Towards the end of the turbulent forties, men came back from the great war slinging more than just gun. They came with guitars too. They came with music. They were African soldiers who had been drafted from their homes to go fight in a war they barely understood. But then you see, wartime is not always about death and destruction round the clock. And these men were not necessarily on the frontlines of the fight. On some nights, there was entertainment. They accompanied the British troops on their campaigns across the world, and somewhere in between establishing a new world order and defeating fascists, they landed on box guitars.
Some say this is the genesis of Benga music. Especially amongst the Luos who, when they picked up guitars, they played them the way their ancestors played the traditional string instruments. Instead of strumming the cords, they plucked them like they used to do nyatiti and orutus of old.
However much this is true, nobody can really tell for sure. What we know is that after the war ended, a new sound propped up that would go on to define music as some of us knew it. I grew up in a home that would not keep the radio silent. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my parents dancing in the living room. They danced the way old people dance; like boxers in a ring. Hands bent at the elbows, fists clenched, and bodies swaying side by side. Many times when they decided to tear down the living room, they were listening to Okatch Biggy.
If I love benga now, it is perhaps out of nostalgia; when I reminisce of my old man trying to show his wife that he still got it. But at the time, I didn’t understand it. They went on for too long, and I never could tell what exactly Okatch Biggy was singing about. He couldn’t keep a clear train of thought in his songs. A love song starts off as a serenade to a woman (asking, daughter of Nyakatch what can I do for you?) and then on the next verse, he is talking about a ferry capsizing in Mombasa, then in the next, he is ruminating about his guitarist being beaten at Oginga Odinga’s funeral, then comes a five-minute interlude for sending shout outs to his friends. There is always an engineer somewhere being praised.
At the end you wonder, this is still a love song, right?
Regardless of how I feel about benga music now (or then), one thing remains constant. That music is unmistakable. I grew up with it all around me. If it was not in one of my mother’s compacts, it was in Kibuye market, or at the hectic stend as we waited for a NyaUgenya bus to take us to shagz.
I know that music like I know my name. It starts with the bass guitar, followed by a fusillade of drumbeats and other instruments. Then a sonorous voice joins in to declare undying love for someone’s daughter – the same love from the same bleeding heart that had been promised to Dorina is promised to the big-eyed Hellena, Adhiambo from Kobura, Agutu daughter of Owilla, Rosemary of Yala, Hellena of Bondo, and an unnamed daughter of Nyakatch. This man, Okatch Biggy, had a big heart. Big enough to accommodate women from all corners of Luo Nyanza, and everyone loved him for it.
This soundtrack to my childhood was not just from Okatch Biggy. It was the unmistakable tunes of DO Misiani, Collella Mazee, George Ramogi, Princess Jully and many other legends that very few people ever got to listen to.
So you can imagine my shock when one Gregg Tendwa sent me links to his music and said that that was benga.
Gregg was not supposed to be a DJ. It happened by accident. He was meant to be a teacher; torturing young minds with Double Maths during P.E, and then writing See Me after marking their homework. He became a Deejay because none of the DJs around would listen to him. He was looking for a particular sound in the Kenyan music scene that he couldn’t quite locate. At the time, most of the clubs in Nairobi were fixated on South African and Bongo music. The masses loved that music, and what the masses loved, the DJs played. If it is not broken, why fix it?
But that’s the thing, Gregg had thought to himself. It actually is broken. This is not who we are.
The kind of dilemma Gregg was facing at the beginning of the last decade was nothing new to anyone who had been in the music industry. The constant worry about the true identity of Kenyan music, and what it is supposed to sound like, and what is its name? South Africans have Kwaito, Tanzanians had Bongo, Congolese had rhumba and lingala, Mozambique had Kizomba. What about Kenya?
In the decade preceding, akina Nonini and Jua Cali had tried to convince the Kenyan pop culture scene that Kenyan music should be called Genge. They had failed spectacularly. The entire industry had wrung them out like a sponge for it. It seemed clear then to akina Nonini – as it would later seem to Gregg – that it is not easy to classify Kenyan music. Mostly because Kenyans have never really agreed on anything at all. Not even a national outfit. The only thing we seem to be in consensus about is that beer is supposed to be drank with meat, and a Friday night without music is wasted.
Gregg wouldn’t let it go, though. He went looking and listening to his shelves of vinyl going back decades. And when he finally traced the origin of popular music in Kenya as we know it, he landed on the African soldiers returning from the second world war. He found Benga.
Turns out that Benga did not end with my ancestors by the lake. It found legs. Traversed the whole of this country and influenced almost much of what ended up in our radios. From the coughing plains of Ukambani to the rolling hills of Central Kenya to the pompous streets of the lake region, Benga has gone through our airwaves like absence in W. S. Merwin’s poem. Like thread through a needle and everything we listen to is stitched with its colour. When old wives tell their tales, they even say that benga music is what stirred the fires of FRELIMO freedom fighters in the sixties when Mozambique was trying to gain independence.
So here was Gregg with an answer. Kenyan music had an identity, it had a name, it had heritage. He had classified it. He held his revelation in his hand like he had discovered the panacea to whatever had plagued this scene.
Only that there is one small problem – who cares?
Who cares where our music came from? When you pick up a pair of headphones to listen to something on YouTube, you do not really want to know what inspired that music. You simply want to be entertained. You care whether or not it makes you laugh or cry. If it reminds you of childhood or a love that you wish you hadn’t loved. But what you do not do when you listen to music is ask for its birth certificate. It is just music.
To Gregg, however, it is not just music. He cared. He cared so much that he left the country and went to Zanzibar to meet with a friend called David Tinning, and together they started Santuri. With Santuri, they wanted to have workshops around music from this side of the globe. To connect musicians to their roots. Then after meeting a chap named Udulele, just like their forefathers before them, Gregg and Udulele would go on campaigns to spread their new-found gospel. The gospel of benga. From Zanzibar to Jinja to Nairobi. They preached to whoever would listen and baptized their converts in the name of music.
In many ways, he became the teacher he was always destined to become.
This is how Gregg became a DJ. During these runs, he stumbled onto the idea of fusing classic benga tunes and electronic music to make something unique. He calls this innovation Bengatronics. Perhaps that is why when he sent me links to his music on Facebook, I refused to accept that that is benga. It sounds nothing like the benga I grew up with.
And that is his point, I guess….benga isn’t just Luo music.
Creating Bengatronics did not come as easily as it sounds now. It is a long story that spans more a decade, and includes several trips to Kenya National Theatre, picking up a musician by the roadside in Machakos, putting together a performing collective to perform in Arusha because they were scared Nairobians would never accept them, to coming to terms with the fact that they created something different, building a community on Facebook to push their events and live sessions, finally building a residency studio in Rongai just before the great pandemic of 2020 hit our shores, and then releasing a couple of albums.
Somewhere in that hectic schedule, he found the time to collaborate with other disciples of benga to release a book, Shades of Benga. A sort of bible of Kenyan music; detailing the journey of Kenya’s entertainment scene from the genesis to wherever it is promised to end up someday.
“Do you feel like you succeeded in the end? If not, what does success look like to you?” I asked Gregg when we spoke over the phone for this feature on #RealPeopleRealStories by Facebook Africa. We were supposed to have met in person, but COVID19 had other ideas. I would have wanted to see his face when he answered that question. Because here was a person who had left everything he knew to go in pursuit of something, and I wanted to know if he found it. If he managed to convince other DJs and musicians to label Kenyan music correctly. To give our nightlife a fingerprint.
“Identity is built on numbers. You cannot build consensus without numbers. But the truth is that there is no other music that is shared amongst Kenyan communities than Benga. The most important thing as an artist is that you keep creating.”
I remember asking him to say that again so that I could write it down in my notebook. And when I did, I wrote the word TRUTH in caps and circled it many times. Truth. Funny thing about truth is that nobody ever really knows what that is. You can only ever find yours. That evening, listening to him talk about his music with such verve and conviction, there was no doubt in his voice – or my mind – that Gregg Tendwa had found his.