Country Music in a Far Country

American-style country music might not seem like just the thing to catch on in Africa. But listeners in Nairobi, Kenya, are crazy about it. They're particularly fond of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.

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Walk in to any music store in Kenya, Tanzania, or Uganda, you'll find the latest hip-hop, pop and R&B artists. They've got Fat Joe. They've got Shaggy. They've got Britney, Whitney, Brandy. But radio, radio on the wall, who's the most requested singer of them all?

Well, listen to what NPR's Gwen Thompkins discovered in Nairobi.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Radio stations are, generally speaking, places with bad carpets, a lot of young people lying around who suddenly burst into activity and then lie around again, dim lighting and an unusual amount of duct tape holding everything together. That's the way it is around the world. And Kamane FM, a community station here in Nairobi, Kenya, is no different.

These are young, hip, 20-somethings wearing the latest fashions, who look as if they should be in one of those ads for Cadillac Escalades or some other product that caters to a discerning black clientele. But when the on-air light flashes, Kamane FM can sound like a modern-day Louisiana Hay Ride.

(Soundbite of song, "Take Me Out to the Ballgame")

Mr. TRACE ADKINS (Singer): (Singing) Take me out for the ballgame.

THOMPKINS: That's Trace Adkins, whose song "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" is a local favorite. They've got him, Shania Twain, Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw and even some scratchy old Johnny Cash recordings. But those folks don't mean diddly in Kenya, next to the king of country music.

(Soundbite of song, "The Gambler")

Mr. KENNY ROGERS (Singer): (Singing) On a warm summer's evening, on a train bound for nowhere, I met up with a gambler, we were both too tired to sleep.

THOMPKINS: Kenya is Kenny Rogers territory. Nearly everyone else is just passing through.

(Soundbite of song, "The Gambler")

Mr. ROGERS: (Singing) And somewhere in the darkness, the gambler he broke even. But in his final words I found an ace that I could keep. You got to know when to hold 'em...

Mr. PAUL FENWA(ph) (DJ, Kameme FM): If Kenny will just come to Kenya, I know he'll got a following because people really love that tune.

THOMPKINS: That's Paul Fenwa. He has a four-hour country music show every Sunday on Kameme Radio that runs from 8:00 p.m. until midnight. That's on top of the one-hour country music shows Kameme FM runs every other day of the week. Fenwa says "The Gambler" is one of the top requested songs of all time at the station and at every other radio station in Kenya. But the listeners, apparently, want more.

Mr. FENWA: I don't go, like, two weeks without playing "Coward of the Country" or "Daytime Friends, Nighttime Lovers."

(Soundbite of song, "Daytime Friends, Nighttime Lovers")

Mr. ROGERS: (Singing) Daytime friends and nighttime lovers. Hoping no one else discovers where they go, what they do, in their secret hideaway.

THOMPKINS: But every king needs a queen. And in these parts, no other royalty comes close to Dolly Parton. And though not many people here know about her latest recordings, they still treasure the early hits. There's the duet she had with Porter Wagoner, of course. Remember "I Know You're Married But I love You Still"? And she has even done a couple with Kenny Rogers, but no DJ worth his CD stacks would come on air without knowing exactly where to pull this honey.

(Soundbite of song, "Coat of Many Colors")

Ms. DOLLY PARTON (Singer): (Singing) Back through the years I go wanderin' once again. Back to the seasons of my youth, I recall a box of rags that someone gave us. And how my momma put the rags to use.

THOMPKINS: Think about it. More than any other American popular music, country music tells a story. And who would appreciate storytelling more than a people who come from an oral storytelling tradition. In Africa, radio beats television in popularity and availability, so what's important on radio is what's important to Africa.

(Soundbite of song, "Coat of Many Colors")

Ms. PARTON: (Singing) Although we had no money, oh, I was rich as I could be in my coat of many colors my mama made for me.

Mr. FRED OFUNE(ph): Radio Citizen is targetted at (unintelligible) the man on the street, the lower end of the economic spectrum.

THOMPKINS: That's Fred Ofune, the program director at Radio Citizen, a commercial station that is planning to launch a new country music show. He says "Coat of Many Colors" resonates with his listeners for a reason.

Mr. OFUNE: The people you find in the slums of (unintelligible). The people you find in the rural areas. The people who are stuggling to put food on the table, take their kids to school. The people who are frustrated by the politicians and the government, who feel letdown, for the masses.

THOMPKINS: Radio Citizen used to have a country show but gave it up about six months ago. Instead they peppered country songs throughout their entire regular rotation and lived to regret it.

Mr. OFUNE: Comparatively, when I look at the quarters that I was playing country, and the two quarters that I haven't been playing country completely, (unintelligible) listenership deep that particular hour.

THOMPKINS: And not just any country music will do. Kenyans mostly enjoy country songs from the 1970s and '80s, a time when artists were moseying on to pop charts with ballads and other songs that have been described as countrypolitan - Crystal Gayle, the young Randy Travis, Vince Gill and the much beloved Don Williams, perhaps the biggest chart-topping country star of the 1970s. Remember "Living On Tulsa Time"?

But not all country music is about American destinations. Here's a hit by a world-famous Kenyan-born artist that makes everybody here stand just a little bit taller. Ladies and gentlemen, Roger Whittaker.

(Soundbite of song, "My Land is Kenya")

Mr. ROGER WHITTAKER (Singer): (Singing) My land is Kenya, so warm and wild and green. You'll always stay with me here in my heart. My land is Kenya...

Mr. HENRY MAKHOKA (Head of Programming, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation): Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born. But it was not until I came into broadcasting that I decided I should also contribute to the advancement of country music.

THOMPKINS: Henry Makhoka heads programming for the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, the nation's oldest and largest radio station. Makhoka says the allure of country music in Africa is its iconic characters - the gamblers and the highway men, the handwringing mothers and the cock-sure sons, the Rubys, the Lucilles, the Joleens, the grievous angels and the folks who just ain't no good. These are the characters whose stories Kenyans identify with more than anything that smells like teen spirit.

(Soundbite of song, "Love is Unfair")

Mr. SIDYAN TUWATU(ph) (Kenyan Country Music Artist): (Singing) Every day I make an effort here to forget you and your memory.

THOMPKINS: Recognize that song? It's called "Love is Unfair" by Sidyan Mtuwatu, a Kenyan country music artist.

(Soundbite of song, "Love is Unfair")

Mr. TUWATU: Only me. Only I. I need someone to whisper to me the words, the words...

THOMPKINS: No one here seems to dwell on the irony that Nashville, with the exception of Ray Charles and Charlie Pride, promotes white singers almost exclusively, and some of those singers have not always embraced a, let's say, multicultural vision. But those aren't the politics that necessarily interest Kenyan listeners.

Henry Makhoka says Kenyans concentrate on the songs themselves and what social or political message a song like "The Coward of the County" might have for them.

Mr. MAKHOKA: People, when they are fighting for their rights, they can even turn - use that song to give meaning, you know, to their cause. So it's not just a question of interpretation.

(Soundbite of song, "The Coward of the County")

Mr. ROGERS: (Singing) Everyone considered him the coward of the county. He'd never stood one single time to prove the county wrong.

THOMPKINS: Think about it. For 24 years, Kenya was ruled by a dictatorship in which few people challenged the government without serious personal consequences. That ended in 2002, when Daniel Arap Moi was voted peacefully out of office. For Kenyans, change took guts.

(Soundbite of song, "The Coward of the County")

Mr. ROGERS: (Singing) And papa, I sure hope you understand. Sometimes you gotta fight when you're a man. Everyone considered him the coward of the county.

THOMPKINS: Which brings us full circle to the lesson of guts versus timing. As if the coward of the county was on the train the night that old gambler turned up his toes for the last time. From Nashville to Nairobi, the lesson is the same. You've got know when to hold then and know when to fold them; somewhere in the story is an ace that you can keep.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Nairobi.

(Soundbite of song, "My Land is Kenya")

Mr. WHITTAKER: (Singing) But everybody living at one place where he was born. And mine is Kenya, so warm and wild and green...

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