punk in kenya, no limits moving forward

September 24, 2010

It’s no secret that American rock musicians looking to expand their sound frequently mine African music for inspiration (hello Vampire Weekend, The Talking Heads, and Paul Simon). And despite the recent popularity of African hip-hop and pop music, American audiences’ knowledge of African rock tends to begin and end with Fela Kuti. And no disrespect to Fela, but there has to be more out there. So hoping to broaden my own horizons, I went looking for the rock scene on the continent that birthed the guitar. What I ended up finding was a vibrant thriving community of DIY musicians living in Kenya.

Punk in Kenya, No Limits Moving Forward
Words Nathan Leigh

When describing new music that their audience probably hasn’t heard before, writers tend to reach for touchstones. It makes for an easy shorthand. If I describe a band as having a “Fugazi sound” you know right off you’re getting atonal angular guitars, slow tempos, and 2 singers. It’s a good system (if a little lazy) most of the time, but when dealing with music from another country or culture, it gets abused more often than it’s helpful. As a result any African guitarist with above average skill is immediately described as being “reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix.”

Now there may not be a ton of black guitar gods, and since the guitar godliest of all guitar gods happens to be black, that makes for a convenient comparison, but not every folk singer from Senegal is Jimi Hendrix. Nevertheless nearly any search for African rock music turns up countless musicians playing music that would not be considered “rock” by even the most lenient definitions of the term (and I’m including the definition all techno artists used in the mid-90’s when they described their sound not as a fad, but just the next step in the evolution in rock music).
The mere fact of the instrument of choice, skin color, and skill doesn’t make someone reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix any more than it’s fair when any guitarist south of the border is described with a reference to Carlos Santana (from now on, let’s cite Luis Bonfa instead. It’s more accurate most of the time, and as a bonus it’s fun to be contrary!) So my searches turned up page after page after page of extremely talented musicians playing folk, pop, and traditional music described as “African rock,” “African punk,” or most misleading of all, “African Hendrix.”

What I came to find finally, is that much like the punk scene of the early 80’s (hey look! It’s a touchstone reference!) the African rock scene is small, regional, independent, and underground. Many major cities have their own small scene consisting of a handful of bands. There are no record labels propping them up. Recordings are self-funded and shows are self-organized. Few of the bands have websites or myspace pages. But in cities like Nairobi, local bands are bubbling just under the radar attracting increasingly large audiences.
The rock scene in Nairobi consists of between 10 and 20 active bands. They center around a monthly Battle of the Bands organized by the bands themselves. Prior to a few years ago, rock music was considered “noise” and associated with “evil music” according to Amos Kiptoon of the For Rock Society of Kenya. It’s been only recently that the rock scene in Kenya has cohered and grown into a vibrant thriving community.
Of the active bands, probably the most successful is Murfy’s fLaw. With a sound drawing heavily on early 90’s alt-rock, this nearly-all-female band is one of the first bands in the Kenyan scene to record a full length album. Their debut record Makosa was recorded at a local studio that previously had only recorded afro-fusion, benga, and hip-hop. Availability of quality gear and studio access has made recording difficult for many of the bands, but the Rock Society is hoping to produce a compilation of Kenyan bands within the year, in addition to a documentary of their scene.
Other bands include the metalcore-inflected Last Year’s Tragedy, who are currently at work on their debut record, and the amazingly named Narcissistic Tendencies With Delusions of Grandeur who’s music is reminiscent of Coheed and Cambria. Despite the small close-knit size of the scene, there is no general “Nairobi sound,” rather each band has a very unique style and sound running the full gamut of rock sub-genres. In the ever-fracturing world of American rock where each sub-genre and sub-sub-genre has it’s die-hard-fans and equally die-hard-detractors, it’s hard to imagine a scene where The Cranberries regularly play alongside Killswitch Engage.
With the emergence of the local 105.5 X-FM radio station, the Kenyan scene continues to reach larger and more mainstream audiences as it grows from a small community of like-minded musicians to a larger regional phenomenon. Meanwhile the For Rock Society has a number of initiatives planned for the coming year to increase the audience for rock music in Kenya, while hopefully attracting an international audience. With many bands readying their debut albums within the next year, the burgeoning rock scene in Kenya is poised to attract larger and larger audiences both within Kenya and beyond.