slew of labels and his well-known Chandaran music store. While the 45 era in East Africa was staggering in terms of volume (as evidenced by the excellent Kentanza Vinyl site), the 78-era in East Africa was also incredible – dozens of small, privately owned labels were competing and releasing discs in varying amounts (often small amounts I bet). Most all are very difficult to find on 78 (though 45s were also issued by many of these labels): Mzuri, Rafiki, Robina, Tom Tom, Tejura, Festival, Twist, Equator Sound, Africa, Kenyans, African Voice, AGS, Nyota, CMS, Jogoo, Jambo…it goes on. I would say this 78 was recorded and pressed sometime during the early to mid-1960s.
Mambo Sweet Voice!
Issue Number: MV 58
Matrix Number: APC 118 2H 1 670
April 4, 2012
I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant number of readers of Excavated Shellac were familiar with the incredible Kenyan recording of “Chemirocha,” which was captured by the South African ethnographer and recordist Hugh Tracey on his 1950 expedition across East Africa. If ever there was an early recording from Africa that could be described as infamous, “Chemirocha” is it. Decades ago, that recording was issued by Tracey on his long out-of-print Music of Africa LP collection (#2: Kenya), then later by John Storm Roberts on his groundbreaking and long out-of-print Nairobi Sound LP, and later, sounding clear as a bell, on the recent Sharp Wood CD Kenyan Songs and Strings.
“Chemirocha” is deservedly infamous because of it’s backstory. Tracey arrived in Kapkatet, Kenya, inland from the eastern shore of Lake Victoria, to record the music of the Kipsigis. The Kipsigis were then known (and it seems still are) as a pastoral people whose livelihood, on the whole, depended on cattle, tea, and millet. Their language, interestingly, is not a Bantu language, and is part of the Nilotic language group, centered around southern Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda (Luo is also a Nilotic language). Anyway, Tracey discovered on his apparently rainy visit that the Kipsigis had heard numerous recordings by American country music star Jimmie Rodgers – likely purchased and/or brought to Kenya by the British, as Jimmie Rodgers discs were reissued in Britain on the Zonophone label. The Kipsigis, after hearing Rodgers’ music, were, according to Tracey, fascinated by his voice, which they deemed magical, and created a legend around him, calling him Chemirocha: Chemi (Jimmie) Rocha (Rodgers). According to the Kipsigis, Chemirocha, because of his prowess as a singer and player, had to have been half-man, half-antelope. The younger Kipsigis invented songs about him. This well known and beautiful version of “Chemirocha” can be heard, introduced by Hugh Tracey himself, here.
However, that was not the only song about Chemirocha that Tracey recorded. In fact, he recorded THREE Chemirocha songs – and the famous one described above technically was known in Tracey’s archive as “Chemirocha III.” They are all slightly different. This version, far less known and sung by young men, is “Chemirocha II,” and is slower, and more methodical. Tracey wrote in his notes that the other two versions of Chemirocha tunes were in fact songs usually performed by women, but the young men clearly knew them well enough to perform them, despite the embarrassment of their sisters, who were reticent to perform themselves. They are accompanied, as usual, by the 6-string bowl lyre of the Kipsigis known as the chepkongo (also chepkong, chemonge, or sometimes bukandit). In fact, the lyrics to this track are about the chepkongo, and how Chemirocha’s guitar playing sounds so similar to their own instrument. The instrument is used for both entertainment and ceremonial purposes. According to one source, in 1952 chepkongo songs by the Kipsigis were banned by the colonial-era Nandi African District Council.
These songs have continued to marvel, probably due to the fact that the two main elements, the Kipsigis and the American country star, seem incongruous to most. Their music in theory appears incompatible. Yet, despite distance and difference of culture, and with help from the rampant dispersal of the gramophone record, one influenced the other. Of course, it’s far more complicated than that. Quite possibly, the devastating effects of colonialism played a part in bringing those Jimmie Rodgers records to Kenya. As Barry Mazor points out in his book “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers,” some patronizing hyperbole abounds in the writing on these recordings – one source I came across stated that the Kipsigis developed a “Jimmie Rodgers cult.” This appears to be, at best, an extreme exaggeration. Mazor, referencing Tracey’s notes, states that the name “Chemirocha,” from the Kipsigis standpoint, stood for anything new and different that came from outside of their country. Further, according to Tracey’s notes, the singers of “Chemirocha I” ask why their country has been taken over by white men. That, in itself, is a tip-off that we’re not talking about a Jimmie Rodgers personality cult. The Kipsigis were fascinated by the quality of Rodgers’ voice and playing – not his personality, his career as a country music star, or his lyrics, which they could not understand. At any rate, Hugh Tracey loved the region and was impressed by the Kipsigis, and for that we can be thankful.
I have noticed since returning home that whenever members of my party refer to our recording sessions with the Nandi or Kipsigis they do so with a smile of pleasure…I can think of no single area where greater pleasure for any research man is inherent in the countryside. In human talent it has a special contribution to make to African music. – Hugh Tracey, 1951*
It should be mentioned that many of Tracey’s recordings can be accessed, via cooperation from Tracey’s ILAM (International Library of African Music), on the South African Music Archive Project website. The samples are low-resolution, stereo, and often poorly transferred, with sometimes incomplete or incorrect metadata - but still, it’s a phenomenal wealth of important content for researchers that deserves far more than lip service on a blog.
I could find nothing about the duo of Joash Makaya and Joseph Sambili, members of the Luhya people of Western Kenya. Which one of them is providing the guitar, soda bottle, and vocals, is unknown – conceivably it could be just one of them. But Makaya was the writer of this piece, which was likely recorded in Nairobi in the summer of 1956. I discuss this a little in the notes to Opika Pende, but this entire series was funded by the African Mercantile Company (the “AMC” on the label), and organized by a British ex-patriot named Peter Colmore, a gregarious entrepreneur based in Nairobi. Every disc I’ve heard on this rare series has been terrific. Makaya and Sambili take a little while to get into a groove (indicating yet again that there was no time for second takes with most 78 recording), but then glide smoothly into beautiful singing and playing.
So…five years of Excavated Shellac. Admittedly, the last few have been erratic in terms of posting, I realize. And who celebrates the anniversary of a website, anyway? I had an entire screed written, filled with complaints, anecdotes, opinions on blogging, opinions on collecting, the meaning of why on Earth I continue to do this…but I erased it. Ultimately, the meaning of why I do this is tied to the experience of listening and meeting people for whom this music (as opposed to merely the records) generates a response. It is entirely personal. Through it, I’ve met some generous people, incredibly knowledgeable contributors, and have had the lucky chance to release work publicly. I’ll keep updating Excavated Shellac so long as it continues to modestly make attempts to bridge a gap between ad-free interactive scholarship and entertainment. While the transfers have, and the writing has, I believe, improved over the years, I’ve kept to the same format and design. It’s a less-is-more approach…although with Opika Pende and Strings the amount of music released under the Excavated Shellac rubric has approached the 11-CD boxed set range, so the “more” part of “less-is-more” might be winning that battle. While it’s pretty easy to figure out who I am, at least on this website I will only be ‘JW,’ your (vaguely) anonymous moderator. And my one plug will be that if you have enjoyed these 150+ tracks on this website and have appreciated the commentary, please support my analog releases. You will not be disappointed.
Issue Number: GB.1472
Matrix Number: XYZ.5530
Issue Number: AMC.29
Matrix Number: 0AM 69
*Tracey, Hugh. (1951). Recording Tour, May to November 1950 East Africa. Newsletter. African Music Society, 1(4), 38-51.
Oh…a few posts that I had taken down over the years have been brought back to life. Have at them, if you hadn’t downloaded them already…
November 10, 2008
The events of this week find me wanting to temporarily curtail my sojourn into woodwinds in world music and present something both fun, and from Kenya. So here we are, spending a little time with an East African bar band; a bar band putting their own particular spin on a classic Perez Prado tune, in fact. While the Cuban influence was felt from West Africa, across Central Africa, and into East Africa in the 78rpm era – boleros, rhumbas, and cha-chas galore, especially in Congo - this is one of the few 78s in my personal collection where Africans actually cover a Cuban pop song.
Where were the Kiko-Kids from exactly? According to the scant information available, they were from Kenya, though there’s at least one source that indicates they were itinerant. The independent Tom Tom label, who released this week’s post, was based in Kampala, Uganda, and recorded music from across East Africa. The sleeve for this record, however, indicates that it was recorded in the Equator Club in Nairobi. (Boy, would I love to see some photos from that place in full swing.) Making things more complicated, on one of John Storm Roberts’ long out-of-print CD releases on his phenomenal Original Music label (Dada Kidawa Sister Kidawa) they are credited as Kiko Kids Jazz, from Tanzania. So, it’s quite possible that they should be best referenced as an “East African” band, but let’s, just for today, say they’re from Kenya.
As mentioned, Tom Tom was based in Kampala and their records were pressed there too, by the Opel Gramophone Record Factory, Ltd. “Opel” stood for Dr. Georg von Opel (1912-1971), the German industrialist. I’m not sure what brought Opel to Kampala to start a tiny, fledgling record label – this is a man who was the founder of the Opel automobile company, a member of the International Olympic Committee, and Vice-President of something called the International Leisure Association (I must remember to emulate that career track). I have no idea how long Tom Tom lasted as a company, but probably for at least a few years in the 1950s, judging by their scarcity, their pressing quality, typeface, and musical content. The independent record label scene in East Africa runs deep, even with 78rpm records, believe it or not. I’ve discovered a few labels that seem to have no written history whatsoever (Maringa, anyone?). Meanwhile, have fun with this.
Label: Tom Tom
Issue Number: TR 683
Matrix Number: T 5007