Any band’s early years are precarious, but Extra Golden’s continued existence seems utterly miraculous. The band’s rollercoaster journey would be too much for most. Along the way they have experienced bizarre luck and displayed unusual tenacity. Musically and logistically the band span cultural and continental divides. Yet Alex Minhoff tells me that American rock and Kenyan benga are well-paired.
“It works well. There are lots of similarities between the musics. The general chord structure in benga is pretty much the same as blues-based rock.”
Benga is the upbeat Luo dance music driven by melodic guitars and bouncy choruses originally from Nyanza in Western Kenya and popular since the 1960s. The guitar style is said to borrow heavily from the sound of the nyatiti – the traditional Luo lyre. When Luo people formed communities in Nairobi they introduced a thriving benga scene to the city.
Extra Golden was created in 2004 when Alex visited fellow American and old college friend Ian Eagleson in Nairobi. Ian was researching into Kenyan music for his PhD and had already begun playing with the benga musicians he had set out to study. They began to write songs with singer/guitarist Otieno Jagwasi and drummer Onyango Wuod Omari.
“It just kinda happened”, says Alex casually.
Extra Golden have made a virtue out of playing in unforgiving circumstances. Ok-Oyot System, the name of the band’s debut album, is derived from the Luo phrase ok oyot, meaning ‘it’s not easy’.
They recorded the songs for Ok-Oyot System in a single afternoon set up in the back of a nightclub using a broken drum-kit. Then in 2005 founding band member Otieno Jagwasi died after a long struggle with liver disease. Catalysing the urge to get the music heard they released the album in 2006. The challenges continued – the Americans ran into problems with the Kenyan police. The Kenyan musicians were forever facing travel restrictions. In 2006 they suffered civil war in their homeland and post election violence two years later.
Despite all this Extra Golden are still on the tracks, not least due to President Barack Obama. It was Obama’s authority, as Senator of Illinois, that was sought to provide the Kenyans’ visas for their debut US tour in 2006 when they were invited to play the Chicago World Music Festival, going on to tour for six weeks across the States, honing their sound.
“If we hadn’t got visas we probably wouldn’t still be a band”, says Alex.
So Extra Golden, following the Luo tradition, wrote the song Obama, thanking their benefactor. Another twist in this unlikely tale.
Their follow up album Hera Ma Nono (meaning ‘love in vain’), is more cohesive and rock-driven, with popular Benga star Opiyo Bilongo now on guitar, vocals and production but still glazed throughout with the lush, liquid electric guitar-playing associated with benga. And their lyrics share traditional themes.
“Our songs are an acknowledgment of our struggles. Lots of folk songs in Luo talk of the world’s uncertainty”, says Ian.
Extra Golden have survived and are making a name for themselves because their enormous passion for benga-rock has overridden the challenges they face when ‘it’s not easy’.
In March Extra Golden will be part of the triple-bill African Soul Rebels UK tour, with Oliver Mtukudzi and Baaba Maal. Their new album Thank You Very Quickly will be released in March 2009.