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Kenyan sound clips - samples

The following is a selection of the music available on this site. There's more in each of the tribal sections.
All clips are OGG files streamed via M3U playlists; "low" quality are for slow internet connections, "high" for 56k modems and up. You may need to install an audio player or plug-in to be able to play the files - for more information, links and troubleshooting advice, see help.

Bajuni - women's epic singing
The Bajuni are a small tribe living in the Lamu archipelago and on the mainland opposite, going up to the Somali border, and are known musically for an epic women's work song called Mashindano ni Matezo. One of only very few easily-available recordings of women singing in Kenya, this is gradually hypnotic counterpoint singing, punctuated by metallic rattles and supported by subdued drumming.
4:40 low
Borana - thumbulo guitar
Strangely enough, this nomadic Cushitic people who live in the far north of Kenya and in southern Ethiopia, have a rich musical tradition that is readily available on cassette if you're in the area. The Arab or Somali influence is readily discernible, especially in the nasal intonation of the singing, as is the more typically Saharan rhythms. Equally distinctive is their use of the thumbulo guitar, nowadays more likely than not a large cooking pot loosely strung with metal wires. On first hearing it, you'd be forgiven for thinking that you were hearing funky electric guitar, or some old earthy precursor to the blues of American slaves. This superb example is performed by Abdullai Jirmaa.
7:36 low
Chuka - muriembe drums
Drumming featured heavily in the music of the Chuka, a small Bantu-speaking tribe from the eastern flank of Mount Kenya. Sadly, like the similar drumming of their Kamba and Embu neighbours, Chuka musical traditions are now all but extinct.
  This track was performed by the only surviving Chuka music group, who perform under exclusive contract for the well-heeled clients of the Mount Kenya Safari Club - a luxury tourist ghetto on the northwestern flank of Mount Kenya, outside Chuka territory.
3:10 low
Embu - alms song with tambourine
Of Embu drumming I found not a trace, and indeed traditional music itself seems to be severely endangered among the Embu of central Kenya. The only "authentic" recordings I found were of a few songs I taped myself, of a poor blind woman who sang and played tambourine to solicit alms alongside the main road in Embu Town.
2:21 low
Gabbra - singing
An excerpt from "Sirbi Gala", the only tape I've ever found containing music from the nomadic Gabbra of northern Kenya, so apologies for the abysmal sound quality - it's all there is! Apologies, too, for my present ignorance about their music. Sirbi Gala I presume means "songs of the Gala", Gala being an old prejorative term applied to the Gabbra by the Borana and others; I've kept the phrase it that was how the cassette was labelled. The said cassette, incidentally, was completely encaked in grime, had lost all its screws, and the missing felt damper behind the tape head had been replaced with a used cigarette filter...
1:57 low
Gusii - obokano lyre
This small tribe centred around the market town of Kisii near Lake Victoria produce some of Kenya's oddest - and most enjoyable - music. The favoured instrument is the obokano lyre, an enormous version of the Luo nyatiti, and which is pitched at least an octave below the human voice, so at times can sound like roaring thunder.
  In this example, called Ninki Mombunia, the obokano is played by Dismas Nyang'au.
4:26 low
Kalenjin - children's song
Nowadays quite thoroughly Christianized and to a large extent "modernized", the traditional music of the Kalenjin cluster of tribes in the west of the country is hard to find. I got lucky at an auction house in Nakuru, with an unsold lot of extremely dusty and cracked old gramophone records (I've cleaned them up as best I can using computer software and plenty of patience!)
  This little beauty, from the Kipsigis tribe, is a children's song called Suchi.
1:04 low
Kamba - ngoma drumming
Best known for their skill at drumming (ngoma means drum as well as dance or music), the tradition is sadly now all but extinct - the irrepressible rise of Gospel music has seen to that. Nonetheless, there is at least one commercial recording of archive material available, from which this track was taken.
  As well as drums and singing, this track features the whistles characteristic of tribes living on the coast or just inland.
2:50 low
Kikuyu - women's song
Occupying the western and southern flanks of Mount Kenya, and beyond as far south as Nairobi, and west to the Rift Valley, the Kikuyu are Kenya's largest tribe, and the most Westernized, thanks to their fertile land which brought them to the early attention of the land-grabbing British colonial regime. As a result of their long contact with the British and their missionaries, which culminated in the bloody Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s, traditional Kikuyu music is difficult - if not yet impossible - to find.
  This song, called Utheeci, is a beautifully soothing counterpoint to Kikuyu history, performed entirely by women in a call-and-refrain pattern.
5:16 low
Kuria - iritungu lyre
The proximity of the Kuria to various populations originating in the Nile region has profoundly influenced their culture. This, in part, explains the existence of the lyre among the Bantu-speaking Kuria, which is an instrument much more common among Nilotic peoples (notable exceptions being the obokano of the Gusii, and the seven-string litungu of the Luhya). Given the level of skill required to play the iritungu, its performance was generally only given by professional musicians, frequently attached to a chief or another much-respected member of the community. Of these elders they would sing praises, lauding their wisdom, magnanimity, or military prowess. The words relied heavily on comparisons with, and indeed the evoking of, historical events, people and legends from the heritage of both their clan and the Kuria as a whole. As such, the songs were - and still are - when taken as together, astonishingly complete genealogical and historical records of the Kuria. And today, when the themes deal with political events of the day, the musicians remain the historians, moralists and embodiment of the collection memory and wisdom of the people.
6:48 low
Luhya - sukuti drums
As with the nyatiti lyre playing of the Luo, the music of the neighbouring Luhya is characterized by strident rhythms, and a clear Bantu flavour easily discernible in the pre-eminence of drums. Of these, the sukuti (usually played in pairs) is best-known, also giving its name to a kind of dance. It's played for celebrations like weddings as well as for ceremonial rites of passage such as circumcision, even among people who no longer circumcise - they still go through the motions. This track is called Lipala.
4:36 low
Luo - nyatiti lyre
The Luo are famous throughout Kenya for their music, most recently as the kings of Benga pop, which provides a classic example of a crossover between traditional rhythms and modern dance. Despite having been almost wholly converted to Christianity (the joke goes that every Luo's dream is to start his own church as preacher), traditional music and instruments are still widely played, notably the nyatiti - a double-necked eight-string lyre with a skin resonator that is also struck on one neck with a metal ring tied to the toe. It produces a tight, resonant sound, and is used to generate sometimes long and remarkably complex hypnotic rhythms. Originally used in fields to relieve workers' tiredness, a typical piece begins at a moderate pace, and quickens progressively throughout, over which the musician sings. The lyrics cover all manner of subjects, from politics and change since the wazungu arrived, to moral fables and age-old legends.
  This piece, called "Odonngoro Kawatula", is performed by leading nyatiti exponent, "Professor" Ogwang Lelo.
4:15 low
Maasai - vocal multipart polyphony
The nomadic lifestyle of the cattle-herding Maasai precludes the carrying of any large instruments, and as a result Maasai music is one of the most distinctive in East Africa, characterised by a total lack of instruments, and some astonishing polyphonous multi-part singing - both call-and-refrain, sometimes with women included in the chorus, but most famously in the songs of the morani warriors, where each man sings part of a rhythm, more often than not from his throat (rather like a grunt), which together with the calls of his companions creates an incredibly complex and hypnotic rhythm. The songs are usually competitive (expressed through the singers alternately leaping as high as they can), or bragging: about how the singer killed a lion, or rustled cattle from a neighbouring tribe.
  This track is called Ol Leilei, and is performed by warriors (morani) before a lion hunt when seeking permission from a girl's father for her hand in marriage.
6:56 low
Makonde - sindimba stilt dance
Another tribe of master drummers, the Makonde live mostly in Tanzania and Mozambique, although a tiny immigrant population has settled near the Taita Hills in southern Kenya. This song, performed by the Kenyan Makonde community, is called Mwandeisha, and is traditionally performed after a good harvest. The dancers are masked and perform on stilts - you'll hear the kids going berserk when they arrive...
7:39 low
Meru - wedding incantation
Not speaking Kimeru, I've only got the information given me by the young woman who let me copy her cassette, namely that this part of a wedding ceremony from the Meru tribe, on the northern flanks and foothills of Mount Kenya, features elder relatives of the happy couple advising and reminding them of their conjugal responsibilities. The lectures, of which this is just an extract (the full version caused the young woman to roll her eyes in exasperation) are given in incantatory style, helped along by the mooing of a cow half way through!
4:10 low
Mijikenda (Chonyi) - xylophone
The "nine tribes" (miji kenda) of the coast and its hinterland have a prolific and deeply-rooted musical tradition. Like their neighbours further inland, the Kamba, the Mijikenda are superb drummers and athletic dancers, although the music is generally light and overlaid with subtle but complex polyphonic rhythms, impossible not to dance to.
  This track, from the Chonyi tribe or section of the Mijikenda, features xylophone (marimba), an instrument largely absent elsewhere in Kenya. Also to be heard are ankle bells, a flute, drum, and a typically coastal instrument called the kayamba (the rattly sound), which consists of two layers of reeds sewn together, and between which are loose beads or beans.
6:09 low
Orma - guitar
The Orma, who occupy the grasslands around the Tana River Delta near the coast, are the most southerly of the Cushitic-speaking people in Kenya, and also one of the country's smallest tribes, numbering only 20,000 or 30,000. Together with the related Borana, Rendille and Gabbra, they arrived in Kenya from the Ethiopia in the north in several migratory bursts that historians refer to as that of the Oromo people.
  Despite the huge geographical distance between the Oromo and the Rendille, their common heritage is easily discernible in their music, which also features a twangy kind of lyre or guitar. This track comes from the only tape of traditional Orma music I found, so please excuse the clipped highlights.
6:48 low
Pokot - communal celebration
I've no information (yet) about this excerpt from the Pokot of western Kenya, other than it was performed for a communal celebration. My apologies for the none-too-brilliant sound quality; entirely my fault, I'm afraid, and so I hope to upload a crisper version soon!
3:06 low
Rendille - guitar
This is one of only a handful of tracks I have of Rendille music, all coming from one tape. At least, that's according to the Turkana youths in Loiyangalani who allowed me to copy their cassette. What makes Loiyangalani, an oasis town on the southeast shore of Lake Turkana, really special is its multi-ethnic mix. The tape I copied features music from three tribes: Turkana, Rendille and Borana. While listening to the tape with the young men, who gave comments (and sang along for the most part), the following two tracks were among those identified as Rendille. I have my doubts, however, primarily because this guitar music sounds uncannily like the thumbulo guitar music of the Borana. Of course, the Rendille and Borana are neighbours, and so may well share some of their musical heritage, and then there's also the fact I proved for myself that the Samburu, who are neighbours of both the Rendille and Borana, also play guitar with very similar sound and rhythm.
4:50 low
Samburu - chamonge guitar
Despite having been well discovered by tourists and authors of glossy coffee-table books, there are no commercial recordings of Samburu music except on the occasional compilation. As with their Maasai cousins, whom their singing closely resembles, the Samburu make a point of not playing instruments, but if you delve a little deeper, you'll find that they're being conservative with the truth. They play small pipes, and also a kind of guitar (chamonge, I was told) with a box resonator and loose metal stings, which is obviously related to the thumbulo of the neighbouring Borana. But these are played purely for pleasure, or to sooth a crying baby, and are thus not classed as "music" by Samburu. The playing style is uncannily similar to early Blues and even Rock and Roll, with the guitar in this track sounding in parts almost electric.
2:24 low
Somali - camel songs
Two excerpts from a tape of Somali camel songs from northeastern Kenya. The first piece is entirely vocal (with polyphonic elements sung the manner of Nilotic tribes such as the Maasai and Samburu), whilst the second is accompanied by drumming. In case you're wondering, Somalis have lived in the Kenyan deserts, including the plains around Isiolo in north-central Kenya, for several centuries, and so evidently enough are counted as one of Kenya's tribes. The "camel songs" are both for celebrations and entertainment, easing the arduous work of watering and securing the Somali's all-important camel herds every evening.
2:26 low
Swahili - Maulidi Nabii celebrations
The label "Swahili", from the Arabic word sahel (coast), is applied loosely to all the people living along the East African coast, from Somalia in the north to Mozambique in the south. More of a culture than a tribe, the Swahili civilization effortlessly blends African Bantu, Arabian, Muslim and Indian elements, together with a smattering of Portuguese, British and even German. If you don't yet know the history of these parts, thenm it'll probably come as a huge surprise to learn that there's a Far Eastern element in all this, too, thanks to extensive trading contacts across the Indian Ocean until the fourteenth century by China, and later also by sailors from Malaysia and Indonesia.
  This excerpt forms part of the annual Maulidi celebrations in honour of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. In Kenya, the celebrations are especially exhuberant in Lamu and Malindi, where this recording was made. The Arabo-Islamic influence is obvious, of course (not just the chanting, but the gorgeous shawm flutes), but does anyone else detect more than a hint of Chinese or Indonesian in the kettle drums that accompany the flutes? (they begin around 1:40).
6:00 low
Taita - wedding pepo
Drumming is the trademark of Pepo spirit-possession dances, now sadly all but extinct. This is a lighter version, usually performed at or before weddings. In the lyrics, a man invites his cousin, Mwachai Machombo. The two men - sung by girls - speak in proverbs, saying what they shall and shall not do. The meaning is simply "come cousin, come and dance".
  In Kiswahili, pepo means "a genus of disembodied spirits". Pepo was traditionally performed when a person was possessed by evil spirits and needed a cure. The method is neatly described by the Kiswahili word pepa, meaning to sway, reel, stagger or stutter. Pepo was also used by women as a means of social criticism, or to express their opinions or exasperation about their husbands. In the possessed states they were able to make demands on their husbands that would be impossible to express otherwise, as it was perceived that it was the spirits, rather than the women, who were speaking.
7:24 low
Turkana - vocal polyphony
Until the 1970s one of Kenya's remotest tribes, and in large part still untouched by Christian missionaries. The traditional music is based loosely on a call-and-refrain pattern, and is sung by the whole group rather than by an individual. The main instrument is a kudu antelope horn with or without finger holes, but most music is entirely vocal. A rarity to look out for are the songs sung to the god Akuj during times of drought by women, imploring for rain. As traditional music is still played on ceremonial occasions (and being nomadic, they have no electricity or tape recorders), there are no commercial recordings available.
  This track is from a nighttime entertainment dance held near Loiyangalani, on the southeast shore of Lake Turkana, involving people of all ages. Please excuse the intermittent roaring - a gale was blowing off of Mount Kulal!
5:17 low

Bajuni - women's epic (excerpt) from the cassette, "Mashindano ni Matezo", performed in Lamu. Dubbed at Mbwana Radio Service, Mombasa, 26 February 1999.
Borana - thumbulo guitar performed by Abdullai Jirmaa, from a tape dubbed in Isiolo, northern Kenya, November 1998.
Chuka - muriembe drums recorded by Jens Finke at Mount Kenya Safari Club, Nanyuki, 21 November 1998.
Embu - alms song recorded by Jens Finke in Embu Town, January 1999.
Gabbra - singing from the cassettes, "Sirbi Gala", dubbed in Isiolo, November 1998.
Gusii - obokano lyre played by Dismas Nyang'au, from the cassette, "Iranda 'B' Kisii: Kamba Nane (Obokano), Vol.10", Short Wave Music Promoters, Kisii.
Kalenjin - children's song from a shellac gramophone record of Kipsigis songs published by Gallotone (serial GB.1479) some time before World War Two. Side B, track i. Performers: "Small Kipsigis Girls"; leader: Chepkorir; song: "Suchi".
Kamba - ngoma drumming from the cassette, "Akamba Drums", Tamasha Corp, Nairobi.
Kikuyu - women's song from the cassette, "Traditional Music of East Africa Vol.II" (C/Trad Vol 2; no other details).
Kuria - iritungu lyre from the cassette, "Ngoma ya Wakurya (Iritungu)", Radio Tanzania Dar es Salaam (RTD).
Luhya - sukuti drum from the cassette, "Sukuti Vol.1", Andrew Crawford Productions International, Nairobi. Performers not stated.
Luo - nyatiti lyre performed by "Professor" Ogwang Lelo, from the cassette, "Luo Four-in-One", Jojo Records, Nairobi.
Maasai - vocal multipart polyphony recorded by Jens Finke at Diani Beach, December 1998.
Makonde - sindimba stilt dance from a recording by Harrison Aggrey Mwachala, at the 1983 Taita-Taveta District Music Festival.
Meru - wedding incantation dubbed by Jens Finke from an original recording in Maua, Nyambene Hills, January 1999.
Mijikenda - xylophone from the cassette, "Kiringongo 28", bought in Kilifi, February 1999.
Orma - guitar dubbed by Jens Finke from a family's private recording in Garsen, Tana River Delta, February 1999.
Pokot - communal celebration from the cassette, "Pokot Traditional 1", dubbed in Makutano, West Pokot, November 1998.
Rendille - guitar dubbed by Jens Finke in Loiyangalani, December 1998.
Samburu - chamonge guitar dubbed by Jens Finke in Archer's Post, December 1998.
Somali - camel songs dubbed by Jens Finke in Isiolo, November 1998.
Swahili - Maulidi Nabii dubbed at Mbwana Radio Service, Mombasa, 26 February 1999.
Taita - wedding pepo from a recording by Harrison Aggrey Mwachala, at the 1983 Taita-Taveta District Music Festival.
Turkana - vocal polyphony recorded by Jens Finke in Loiyangalani, December 1998.


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