April 2014

Fractured Landscapes

Language and Identity in Post-Colonial Kenyan Music
By David Crawford Jones

There is a place in Western Kenya, less than 300 kilometers from Nairobi, and just a short distance north of the Tanzanian border. It is a place of natural abundance, a land whose green valleys and rolling hills are nourished by frequent rains and groundwater from nearby Lake Victoria, and whose undulations have tested and honed the limbs of some of Kenya’s best long-distance runners. It is a place of farming, for tea and millet particularly, and a place where Christians and Sikhs live alongside one another, in a largely rural province called Kericho. Though several hundred kilometers inland from the nearest port at Mombasa, Kericho has long served as a cultural crossroads, connecting trade routes from Asia and the Middle East to inland regions in north, east, and central Africa. Yet when Europeans began journeying through this land in the nineteenth century, what they saw was a place untouched by civilization, a slumbering paradise far removed from the modern world. As Marguerite Mallett breathlessly described this landscape during her first visit in the early 1920s, “Beautiful as a child’s dream of fairyland it proved to be. Firs, cypresses, and bamboo trees, for the most part enormously tall and wonderfully beautiful, towered heavenward in intense silence and solitude, broken now and then by the chattering of monkeys as they swung from bough to bough, apparently little disturbed by our presence.”

Such romanticism has long defined the region’s marginal place in the Western imagination, and it surely contributed to the decision by the famed South African ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey to visit Kericho in the early 1950s. During these first dynamic years after the end of the Second World War, the colonial powers had begun instituting dramatic changes to colonial government in an ill-fated attempt to convince their African subjects of the supposed benevolence of white rule. Though Kenya itself would not become independent for another decade, it was already clear that, as elsewhere, a new country and national identity were beginning to take shape, a prospect which frightened men like Tracey, who feared the extinction of African culture under the weight of European and American contamination. Thus he had spent the past several years traveling throughout southern, eastern, and central Africa, in a desperate last-minute bid to use newly available recording technologies to preserve for posterity the cultures that were allegedly threatened by the very same process of modernization and adaptation that his presence confirmed. As Tracey put it in a speech given to the Royal African Society in 1961, “We know that the influence of a foreign music can be extremely destructive in Africa, and there is great danger, that by pressing foreign types of music upon them we will destroy their ability to make effective music.”

Accordingly, Tracey’s recordings of indigenous African music, collected in South Africa and the Congo, Zambia and Tanzania, Mozambique and Kenya, are heavily weighted towards musical performances that highlight an essentialized African sound-world. One can mention among the groups he documented such specimens as traditional choral music of Tanzania and South Africa, drum ensembles in the Congo and Uganda, and the stringed instruments of Zimbabwe and Kenya. To be sure, Tracey’s recordings represent an invaluable library of traditional African music, but they also frequently undermine any notion of an “authentic” Africa untainted by foreign influence.

This is particularly the case for the music Tracey collected in and around Kericho. Amongst the Kipsigis, a formerly nomadic people now living as sedentary tea farmers, Tracey recorded several songs played with the chepkongo, a six-string lyre whose tones bear more than a passing resemblance to a Western guitar, including a variety of love and praise songs. But by far the most famous of the tunes gathered by Tracey was “Chemirocha,” a song about a mystical creature, half-man, half-beast, who had traveled the countryside in recent years, a mysterious foreigner whose singing and dancing enchanted all he encountered. Learning of the Chemirocha legend, Tracey had to convince a group of young girls to sing it for him; their shy, haunting rendition, accompanied by the chepkongo, can be heard on Kenyan Songs and Strings, available from SWP Records. The music performed by these girls sounds like a timeless evocation of ancient myth, but on closer examination it turns out to be something quite different. As Tracey discovered, Chemirocha was actually the Kipsigis’ transliteration of Jimmie (“Chemi”) Rodgers (“rocha”), the American country singer whose records had somehow migrated to Western Kenya during the 1940s, perhaps brought by some of the thousands of British settlers who occupied the territory. So much for capturing an Africa unspoiled and untouched by foreign hands!

Of course, in the more than sixty years since Tracey recorded “Chemirocha,” Western appreciation and understanding of African music has grown by leaps and bounds, and today the cross-continental cultural connections that have long shaped African musical production are celebrated rather than ignored, particularly for music produced in the 1960s and 1970s. On labels such as Analog Africa, Soundway, Strut, Stern’s Africa, Discograph, Teranga Beat, and many more, the music of long-forgotten African pop, Afrobeat, funk and jazz bands is now being amply documented, and the influence of trans-Atlantic musical icons like James Brown, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane, among others, has become central to our understanding of the work of such African music legends as Fela Kuti, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, Franco, and many more.

Nonetheless, I wish to argue that in our recent rediscovery of Africans’ participation in the global music networks of the 1960s and 1970s, another kind of elision has occurred. If we are now quick to locate African popular music within its international stylistic context, we all too often overlook the complicated political legacy of this music. For while it is certainly true, as Christopher Small has previously argued, that African music has long been characterized by “adaptability,” by inhabiting a world of “both/and” rather than “either/or,” that inclusivity has often been highly contested and subject to significant government repression and censorship. This was particularly the case for the music made in the years immediately after African independence, when a politics of anti-colonial liberation quickly gave way to struggles over national identity, and when the ethnic and linguistic divisions exacerbated by European colonialism were buttressed by political processes that reinforced rather than transcended “tribal” affiliations.

This is particularly the case in Kenya, whose musical output has gained significant exposure recently, thanks to the release of Orchestra Super Mazembe on Stern’s, and the two-disc Kenya Special compilation on Soundway. Both of these recordings provide a much-needed corrective to the tendency amongst many of the record labels cited above to focus exclusively on music from West Africa, particularly Ghana, Nigeria, and Benin. While the kind of raw funk and blistering Afrobeat found in those countries was present in Kenya as well, the recent releases on Soundway and Stern’s show the influence of other musical trends, particularly benga and rumba. These sounds often originated beyond Kenya’s borders but migrated to Nairobi during the late 1960s and 1970s thanks to political and artistic repression in the neighboring countries of Zaire (present-day Congo) and Tanzania. By the early 1970s, the Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was engaged in active and prolonged suppression of political dissent in his country, and in Tanzania, Julius Nyerere’s government had embraced an ujamaa program that emphasized the reclamation of the very kind of “authentic” Africa that Hugh Tracey had attempted to rescue decades before. These efforts mainly aimed at rural relocation schemes that would streamline agricultural production, but they also encompassed efforts at cultural policing, such as the brief ban on soul music in Dar es Salaam in 1969.

Given such an environment, it should not be surprising that many African musicians, influenced by American, Cuban and Brazilian music in particular, would seek artistic refuge in Nairobi, where government policies were more permissive of cosmopolitan musical styles. As the recent releases document, bands from throughout the region flooded the Nairobi marketplace with thousands of cheaply and quickly produced 45 RPM records of songs sung in almost every tongue imaginable, from major Kenyan languages such as Kikuyu and Dholuo to Congolese Lingala and regional lingua francas such as English and Swahili. As with Western consumption of African music today, Kenyan audiences often could not understand the lyrics of many of their favorite songs; for instance the Lingala favored by Zaire’s Orchestra Super Mazembe was unique to Western Zaire and totally foreign to Kenya.

Nonetheless, in Kenya’s particular post-colonial context, language was highly fraught with the potential for political and ethnic conflict. In the aftermath of the Mau Mau rebellion (1952-1960) and the emergence of Jomo Kenyatta as the country’s first president following independence in 1963, the majority Kikuyu had emerged as the dominant political force in the country, and Kenyatta spent the first decade of his rule ensuring that power would remain vested in Kikuyu hands. Moving swiftly to isolate and marginalize the country’s Luo population, which constituted the country’s second-largest ethnic group, in 1969 Kenyatta orchestrated the arrest and imprisonment of the prominent Luo leader Odinga Odinga. By the time of his death in 1978, Kenyatta had established something of a Kikuyu dictatorship in Kenya, setting the stage for the more intense forms of ethnic conflict that would characterize the 1980s to the present.

The music found on Kenya Special unfolded in this political climate, and though the set’s liner notes only obliquely reference it, ethnic tensions were central to much of the popular music produced in Kenya during the 1970s and 1980s, a fact that would have been obvious to Kenyan audiences but is easily missed by Western listeners. Nowhere is this clearer than in the career of Daniel Owino Misiani. Born in northwestern Tanzania just south of the Kenyan border, Misiani, a Luo by birth, is widely credited with introducing benga to East African audiences. A powerful blend of Latin and African musical styles, benga is best characterized by a unique appropriation of traditional East African strumming techniques onto an electric guitar played over a bouncy, Latin-infused beat. From its beginnings in 1967, when Misiani formed the super-group Shirati Jazz, benga dominated Kenya’s airwaves with songs of love and praise, one of which, Misiani’s “H.O. Ongili,” is featured on Kenya Special.

That song, released in 1977, celebrates a member of the Kenyan Parliament, but other Misiani tunes released during the 1970s and 1980s were even more explicitly political. During the mid-1970s, for instance, Misiani composed several songs in praise of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who is celebrated in 1975’s “President Amin” as a man of great strength who has overcome tremendous obstacles to win power and fame. But while Misiani often used his music to curry favor with African elites, he also composed many songs that were highly critical of both Kenyatta and his successors. The most famous of these was “Kalimindi,” an early 1970s song that criticized Kenyatta for political corruption and ethnic favoritism. Jailed and forced into exile multiple times for this and other songs, Misiani nonetheless continued to find his way back into the country and onto the airwaves. He was no doubt able to do this because his music tapped into widespread Luo discontent with the Kenyan government; it was the very fact of his ethnic affiliation that ensured both his popularity and political repression. In this context, Misiani developed a variety of strategies to evade persecution, from fleeing the country to Tanzania every time a controversial new song was released to employing a highly symbolic language in order to talk about his political enemies without mentioning them by name. As Adams Oloo has documented, during the 1970s Misiani began referring to Kenyatta in his music as “the leopard,” a creature simultaneously devious and lethal. After Kenyatta’s death, Misiani extended this symbolism to the entire Kikuyu community; in the early 1980s his songs were filled with dark warnings about Kikuyu treachery. “Gor Mahia PT 2,” released in 1983, declares for instance that the only good Kikuyu is a dead Kikuyu.

Whether in song or politics, the mobilization of ethnicity is both a powerful and dangerous weapon. For this reason, it is tempting to regard much of Misiani’s output as ignorant and backwards, or perhaps the recrudescence of an outdated and ugly tribalism that ought to have been buried with the death of European colonialism. Perhaps we ought to instead celebrate the many African musicians who sought, like Fela Kuti in Nigeria, to transcend ethnic divisions by singing in languages that transgressed local and national boundaries. You can find many examples of this in Kenya Special, songs performed in English or Swahili, calling upon Kenyans, and indeed, Africans everywhere, to embrace black consciousness and African nationalism. Indeed, for a particularly dynamic example of the genre, listen to the Rift Valley Brothers’ Mu Afrika, on the first disc of the Soundway compilation. It is in such music that we find a conscious effort to construct a new kind of African identity.

Yet even these efforts cannot entirely evade the troubling histories of language and power in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, English can indeed reach across many barriers, but it also tends to privilege the more educated and elite classes in African society, those who were favored, or whose parents or grandparents were favored, with more advanced schooling during the colonial era. Divisions of class therefore inevitably cut across the national and ethnic schisms described above. Nor can we simply banish Misiani’s work to some segregated tribal enclave; the power of his music and the infectious groove of his melodies speak a language that knows no earthly boundaries. And even as his songs embraced Luo power and Luo identity, they also demanded an end to political corruption and a call to greater civic responsibility, in addition to the many love songs that ultimately secured his reputation as one of Kenya’s greatest musicians.

That Misiani could earn such a label speaks to the enduring fluidity of African music and African identity. Born to a Tanzanian family, Misiani strategically articulated local, national, and international versions of himself throughout his career. When seeking his musical fame and fortune, Misiani was Kenyan; when arguing against Kikuyu political dominance, he was Luo; when persecuted for his political beliefs and music, he was Tanzanian. Everywhere and nowhere at the same time, Misiani embodies all the contradictions of African modernity. As Western consumers of African music, we would do well to embrace that confusion and to give ample space for those contradictions. Sixty years ago, after learning that “Chemirocha” was a Kenyan corruption of Jimmy Rodgers, many Westerners mistakenly assumed that the song demonstrated that a religious cult had emerged around the American country singer in Kenya. In fact, the reality was a lot more complex: those living in Kericho did not worship Chemirocha, rather they used this mythical figure as a kind of shorthand for describing the cultural disruptions brought about by Western conquest and exploitation of their homeland. In this sense, Chemirocha stands as a powerful metaphor for the uneven cultural exchanges that characterize how sub-Saharan Africa and the West continue to view one another. As we dive ever deeper into the brilliant, beautiful and beguiling archive of African popular music, we would do well to hear in those sounds not only the local renderings of global influences, but also the uneven, discordant and fractured landscapes that remain European colonialism’s most enduring legacy.■



Release Year Label
V/A. Kenyan Songs and Strings, 1950 & 1952 2006 SWP Records
D.O. Misiani & Shirati Jazz. The King of History 2010 Stern’s Africa
Orchestra Super Mazembe. Mazembe @ 45 RPM 2013 Stern’s Africa
V/A. Kenya Special: Selected East African Recordings from the 1970s & ’80s 2013 Soundway

About the Author

David Crawford Jones is an African historian who has recently completed his dissertation on the history of corporal punishment in Namibia. Beginning in the Fall of 2014 he will be teaching African History in the Department of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University.