Hip Hop and Benga / by Cyrus

View from my window

We live at the equator, so the sun rises every morning at 6 am and sets every evening at 6 pm. With the sun comes music. In this neighborhood everyone lives very close by. Doors and windows are open, kids and animals run around, and no one seems to mind the constant bass thump that runs throughout the day. Lingala, O'hangla, Benga, distinct East and Central African genres, you hear it all.

Laid up sick on the couch yesterday, I had a chance to take in the sounds I usually miss during busy days running around. I heard the women cooking and cleaning and the men at the makeshift lumber yard next door throwing things around and mock-arguing. Coming in and out of waking dreams, I played a game called "small child or farm animal," in which I tried to guess which creature was making the sounds coming from the open door. Surprisingly hard. In the background, the bass never stopped.

Emma, during KBC's visit to Yawa Dance Group

There are about 15 little children living in close vicinity. When they're being too loud I just call out "Nani anasumbua kuku?" which means "Who is bothering the chicken." Because you can rest assured that at any time, at least one of those kids is bothering the poor chickens tethered to the railings of the apartment complex.

But this isn't about children or chickens, it's about music. On Saturday we went to a place called Bomas Resort to see Benga music. The cover was 250 shillings a piece ($3.33) and since none of my companions had the scratch I covered us all. I don't carry much cash, and as we stood by the door making sure we had enough to pay for tickets AND drinks, Brian remarked that it was a truly ghetto conversation.

The scene at Bomas

Nothing ghetto about Bomas. This was the wealthy side of Kisumu, all fat mamas, cologned husbands, bad wigs, flowing drinks, and soft swaying dancing. Brian, Ozzy, Emma and I brought the average age down significantly, and I'm pretty sure they're the only dreads to walk into the place in recent history. The headliner was Johny Junior, a small man and his band of 8 (plus three booty girls) who played the nonstop fast groove and intricate electric guitar lines that defines Benga.

We sat back and drank Kenya Kane as the older generation did their thing. But soon Ozzy was up with the camera (he loves it) and I was following setting up the audio gear. Benga, which means something like "Explosion," is an East African genre named so because, where more traditional music starts slowly and builds, Benga starts at the climax and keeps going faster. So the music keeps an unrelenting fast clip while the singers sing about love and the booty girls swing it. It's like extremely pleasant punk music minus sweaty British guys plus dancing booty girls. A perfect world. It's hard to explain, and my audio gear wasn't working properly that night, but I'll have some aural examples for you soon.

We ended up spending the money wisely and getting pretty drunk after getting our video. Drunk enough, in fact, that Ozzy got on his glorious dance moves for the crowd. He and Emma were definitely a site to see, one dreadlocked, one pregnant, both young hip and healthy, moving it like none other amongst the wealthy patrons who couldn't help but watch slyly. And me, who Ozzy introduces as his personal assistant, following like a nerd with the camera. A great night, and Ozzy and Emma told me I actually know how to dance.

Area 51

The next day we killed the chicken, and before hell broke loose we went to Area 51 to see Wakimbizi. This was the opposite of Johny Junior at Boma's. The crowd was mostly teenaged and devastatingly drunk. Every couch had at least one dude passed out on it, most of the females were working girls, and at one point bouncers outnumbered patrons. Ah yes, I was home. This club is where the idea for this show developed. Still one of the grimiest places I've been, it introduced me to the idea that the greatest parties and music go down despite income or resources. Although it had been "reopened under new management" since I had been there last, the only change I could make out was that they had removed the iron bars from around the DJ booth and replaced some of the speakers. It was nice to be back.

Already gripped by the chicken spell, I could do nothing but sit on a couch and watch. Ozzy grabbed the camera and was up front videotaping the rappers and backup dancers. They rapped in Sheng and the dancers did amazing things (at one point forming a massive human bicycle).

Depending on the situation, the reception Ozzy gets with the camera is much different than mine. When I tried to bring a camera down to the club two years ago, I was stopped by the bouncers who told me I'd be killed before turning it on. But now, people were giving Ozzy high fives and giving their phone numbers so he could come film them. Ragged, the depressed rastaman, told me to never forget the power of the dread to impress the common man. I wonder if it's the dreads or the simple fact that Ozzy is Kenyan, but people are much more receptive to him behind the camera. I don't blame them--white exploitation comes in camera form as well--but it's interesting that they don't think twice when it's Ozzy with the same gear.

Tonight, Ozzy and I are going to interview one of the hip hop groups that opened for Wakimbizi--two young kids who live nearby.

Brian at the studio