A few years ago, while on a trip to South Africa, I stumbled on a taxi driver in Cape Town playing some familiar music in his car stereo; the guitar licks were distinctly Kenyan. It turned out that the driver, a Zimbabwean called Wisdom, was playing a CD of Kenyan benga musician Ken wa Maria.
“This reminds me of the kind of music I grew up with back home,” he said. The benga sound that was developed in the 1950s by fusing traditional rhythms with elements of music from urban centers is known as Kanindo and Sungura in Zimbabwe. The death of the Oliver Mtukudzi just over a week ago offers a chance to recollect the musical connections that have existed between Kenya and Zimbabwe since the heyday of benga music in the 1970s. Mtukudzi had his own brand of “Tuku” music, a combination of traditional Zimbabwean mbira music with influences like R&B and jazz but he also worked with some Kanindo musicians.
An interesting example is ‘‘Kwedu” a song recorded by Sulumani “Chopper” Chimbetu featuring Mtukudzi, whose chorus is heavily borrowed from the 1980s hit “Kasuku” by Les Wanyika, the legendary Nairobi based Tanzanian band. The musical connections between Kenya and Zimbabwe can be traced to the 1970s when the influence of benga music spread across the continent.
During that decade, Kenyan record producer, Phares Oluoch Kanindo, exported thousands of benga records to West and South Africa. Kanindo, the founder and director of POK Music Stores, took the music to Zaire (DRC), Zambia, Malawi, and Nigeria. Later, his label merged with EMI International and distributed hundreds of recordings across the continent and as far as Europe.
The interaction between Kenyan musicians and their counterparts from the Congo had developed since the arrival of the earliest musicians from Kinshasa in the early to mid 1950s. Two Congolese musicians, Jean Bosco Mwenda and Edward Masengo, introduced the “finger-picking” style of guitar playing that became the signature sound of benga. Benga music began as a hybrid between traditional string instruments and the urban guitar music introduced in Kenya the 1950s.
Pioneer Benga guitarists cultivated a technique from the eight-string nyatiti, where single notes would be plucked and played individually. In the bouncy finger picking technique, the lead guitar follows the track of the vocals
This frenetic style of dance music gained popularity in many parts of Africa, especially where Kanindo’s records were distributed. In Southern Africa, specifically Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia, benga influenced local tastes and left an indelible mark on the country’s music. The unique guitar rhythms proved to be a hit.
As the music caught on in Zimbabwe, local musicians adopted the sound and began to play their own variation of benga. They called it "Kanindo" taken from the name of the label that appeared on these records imported from Kenya. Kanindo also owned another label called sungura, Swahili for ‘rabbit’ and it too became the name given to a faster variation of the music, a spin off from kanindo. It is said that many freedom fighters during the independence war in Zimbabwe used to dance to kanindo records during the night vigils known as pungwe.
The most prominent pioneers of Sungura, also known as Museve, were musicians like Leonard Dembo and Simon Chimbetu whose music entertained and lifted the morale of the liberation fighters during the war that yielded Zimbabwe’s Independence in 1980. Sungura was perhaps overshadowed by the influence of Chimurenga music, named after the Shona word for liberation, that was identified with Thomas Mapfumo. Chimurenga has a much slower tempo based on the mbira and has been used by Mapfumo to champion political and social change in Zimbabwe.
Kanindo and its variants remained popular after Independence and the Bhundu Boys achieved international fame in the 1980s playing an adoption of this beat, which they called jit. Radio Zimbabwe run a show that featured kanindo music and popularized musicians like Moses Rwizi and the Kanindo Jazz Band and Obadiah Matulana.
Just like benga itself, kanindo and sungura have undergone a revolution in contemporary times and fewer musicians today play the genre in its purest form. One of the most successful of the current generation of Zimbabwean musicians is the group Mokoomba. Since they burst on the scene in 2009, they have gained international acclaim with a colorful and energetic music bearing very striking similarities to the original benga. The fans who got a chance to watch the group at the Rift Valley Festival in 2016, their only Kenyan performance so far, will recall how their sound resonated with the local audience.