Text and photos by Banning Eyre
In their New York debut, Kenyan roots band Kenge Kenge delivered spectacle and spiritual uplift at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park on Friday, August 13. Kenge Kenge present a stage-ready montage of Luo culture. The Luo make up Kenya’s third largest ethnic group. Fishers, farmers and herders by tradition, the Luo have an extremely rich musical culture that contains vital sources for Kenya’s best-known guitar pop style, benga. The melodies and rhythms of the nyatiti lyre, and especially the orutu horse-hair fiddle, will sound instantly familiar to benga fans. This is brisk, giddy music with bubbling percussive underpinnings, and in Kenge Kenge’s rendition, lush male vocal harmonies that suggest connections to folksy English choral singing, West African highlife, and other Anglo-African group singing traditions.
Founded in 1990, Kenge Kenge (literally “fusion of small, exhilarating instruments”) occupy unusual middle ground between tradition and modernity. The group includes electric bass and has the feel of a pop band on stage, but there are no guitars or keyboards. That bass aside, all the instruments are indigenous, and the band wears local fabrics, furs and in the case of the nyatiti player, full bush regalia, all giving the feel of village celebration, rather than nightclub revelry.
The Damrosch Park show began with a focus on the two orutu fiddles and four percussionists. Midway through the set, the nyatiti was announced, and musicians processed onstage playing the ancient lyre as well as an animal horn aerophone with a pure, pleasing tonality. The group’s one female member, an ample and vibrant dancer, burst onto the stage at various points in the set, leaping, jiggling and grinning. There were plenty of solar smiles in this set, and no hint of darkness or controversy. The band even steered clear of their famous Obama song. When they recorded it during the 2008 campaign, it was more or less a matter of national, and to a degree ethnic, pride—Obama’s paternal ancestors were Luos. Performing this song in America at a time when Obama is a beleaguered president must have seemed another matter entirely, and while this particular audience would have had no problem with the Obama song, the choice was probably a wise one overall. These days, wading into US political debates is no winning game for a band out to build audience.
For all the visual dazzle of their stage show, Kenge Kenge’s strongest suit might be their vocal sound, a fine example of East African choral tradition—in tune, rhythmically sharp, full-bodied and warmly melodious. That sound’s obvious Western influences speak to Kenya’s Christianized, Anglo colonial history; indeed, this same group has another performance mode in which they put aside the skins and strings and perform gospel music. If there are tensions between Christianity and African religion among the Luo, they apparently don’t phase Kenge Kenge.
There’s a high quotient of theatricality in Kenge Kenge’s show. These artists are pros at presenting traditional culture to outsiders, and some fans of “authentic” African culture struggle with this. Another obstacle Kenge Kenge faces goes to history. West African roots groups have a huge advantage with the US audience, because their ancestors were peers of the earliest African Americans, and so contributed crucial musical DNA to American musical evolution. As best we know, no significant numbers, if any, Luo ever came to US in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, so their rhythms and melodies are a few degrees of separation more remote from our own. However exciting, danceable, and beautiful the music might be, it can never have quite the same mysterious familiarity in our ears as, say, music from Mali.
All the more reason why it was such a rare treat to see and hear Kenge Kenge perform live. East African music is rarely heard on our stages, but given the chance, it sure can connect. Much of this Lincoln Center was in Damrosch to hear The Kronos Quartet, who followed Kenge Kenge with a heady set of worldly classical music, culminating in a performance with an Indonesian gamelan orchestra. But as Kenge took their bows, it was clear they had won new fans. The audience reaction was loud, long and generous. We hope they return soon.