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Last year Chicagoans got a rare chance to hear some benga music, the dominant dance style of Kenya for the last four or five decades, when the band Extra Golden played here during the World Music Festival. The band was started by Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff of the Washington D.C. indie rock band Golden as a collaboration with some of the benga musicians Eagleson met while pursuing ethnomusicological studies in Kenya. While a few tracks on the band’s debut album, Ok-Oyot System, were tainted by whiffs of white funk-rock, it otherwise conveyed some of the frothy rhythmic joy of benga. Not long after the record was made the key Kenyan participant, Otieno Jagwasi, died from complications related to AIDS. His able replacement for the group’s U.S. tour was Opiyo Bilongo, a dazzling singer and guitarist who’d been a steady presence on the benga scene for more than a decade.
Recently Eagleson advanced his efforts to expose this effervescent music to American audiences by starting Kanyo Records, which has released a wonderful CD of music by Bilongo and his band, Bilongo Golden Stars. What Do People Want? packs nearly 75 killer minutes of overlapping, bubbly electric guitar lines, propulsive polyrhythms, and hypnotic group vocals into six extended jams. Eagleson helped Bilongo record the music back in 2004 in two sessions at Alfrose Bar, the club where the band played five nights a week. Because benga music is made for dancers while simultaneously emphasizing its Luo lyrics, some of its most germane appeal might escape U.S. listeners who, strangely, have generally gravitated more to less frenetic African music—like the hypnotic, circular strains of Malian music. Unfortunately, this tendency has made benga a relatively obscure presence and it’s often hard to track down in record shops, although work by pioneers like D.O. Misiani and Victoria Kings can sometimes be found. This situation makes this excellent recording even more valuable. Of course, the current state of record stores in the U.S. means this CD will probably be hard to find unless you’re looking online. The CD is being distributed by Thrill Jockey, which also released the Extra Golden album.