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Chaos in Kenya: An interview with Extra Golden

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Dusted's Michael Ardaiolo speaks with Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff about how the political rift in Kenya is affecting the nation's musicians.

Chaos in Kenya: An interview with Extra Golden

On December 27, 2007, Kenya held their presidential and parliamentary elections. The main competition was between the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity (PNU) and Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). As the votes were tallied in the following days, Odinga gained a lead to an extent that the ODM declared him the victor on December 29. But on December 30, the Electoral Commission declared Kibaki the winner by a tiny margin: 230,000 votes out of nearly 10 million. Allegations of fraud from both parties spread like wildfire with strong evidence supporting the claims in the following days. Despite the discrepancies agreed upon by international observers of the election, Kibaki – who was voted into the presidency five years ago on a platform of constitutional change and equality among ethnic groups – was sworn into the presidency again on December 30. This instigated immediate civil unrest and near-instantaneous violence among the Kenyan people.

Despite most of the recent violence on the political front, tension between ethnic groups in Kenya has a long-running history, especially concerning land ownership. The main clash is between the Kikuyu, the people of Kibaki and the incumbent government, and the Luo, which includes the opposition and Orange Democratic Movement leader Odinga – though it certainly should be noted that this affects all of Kenya's people no matter their ethnicity. The latter feels suppressed by successive corrupted governments, the latest of which is Kikuyu-helmed and seemingly favors their people, offering them the most opportunity, which in turn instigates tensions not in the upper echelons of Kenyans but the lower classes that struggle to make a living. By the time reports of the scandals trickle down to the country's slums and poorer areas, it morphs from a question of the few dubious individuals in power to the only thing the common folk can associate with them: ethnicity, or at least political affinity. When job security and income is solely based on political connectivity, there are country- and class-wide injustices.

So while the country's political leaders argue between each other in a power tug-of-war, Kenya's people – especially the disenfranchised lower class – suffer. They get stuck in a cycle of attack, retaliation, counter-retaliation, and so on. Hundreds have died in clashes, and hundreds of thousands are displaced from their homes. In addition, businesses slow down – in many cases shut down – work becomes scarce and a national dusk-to-dawn curfew is often put in place, which affects many people's lives, especially those who make their living at night … for example, musicians.

On January 6, 2008, an email from Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff began to circulate amongst the supporters of their band, Extra Golden – an American-Kenyan group signed to Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records – who craft an intriguing blend of Kenyan benga music and American boogie rock. Both American members have spent a significant amount of time in Kenya working with local musicians as Eagleson worked on his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. The three Kenyan members of the group living in the capital city of Nairobi – Opiyo Bilongo, Onyango Wuod Omari and Onyango Jagwasi (all three of the Luo people) – were heavily affected by the country's turmoil. Without the ability to perform nightly in the city's clubs, the musicians were not able to provide for their large extended families. As well, they were forced from their homes, which were looted in the aftermath. Eagleson and Minoff politely asked supporters of the group to donate an agreeable amount of $5 to help aid their displaced friends caught in a nation-wide plight.

On January 27, I received a thank you letter from Eagleson and Minoff, which unnecessarily included a link to freely download an album by Bilongo never before released in the States as a token of their appreciation for the donation. The amount collected not only provided the Kenyan members enough to feed their families and purchase medicine for their children, but also aided not one but two moves to provide geographical security. They are currently applying for visas to return to the U.S. – of which their new bank accounts and financial security will help secure their viability with Homeland Security – in hopes that they can once again tour to continue to support their families.

Dusted: What's the latest news with Omari, Bilongo and Jagwasi?

Ian Eagleson: Well, those guys [were] in a pretty predictable situation [in January]. After the elections were finished and all the chaos broke out, they had to move because the areas they were living in were pretty much all in this place called Dandora, on the east side of town. And it was pretty chaotic over there. They were like all the other people living there; they were affected by the overall instability. Because where there is all this violence going on in the street, you can't go buy food or anything like that. And also, as I'm sure you read about, a lot of the violence that is happening is along the ethnic lines. In Nairobi, all of the violence is divided between the Kikuyu and Luo. I mean they weren't involved in anything specific, but their landlords I think put some pressure on them to get out… it had something to do with that. A lot of the landlords in that area are Kikuyu and there was pressure on non-Kikuyu residence to leave. It's been going on all over Kenya.

Alex Minoff: At the moment, it seems to be at a little bit of a lull in terms of violence and things like that. There are negotiations going on right now between the two sides with Kofi Annan. They are currently at an undisclosed location. So there seems to be a lot of hope that something will be hammered out in the next few days, probably some kind of coalition government that would put Odinga as Prime Minister, which ironically was what was supposed to happen in 2002. [Editor’s note: Odinga was sworn in as Prime Minister of a coalition government on April 17.]

D: I didn't realize that.

M: What happened in the last election was you had [Daniel arap] Moi who had been in power for so long. Basically every opposition party formed this coalition – The Rainbow – to work together to get Moi out. They got together and decided they would make Kibaki their presidential candidate, Raila Odinga being the other big politician; part of it was that once Kibaki were to win then Odinga would be named Prime Minister to make it this sort of power-sharing situation. Then as soon as Kibaki got in he immediately scrapped that idea and that was basically the root of a lot of the problems you have now.

D: What has been the reaction of the Kenyans you know to the current state of affairs? Was it something they were bracing for as the elections approached since there has been a recent history of violence following elections? Obviously the severity could not have been predicted, but did this catch them completely by surprise?

E: I don't think anyone expected it to be this severe, but I think they were suspecting that if there was evidence that the election was rigged and won by the PNU party illegally some way that there would be a lot of noise made about it. Our friends, they all support Odinga. So over the years they have seen how politicians treated and make deals and it doesn't ever really help them. So they saw this as a time where they could elect somebody who was going to make reforms, who would help poor people. I don't think they expected something this severe to break out.

D: What about from your own perspective?

M: You know what, it never crossed my mind, which may have been foolish, but just with everyone… obviously with my bandmates and then with Kenyans in the US I know – granted they pretty much all were Luo – there was just so much optimism about the election, people just really – obviously again everyone I know here and there is Luo pretty much – everyone was just so excited with Odinga. And all the polls beforehand looked like Odinga was going to win. A lot has been made of this sort of Luo verses Kikuyu thing, really there are a lot of other groups involved – other than just the Luo – who have felt slighted by the Kikuyu over the years. It wasn't really just Luo voting for Odinga, it was a lot of people from that coalition that also felt slighted by Kibaki in 2002. With the election, so many people voted and they lined up for hours and it was totally peaceful. It was like, man, things are moving forward here. There is a real excitement and optimism. This is democracy in action. And obviously it didn't work out that way. I guess not expecting that maybe was foolish, but to expect it is a little bit cynical.

D: So there was a lot of excitement leading up to the election?

E: I detected some excitement. The thing they were most excited about was the idea that this new government was going to reform the constitution and take some power out of the presidency and put more power at the local level. I think that they were excited because people have known Odinga for a long time and they have good and bad things to say about him. I don't think they were excited about getting this guy as the president to solve all their problems; they were more excited for something to change. There has been a lot of talk Kenya in the last five years about expanding their output – like a 5 percent growth in the economy – but for people like this and lots of other people in Kenya, there was nothing to show for it.

D: From the Kenyans you know, has it been just severe disappointment following the elections?

M: Well, I mean, it is hard to say. The week that Kibaki announced that he won and swore himself in, a couple days later there was a demonstration at the Kenyan Embassy here in DC, and I think that disappointment is not a strong enough a word to describe the feelings that people had. It just seemed like an outright thievery, basically abortion of democracy. Disappointment is definitely not a strong enough word. Now, with the ways thing have gone over a month now with the violence, something has got to be done. Obviously, no one from the international community, regardless of how questionable they find the election results, no one is going to go in there and appointment Odinga president. And a reelection is not realistic at this point for a lot of reasons. … It seems unfair because it's like rewarding someone for cheating, but something has got to be done at this point to stop the violence. … Just because they agree to something with Kofi Annan, doesn't mean that people in the slums suddenly will be friends again.

D: What kind of cultural impact do you think the situation is having on the arts?

E: The effect on the arts… well they are shut down like most everything else. There are some things that can continue in this climate, but music is not really one of them. These guys make their money off playing live and people are waiting for something to get worked out before they feel comfortable enough to go out at night. A lot of these clubs where they perform are in places with mixed population, so you can potentially come in contact with someone that may have it out for you.

M: At the moment, I know that there is not much music happening, certainly not in public. That is a difficult question for me to answer. Art is the kind of thing that is difficult to suppress – no one is trying to suppress it per say. It will continue. There is definitely a history of political messages in Kenyan music. Whether they are overt or subtle, I would hope that the messages that people would be spread would be about people needing to resolve the differences between each other.

D: So are the musicians just without work altogether? Are they looking for other means of making money?

E: Yeah, they are all struggling really. Even the guys who are supposedly hot shots in the business are struggling because there really isn't income right now. I was asking them about this the other day, and the only band that is really performing is in a town called Bondo, which is total backwater out in the country. It is the hometown of Raila Odinga, so they don't have to worry about reprisals. So they're thinking that if the government and the opposition could come to some kind of agreement…, then they could go back to work. As far as actual content of the arts, I think… I'm sure you'll hear some people singing about what is going on.

D: Some of the Kenyan, and more specifically benga music, I've heard seems to already have a very strong message of equality – and in an almost political manner – but typically pushing for peace. Do you foresee the situation instigating more of or depreciating the use of the subject matter in music?

E: I would say Kenyan music was never really overtly political. The only way it was really political is that a lot of it, just like the politics, was operated on ethnic lines. So you have Luo musicians playing music for Luo audience, Kikuyu, Luhya and so on. Some people were talking about, how can we make our pop music more…

D: So they are actually trying to move away from political messages?

E: Yes. I have a feeling that this whole situation probably won't encourage that type of thing to happen any time soon. But you know people react to all the negative things going on by trying to have a broader message in their music.

D: It almost seems to me counterintuitive. So Kenyan music has been pushing for more generalized kind of pop subject matter?

E: The music that I study is all sung in the Luo language. It talks a lot about issues that are very specific to that community; there were even campaign songs for Raila Odinga. That is nothing new; they have been doing that for 40 years. I will be interested to see what kind of songs that come out of this episode, but I have a feeling in general things will get back to normal. I think people will want to relax and enjoy things like they used to. In terms of the music that I have been studying, there has only been one guy who was very political in his music and he died a couple years ago.

D: Who is that?

E: Daniel Owino Misiani, he has some records available internationally. Lyrics in benga songs don't typically address political topics explicitly, except for praise songs of politicians and in the occasional satire of people like Misiani. However, a lot of songs address everyday moral issues like greed and deception, issues that get played out on a grand scale in politics. Also, benga songs are political in that, due to their use of vernacular languages they have played a part in upholding the ethnic identities that have become devisive in Kenyan politics. Critics have often suggested benga should be sung in Swahili to have a broader, less parochial appeal. However, ethnically oriented songs have persisted. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but a testament to the continuity of their cultures. I think that in the current environment things will probably continue as usual musically, but it would be very encouraging if musicians could sing about optimism for peace and reconciliation. Hopefully, the politicians will give them a reason to do so.

M: There are a lot of political messages that are just sort of… I mean corruption over there is so widespread, just everywhere you turn. You hear a lot about corruption in benga music. You know Misiani who died a couple years ago; he got in trouble with Kibaki for one of his songs, whose title translated to "a baboon is a baboon". It was, you know, some jabs at Kibaki. You had Ochieng Kabasellah, who is also not living any more, but he was a big benga guy for a long time. He was jailed for his stuff during the Moi years. But the thing is that it can be a lot subtler than that, and a lot of times it will be in the subtext in a love song. It is not as obvious, but to speakers of the language it is clear.

D: How old is your Kanyo label? When did you start that?

E: We started that in 2006 because that was our first tour and we wanted to sell a CD of Opiyo Bilongo’s music. We had been thinking about doing something like this for a long time, so that was just what got us into it fully. That was a good encouragement because we had to get it done quickly. We just produced that all on our own and now we are trying to continue it slowly, but we are hoping to expand it faster by selling downloads. We made some arrangements with a few people in Kenya to sell their music just as downloads on our website.

D: Has this situation inspired any urgency to get that going to help your band members and other musicians you know receive more income?

M: I would say there are certain things that we are doing right now to help, but it's kind of like… both the records we have put out so far came out before the election. Of course the Bana Kadori record was about the election. We are trying to do a little bit more than just be a label. We've got a few big projects going on right now. One of them is our next release which is a really, really big one, and I have been working on that one pretty solidly for about six months now. That's a reissue of music by a Malian guy from the ’70s by the name of Sorry Bamba. Our goal is to offer music as download, basically to have a download store that sells music you can't get. Obviously we have a pretty good pipeline into Kenya, and we have sent some money over there in the last couple of weeks to several musicians we know in exchange for the right to sell their music. Normally us selling the music is where the artist or the label will give us the right to sell it and we share the profits. But this is something where we gave them an advance. Besides the guys in Extra Golden, there are a lot of other people in the same boat as them. And we know a lot of them, so we are trying to help out as many as we can.

D: So it's to bring them immediate income while they are without the opportunity to perform live?

M: Yes, and even while they are playing live. It is another opportunity to sell their music especially to an audience that would never have an opportunity to find out about it.

D: Do you have anything else on the immediate horizon other than the Malian artist?

E: Yeah. One of the guys we have in our band is in another band in Kenya called Dola Kabarry – that's the name of the singer. We are going to try to put four or five of his CDs of him up there for download. Another guy I worked with who actually sang a little bit on our first record, I'm trying to put his stuff up there. We are hoping to be able to do this [soon]. It's just a matter of getting the recordings sorted out and the website itself because that's a lot of work and that hasn't been taken care yet. We are trying to put a system up there so we don't have to depend on another system like iTunes; we just want to sell it directly. That way it potentially makes it more profitable I guess, and it is also nice for the musicians we are working with since they don't have to worry about a third party and we can deal with them directly.

D: So is that the best way people can help support the musicians? Or is there anything else people can do to help besides donating or buying their music?

E: Yeah I would say so. I don't know of any other outlets to support musicians directly, so when this thing does get going it will be a good way to support those guys in particular. If you wanted to help musicians overall, I'm not sure what you can do… you'd have to start your own NGO or something, which is a different story. We are helping just a… you know, these guys don't have many opportunities to sell their music, so we are hoping that this will be something that will give them extra income. It is hard to say, because a lot of Kenyan music doesn't have much appeal to a Western audience, but there are a lot of Kenyans that are spread all over the place on the internet, so we are hoping we can tap into that.

M: Right now, we may actually be the best charity for the musicians in Kenya. I don't know of anything that's dedicated to that, which doesn't mean that there isn't something though. I think one of the things that have appealed to people about us is just the fact that we are not… well, you know, you give money to something like Red Cross or something like that, it is sort of vague. You are like 'okay, I'm giving this money' but you don't necessarily know what is going on with it. Whereas with us, you know where it's going: it's going directly to these guys. And not just the guys in our band, it is other musicians and their families as well.

D: What's next for Extra Golden?

M: Well right now we are touring this summer. We have some things confirmed, and we will be doing dates in the US as well Europe through June and July and possibly into August. That's the next thing. At which time we will use that opportunity to make some new recordings.

E: I wish those guys could express some more stuff because they know what's going on there. But overall those guys are really grateful that people in the U.S. helped in the fundraising. They were really grateful about that, and they are excited more than ever to come here and tour again.

Extra Golden is currently on a stateside tour through August. Check the dates at www.myspace.com/extragolden.

By Michael Ardaiolo

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