Kenya – GENERAL INFORMATION – Culture – Music Of Kenya

Music Of KenyaOut of all the African countries, Kenya has perhaps the most diverse assortment of popular music forms, in addition to multiple types of folk music. Zanzibaran taarab music has also become popular, as has imported hip hop, reggae, soul, soukous, rock and roll, funk and Europop.

Popular music

The guitar is the most dominant instrument in Kenyan popular music. Guitar rhythms are very complex and include both native beats and imported ones, especially the Congolese cavacha rhythm; music usually involves the interplay of multiple parts and, more recently, showy guitar solos.Lyrics are most often in Swahili or Lingala, but are also sometimes in one of the indigenous languages, though radio will generally not play music in one of the “tribal” languages.Benga has been popular since the late 1960s, especially around Lake Victoria. The word benga is occasionally used to refer to any kind of pop music. bass, guitar and percussion are the usual instruments.

Early 20th century

The guitar was popular in Kenya even before the 20th century, well before it penetrated other African countries. Fundi Konde was the most well-known early guitarist, alongside Paul Mwachupa and Lukas Tututu. By the middle of the 1920s, dance clubs had appeared in Mombasa, playing music for Christians to dance in a European style.During World War II, Kenyan and Ugandan musicians were drafted as entertainers in the King’s African Rifles and continued after the war as the Rhino Band, the first extremely popular band across Kenya. In 1948, the group split, with many of the members forming the Kiko Kids or other bands.By the 1950s, radio and recording technology had advanced across Kenya. Fundi Konde, the prominent guitarist, was an early broadcaster and influential in the fledgling recording industry.

Congolese finger-style and the development of benga

Beginning in about 1952, recordings from legendary Congolese guitarists like Edouard Massengo and Jean-Bosco Mwenda were available in Kenya. Bosco’s technique of picking with the thumb and forefinger (finger-style) became popular. Finger-style music is swift and usually based around small groups, in which the second guitar follows the first with syncopated bass rhythms. This style of music became extremely popular later in the decade.The next decade saw new influences from kwela and rumba become more popular than finger-style. The Equator Sound Band was the most popular band of the period. In Nairobi in the late 1960s, bands like the Hodi Boys and Air Fiesta were popular, primarily playing cover versions of Congolese, British and American hits. Other musicians were innovating the benga style, with Shirati Jazz the most popular of the early bands.Into the 1970s, benga was at its most innovative, producing numerous popular bands like Victoria Jazz and the Victoria Kings, the Continental Luo Sweet Band and Luna Kidi Band.

Swahili and Congolese pop

The two biggest genres of pop music played by Kenyan bands are called the Swahili sound or the Congolese sound. Both are based on the rumba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Swahili music can be distinguished by a much slower rhythm, though the styles have had a tendency to merge in recent decades. The genres are not distinguished by language, though Swahili pop is usually in Swahili or the related Taiti language. Both are sometimes in Lingala or one of the native languages of Kenya.Congolese musicians were the most popular performers in Kenya during the 1970s and ’80s, only losing their mainstream acceptance in the early 1990s. Orchestre Virunga was perhaps the most popular and long-running of the Congolese bands. During this period, Swahili musicians (many from Tanzania) were mostly based around the Wanyika bands. This group of often rival bands began in 1971 when a Tanzanian group named Arusha Jazz came to Kenya, eventually becoming the Simba Wanyika Band. The band first split in 1978, when many of the group members formed Les Wanyika.

Hotel pop

Tourist-oriented pop covers are popular, and employ more live bands than more authentic Kenyan folk and pop genres. Them Mushrooms, who began playing the Nairobi hotel circuit in 1987, are probably the most popular of these bands. Lately, hotel bands like Them Mushrooms and Safari Sound have begun playing reggae.

Regional pop

The Kamba people live to the south and east of Nairobi. Their pop music is closely related to benga, but includes a second guitar that plays a melodious counterpoint to the primary guitar. The most popular Kamba pop bands arose in the middle of the 1970s and include Les Kilimambogo Brothers Band, Kalambya Boys & Kalambya Sisters and Peter Mwambi & His Kyanganga Boys.The Kĩkũyũ, the largest ethnic group in Africa, have their own form of pop music. Kĩkũyũ pop can be distinguished by female back-up singers, who are rare in the rest of Kenya. The biggest Kĩkũyũ pop star is Joseph Kamaru, whose 1967 htit “Celina” launched the field. He remained popular, inviting controversy with topical lyrics that criticized the Kenyan government, until becoming a born again Christian in 1993 and switching to gospel music. Kĩkũyũ pop played a major role in the development of benga, largely due to the activity of Daniel Kamau.

Folk music

Kenya’s diverse ethnic groups each have their own folk music traditions, though most have declined in popularity in recent years as gospel music became more popular.


The Akamba people are known for their complex percussion music.


The Bajuni live primarily in the Lamu islands, and are also found on the mainland in Mombasa or Kilifi. Women are rarely singers in Kenya, but the Bajuni women’s work song, “Mashindano Ni Matezo”, is very well-known.


The Borana live near the Ethiopian border, and their music reflects Ethiopian, Arab and other traditions. They are known also for using the chamonge guitar, which is made from a cooking pot strung with metal wires.


The Chuka live near Mount Kenya and are known for polyrhythmic percussion music.


The Gusii people have perhaps the most unique form of folk music in Kenya. They use an enormous lute-like instrument called the obokano. They also use the ground bow, which is made by digging a large hole in the ground, over which an animal skin is pegged. A small hole is cut into the skin, and a single string is placed across the hole, creating a unique sound.


Bantu-style drums are played by the Luhya, especially the sukuti drums.


The Luo are best-known for their benga music, which has become the root of most Kenyan pop. They play the nyatiti, an eight-stringed, double-necked lyre with a skin resonator and a metal ring tied to the toe on one neck.


The nomadic Maasai used no instruments in the past because as semi-nomadic pastoralists instruments were considered too cumbersome to move. Traditional Maasai music is strictly polyphonic vocal music. A group will chant polyphonic rhythms while soloists take turns singing verses. The call and response that follows each verse is called ‘Namba’. Performances are often competitive in nature and most often are divided by age and gender.


The Mijikenda (literally “the nine tribes”)are found on the coast of Tanzania, Kenya and Southern Somalia. They have a vibrant folk tradition perhaps due to less influence from Christian missionaries. Their music is mostly percussion-based and extremely complex.


The Samburu are related to the Maasai, and like them, play almost no instruments except simple pipes and a kind of guitar. There are also erotic songs sung by women praying for rain.


A mixture of influences from Arabic, Indian & Mijikenda music. Very popular at the Coastal regions Kenya, Tanzania & the islands off East Africa. Singing is often accompanied by musical instruments which oten mimic popular Bollywood music tracks.


The extremely remote Turkana people have maintained their ancient traditions, including call and response music, which is almost entirely vocal. A horn made from the kudu antelope is also played.


Paterson, Doug. “The Life and Times of Kenyan Pop”. 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East. pp 509-522. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0