West Africa is much renowned for its bustling markets that are a veritable blitzkrieg on the senses - a cacophonous explosion of colour, sound, smell, taste, feel and most importantly, a glimpse for the mind’s eye. To know West Africa’s complex multilayered, deeply cosmological societies, the non-Western African, must start at the market. West Africa routinely offers a deep culture shock to other Africans who expect to find familiar ‘African’ culture. It is therefore probably the least unlikely thing to hear Kenyan Benga blasting out of the many ‘music shops’ lining Gambian markets.But this is precisely what should be expected.
The Gambia is in a surreal love affair with Kenyan music, and has been since the 1970s. By far the most popular Kenyan artist currently is Ken wa Maria with his distinctive Kamba Benga beats. This is largely due to the profusion of pirated copies of his music videos produced by Most Unique Media. Moreover, several radio stations such as Hilltop FM play a selection of Kenyan Benga, particularly on Sunday afternoons. In audio, Luo Benga is king with Gikuyu and Kamba Benga following closely.
The origins of this love affair are largely unclear. What is evident though is that Kenyan Benga and Senegambian Mbalaxx – the latter popularised by Youssour N’dour – now distinct in every sense, share a common ancestry. Caribbean Rumba that was wildly popular in the 1950s and 1960s in parts of Africa’s Atlantic coast from Senegal to Congo, evolved into Benga in Kenya and Mbalaxx in the Senegambia, as local artists in these two extremities of Africa, began playing their own music and adapting it to local rhythms and languages. However, in the 1960s and 1970s striking similarities remained. It is stunning to listen to the Gambian sixties band Super Eagles’ ‘Su nousharit’ or ‘Dohi Gudi Bahut’ or ‘Gamba Zambia (African Unity)’ among others and hear string and drum rhythms that mirror Kenyan Daudi Kabaka tunes such as those from the ‘Helulelule’ album or even a later Les Wanyika sound like ‘Afro’. So remarkably alike can some of these tunes be that one cannot help but wonder whether direct cross-pollination was occurring at the time. However, as the years passed, Kenyan Benga developed a focus around the string section giving prominence to the electric guitar. Meanwhile Senegambian Mbalaxx built itself around a unique rolling drum rhythm and integrated the almighty Kora – invented in The Gambia about three centuries ago according the recently launched Gambian Kora Foundation, – the xalam and obviously the talking drum.
Kenyan vinyl records found their way into The Gambia, thanks to a currently hard to find inventive trader. Described simply as ‘one Joola man’, this erstwhile teacher ran a little shop on 27 Tobacco Road, now renamed Ma Samba Ceesay Street in the island City of Banjul. Now a dilapidated potholed street, current residents do not seem to remember him. Legend has it that on the day a shipment of Kenyan vinyl arrived, a radio announcement would ensure very long queues developed ending at 27 Tobacco Road. Queues began soon after Fajr, the morning Islamic prayer, to ensure that one stood a chance of bagging a record. From the mid-1970s to the bloody attempted 1981 coup d’etat that scarred The Gambia, 27 Tobacco was the place to watch for Kenyan music. It is also not unusual to find among The Gambia’s well traveled professional classes, a personal collection or two of pre-1980s Kenyan vinyl records.It is also reputed, that one who knows Dakar’s cul-de-sac well will find tonnes of ‘zilizopendwa’ Kenyan vinyl.
The records found their way into night clubs but their true home was in the ‘Bal poussière’, an open air dance floor that attracted many a teenager, much to parental chagrin. This a tradition that continues to-date under the Wolof term ‘fura’ or simply programme, and it consists of DJs setting up large speakers in an open area within villages or housing estates and blasting music all night long, even for those wishing to sleep! Taken in good faith, youths and even children dance, alcohol free – this is after all a 96% Muslim majority country – kicking up tonnes of dust, hence the French term ‘poussière’.
Kenyan Benga’s popularity, attest several vendors, remains largely among the youth of the 1970s, and seemingly too, among the Joola community of southern Gambia and Senegal’s Cassamance who swear to Benga’s similarity to their traditional music. A major difference in the records sold then and now, apart from technological change– or is it because of it – is piracy. Original records are nowhere to be found in The Gambia. Certainly, Kenyan producers have not done much to provide the market with original products. It is ironical that African trade integration seems to have been better in the seventies than it is today. But then the same technological advances like the internet, offer Kenyan artists easier access to information on a potential Sene Gambian market. Maybe too, it is time that institutions such as the respective national cultural centres make contact and organise tours of artists. One Ken wa Maria would surely be pleasantly surprised by his Banjul following.
Photograph: Shirati Jazz