The 2007 Kenyan general elections did not bode well for many -- some 1,000 people died and a quarter-million were displaced due to the reportedly rigged voting process which propelled Mwai Kibaki over Raila Odinga. The intra-country effects affected both local and international travel. A year earlier, two of the country's artists were in a similar situation, invited to play alongside Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff of the Washington DC-based band Golden. Their band, Extra Golden, had received numerous accolades for their 2006 debut recording, Ok-Oyot System (Thrill Jockey), and everyone was excited to spread this interesting rock-Benga sound.
Upon being informed of their visa issues, Minoff was undeterred. With a scheduled show at the Chicago World Music Festival, he called then-Senator Barack Obama's office and pleaded his case. With the help of Obama (Minoff had hoped that his Kenyan heritage would help win sympathy), Opiyo Bilongo and Onyango Wuod Omari were permitted access into the US; the band instantly won over numerous hearts, and from that success they recently embarked on a 22-city tour across the UK and US today, in support of their new album, Thank You Very Quickly (Thrill Jockey).
In praise of this governmental intervention, the band recorded what may have been the first Obama tribute song, titled simply "Obama," and released on their 2008 effort, Hera Ma Nono (Thrill Jockey). Unlike the numerous over-sentimentalized and sappy accolades that would emerge afterwards -- recording Obama songs seemed as much a PR stunt as honest homage after a while -- Extra Golden's eight-minute guitar-driven track stayed true to the Benga tradition of praise, as danceable, airy (reminiscent of the better of King Sunny Ade) and socially relevant.
That was one of the better cuts on their sophomore album; unfortunately it did not live up to the sheer intensity of their debut, which was recorded in three hours in a tin-roofed concrete room in Nairobi. Spontaneity wins out. The first album was cut with a singer named Otieno Jagwasi, Onyango's brother, who tragically died at 34 of liver cancer. The band offers tributes to many, especially this fine singer; with their third album, they have returned to the fine form which won them honors in the first place. Thank You Very Quickly is one of the top albums of this young (though quickly passing) year.
The sheer power of Omari's drumming propels this guitar-focused record forward. He never stops, never settles, and yet somehow never overplays. This tricky balancing act is common in African dance music, although that does not make drummers necessarily good at it. Take a listen to post-Fela vintage recordings in Nigeria and Kenya, before hi-life became hip-life, and you can hear the caffeinated spears and rim shots of ambitious rhythm makers. With such heated guitar lines dancing over the melodies, you'd expect the drumming to hang in the back; none of that happens here. And yet there is still space. As relentless and driven as Omari is, the storm never quiets, even -- especially -- on the quieter numbers. But the opening "Gimakiny Akia" suffices; one wonders how any of the musicians pushed that hard for the nearly eight-minute track.
"Fantasies of the Orient" tones it down ever so slightly, with a line-for-line vocal in English and Luo. Unlike African "fusion" projects, this does not sound like two music forms trying to play nice; it is simply Benga-rock, and if it didn't exist before it does now. (In truth the similarities between the African and American guitar traditions are many, so this doesn't surprise.) Six songs deep and a lean thirty-seven-and-a-half minutes in length, fierceness and intensity overrides patience and temperance. These men are consumed by their mission, and stop at nothing to fulfill it.
The only disappointing aspect of Thank You Very Quickly, in fact, concerns artwork. The band's first two album covers offered a quaint, vintage and slightly kitschy feel: badly Photoshopped cutouts of each band member pasted upon some romanticized if somewhat generic background, tied together by an obnoxiously loud font. They were brilliant. This latest: a muffled sunset over a mountain from the perspective of an ocean, with purple and pink swirls reminiscent of sixties psychedelica and teenage girls' Hello Kitty journals. Perhaps if the four men were fighting Godzilla and Mothra on top of the mountain or something -- anything. Alas, not all of our dreams can be fulfilled; we can be thankful for what we get, and with Thank You Very Quickly, we get quite a lot.