Kenya's Kenge Kenge Sustain An Exhilarating Tradition These eight musicians from Nairobi perform traditional benga music on a variety of East African instruments. Listen to a live performance and an interview with All Things Considered host Melissa Block.
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Kenya's Kenge Kenge Sustain An Exhilarating Tradition

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Kenya's Kenge Kenge Sustain An Exhilarating Tradition

Kenya's Kenge Kenge Sustain An Exhilarating Tradition

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Melissa Block with some exhilarating musical visitors here in our studios, eight musicians from Kenya. The group Kenge Kenge.

Thanks to you all for coming in.

KENGE KENGE (Musical Group): Thank you. Thanks to you, too.

BLOCK: And Kenge Kenge, I read translates to: Fusion of small exhilarating instruments. Is that right?


BLOCK: Okay. And Im looking around the room and Im seeing a lot of exhilarating instruments; fabulous looking drums and flutes and fiddles. Isaac, you want to tell me a little bit about what we've got going here. This is Isaac Gem Ojwang.

Mr. ISAAC GEM OJWANG (Musician, Kenge Kenge): Yes, we have fiddles which we call the orutu. We have two of them. They harmonize. It's made out of carved wood and monitor lizard skin. And the bow is made out of a stick and sisal fiber. Then we have a flute which we call the asili, which Sam Nyariwo plays and Toby plays a homemade drum kit. Then we have Boniface Mango playing the bunde, which is the traditional Luo drums - six of them. And Gabriel plays the nyatiti, which is an eight-string lyre, and he also plays a horn made out of a cow's horn and antelope's horn joined together. And I play the bass guitar.

BLOCK: Great. Well, can you put it all together and play us a tune?

Mr. OJWANG: Okay.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: That was great. Thats George Achieng Odero on the lead vocals there. And this is benga music from Kenya, the Luo culture. Why dont you tell us about benga.

Mr. GEORGE ACHIENG ODERO (Lead Vocalist, Kenge Kenge): Yes.

BLOCK: George.

Mr. ODERO: Benga is a Luo music and it means happiness. It all started from the instruments, from the traditional instruments we have - before the guitar came in and then people ignored the traditional instruments, but this is the root of benga. It is commonly Kenyan music.

BLOCK: Gabriel, in the middle of that song, you picked up your horn. Whats it called? It's a beautiful curved animal horn.

Mr. GABRIEL ODHIAMBO (Aporo Player, Kenge Kenge): It's called aporo. Aporo is the Luo horn that was used to alert people that something was happening or that something was going to happen. So we play it. We incorporate it with these other instruments to alert people that there's something good happening.

BLOCK: Can we hear just what the horn sounds like by itself?

(Soundbite of aporo horn)

BLOCK: Okay, we need to hear some more music. What can you play for us?

(Soundbite of a song)

BLOCK: We're listening to music from the band Kenge Kenge, here from Kenya.

The box that you were just playing, the resonator box.

TOBY: Yeah.

BLOCK: The wooden with sort of metal rings on top, is it made from found objects, things you have? Would you go to a store and buy one or would you make it yourself?

TOBY: No. No. No. We just make them ourselves. We just walk to the village and look for used timbers and then we cut it and make it ourselves.


TOBY: Yeah.

BLOCK: Would you be finding pieces of metal and tapping them, trying to hear, you know, do they have a pleasant sound, is this a great ring, something I can use?

TOBY: Yeah. Yeah. I can walk around the studio, there are some (unintelligible) instruments.

BLOCK: You could walk around here...

TOBY: Yeah, objects.

BLOCK: ...find things and make me an instrument.

TOBY: Yeah. Yeah. What Kenge Kenge does is like recycling. Most of the things we use are reused. If you check out the traditional drums, those are already used steel. Yeah. If you check out the drum kit, we have bicycle gear.

(Soundbite of metal tap)

TOBY: Yeah.

BLOCK: Oh, Uh-huh.

TOBY: Yeah.

BLOCK: Thats sort of a metal drum.

TOBY: Yeah. Yeah. And the other one is a plate from a record player.

BLOCK: Oh, it's a plate from a turntable.

TOBY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

BLOCK: And a little bit of dancing going on. George and Isaac, probably not as much as you might if you were back home and really not in a studio right now, Im guessing, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ODERO: Yes. There are some things you can't avoid. You just feel moving.

BLOCK: Would you be moving more if you were playing outside with a crowd?

Mr. ODERO: Yeah, I do a lot.

BLOCK: Yeah.

Mr. ODERO: You just feel outgoing. Even if you wake up, stand here now and you start playing, you dont just stand like this. You just find yourself moving and nobody is ready to move.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Im moving. Im moving.

Mr. ODERO: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Im sitting but moving.

Mr. ODERO: Right, I could see you.

BLOCK: When you're playing back home in Kenya, where you would you be performing? Where would I see you?

Mr. ODERO: When we are in Kenya, we perform in different places. And we can perform for wedding parties, yeah, and corporate parties. And mostly what Kenge Kenge does is that we organize, especially during Christmas. And we leave from the city and go to the village, play for people for free, just to identify the young ones who have the same talent, so that we can teach them because we don't want this tradition to die. So we do that every year.

BLOCK: I was wondering about that. Is there another generation of benga players coming up who you see love the music, are learning the music, or is it really hard to get young people involved? Isaac.

Mr. OJWANG: It's very difficult because the Western music and Western culture is really invading our airspace. And thats what we're trying to do every time we go back to the village, we try to get them but it's a very big challenge for the young people to take up these instruments.

If this generation will go without doing anything about it, I'm afraid that it's going to be depleted in one way.

BLOCK: What do they tell you when you try to convince them: Hey, this is great stuff, you should learn it?

Mr. OJWANG: Many of them think it is backward. But the few who are very interested, they realize how refreshing and how bright this is for the future and for our ancestors and for the past. But many of them dont like to identify with this. Yes.

BLOCK: Did anybody in the band right now think this was backward music and got convinced?

Mr. OJWANG: Yes, myself.

BLOCK: You, Isaac?

Mr. OJWANG: Yeah, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OJWANG: Yes, I'm a true story because I used to play in a cover band. We used to play Michael Jackson and all that. And I didn't enjoy this, but somehow, some way, I got to meet these guys. And now I love this, and I don't like the other kind of Western music. I've come that way.

BLOCK: No more Michael Jackson covers for you?

Mr. OJWANG: He's good and talented, but this is the real thing.

BLOCK: Well, thanks to all of you for coming in and playing for us today, Kenge Kenge from Kenya. And can you take us out with one more song, the whole band?


Mr. OJWANG: And you are free to dance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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