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Monday, August 30, 1999 Published at 15:46 GMT 16:46 UK

World: Africa

Kenya: Journey through a rhythm nation

Eric Wainaina (top left) sings in Kikuyu but attracts fans from all ethnic groups

Join Zain Verjee of Capital FM in Nairobi on a tour of Kenya's musical scene, from its traditional roots to the vibrant and dynamic sounds of what's become known as New Fusion.

About 12 kilometres from Nairobi city centre on 90 acres of land is the Bomas of Kenya.

Bomas - meaning "homestead" in Swahili is a project that replicates various traditional villages in Kenya and preserves diverse traditional song and dance.

[ image: A nyatiti player is much in demand]
A nyatiti player is much in demand
"We present traditional dances of Kenya from various ethnic groups. Most of the tribes are covered by our dances," says Ben Njeru, the acting training manager of the project.

"I don't like other types of music - I like Kenyan music more than any other music," he says.

"The music that is played here is music that is the pride of Kenya."

A two hour show is performed at the Bomas every afternoon by highly trained dancers and musicians.

There's always a significance to a song or dance or even to a certain instrument that is being played.

Zain gets a nyatiti lesson from Wamalwa Ruswati
The nyatiti is an eight string Luo instrument made out of wood and goat or antelope skin.

A nyatiti player is usually called upon to perform either at weddings or funerals.

Music from the coast

Some of the most traditional Kenyan music is performed along the country's scenic 400 kilometre coastline that faces the Indian ocean.

Taraab: The Safari Sounds band plays "Mapenzi"
Popularly referred to as Taraab, coastal music has historically been influenced by the Arab settlers.

One of the most internationally renowned groups, originally from the Kenyan coast, is Them Mushrooms.

They have received numerous achievement awards and have toured the UK, Germany, Switzerland and India.

[ image: Teddy Kalanda,  Henry Ndenge Saha and Ben Mutwiwa of Them Mushrooms]
Teddy Kalanda, Henry Ndenge Saha and Ben Mutwiwa of Them Mushrooms
Originally from Mombasa, this group played the beach hotel circuit until 1986, using classical coastal influences.

One of the most famous of their songs is 'Jambo Bwana' which is on the lips of every tourist who visits Kenya.

Penned by Teddy Kalanda, the band leader, this song went on to sell 30,000 copies.

Since 1987, Them Mushrooms have been based in Nairobi's Madaraka shopping centre, where they continue to create and develop their music.

Teddy Kalanda: "Kenyan music is leaning too far towards western music"
"We play a lot of Chakacha, a little bit of Benga and also some reggae," says Teddy Kalanda.

"Chakacha is music from the coastal area, from the indigenous people, but there is a lot of influence from Arabs and Indians."

"We put in a little bit of English, many languages as we can just to expand our fan base."

Harsh criticism

Them Mushrooms also produce other young artists like Princess Farida who sings the popular Chakacha music in her mother tongue, Swahili.

Coming from a traditional Muslim family, Princess Farida has faced harsh criticism because of the type of performances she gives.

But although she has faced many obstacles, she says her music defines who she is.

Princess Farida: "Chakacha is my talent so please don't stop me dancing"
"I'm a muslim and it's not good for a girl to dance in front of men," she says.

""This Chakacha thing is done by women in separate rooms when they are alone......not like what I do. I feel this is my talent, why shouldn't I do it?"

"I don't see anything wrong [with dancing in public.] I just do it because I love it."

In love with Lingala

Many of the more traditional Kenyan artists are disgruntled with the strong influence of music originating from the Democratic Republic of Congo, called Lingala.

Kenyans go crazy when Congolese Lingala gurus such as Papa Wemba, General Defao, or Kofi Olomide come to town.

[ image: Princess Farida: Challenging stereotypes]
Princess Farida: Challenging stereotypes
Comprised of 15 band members, Bilenge Musica are one of the most popular Lingala groups based in Nairobi.

They play at the Citizen Square Bar every evening, and the place is always packed.

"Kenyans do have music but it has lost its authenticity" says Lesaka Joka of Bilenge.

"Kenyans want to sing music from the west and from Zaire."

Radio stations in Nairobi such as Capital Radio, and its rival Metro are mainly playing modern urban Kenyan fusion music, popularised in Nairobi.

[ image: Zain Verjee plays New Fusion on her radio show]
Zain Verjee plays New Fusion on her radio show
Kenyan fusion tends to have lyrics written in vernacular Kenyan languages, fused with western instruments or the other way round.

Sometimes there are some hip hop and rhythm and blues beats with a mixture of Swahili and English lyrics as popularised by the rap trio Kalamashaka.

It seems that much of this fusion reflects a struggle to define a new Kenyan identity.

Kalamashaka playing "Tafsirii Hii"
Musician Eric Wainaina's music looks at issues of self and identity.

Instead of listening to Kenyan artists he grew up listening more to Abba, Boney M, and Stevie Wonder.

"I think my music is a reflection of who I am, which is a Kenyan, with western influences", he says.

"Our Kenyan identity as a nation was lost a long time ago dating to my parents and grandparents days."

Eric Wainaina: "It's a love song which dates back to the 1920s"
One of Eric's more popular songs is sung in Kikuyu, and backed up with western brass and percussion instruments.

Surprisingly this folkloric number has appealed not just to the Kikuyu ethnic group, but to all groups, thereby transcending the boundaries of ethnicity.

Gospel groove

Many young Kenyans are now taking risks and producing their first CDs.

Greater investments in existing studios, and the establishment of new production venues has given Kenyans a space to develop their talents, and promote their art.

[ image: Eric Wainaina in concert]
Eric Wainaina in concert
However not all Kenyans like or even appreciate it.

One type of music that the majority of Kenyans enjoy and appreciate is gospel.

DJ Ciru Githongo, who hosts a gospel radio show says the music attracts both committed christians and those younger listeners who just enjoy the sound.

"The weakness with gospel in Kenya is the same with any other form of music. We import a lot of music rather then producing it ourselves," she says.

"We don't have very good arrangers and producers and those who are good don't have the exposure and experience to produce music to international standards."

It is an exciting time to be watching the music scene in Kenya.

The people speak: "I think its innovative, high energy and has potential_.but I think sometimes we borrow too much."
The new, experimental fusion seems to appeal to the younger, western-exposed Kenyan urbanite.

As for whether this satisfies everyone's idea of what it means to be Kenyan is less certain.

Kenyans living at the coast or in the rural parts of the country still prefer more traditional styles of music.

Nevertheless whatever the public's likes and dislikes, it is clear that many artists are not afraid of experimenting and taking risks, that will, hopefully take them to new heights.

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