A while back I posted Thank You Very Quickly by the American-Kenyan group, Extra Golden. A few days ago I found their first album OK-Oyot System going for a song in yet another struggling retail outlet. I grabbed it and have been listening to it all weekend. This is a record that places the electric guitar front and center, whether it be the languid plucking of shantytown Luo rhythms or elongated swathes of American stoner rock. Sound weird? Not at all. These guys work up an entirely pleasurable aural feast that ploughs a deep, but always gentle, groove. That it was recorded in one afternoon session is a wonder to behold.
Some of the other sounds that came to mind as I listened: 3 Mustaphas 3, Black Keys, Cornershop!
Recorded in Kenya under a canopy of personal hardship, sacrifice, and loss, Ok-Oyot System has the type of compelling backstory that seems as though it should automatically translate into a powerful listening experience. The album is a collaboration between Otieno Jagwasi and Onyango Wuod Omari-- both members of the Kenyan group Orchestra Extra Solar Africa-- and Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff of the D.C.-based group Golden. It's a collaboration that began when Eagleson went to Kenya for a year to conduct research for his doctoral thesis on benga-- a jazzy, guitar-centric strain of dance music popular in Kenya since the 1960s.
As guitarist and vocalist for Extra Solar Africa, Otieno provided much assistance for Eagleson's research; ultimately, Extra Golden were assembled in April 2004 to create and record their unique benga/rock hybrid. Along the way the musicians were forced to overcome numerous obstacles, including a costly run-in with the corrupt Kenyan police force and the effects of Otieno's severe physical ailments. Suffering from kidney and liver diseases that were complicated by HIV, Otieno's health continued to deteriorate after this recording session. He passed away in May 2005.
The title Ok-Oyot is derived from a Luo phrase that means, "it's not easy." This expression is used regularly as an exclamation in benga songs, and needless to say it seems a particularly apt descriptor for Extra Golden's all-too-brief collaborative experience. Yet considering the misfortune that seems to have plagued the album's creation-- and the political nature of some of its lyrics--the music on Ok-Oyot System is not particularly freighted with angry defiance, outward gloom, or self-conscious poignancy. Instead it's an album that sounds very much like what it is: Four talented, enthusiastic musicians playing together as a group for the first time, patiently working through ideas to determine a common musical vocabulary.
The bulk of the album was recorded in a single afternoon, a spontaneous approach that perfectly complements the exuberance of tracks like the opening "Ilando Gima Onge". In the hands of Extra Golden, benga seems an especially malleable genre, one that coarsely blends Indestructible Beat of Soweto propulsion with fluid, almost Cuban-accented rhythms and miles of complex, interlocking guitar figures. On the opener, Otieno adds some appealing, laid-back vocals, but the 11-minute song is dominated by the ambitious dialogue between his guitar and those of Eagleson and Minoff. Both the title track and the deceptively sunny anti-Bin Laden cut "Osama Rach" were written in the studio, held together primarily through Omari's agile, inventive drumming and the group's obvious sense of camaraderie.
01 Ilando Gima Onge
02 It's Not Easy
03 Ok-Oyot System
04 Osama Rach
05 Tussin and Fightin'