I was listening to Doug Paterson’s show on KBCS a few weeks ago and he played a very catchy tune that reminded me of the vibrant but exceedingly simple music that used to come out of Africa in the 1960s and 70s. A reedy singer (sounding reedy probably because of his recording equipment and not due to his vocal style) accompanied by the speedy fingering of lead and bass guitars and very simple straight forward drumming (no drum synthesizers here). The word “catchy” doesn’t quite do the music justice. These tracks are little gems of intense, but exceedingly simple musical styling. They please the ear and compel your feet to move like the best of African music. This recording brought back refreshing memories of early Franco, Tabu Ley, Sam Mangwana, etc.
It turns out I was listening to Kakai Kilonzo’s Mama Sofi: part 1 and Mama Sofi: part 2 (hear them). I was a little dumbstruck to discover this because I don’t recall hearing much Kenyan music over the past 20 years or so in which I’ve been listening to African music. I’d never heard of Kakai Kilonzo, but thanks to Doug I have now.
When I visited Doug Paterson’s East African Music site, I also learned that he wrote the liner notes for the album (no wonder he was playing it on his show!). In addition, Doug’s written the Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya (read the liner notes) and compiled the accompanying CD.
Kakai Kilonzo comes out of a musical style called benga…
a pop style with its roots in tradtional rhythems, instruments and melodies. Luo musicians from western Kenya brought it to prominence in the late 60s but other cultural/linguistic groups in other parts of Kenya quickly developed their own localized variants. With its pulsing beat, interlocking guitars, extended solos, and rapid-fire bass, benga dominated the Kenyan music scne over most of the post-colonial period.
Kakai Kilonzo is one of the rare ones whose music was enjoyed by people all across Kenya and beyond. To simple but catchy melodies, he wrote lyrics that were interesting and relevant to the Kenyan experience. His songs offered social commentary, often with humor or bewilderment; songs that common folk could relate to whether living in cities or rural areas. He wrote about rich and poor, men and women, problems within families and among neighbors. He interpreted the political and cultural landscape to the delight of fans across Kenya.
While he wrote songs in his native Kamba language throughout his career, it was his adept use of Swahili that endeared him to a broader audience across Kenya.
Sadly, while at the peak of his career, Kakai was taken ill in early 1987 and passed away a few weeks later in the age of 32.
The songs were recorded with 45 rpm singles in mind. In the vinyl editions, side one fades out and side two fades in with part two of the song.
–from Doug Paterson’s liner notes
Shava, the record label which released the recording says this about it: “the cool and relaxed songs of “Best Of Kakai Volume One” not only were major hits in Kenya but are of timeless beauty and crystalline perfection. Kakai Kilonzo has created little gems of African pop by mixing the gossips of ironic urban love stories with his version of benga rooted deeply in traditional Kamba music and its dance rhythms.”
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