Kenya - Contexts

Kenyan Music and Dance

See also the sections on Music & Dance for each individual tribe, and the following essays: Fascinatin' Rhythms (an article for Rough News about Kenyan music), In Remembrance of Pepo and the Ancestors (about spirit possession music among the Taita), and a couple of bibliographic pages - African Music bibliography, and the Kenyan Music Bibliography.
   A good related website is Where is Your Tradition?, a handy introduction to Christian music in Kenya.
In this page:
Instruments (currently offline)
Vocality (currently offline)
Music and the life cycle (currently offline)
Music and the spirits (currently offline)


The importance of music and dance and the role it plays in the maintenance of traditional culture cannot be overemphasized. It was precisely because of this that music and dance were singled out for extermination by missionaries and colonial authorities who were bent on westernizing the people of Kenya.
Report of the Presidential National Music Commission,
January 1984, paragraph 21

I began work on this website in December 1999, intending at first only to present a few sound clips of the traditional music of Kenya, which formed part of a collection of 130 cassettes I'd bought or recorded during my last trip in Kenya (1998-99). Though it sounds like a lot of material, if you consider that I spent six months asking around for tapes in almost every corner of the country, you'll see that my collection is representative of only a tiny fraction of the musical riches that must have existed before.
   It didn't take me long to realise that an enormous amount of traditional music had already been lost, as had indeed a large part of the traditional cultures and societies of Kenya. The process is still on-going, and makes the task of preserving both the music and the cultures more pressing than ever.

This sad truth was repeatedly drummed home to me when trying to locate cassettes. One Meru shopkeeper told me than in thirty years of dealing with music tapes, he had never come across a single one featuring traditional music. Other people were simply intrigued or amused to hear a white man asking by name for traditional dances and instruments which they hadn't heard in decades. A few, I suspect, had never even heard of the music of their grandparents.
   For others, 'traditional music' meant Gospel music, which has replaced a large part of the former repertoire. Had I had the inclination (and the money), I could easily have picked up several thousand different tapes of Gospel over the same period. Perhaps one day someone will consider this as 'traditional', but in the meantime, as more and more of the old rhythms and songs disappear year after year to be replaced with yet more Gospel and Congolese dance tunes, I can only feel sad.

Although partially comprehensible and certainly enjoyable by itself, music is a product of the particular culture which produces it. Music has a purpose, many purposes in traditional society, and is closely bound with it. But without knowing that society - the context from which the music springs - music can ultimately only be a collection of notes, rhythms and melodies, disassociated from meaning other than that springing from its purely musical nature: viz. rhythmic, hypnotic, exuberant, sad, exciting, solemn, etc.
   One would be mistaken in attempting to separate music from its context, meaning the societies and cultures which created and performed it, which invested it with meaning, and in which the music played a vital role, marking and elaborating almost all the pivotal stages of life, from birth to death.

If cultural change in a society means that old ceremonies, songs and dances, are no longer relevant, they will cease to exist, and will be replaced with something more appropriate. But the problem in the Kenyan context is not that the old ways have changed, but that the old ways have been most thoroughly destroyed. As I mention in the contextual essays on both History and People, the British started this process - quite deliberately - in the 1890s, with the onset of colonisation. Coupled with the total refusal by both the British and the majority of Christian missionaries to adapt to Kenya, never mind adopt some of its traditions, this meant that traditional societies were forced not so much to change, but to abandon their old beliefs, customs and traditions wholesale. Music, of course, is one of those traditions that has all but been lost.

As I am neither Kenyan nor Christian, it is not for me to judge whether all these changes are a 'good' or a 'bad' thing, but as a fan of traditional African music, I lament the loss, as well as the fact that so much of this music and these cultures have already disappeared without even having been recorded, never mind heard, studied, or simply enjoyed by others.
   I don't pretend to be a musicologist, nor am I an ethnomusicologist; but I can listen, I can dance, and I can learn. In so far as music is a reflection of society, so can one attempt to understand a society through its music. This is what I have tried to do on this website. I hope that you enjoy the result, and that in so doing, I might have encouraged a few more people to spend some time preserving their own cultural heritage, wherever they may be on earth.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography