D.C./Nairobi outfit Extra Golden, and its fans, pitch in to fly in the band's second half from Kenya
The question isn't why there has been a seemingly sudden interest in African pop among college-rock bands over the past couple of years. The question is why it didn't happen much earlier. There are lots of answers, of course, but let's try this one on for size: For years, African and other "world" music carried the taint of misguided good intentions, the kind of thing indie types avoid making a show of, wary of coming across as either dilettantes or yuppies, glomming onto someone else's culture for kicks. Besides, isn't Graceland and Passion Sources what the '90s alt-generation's parents listened to? And hey--you ever looked at one of those Putumayo comps? Shudder.
Obviously this is a gross generalization. But one way it makes sense is to recall that CD production ballooned in the mid-'90s in a way it never had. Long-standing labels cleaned out their vaults; big-eared, post-sampling brats could choose their own adventure from suddenly abundant areas that had never really been written into pop history, such as '50s lounge and all manner of throw-it-at-the-wall folk and rock obscurities, adding a sense of adventure to the proceedings. Even voracious American listeners had plenty to keep up with, quite apart from going to work on foreign styles, languages, and sensibilities.
Now, we have so much at our fingertips that the '90s CD boom seems like a continental breakfast by comparison. But it's hard not to think of late-'90s issues of the first volumes of Buda Musique's Ethiopiques series and Barclay/Universal's epic set of Fela Kuti CDs as the beginning of the greater wave of interest in African music, old and new, on the part of American rock fans. While much of that interest is focused on a large number of quality reissues, particularly last year, it's also manifested in indie bands taking the plunge and trying out African styles for themselves. That's where Vampire Weekend comes from, and in a different way, it helps set the background for Extra Golden's story.
It's probably a familiar one if you listen to NPR. The group formed after guitarist/singer Ian Eagleson, from Ohio math-rocker Golden, met guitarist Otieno Jagwasi and drummer Onyango Wuod Omari, from the group Orchestra Extra Solar Africa, to research his ethnomusicology Ph.D. dissertation on Kenyan benga music. On his next trip to Africa, in 2004, Eagleson took some recording equipment, and when his bandmate Alex Minoff visited, the four men cut an album called Ok-Oyot System in 2006. In 2005, Jagwasi died of longstanding liver disease, but Eagleson, Minoff, and Omari brought in Otieno's brother Onyango Jagwasi for 2007's Hera Ma Nono and the new Thank You Very Quickly (Thrill Jockey).
Eagleson and Minoff still live in America, making Extra Golden a difficult proposition to maintain. They got some help from another half-black-Kenyan, half-Caucasian-American, then-Illinois senator Barack Obama, in obtaining work visas for Jagwasi and Opiyo Bilongo to tour the U.S. (The group recorded the joyous "Obama," on Hera Ma Nono, as a thank-you.) Then, last January, Jagwasi was stranded in Kisumu, having gone to play an election celebration that didn't happen; the election had been disputed, and the streets turned violent. Ten days later, he returned to a looted home abandoned by his family, who were hiding for safety; Extra Golden's fans donated money online to help.
Yet there isn't any strain in the grooves on Thank You Very Quickly. The title track is a buoyant hat-tip to the fans who chipped in $5 apiece to help Jagwasi and the band's other Kenyan members to a safer place during the conflict. The album opens with "Gimakiny Akia," a galloping strut that feels as much like American southern rock as it does benga's fleet-fingered hard stomp. That's down to the guitar, too: Eagleson and Jagwasi interact in gently jagged patterns, and in their hands the parallels between the twirling loops of a benga guitar hero like Shirati Jazz's D.O. Misiani and the sunshine-blues patterns of a Jerry Garcia or Dickey Betts are not hard to hear at all, especially on a charged guitar breakdown about two-thirds in.
That's the thing about Extra Golden: It's as audibly, identifiably "rock" as it is "benga" or "Kenyan." You can hear that on "Fantasies of the Orient," a dip into psychedelic terrain featuring tense, scene-setting hi-hats and snaky organ, its disorientating effect heightened by Eagleson and Jagwasi duetting in each man's native language--vocally, in English and Luo, as well as on their respective guitars. "Ukimwi" includes a whiny synthesizer in the mix, as well as a sweet Jagwasi vocal that could fit onto the soundtrack of some Kenyan equivalent of a John Hughes movie.
The fact that Extra Golden's group sound is pretty matter-of-fact is one of its charms: not so much in a music-is-the-universal-language way as a unique chemistry that the band's principals are clearly too busy inhabiting to overthink. That's undoubtedly due to the limited amount of time the band's members have in any one place together, though the U.S. tour that brings them to Baltimore this week could well see them work up another album--they tend to record quickly, and live. As resonant as their back-story might be, let's hope they don't add anything nearly as difficult as their recent travails to it again.
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