Benga

by

from singingwells.org:

This is Benga style, originating from the Luo tribes, as they gradually built on the percussive/bass sounds of the Nytati to form something more bluesy; it morphs later into Rumba, which combines Benga and also Congolese music which is in turn heavily influenced by Cuban music.  The big guy in Luo Benga was Daniel Owino Misiani who developed the style in the 60′s.   A big reason to return to Luo-lands is to trace back to the origins of Benga, understanding in more detail the core instruments.    Here, we almost start at the end, recording Osumba Rateng’s band, the Sega Sega Band: 5-6 vocalists and a couple of guitarists.

Benga’s most distinctive feature is its fast-paced rhythmic beat and bouncy finger-picking guitar technique. Indeed, the core of benga is the lead guitar, which essentially follows the track of the vocals. Without exception, the singing is at some point separated from the climax—the instrumental expanse that combines three or four guitars and percussions. Benga is loosely linked to Congolese rumba and West African highlife, but differs sharply from South African kwela, taarab, chakacha and kidumbaak; the most well-known Swahili music forms from the coastal strip of East Africa.

The peculiarity of the Benga beat comes from the combination of a sharp lead guitar overriding the rhythm and bass. The pace of the guitars, with a steady rise to a climax or crescendo and an equally quick refrain, together with the arrangement and sectioning mark benga apart from other music. Luo guitarists long cultivated a unique technique of playing the guitar. They commonly do not massage the strings as their Congolese counterparts do but rather they pluck and pick single notes rapidly in a fashion akin to playing a nyatiti—the traditional lyre of the Luo people.

Benga is undoubtedly dance music because of its fast tempo. Dancers commonly do not hold hands or embrace as is the case with other music, for instance Congolese rumba. Benga fans will be seen dancing alone or forming a group, but not holding hands. Often the dancers break off from the circle of their partners and slink away, doing their own thing, sometimes becoming theatrical in their movements—flexing their muscles, feet and shaking their heads. They dance with freedom and even total abandon.

Attentive Benga audiences point out the importance of its themes especially where a song chronicles or even instigates an important social event or political drama. Many lyrics dwell on love, either extolling a woman’s beauty and praising her virtues or expressing the disappointment of an ardent suitor. Some songs sing about money and personal experiences of hardship and struggle. Occasionally, the lyrics are in praise of a person of high standing in the society. Those in political leadership are frequently the subject of such praise, even though occasionally they are the subject of biting censure. Modern Benga vocals sections are long and the story winding and repetitive, with some of the more accomplished songwriters employing clever allegory, generating witty memorable phrases or coining new idioms.

 

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