Various Artists, Kenya Special (Selected East African Recordings From The 1970s & ’80s)

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 05.10.13 in Reviews

East African music has long taken a backseat to the sounds of West Africa, at least abroad. Soundway offers a sprawling and entertaining corrective with this double-album follow-up to its Nigeria and Ghana “Specials.” From the ’60s into the ’80s, Nairobi’s River Road commercial district, with its hundreds of record shops, fed the country’s seemingly unquenchable appetite for seven-inch singles. Kenya Special spotlights 32 bright, bouncy ways that local tribal rhythms, Nigerian afrobeat, Congolese rumba and American funk and soul came together in regional hits and small-run gems.

Highlighting local tribal rhythms, Nigerian afrobeat and Congolese rumba

In Kenya, no sound was bigger than benga, which originated among the Luo people. Benga’s synchronized guitars are in full effect on “H. O. Ongili,” the DO 7 Band track that popularized the style. But check out the Kalamba Boys’ Kamba version, which replaces benga’s fast instrumental section with a thrilling garage-rock exit strategy. And dig the Arabic tinge to Hafusa Abasi & Slim Ali’s “Sina Raha” (I’m Sad), not to mention the funky eight-minute Swahili-rumba epic “Sweet Sweet Mbombo” by Orchestre Baba National. Tanzania’s Afro 70 almost seem to go Sun Ra in “Cha-Umheja.” And on and on. How exceptional is Kenya Special? There’s not a slack track to be found, and presumably plenty more yet to be excavated.