Benga rocks the Warhol
Extra Golden, a four-member band composed of two Kenyan Benga musicians and two American rockers, is making a stop at the Andy Warhol Museum to promote their first album, Ok-Oyot System. “Once people hear us play, they pretty much know they need to dance,” said Alex Minoff, one of the band members. Extra Golden produces a unique sound, an eclectic fusion of rock music and the buoyant tunes of eastern Africa.
Extra Golden was formed in 2004 when Ian Eagleson, a member of the Washington, D.C.-based rock band Golden, was conducting his doctoral research on Benga music in the Lake Victoria region of Kenya, where Benga music, which is characterized by its use of syncopated melodies, originated in the 1950s and ‘60s. Otieno Jagwasi and Onyango Wuod Omari of Extra Solar Africa were playing as the house band for a bar in Nairobi when Eagleson and bandmate Minoff invited them to collaborate on an album, the result being Ok-Oyot System.
The band recorded Ok-Oyot System, which means “It’s Not Easy” in the Luo language, during the day at the same bar where Eagleson and Minoff first spotted Jagwasi and Omari. The “studio” was a portable laptop that they affectionately called the Nyathi Otenga Flying Studio. Minoff explained that because Benga only uses certain chord progressions, none of which are minor, Jagwasi’s songs had to be transposed in order to make them sound more “rock.” Other than that minor obstacle (no pun intended), the Benga/rock crossover was not a difficult transition to make. The two styles complement each other and produce a riveting, emotional sound that still has the upbeat rhythm of a dance track.
Ok-Oyot System is a six-track album full of catchy guitar riffs, colorful melodies, and energizing percussion. Three of the six songs on the album, “Ilando Gima Onge,” “Ok-Oyot System,” and “Osama Ranch” are fusions of rock and Benga. “Nyajondere” is a song in traditional Benga style, sung by Jagwasi about his ex-wife, and “It’s Not Easy” and “Tussin’ and Fightin’ ” are mostly rock, although they do have a bit of African flavor.
The songs range from six to 12 minutes, but the listener’s attention never wavers. “Ilando Gima Onge” is an exceptional example of a fusion of Benga and rock. The song opens with a catchy, Middle-Eastern-sounding guitar riff that reoccurs throughout the song, contrasting nicely to Jagwasi’s earthy vocals. The song crescendos into a toe-tapping chorus with the overlapping vocals of Omari, and this multitextural sound holds the listener until the final bar.
For fans of more traditional rock, “It’s Not Easy” has a mellow, tropical sound inflected by a guitar line that takes you right to the beach. “I had a guy come up to me after a concert and say that he felt like he was back on the islands, sipping a drink with a little umbrella,” Minoff said. He explained that a listener who is not accustomed to Benga may mistake it for a kind of Jack Johnson-esque sound, when really it’s just the major chords in the progressions that invoke those happy, relaxing feelings.
The production of the album was not entirely a smooth process. During the recording, the band members had a run-in with Kenya’s police when detectives from Kenya’s Criminal Investigation Department planted marijuana in the band’s apartment. “The Kenyan police basically created a set-up,” Minoff said. “People showed up with sticks of bhangi, and then 30 minutes later, the police were knocking on our door. It was fishy.” To finish the recording (and stay out of prison), the band had to pay a hefty amount out of their own pockets.
The Extra Golden concert is a must-see, a logical next step for anyone who enjoys The Postal Service or any other band that’s created a new sound by combining different styles of music. To treat yourself to a unique Benga/rock fusion, or to give your ear a break from the monotonous-sounding songs on the radio, check out Extra Golden’s Ok-Oyot System. Just make sure you’re ready to dance.