Performing Arts

Live music band mark start of busy year with exhilarating performance


The group Kenge Kenge Orutu System performing at the first showcase event of the year at the Alliance Francaise Nairobi on Jan 25, 2023. PHOTO | POOL

There are few groups that would do a better job of setting the stage for vibrant live music in 2023 than Kenge Kenge Orutu System.

A concert by the band during the first Showcase event of the year at the Alliance Francaise Nairobi last Wednesday was a signal that live music is back in the city after a typically sluggish start to the year.

Kenge Kenge has established a reputation for playing a unique brand of music based on traditional rhythms flavoured by elements of contemporary benga.

Read: Seroney: Multi-genre artiste sets career on right trajectory with record deal

Their sound is produced by a fusion of the orutu (single-string fiddle), nyatiti (eight string-lyre), oporo (cow horn) and traditional percussions, with guitars, and drums.

The 9-piece band decked out in colourful costumes, accompanied by two dancers, staged an exciting show that kept the crowd on its feet for the 90-minute performance.

“We are among the few artists in this part of the world that still play authentic music, but culture is dynamic and that is why we have enriched the acoustic traditional instruments with some electronic sounds,” says co-founder, choreographer and horn player Peter Orinda.

Their setlist contained irresistible grooves that kept the crowd dancing as each song built up the momentum: from the sing-along favourite Jamriambo to the popular folk song Owang to the show stopper, the theme song Kenge Kenge, improvised with D.O Misiani benga classic Kisero.

“We arrange the songs keeping in mind our audience so that the beat is irresistible even if you are hearing the song for the first time,” says Orinda.

The group’s lead vocalist George Achieng was in his element with his powerhouse singing and dancing, as the rhythm of each song was driven by the distinctive sound of the two orutu players, Peter Opiyo and Edward Oduda.

Sammy Opere’s solo flute was the delight of the climax of each song, along with percussions by Simon Ngesa (Guest artist Kasiva Mutua took over the drums on two songs).

Another highlight was a solo nyatiti piece played by Gabriel Odhiambo.

Kenge Kenge was formed in 1996 by some members of the Catering Levy Trustees choir including Orinda who also worked as a dance trainer at the parastatal.

“We asked ourselves what we could do beyond competing at music festivals and that is when the Idea of forming a small outfit playing traditional music was floated.”

Their unique style caught the attention of the Ministry of Culture and they were invited to perform alongside a visiting group from the UK that was keen on a band that specialised in authentic cultural music.

The hitch was that they didn’t yet have a name for the group.

The Director of Culture at the time asked Orinda to propose a suitable name.

“He called me and asked if he had a name and I said Kenge Kenge. His reaction was “wow! That sounds good even if I don’t understand what it means”.

Orinda explains that Kenge Kenge refers to the “ancillary traditional instruments” that the group plays which are “small in size but are big in sound”.

At the beginning, there were just 6 members who mainly played at small venues but as they grew, they started playing in bigger venues as their audience also grew.

Since their first international trip to the UK in 2003 Kenge Kenge has played at concerts, tours and festivals around the world and according to Orinda they are met with astonishment wherever they go.

“For mzungu you play what he doesn’t understand, that is when he respects you, but when you play what he knows, you can’t beat him at his own game.”

Some of their memorable performances have been at the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC, the 2011 Rainforest World Music Festival in Malaysia, and the 2009 WOMEX in Copenhagen, Denmark.

As Orinda recalls: “When we played at WOMEX, people were wondering “who are these people, what kind of instruments are these, why are they so unique”.

Last week’s performance marked the beginning of a busy year for Kenge Kenge.

Read: Lisa Marie Presley: Only daughter of the King of Rock and Roll bows out of stage

“The pandemic brought a lot of stress and since we have the medicine then we have to resume our tours around the world to treat guys,” says Orinda, tongue in cheek.

They will be recording their album in the course of the year with veteran producer Tabu Osusa of Ketebul Music, whom they also worked with on their last album.

They also want to recruit more members to the group so that they are able to split the group in two whenever they go on a long international tour.

“We do workshops and training in schools, and among community groups so that they take can take over because we will not be here forever but the music will always be,” says Orinda.

[email protected]