n a richer, less insular, more appreciative world of musical understanding—music: it’s not just about records—more bands would have a story like Extra Golden’s. Comprised of two guys from Washington, D.C. (Ian Eagleson, a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology, and his Golden bandmate Alex Minoff) and two Kenyans (Opiyo Bilongo and Onyango Wuoud Omari) the band recorded Hera Ma Nono, their second album, over five days in PA’s Pocono Mountains (Ok-Oyot System, their first, was recorded in three hours on a concrete patio next to a restaurant in Kenya). If ever-commendable cross-culturalism wasn’t enough to grind out a blurb, the band’s original guitarist, Otieno Jagwasi, died of HIV-related liver failure before Ok-Oyot System even got released, and the band’s late-2006 tour was facilitated in part by Barack Obama (also half-Kenyan).
But “half-Kenyan” implies a quilt or centaur, and Extra Golden’s ambition is a blend—of ’60s garage and psychedelia with Kenyan benga; of pan-African rumba underpinned with bluesy inflections rather than Cuban harmonic structures. Formulae like this are, for whatever cosmic glitch, usually doomed to produce some of the most terrible musics in the known world. But even when it’s good, audiences tend to bristle at the idea. Part of it is post-colonial guilt. The rest, though, is a riddling predisposition against fun. Hand-wringers can at least rest in the knowledge that they only have to deal with a half-Kenyan band, and that English is an official language of Kenya (so when they do slip into English, it’s the old white devil’s hands, not a new one’s). The Afro-Prince hash of “Street Parade” might get lost on the preternaturally embarrassed. But who wants the preternaturally embarrassed at their block party?
Hera Ma Nono improves on Ok-Oyot System in almost every way: the guitar sounds are more vibrant (padded with reverbs, phasers, and other bubbly what-have-you’s); the songs hang together better as a record; the slide between Swahili, English, and Luo is as effortless and colorful as good pidgin; and, most importantly, it usually gets at—or at least hints at—African music’s most cherished balance: unhurriedness with a pulse. Sometimes the band drones on a little long, a tendency actually more noticeable in their dance vamps rather than their reveling codas (the interminable but really pretty second half of “Jakolando”).
Ian Eagleson recently confessed that some native Kenyans who heard Extra Golden didn’t exactly understand them, which is probably a relief. Confusion is often a good indication that something’s being learned. Here, then, it’s that it’s actually possible to comfortably integrate African styles into Western music without having it turn into an empty vessel for PR gum-flapping or, more distressingly, plain old boring music.