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Kenya Special Tristan Bath , August 8th, 2013 10:49

Home to dozens of ethnic groups and languages, Kenya's rich culture thrives as a meeting place for Europe, the Middle East and indeed the rest of Africa. In many ways, that’s what makes Kenya Special: Selected East African Recordings From The 1970s & ‘80s such a singular compilation, even amongst the dizzying heights of Soundway’s consistently revelatory catalogue.

As was the case with its forefathers (Ghana Special and the various Nigeria editions of the African Special series), Kenya Special is as much an education as it is a collection, and indeed tells a story as much as it documents a time and place. With the vast majority of songs recorded between 1972 and 1980, it captures a vital moment in Kenya’s post-colonial history. The 1970s saw the country’s transition from a relatively peaceful period following war with Somalia and the subsequent defence pact with Ethiopia in 1969, to subsequent decades of corrupt ruling by Daniel arap Moi, the commie-hating former Vice President and successor to the young nation’s beloved founding father, Jomo Kenyatta (died, 1978). Largely the music stems either to or from Kenya’s most popular homegrown music, and the decade's chief musical phenomenon in the country, ‘Benga’. This was itself a fusion of the Cuban influenced ‘Rumba’ penetrating Nairobi via immigrants from the Congo and Tanzania, with Zairean fingerpicked guitars, Swahili lyricists and basslines played like a nyatiti (the Kenyan lyre currently currently spottable being put to fine use in the Owiny Sigoma Band).

The sheer variety and disparity of influences over the music is striking, far more so than it has been on any of the Ghana or Nigeria Specials. The album’s 32 tracks embrace Kenyan musicians’ ability to embrace multiculturalism and in particular pan-Africanism and synthesize something new, rather than a mere ‘multicultural patchwork’ (see Paul Simon’s Graceland or David Byrne’s Rei Momo for painful examples... actually... don’t). Halfway through disc one, Hafusa Abasi’s 'Sina Raha' for example, blends a light chackacha hi-hat grooves of the East African coast with arabic-style singing, Swahili lyrics and a horn section seemingly lifted straight from Fela Kuti himself - made from familiar pieces, yet it’s decidedly something new.

Despite all this contextual intrigue, the brilliance of Kenya Special still shines through without context, liner notes, names or even any idea what’s being sung about. Most of the songs are in Kikuyu or Swahili, and the brief smattering of English across the album is offten barely discernible (with the notable exception of Baba Gaston Wa Illunga’s pidgin intro to 'Sweet Sweet Mbombo' - “ladies and gentlemen, I’ve got a funny funny story from my village”), so without the aid of a booklet or a search engine, 99% of listeners are going to be pretty clueless as to the music’s subject matter. Nobody's saying you have to do your research to earn the right to press play though, so Kenya Special invites the listener to be as interested or disinterested as they like.

The experience of the album is a multifaceted one - case in point, 'Kivelenge' by Kalambya Boys. This is one of the most typically Sub-Saharan sounding tunes on offer; to the uninitiated ear the guitar plucking and two-part lead vocal feel as typically ‘Afro pop’ as you can get. Nonetheless, the song is a real romp, with lead guitar weaving in playfully carefree solos and fills across the track, rooted in a dense raw groove that ultimately and bluesily jams off over the horizon. However, as it's sung in Kikamba - the language of the Kamba ethnic group from east of Nairobi (roughly the third or fourth largest of the country’s ethnic groups) - the song’s themes and story remain a mystery to European ears. The liner notes reveal it to be the tale of an eponymous ‘businessman’ in a Kenyan village, and a cannabis deal of his turned sour. The realism is striking when considered in contrast to transatlantic English language popular music, whose drug songs, save perhaps some Curtis Mayfield tunes,  had only ever got as far as hippie fables (Steppenwolf’s 'The Pusher') and stoner celebrations (Sabbath’s 'Sweet Leaf'), while Kenyan songwriters were already spinning yarns from the country’s equatorial drug trenches.

Other highlights include the album’s most darkly atmospheric moment courtesy of Orchestra Super Volcano, and singer, Mbaraka Mwinshehe Mwaruka’s rabid reverbed cave scream that puts Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ swampy bellow into camp perspective. The second disc contains several blindingly good Kikuyu floor fillers - The Rift Valley Brothers’ 'Tiga Kurira', Huruma Boys Band’s 'Teresia' and Gatanga Boys Band’s 'Keep Change Kairitu' - each bedded on hypnotic hi-hat heavy club grooves, almost the polar opposite of Nigeria’s bombastic dense Afro-beat. Possibly most impressive is Orchestra Vévé Star’s mega-funky masterpiece, 'Nitarudia' - a nine minute, two-chord jam and sax solo marathon that’s only rivalled by the other group of Congolese expats on this Kenya Special, Orchestre Baba National.

It’s easy to dismiss the likes of Soundway and Sublime Frequencies for being faddish, for taking advantage of dusty old recordings or indeed for being as middle class, white and western as the musicians they worship definitely are and were not. Yet it’s a noble cause, and one for which this reviewer is grateful. Considering the modus operandi of pioneering ‘world’ music labels such as Nonesuch and its Explorer Series back in the 60s, who would literally hold a microphone up in the middle of Balinese Gamelan, then ship the tapes back to the West for pressing, this is decided improvement, and a window into a parallel universe where popular music seems to have been less susceptible to callous commercialism.

Whether you use it as a history lesson, as background, for dancing, or for deep listening, this is brilliant music. Every track is a undoubted classic, and every track has something to make it stand out, be it the infectious beat and chorus of 'Mu Africa' or Orchestra Vévé Star’s blinding horn section. These guys were way cooler than you are, or ever will be (just look at DK Mwai on the album’s front cover) and what’s more, the melting pot of post-British Kenya was seemingly prime for making raw beats and recordings that arguably overshadow their more popular West African counterparts. This is a piece of popular music history worth re-examining, and the mission to grace a new generation or ears with this music is a worthwhile one. Kenya Special’s 32 tracks are as awe inspiringly catchy, groovy and colourful in 2013 as they were three decades ago, and the impeccable and loving production of the compilation does its very best and does nothing but add to them.