At one point, Extra Golden was a glimmer in the eye of Ian Eagleson's Ph.D. field work within the benga music scene in Kenya. Now, it's blossomed into two full length LPs over the course of two years. Fusing the roots rock of Eagleson's US-based group Golden with the local traditions of benga music, Extra Golden is releasing its second collaborative effort, Hera Ma Nono today on Thrill Jockey. The result is jubilant in the face of tragedy (they lost their original singer/guitarist, Otieno Jagwasi, in 2005), and evocative in the simplicity and ease of its sonic union. Eagleson took some time to answer a few questions about the band's genesis and its ongoing creative life.
So how does a white American walk into a deep-rooted local music scene in Kenya and come out with musical collaborators?
As an ethnomusicologist studying Kenya for ten years, I have worked closely with musicians playing benga there as part of my research project. I have always thought about doing a collaboration with
benga musicians. Much of the music I had composed prior to this band had been inspired in some way by Kenyan music, and when I spent a year in Kenya in 2004 it was a chance to go deeper into that with my friends there. I also realized that benga and rock had a lot in common in terms of instrumentation and song structure so it was not a stretch to try this. Otieno Jagwasi and Onyango Omari were both skilled players able to adapt to any situation (something they learned from a lot of studio work in Nairobi), and were also excited to try something new.
How did you go about making friends and meeting people when you were there?
The late Otieno Jagwasi was my main connection to the benga scene. I started working with him in 2000. He had played with many different bands as a guitar soloist, so he was known and respected by many. His reputation, as well as the very open, friendly nature of Kenyan society enabled us to seek out any benga musician and talk to them, many of who I became friends with and worked closely doing research and recording.
Can you give me the one paragraph dummy's guide to benga music?
Benga is a guitar-based dance music started in the late 1960s among the Luo community who reside primarily in Western Kenya. It has things in common with Tanzanian and Congolese guitar music, but has developed a distinctly local sound as it has been interpreted by different ethnic groups, who use their vernacular language and bring elements of their traditional songs into the electric guitar band
format. It is still popular today particularly with the Luo community. The only albums sold internationally over the years have been by D.O. Misiani, Victoria Kings, Kakai Kilonzo, and Sam Chege. However, the benga scene has produced hundreds of bands over the years and thousands of recordings.
What parts of Golden did you try to keep out of Extra Golden and what parts were you consciously including?
Golden's sound changed a lot over the years, going from a harder sound to a more roots-based sound that had many things in common with African popular music. By the time we did this, there was no need to worry about reconciling any style differences. As Golden is not playing these days, we brought everything we could to the table.
How did you guys communicate the collaboration? (i.e. When you were writing the songs together, was there a lot of conceptual-speak going on about the fusion at hand, or was it a more instinctual endeavor?)
It was a more instinctual, “what ever works for everybody” process. Most of the contemplation on it was the typical working-out of musical details that any band goes through. One thing we did think about was trying to make the records different from other benga music, because if I wanted to listen to more straight ahead benga songs, I would rather hear more seasoned players than Alex and myself
doing it. We did this by experimenting with different rhythms, chord changes, and guitar sounds while following a more typical benga song structure.
Can you give me a quick rundown of the recording process for the album? Where was it done?
We recorded this album ourselves at a house in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania over the course of a week. It was basically the same portable laptop setup that I used to record
Ok-Oyot System as well as many other bands in Kenya. It is not a high grade setup, but we like using it because it sounds decent and the fact that we are running it gives us lots of time and flexibility to experiment and have fun while recording.
How did you work out your relationship with Thrill Jockey?
Alex and I had been connected with Thrill Jockey earlier. They had distributed a Golden album (Apollo Stars) on the very short lived National Recording Label. Alex stayed in touch with Bettina Richards over the years and gave her a copy of our first recording, and we took it from there.
What will happen in the future for Extra Golden? Tours? More albums?
We are playing at a music festival in Linz, Austria in October. After that we are looking at booking a larger tour in the US possibly this spring. I think we will record any chance we get so I anticipate more albums.