Obies, Kenyans Join Musical Forces
When Alex Minoff and Ian Eagleson, both OC ’96, were students at Oberlin, their band Golden dealt with the usual difficulties of a rock band — the struggle to make records, get them released and go on the road. When Eagleson traveled to Kenya several years later for his doctoral research in ethnomusicology, he discovered the Nairobi-based benga band Orchestra Solar Extra Africa — a band halfway across the world — encountering some of the same problems.
Minoff followed Eagleson to Kenya a few years after, and the two alums joined forces with two members of the Orchestra, Otieno Jagwasi and Onyango Wuod Omari, to form Extra Golden. The band is decidedly a benga band at heart, mixing traditional Congolese rhumba rhythms with the western instrumentation of guitar, bass and drums, but Minoff and Eagleson’s roots as American rockers add a pleasantly warped dimension to the ensemble.
Kenyan music hasn’t received as much exposure in the U.S. as has the music of West and South African countries. Benga is popular dance music that originates with the Luo people in West Kenya around Lake Victoria, around the late ’60s and early ’70s. “It’s almost like a country version of rhumba,” said Minoff. “Rhumba is usually very slick, but benga has a little bit more of an edge to it. It’s just straight-up dance music.”
“The music that we were working on before with Golden — we were trying to incorporate a lot of African guitar styles into it. So it was kind of natural that we would go there and try to play a little bit. We didn’t necessarily go there with the idea of trying to make an album,” said Minoff.
But Extra Golden did begin recording an album in May 2004. They recorded mostly benga music but also some American rock tunes with an added Kenyan rhythmic sensibility. According to Minoff, “Everyone involved did it because they really wanted to do it. We didn’t have a budget or anything, so it was a little bit scrappy.”
A year later, Jagwasi died from liver failure. The album was not quite finished.
“When he died, it kind of kicked us in the ass. It was like, we’ve got to get this out there for his sake,” Minoff remembered. A few weeks after Otieno’s passing, Minoff and Eagleson got together in New York and finished the album. They arranged to have the record, titled Ok-Oyot System, released on cassette in Kenya.
“They play our song on the radio in Nairobi, and people like it, but they also recognize that this is kind of weird,” said Minoff.
This month, Extra Golden started playing together again for the first time since Otieno’s death. On a tour that includes the Chicago World Music Festival, they are playing with a new singer and guitarist, Opiyo Bilongo, a Kenyan benga bandleader from Otieno’s hometown. The tour stops in Oberlin next Thursday, Sept. 28, at the ’Sco.
“The last time that any benga musicians were in America was in 1996,” said Minoff. A huge amount of effort went into securing passports and visas for the Kenyan musicians, including a letter from U.S. Senator Barack Obama to the Homeland Security Administration requesting that Bilongo and Omari be allowed into the country.
This tour will mark the first time the two have performed outside of Kenya.
For Extra Golden, benga music has made possible a remarkable crossing of cultural and geographic boundaries and a rewarding, unforgettable experience for all involved.
Said Minoff, “The whole thing is just a really cool experience, and it’s definitely unprecedented in many ways.”