No genre of Kenyan music has had a greater impact in world music in the last 50 years than benga music, the dance music that evolved from the traditional sound of stringed instruments with modern pop guitar influences.
But, critics argue that benga has remained static through the years as genres like rumba have grown and embraced more global influences reaching new audiences and connecting with younger generations of fans.
In an attempt to breath fresh life into benga, a new collective that brings together musicians, producers and DJs has combined the best beats of the music with contemporary electronic music for a compilation called “Benga Belt Volume 1”.
The project is the brainchild of Gregg Tendwa, a DJ and producer who for the last five years has been experimenting the fusion of classic benga music and electronic beats.
He started an independent label called Bengatronics that has brought together a group of artists to work on original compositions for the album that will be launched today with a tour that features performances across East Africa till the end of the year.
“The album is an attempt at unifying the pop sounds of Kenya, rooted in cultural heritage of benga music,” says Tendwa.
“Bengatronics explored the sonic fusion of Benga with electronica, rumba, jazz, trap, hip hop, fashion, literature and photography.”
New sound direction
Tendwa explains that his objective is to bring to life a new sound direction of Benga music and encourage young Kenyans to embrace the music as their heritage.
This avid collector of vinyl records has performed widely across East Africa and European cities with various electronic music outfits.
His love of benga is influenced by a childhood spent listening to the great benga bands of the past like Katitu Boys Band and Gangara Boys Band of Newton “Karish” Kariuki.
Since the beginning of 2018, Tendwa worked on the production of the album along with the Dutch collective Umoja DJs based in Amsterdam.
The music on the album straddles the path of the infectious guitar sound of benga laced with funky electronic bass lines.
There are original compositions by musicians like Missing Rotich, Boaz Otieno, Msupa S, Musyoki Mutua and Abaki Simba, while Udulele John and Michel Ongaro play guitar and Oduor Bernard on drums.
The album is a musical trip across Kenya with a very global sound that can fit into any dance floor across the world. One of the highlights is the delightful “Hello Baby” a groovy number by Sandra Chebet Koech (Msupa S), an artist who is based in Nairobi but is originally from Bomet County.
“Benga comes naturally to me because it’s a fast beat that makes you want to get up and dance,” says the artist who first recorded the song in 2015.
The song was reworked when she met the Bengatronics who put her through a fresh studio session and vocal recordings.
“Kanonge” is a piece that kicks off with the sweet orutu, the single stringed traditional instrument, played by Boaz Jagingo (Jagingo).
“Greg first heard my music at the Ketebul Music studios in Nairobi and he asked if he could play my music for his bengatronics and we hit it off from then on,” says Jagingo.
He re-recorded “Kanonge” with the production of the Bengatronics team to give the song a fresh edge that combines his orutu with electronic beats.
“Mami” by Dr. Kakee is another stand out track on the album produced in the traditional benga style complete with a funky guitar climax.
Tendwa says that in recent years benga has moved from a national brand, as was the case with giants of the past like D.O Misiani or Kilimambogo Brothers to fragmented music along regional lines.
“Bengatronics breaks away from this tribal yoke to elevate Benga music as a genre that is just as powerful as reggae, music that surpasses localisation and grows into a global brand,” he says.
Bengatronics has also developed a programme that can build the capacity of DJs and musicians through rehearsals, master classes and collaborate performances.
The tour begins with two concerts this weekend, the album launch at the Alliance Francaise tonight and a concert at the MUZE Club in Westlands tomorrow.
Next month, there are performances at the Bayimba Festival in Uganda and the Ongala Fest in Tanzania. Other dates will see the musicians and DJs perform in Mombasa, Kisumu, and other towns across Kenya.
“I want to see a massive Benga movement grow through our Benga Fest series.
I want to travel widely across the world and play the music at major festivals so that the world can recognise this music as the official dance music of Kenya,” says Tendwa.