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.
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.