I've written here before that twenty years ago I accumulated an archive of about 24 hours worth of East African music on 10" tape reels that I finally got around to digitizing a year and a half ago. These records were loaned to me by friends from that part of the world, most of whom have moved on to other cities, and cover a gamut of languages and styles.
Digitizing this material was fairly straightforward, but actually processing, organizing and making sense of the collection has been a daunting task, one that I've pursued in whatever spare time I've had. It's complicated by the fact that the various genres and artists are scattered among the tapes willy-nilly.
Some of the more refreshing of these tracks have been the ones recorded by Kamba musicians. The Akamba, related to the Kikuyu, are said to number about four million and live in the south-central region of Kenya just east of Nairobi (refer to the map on the right; click to enlarge). While contemporary Kamba music is often labeled "Benga" or "Cavacha," it's characterized by its relative simplicity and straightforwardness. Doug Paterson had this to say in World Music: The Rough Guide (Rough Guides, 1994):
. . . Although distinctive melodies distinguish Kamba pop from other styles of benga, there are other special Kamba features. One is the delicate, flowing, merry-go-round-like rythm guitar that underlies many Kamba arrangements. While the primary guitar plays chords in the lower range, the second guitar plays a fast pattern of notes that mesh with the rest of the instrumentation to fill in the holes. This gentle presence is discernible in many of the recordings of the three most famous Kamba groups: The Kalambya Boys & Kalambya Sisters, Peter Mwambi and his Kyanganga Boys and Les Kilimambogo Brothers Band, led, until 1987, by Kakai Kilonzo.It turns out that I have quite a few tracks by the Kilimambogos, almost none of which are on the two recent compilations Best of Kakai Vol. 1 and Best of Kakai Vol. 2, so you can assume I'll be devoting a future post exclusively to them. Tunes by various other Kamba musicians (most recorded around 1983) add up to about three hours' worth of music, and the ones I'm posting here are a representative sample. If you like these I'll be happy to post more in the future.
Back in the early '80s Kenya was under the sway of the imported Congolese musicians, Virunga, Baba Gaston and the like, and the various Swahili "big bands" like Mlimani Park and the Wanyika groups. Kamba music and the other "vernacular" styles were part of an older, less-sophisticated tradition that had its roots in the '60s and earlier, as described by John Storm Roberts in the liner notes to his compilation Before Benga Vol. 2: The Nairobi Sound (Original Music OMCD 022):
. . .I soon found that this was very much a people's music. The hip young Kenyans moving into government and the professions were uneasy with its reminder of the Swahili-speaking, makeshift past, more happy with the sophistication of Zaïrean music and English-language pop and rock 'n' roll. True, compared with the work of the great names of Kinshasa, the discs cranked out of the scruffy record stores of River Road, down near the country bus station, were simple and sometimes seemed naïvely optimistic. But for the majority of Kenyans whose English was functional at best, they reflected day-to-day life with a plain-man exuberance that was very like their audience: lacking the glamour of West or Central Africa, but in their own way wholly admirable. . .In this light I regret that I've been unable to find anyone to translate the lyrics of these records for us. I'm sure they would be even more pleasurable if we knew what they were about! As it is there's plenty of wonderful singing and guitar-picking for our musical enjoyment.
The Kalambya Boys, led by Onesmus Musyoki and Joseph Mutaiti, were one of the primary Kamba bands of the 1980s. Unfortunately I have nothing by the naughty Kalambya Sisters, the Boys' female auxiliary, who caused a sensation with their 1983 release "Katelina," but there is a good track by them on the compilation The Nairobi Beat: Kenyan Pop Music Today (Rounder CD 5030). Here are the A & B sides of Utanu UTA 108 by the Kalambya Boys:
Onesmus Musyoki & Kalambya Boys - Katelesa
Onesmus Musyoki & Kalambya Boys - Kyonzi Kya Aka
And here are sides A & B of Utanu UTA 113:
The Kalambya Boys - Eka Nzasu
The Kalambya Boys - Mwendwa Losi
The Kyanganga Boys Band, led by Peter Mwambi, have also been quite popular. Doug Paterson writes that Mwambi's ". . . musically simple, 'pound 'em out,' pulsing-bass drum style may not have enough musical variation to keep non-Kamba speakers interested." Listen to these sides from Boxer BX 018 and judge for yourself:
Peter Mwambi, Charles Mutiso & Kyanganga Boys Band - Beatrice
Peter Mwambi, Charles Mutiso & Kyanganga Boys Band - Mwenyenyo
From Mwambi BIMA 002, here are two sides that Mwambi apparently recorded without the Kyanganga Boys:
Peter Mwambi - Matatu
Peter Mwambi - Mueni
Of course, the Kamba music scene has produced nuemerous other artists, including the Kaiti Brothers, who give us these refreshing tunes (from Kaiti Bro's KAITI 04):
Kaiti Brothers - Ndungata
Kaiti Brothers - Nau Wakwa "J"
The Ngoleni Brothers, led by Dickson Mulwa, a Kalambya Boys alumnus, also produced numerous hits, including these, side A & B of the Ngoleni Brothers Boys single DICK 02:
Professor Dick Mutuku Mulwa & Ngoleni Brothers Band - Kavinda Kakwa
Professor Dick Mutuku Mulwa & Ngoleni Brothers Band - Ngilesi
"Kibushi" was a dance craze imported from Congo/Zaire, the most important exponent of which was the Orchestre Hi-Fives. Here's a Kamba version of Kibushi which doesn't bear much resemblence to the original style. These tracks are the A & B sides of Akamba AS 801. I know nothing of Fadhili Mundi & the Ithanga Brothers, but these are certainly enjoyable tunes, especially the delightful "Wakwa Sabethi."
Fadhili Mundi & Ithanga Brothers - Mzee Tamaa
Fadhili Mundi & Ithanga Brothers - Wakwa Sabethi
Fans of East African 45s know that looking at their colorful labels is almost as much fun as listening to them. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to provide you with scans of these recordings, but KenTanza Vinyl has an excellent gallery for your enjoyment. The picture at the top of this post is entitled "My Neighborhood" and is by a Tanzanian artist named Mkumba. Explore more of his work and that of a number of other excellent East African artists here.