September 24, 2009
The saying “If there’s a will, there’s a way” fits Extra Golden to a tee.
The group’s certainly had to prove its resilience in its five years of existence: they haven’t let visa troubles, political unrest or the untimely death of a founding member get in the way of a joyous international collaboration between American and Kenyan musicians.
Formed almost by happenstance in 2004 when musicians Ian Eagleson, Alex Minoff and Otieno Jagwasi began playing one another’s compositions, for fun, just to see where they could take them, the group quickly coalesced into a full-fledged band.
Ian and Alex were American musicians from the Washington, D.C.-based band Golden; since 2000, Otieno had been assisting Ian in his doctoral research documenting benga, a guitar-heavy kind of dance music (similar to Congolese rumba) that has been popular in Kenya since the 1960s.
Over a couple of days, the group hashed out several songs, building them on top of rhythm tracks that Eagleson had recorded earlier with local drummer Onyango Wuod Omari.
Making due with less than ideal recording circumstances, they set up a laptop and a mixing board in the middle of a Nairobi restaurant. Three hours later, the majority of their debut album, Ok-Oyot System [Thrill Jockey], was complete.
Nearly five years and two more albums later, the unbelievable difficulties they’ve weathered haven’t touched the music, a jangly, funky, propulsive mix of rock and benga that transcends pastiche and achieves a rare grace.
Appropriately enough, summer returned with a vengeance in time for the band’s outdoor show last Thursday evening. Their sound —crisp, buoyant, insanely danceable, all forward momentum and frenzied riffage — cut through the heat with joyous abandon. And, while the crowd was a little thin, the group didn’t let that stop them from giving it their all.
By show’s end the motley audience —an oddball mix of hipsters and the drunks who practically live in the park — were all dancing like crazy, won over by the music’s effortless charm.
If you’re curious about traditional benga, you can buy CDs by Extra Golden vocalist Opiyo Bilongo and other Kenyan artists through Kanyo Kanyo.
Extra Golden, “Anyango” (from Thank You Very Quickly, Thrill Jockey, 2009)
PHOTOS BY ANDREA FELDMAN