Soundway records has gained a reputation among DJs, musicians and fans of ‘rare’ afropop for releasing extensive (and detailed!) compilations of West African Afro-funk and afrobeat, including the much beloved “Nigeria Special” series. “Kenya Special,” Soundway’s latest compilation is no exception: this double-CD, triple vinyl release is the fruit of five years of focused collecting and research into the popular music of Kenya from the 1950s through the ’80s. The extensive liner notes contextualize these 32 songs in a rich history of inter-cultural mélange, chronicling the post-colonial encounter between various ethnic groups in the capital of Nairobi, the effect of international tourism on the coastal music scene, and the influence of American, Congolese and West-African styles on the popular music of Kenya.
The focus of this compilation is on “different or unique” sounds from the region and time-period, rather than genre classics of benga, Kenya’s most internationally recognized style of afro-pop. The compilation opens with some pretty standard and uninspired Afro-funk, clearly revealing the massive influence of ‘60s and ‘70s American and English rock, funk and soul, probably delivered to Kenya via West Africa. However, deeper into the collection, delights abound: the psychedelic 6/8 swing of the taarab-influenced Sinha Raha from Hafusa Abasi & Slim Ali with The Yahoos Band, the sparse groove of the early benga track H.O. Ongili from the acclaimed Shirati Jazz founder D.O. Misiani; Cha-Umheja, Afro 70’s transposition of the traditional Wagogo music of central Tanzania into a shuffle with bluesy piano and sax solos, joyful benga tracks Kivilenge and Teresia. We also get to enjoy a few musical and linguistic experiments from Congolese bands, including Orchestre Vévé, who re-located to Kenya and shaped their sound for the local market. The compilation ends with a few more inspiring Afro-funk fusions, including Afrousa (Move On) from Afro 70, and Kibe Kibe from Mombasa Viking, “a tourist band,” who play a rolling 6/8, chakacha rock, heavy on wobby keys and wah-wah guitars.
The more we listen to Kenya Special, the more enjoyable moments we find. And so we suggest you pick up a copy, and definitely read those liner notes as you listen!