Many record companies have yet to discover the importance of presentation. This is especially the case with reissue labels. What they forget, is that times have changed. Consumers, because that’s what the modern day music lover is, demands much more than before. No longer are they willing to accept the obligatory plastic case which holds a CD and a track listing. That’s no longer acceptable and why should it be? 

Nowadays, lengthy, lovingly compiled sleeve-notes are taken as a given. So too are bonus tracks, alternate cuts and hidden tracks. After all, a CD can hold eighty minutes music. With many albums recorded in the seventies and eighties are less than forty-minutes long, why not use that space wisely? Even better, how a about rewarding brand loyalty and occasionally, put two albums on the disc? In these economically straightened times, that would be welcomed by music lovers. All these suggestions have been taken onboard by many labels. They realize, that in an incredibly competitive marketplace, they’ve got to make their product stand out. One reissue label who have realized this and taken it onboard are Soundway Records, whose latest compilation Kenya Special-Selected East African Recordings From The 1970s and 80s is a two-disc box set which is an example of how to present a compilation in the year 2013.

Kenya Special is a two disc box set, which features thirty-two tracks recorded during the seventies and eighties. The two discs are enclosed in a sturdy, cardboard box which holds the two discs and a forty-page booklet. Unlike inferior compilations, the discs don’t rattle about the box. Instead, there’s a made-to-measure quality to it. Each disc is enclosed in what resembles the inner sleeve to an old vinyl record, with facsimiles of old record labels on each side. Then there’s Doug Paterson’s sleeve-notes. They’re lengthy, informative and in-depth. As an added bonus, there’s the story behind each track. For lovers of African music, this is Nirvana. Where Kenya Special also differs, is the music. The thirty-two tracks, spread across the two discs don’t just focus on one specific musical genre. Instead, Kenya Special draws inspiration from Ghana Special and Nigeria Special. 

Just like Soundway Records previous releases, Ghana Special and Nigeria Special, Kenya Special features music that’s different and distinctive. Having said that, there’s a few classics thrown in for good measure. This includes Kikuyu guitar genre, which was popular during the fifties and sixties. So rather than focus on just one or two genres of music, Kenya Special is a truly eclectic, genre-sprawling collection of Kenyan music recorded in the seventies and eighties. Before I pick some of the highlights of Kenya Special, I’ll tell you about the background to the music on Kenya Special.

Way before the seventies and eighties, the period the music on Kenya Special covers, Kenya had established a reputation as a country with a truly diverse musical heritage. Among the most popular genres were a variety of finger-picking guitar styles. This ranged from solo artists, right through to duos and groups. Among the groups were the Jambo Boys Band, who later, became the Equator Sound Band. The finger-picking guitar style wasn’t just a Kenyan style. It was popular in other parts of East Africa, with a similar style of music being heard in the Congo. However, within the finger-picking guitar style, different styles of music emerged.

Finger-picking guitarists were versatile and could adapt to different styles of music. One of the styles popular during the sixties was twist. Inspired in part by the American song and dance craze, it was an upbeat, spirited style with two-part harmonies that married the South African kwela beat with a wemeoweh rhythm. The King of the Kenyan twist was Mr. Zenze, who over fifty years later, is still twisting away. By the end of the sixties, Kenyan music was beginning to change. No longer was finger-picking guitar style as popular. Similarly, the twist had long lost its popularity. Now was the age of the rumba, whose popularity had spread from the Congo and Tanzania.

With rumba growing in popularity, it started to spread into the provinces, where it recorded in local dialects. Challenging the rumba’s popularity, was benga, which is the Kenyan contribution to African pop music. Its origins can be traced to Luo musicians who were playing in the area around Lake Victoria, which is in the west of Kenya. One of its most famous exponent was D.O. Misiani, a guitarist and bandleader. Having played with other bands, he formed several bands. Among them were Luo Sweet Voice, D.O. Shirati Jazz and the D.O.7. Band. An early exponent of this new musical genre, he helped became popularize this nascent musical genre. Soon, benga was providing the soundtrack to much of Kenya, with its unmistakable sound.

Early on, benga, like many musical genres, had a “trademark” sound and structure. The arrangement was understated at the start, before the rhythm section started to get busy. Syncopated rhythms, which featured the bass, guitar and snare drum are joined by the traditional Luo melody. Just like the twist during the sixties, it featured a two-part harmony. This formed the basis for benga music which through time, began to evolve and sub-genres were formed.

Like many musical genres, different sub-genres of benga evolved. Listen carefully, and you’ll realize that the melodies differ between the various tribes or communities. What this means, is that Kamba and Kikuyu tribes have very different sounds. Both are from the Bantu ethnic group, but speak different versions of the Bantu language. Similarly, their benga melodies are different. So Kamba benga and Kikuyu benga evolved during the seventies and was combined with the music imported from the West.

With everything from soul, funk, R&B, rock, and disco being imported into Kenya, these disparate musical genres and influences would integrate with Kenyan benga. Artists and bands throughout Kenya played their variation on benga. The lucky few artists and groups headed into the recording studio to lay down new benga tracks. They couldn’t help but be influenced by the music that surrounded them. Whether it was traditional Kenyan music or the music imported from Europe and America it was bound to effect the variations of benga being played and recorded. Some of these recordings sold well, others disappeared without trace.

Back in the seventies, there was a real singles culture in Kenya. The 45 was alive and well. Albums were few and far between. Artists could head into a recording studio, lay down a track and have just fifty copies of a single pressed. That was the minimum amount. Other artists would’ve five or ten thousand copies of a single pressed. They’d sell every last copy as well. Proof of this is The Lulus Band’s Nana, which over a period of several years, sold over ten-thousand copies. It’s just one of the thirty-two tracks which feature on Kenya Special, which I’ll pick the highlights of.


Disc One of Kenya Special features sixteen tracks from The Loi-Toki-Tok, Rift Valley Brothers, The Lulus Band, Orchestre Vévé Star, Orchestre Baba National and Afro 70. Recorded during the seventies and eighties, these sixteen tracks demonstrate that begra is a broad musical church. Sub-genres sprung up, as different regions of Kenya gave benga their own musical twist. This included incorporating the latest musical fashions that had been imported from America, Britain and Europe into benga. All this plays a part in sixteen intriguing and compelling tracks, which I’ll pick my five favorites.

Opening Disc One of Kenya Special is The Loi-Toki-Tok’s Leta Ngoma. It was released around 1972 and was one of the first releases on the Pathe East label. A fusion of influences and genres, chiming Cream influenced guitars forces with chants and glorious tribal rhythms. They’re then incorporated into a big band style. Wah-wah guitars, choppy vocals, chants, rasping horns and scorching guitars unite on a track that’s neither benga nor rumba. Instead, a fusion of Afro-beat and rock  result in a slice of East African Afro-Rock. 

The Lulus Band are the only group to feature three times on Kenya Special. No wonder. They’re the tightest and funkiest of bands. There two contributions to Disc One are Nana and uber funky Ngwendeire Guita. Released in 1977 on Kiriyaga Records, The Lulus Band lock into the tightest of funky grooves. Propelled along by the tight rhythm section, chiming guitars and hissing hi-hats join a joyous vocal where the singer sings of his love for a woman called “Sussy.” Fabulously funk and soulful, this is one of the highlights of Kenya Special.

Mention the name Simon Kihara in African music circles, and people will talk of one of the legendary figures in Kenyan music. His career began in the mid-seventies, when he was a member of the Undugu Beat Band. Soon, Simon’s reputation grew. By the early eighties, he was a songwriter and penned the Mbiri Young Stars’ Ndiri Ndanogio Niwe.  It was released in the early-eighties on Kiru Brothers Sound Records. Bursting into life, the rhythm section and searing guitars licks are augmented by percussion. The vocal, is heartfelt, emotive and tinged with sadness, at a woman who will forever, remain out of reach. Despite this, the song has a bouncy, upbeat arrangement where funk, soul, Afro-beat combine to create a delicious dance track.

D.O. Misiani is one of Kenya’s best guitarists and bandleaders, who was an early exponent of benga. He helped popularize this new musical genre. One of his bands was the D.O.7. Band who released H.O. Ongili around 1977. It featured on a Pathe compilation Kenya Partout Volume 1. It’s a track where he can showcase both his songwriting skills and his guitar playing. One compliments the other. His guitar playing is understated, but seems to reinforce the power and poignancy of his lyrics, which were a searing inditement on Kenya’s problems. One of the earliest exponents of benga, D.O. Misiani is quite simply, one of Kenya’s most talented singer, songwriter and musicians.

My final choice from Disc One of Kenya Special is Nashil Pichen and The Eagles’ Lupopo’s Ng’ong’a Wa Mwanjalo. Released between 1972 and 1973 on African Eagles Recording and written by Nashil Pichen, a true legend of East African music. He wasn’t born in Kenya. Instead, he was born in Zambia and then moved to Kenya where he spent much of his life. A virtuoso guitarist, he lays down some of his trademark licks on this track. Accompanied by The Eagles, they provide the perfect foil for Nashil Pichen who delivers the lyrics in Kuba-Kasai, a Congolese dialect.

Apart from the five tracks I’ve mentioned on Disc One of Kenya Special, other tracks deserve honorable mentions. Among them are the funk of The Rift Valley Brothers’ Mu Africa and the irresistible sound of The Mombasa Vikings’ Mama Matotoya. A driving slice of funky music, with anthemic, soulful lyrics, it’s a delicious musical stew. Uber funky, The Mombasa Vikings lock into the tightest and funkiest of grooves. Then there’s Hafusa Abasi and Slim Ali With The Yahoos Band’s Sina Raha a melodic and emotive track, rich in influences. A chakacha rhythm, Swahili lyrics and taraab music are thrown into the melting pot and given a stir. Out comes a delicious musical dish. Finally, there’s the New Gatanga Sound’s Thoni Na Caki. The only way to describe the music is a slice of musical sunshine, with some blistering guitars licks and joyous vocals.

Overall, the quality on Disc One of Kenya Special never drops. From the first track to last, it’s quality all the way. Talented musicians playing the music they love and are passionate about, music doesn’t get better than this. It’s music for the head, the heart and feet. Cerebral, soulful and music to dance to describes the music on Disc One of Kenya Special. Rumba and benga feature on the sixteen tracks, some of which were influenced by disco, funk, R&B, rock and soul.  The music on Disc One Kenya Special is eclectic, compelling and just a tantalising taste of the music still awaiting discovery in Kenya.


Following on from Disc One of Kenya Special, Disc Two features a further sixteen tracks. Again, they show the different styles of Kenyan music that were popular during the seventies and eighties. Benga was the most popular musical genre, and spawned numerous sub-genres. They differed between regions and tribes. Then there was the external musical influences that can be heard throughout some of the tracks. Disco, funk, rock and soul influence the sixteen tracks on Disc Two of Kenyan Special, which I’ll pick the highlights of.

On Disc Two of Kenya Special, just like Disc One, the quality is consistent throughout the disc. We meet some old friends from Disc One. This includes The Lulus Band, The Loi-Toki-Tok, Gatanga Boys Band, The Mombasa Vikings and Afro 70. That’s no bad thing, as they’re responsible for some of the best music on Disc Two. However, as we’ve already met some of them before, we’ll meet some of the other artists on Disc Two.

This includes Sophia Ben and The Eagles Lupopo. Released around 1973, on African Eagles Recording, this is a track inspired by traditional Kenyan folk music. It’s an opportunity to hear Sophia Ben, who was one of the best soloists in Kenyan music. Fluent in various languages, she delivers the lyrics in various regional dialects. As for The Eagles Lupopo, they provide against an arrangement that’s an urgent, dramatic and spiritual call to dance.

Orchestre Super Volcano’s Mngeni Mali Yare Yore is a glorious collage of musical genres and influences. Released on Polydor East Africa, African and Western music unites. Funk, jazz and soul combine with Swahili and Tanzanian rumba. The vocals are sung in a call and response rumba style. Meanwhile horns blaze and intricate guitars weave their way across the arrangement, while the vocal and harmonies drive each other to greater heights of emotion, passion and sincerity.

The Famous Nyahururu Boys’ Mwendwa has an understated sound. Released circa 1980 on Oscar Production Records, just a crystalline guitar wanders across the arrangement. The rhythm section and percussion provide a subtle backdrop before the vocal is sung in a call and response style. The tender, needy sound of the harmonies provide a contrast to the lead vocal. A quite beautiful, soul-baring song, it’s one of the highlights of Disc Two.

Nairobi Matata Jazz comprised some of the top musicians in East Africa. They were one of the hottest bands of the seventies. Tamba Tamba was one of the singles they released on Diploma Records. It gave them one of the biggest hits of their career. One listen and you realize why. A fusion of jazz, funk, soul and benga, a pounding rhythm section and hissing hi-hats provide the pulsating heartbeat. The vocal is sung in a call and response style. When it drops out, it’s replaced with some machine gun guitar licks which propel the arrangement along to a dance-floor friendly, funky crescendo.

The final track from Disc Two of Kenya Special I’ve chosen is from Afro 70, who have three tracks on Kenya Special. That’s no surprise, given their indisputable talent. Weekend was released in 1972, on Moto Moto Records. It’s one of these tracks that, once you’ve heard it, you can’t get it out of your head. It works its way into your consciousness. Meandering guitars, percussion and lazy, languid vocals it’s a hook-laden slice of musical sunshine.

While I’ve only chosen five tracks from Disc Two of Kenya Special, I could’ve just as easily have picked a number of other tracks. Among them are Kalambya Boys’ Kivelenge, The Eagles Lupopo’s Pelekani, Ndalani 77 Brothers’ Nzaumi and Afro 70’s Afrousa (Move On). This demonstrates the consistency of the music on Disc Two of Kenya Special. Sixteen tracks which demonstrate the strength in depth of Kenyan music during the seventies and eighties. This was something of a golden age for Kenyan music.

Throughout the seventies and eighties, across the length and breadth of Kenya, in the various regions, artists and bands were producing new and innovative music. Recorded in various dialects, this was music that was funky, soulful and dance-floor friendly. It was music that provided a showcase for Kenyan music, benga and rumba in particular. 

Benga and rumba were influenced by the music of Kenya’s neighbors Congo and Tanzania. It was also influenced by Western music, including disco, jazz, funk, soul, R&B and rock. Influenced by an eclectic and disparate selection of musical genres and influences, not only did the music that features on Kenya Special provide the soundtrack to much of Eastern Africa, but made stars out of many of the artists on the compilation. Selling ten-thousand or more copies, many of the artists on Kenya Special became legends of Kenyan music. Revered not just in Kenya, but much further afield are Simon Kihara, D.O. Misiani, Nashil Pichen and Sophia Ben, true legends of the Kenyan music scene. They’re responsible for some of the innovative, influential and timeless music that features on Kenya Special, the latest compilation from Soundway Records. Standout Tracks: The Lulus Band Ngwendeire Guita, D.O.7. Band H.O. Ongili, Orchestre Super Volcano Mngeni Mali Yare Yore and The Famous Nyahururu Boys Mwendwa.


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