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Owiny Sigoma Band: Rising From The East

Chris May By

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Owiny Sigoma Band

Owiny Sigoma Band

Brownswood Recordings


Along with its close neighbors, Tanzania and Uganda, Kenya—as viewed from Europe or North America—is one of the final frontiers in African music. Indirectly, this is the result of the decades-long, overwhelming impact of Zairean rumba on east Africa, and its fall-out. From the 1960s through the 1980s, Zairean emigré bands dominated the Kenyan scene, discouraging the emergence of indigenous styles; only taarab, the Muslim orchestral music which developed along the Swahili-speaking coast, and benga, the electrified dance music played by Shirati Jazz and other Luo-speaking bands, survived the onslaught. And to date, all attempts to give Kenya a start in the world music stakes have failed. Early on, Virgin Records released excellent albums by Orchestre Makassy (Agwaya, 1982) and Super Mazembe (Kaivaska, 1983), but neither clicked—and both bands were, anyway, mainly composed of Zairean emigrés, playing essentially Zairean music. Later initiatives also fell by the wayside.

The first, biggest and—unless you count American president Barack Obama's Luo heritage—only break Kenyan music has ever really got in the world stakes was the song "Malaika." Written by Fadhili William, and recorded with his band, the Jambo Boys, in 1960, "Malaika" became an international entity (and its Kenyan origin quickly forgotten) after it was covered, first, in 1965, by South African singer Miriam Makeba, and later, in 1981, by Boney M (it has since been the subject of interminable copyright wrangles).

Nothing changes overnight, but nothing, equally, lasts forever. Owiny Sigoma Band will not, on its own, place Kenyan music at the center of the world stage. But it is an earthy, rhythmically heavy, colorful, mesmerizing, sui generis disc which—although it is not "pure" Kenyan—deserves to give the country's music profile a hefty boost.

As featured here, Owiny Sigoma Band is composed of five Londoners and seven Kenyans, plus guest artist Damon Albarn, of Gorillaz and Afrika Express. The two contingents first came together in Nairobi, Kenya's capital, in January, 2009, as part of an initiative by cultural activists Art Of Protest, a not-for-profit exchange organization set up to facilitate collaboration between musicians from Britain and Kenya. Test recordings made their way to Brownswood in London, and a second Nairobi session was arranged, over two days in May, 2010. Empathy levels ran high in both directions and Owiny Sigoma Band—named after singer and nyatiti (harp) player Joseph Nyamungu's grandfather—is the throbbing, highly recommended result.

The five Londoners are keyboardist Jesse Hackett, guitarists Sam Lewis and Chris Morphitis (who also produced), electric bassist Louis Hackett and drummer Tom Skinner. Hackett, who sounds intimately familiar with benga, constructs spare, percussive ostinatos which, like those in the Luo style, work like a complementary drum; with Skinner, a familiar face on the cutting edge of British jazz, he creates dub-like drum and bass lines which smoke. The partnership delivers weight, but it also has a pronounced bounce, a real vivacity.

The Kenyans include, most prominently, Nyamungu, who sings lead (in Luo) on most tracks and is as frequently featured on nyatiti, and the traditional drummers Charles Owoko and Charles Obuya. Most of the tunes were adapted from Luo folk songs brought along to the sessions by Nyamungu. John Marita Odumba adds cow horn to three tracks, and orutu (fiddle) player Boaz Otiendo stars on the Kenyans-only, eight-minute closing jam, "Rapar Nyanza." Joseph Alego Ondir adds a lovely, jangling highlife/rumba guitar melange to "Wires."

Other notable cameos include Albarn's retro keyboards, which hint at Ethio-jazz crossed with Afrobeat, and Lewis' lead vocals on "Here On The Line," which sound a bit like balladic-Grateful Dead circa Workingman's Dead (Warner Bros, 1970).

Utterly delightful, utterly irrestistible.

Tracks: Gone Thum Mana Gi Nyadhi; Odera Lwar; Wires; Margaret Okudo; Hera; Doyoi Nyajo Nam; Owegi Owando; Mabed Nade Ei Piny Ka; Here On The Line; Rapar Nyanza.

Personnel: Joseph Nyamungu: nyatiti, vocals (1, 2, 6, 7, 9, 10); Charles Owoko: nyiduonge, vocals (1-6, 9, 10); Charles Obuya: "bum bum bum" drums, djembe (1-5, 10); John Marita Odumba: cow horn (1, 3, 10); Joseph Alego Ondir: guitars (3); Jesse Hackett: keyboards, vocals (1-4, 6, 8. 9); Sam Lewis: guitar, vocals (3, 9); Chris Morphitis: guitar (1, 9); Louis Hackett: electric bass (2, 3, 6, 8); Tom Skinner: drum kit, electric bass, keyboards (1-6, 8, 9); Thomas Abondo: kayamba (1, 2, 4, 10); Damon Albarn: Farfisa organ, Omnichord (2, 4); Boaz Otiendo: orutu.


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