The pony-tailed, Italian loafer-sporting music exec who propagated the fairly specious designation "World Music" would certainly have a tough time marketing the music of Extra Golden to a relatively comatose music buying public. In fact, the aforementioned industry slickster would surely spit-take his decaf latte with startling alacrity upon being confronted with the adversity, tragedy, perseverance, and sheer passion it's taken to make this American/Kenyan collaboration come to such joyous fruition. Hera Ma Nono, or "love in vain" in the Luo language, is the latest release from Extra Golden on the Thrill Jockey label and duly delivers an authentic taste of Kenyan Benga music with all its shimmering guitar melodies and exuberant polyrhythms, augmented by a modicum of American rock muscle. The Extra Golden story is, like their music, suffused with joy, pain, and ultimately triumph.
Extra Golden began when Alex Minoff and Ian Eagleson's unjustly underexposed indie rock band Golden went on extended hiatus and the two began to focus on their love of African pop music. Eagleson, pursuing a doctorate in ethnomusicology, traveled to Nairobi in 2004 to study Benga, a guitar-based form of Kenyan dance music. Minoff soon joined him and the two hooked up with noted Benga guitar and vocal star Otieno Jagwasi of the Orchestra Extra Solar Africa band for some casual collaborations. A laptop, mics, and a somewhat dilapidated drum set were eventually procured and the band's debut, Ok-Oyot System, was recorded during some daylight down time at a Nairobi nightclub.
"Ok-Oyot" translates as "it's not easy" in Luo and proved a unfortunately prescient title for the group's debut album. During the recording process in Nairobi, Minoff and Eagleson were blindsided by a rather nasty and ultimately expensive run-in with the Kenyan police. About a year before the album's 2006 release, Otieno Jagwasi tragically passed away due to an HIV-related liver disease. Mourning Otieno's loss led the intrepid Minoff and Eagleson to make certain Ok-Oyot System received a proper release and inspired the band to augment its lineup, play some U.S. Gigs, and pursue the more hi-fi stateside recording sessions that were to comprise Hera Ma Nono.
Prominent Benga singer and songwriter Opiyo Bilonga was subsequently recruited along with Ok-Oyot System drummer Onyango Wuod Omari stepping up to the vocal spot, in addition to Minoff and Eagleson alternating on guitar, bass, and vocals. "Obama", one of the standout tracks from the new album, is especially significant as it is a tribute to a certain helpful Illinois Senator and Presidential candidate of Kenyan descent. Barack Obama ended up being instrumental in the frustrating process of procuring the proper U.S. visas for the Kenyan musicians and thus receives his musical props, as do his wife and mother in true Benga tradition. Hera Ma Nono's songs are wistful, inspired mixes of joy and heartbreak from a truly unique and deeply personal collaboration. This album won't readily appear nestled next to the organic lip balm at the checkout at your local co-op although, given its gorgeously plaintive guitar work and super funky drum fills, it undoubtedly should be. The most endearing aspect of Extra Golden's latest is that it sublimely suggests that underneath it all, be we from Nebraska or Nairobi, human joy and sorrow might ultimately possess the same taste.
Recently, Extra Golden's Alex Minoff graciously took some time for a brief chat.
CT: Aside from Ian's academic interest, what drew you guys to the Benga style as opposed to African pop styles with a bit more exposure like West African Juju, Highlife, or Fela-style Afrobeat?
AM: Our interest in African guitar styles traverses pretty much the entirety of Africa. Ian and I have incorporated elements of many different African styles in our compositions over the years, from Golden up to and including Extra Golden. However, Ian has spent a lot of time in Kenya and has worked closely with dozens of Benga players, and I was there meeting these musicians, too, so it was an obvious choice. Though, it's important to note that when I visited Kenya, neither Ian nor I had the intention of making a record with Benga musicians. He and I were working on songs we'd already started before my visit. Honestly, I don't remember the exact moment when Otieno became involved and the idea of Extra Golden began to take shape, but it's safe to say that things then became very interesting. It was cool for Ian and I because at that point we really didn't have a band. Golden hadn't (and still never has) broken up, but we had been inactive for a couple years. He and I had continued to write songs together in the years in between, but we had no real plan as to how to present them.
So, our decision to work in the Benga realm came mostly out of circumstance, though I'm really happy that it did. As far as the other styles that you mentioned, I like them all, but Benga is almost entirely unknown, not just to rock enthusiasts, but also to world music fans. It gives us an opportunity to present this music to most people for the first time. Hipsters with Fela albums are a dime a dozen, but show me one with an Okatch Biggy record and color me impressed!
A fact that might be lost on the casual listener is that Extra Golden has had to endure the consequences of AIDS, government corruption, and monolithic bureaucracy, some of the major problems facing the African continent today. How have these issues and hardships affected the band's music?
One of the things I love about Extra Golden is that it draws attention to these issues through its very existence. Some of these struggles make their way into the lyrics of our songs, and I think that is a good way to exorcise any negative emotions caused by them. However, we don't want that to be the focus of the group. Spending time with the Kenyan members of Extra Golden has been a real learning experience for me. Certainly, they are exposed to the hardships you refer to on a daily basis, and I am often surprised/impressed by their ability to get over hurdles while maintaining their poise.
We just got back from Austria, where we played one concert a festival in Linz. The Kenyans were to fly from Nairobi to Vienna, with a connecting flight in Paris. While at the airport in Paris, a police officer approached them, asking for their papers, visas, documentation, etc. Of course, they had everything they needed and then some (it pays to be over-prepared). That wasn't good enough for the officer, who decided that, due to a severe lack of pocket money, they were refugees who needed to be immediately deported. They were taken to a cell, made to remove their clothes and asked to sign papers incriminating themselves as refugees. Fortunately, the Red Cross has people stationed at airports to help in this kind of situation. They gave the guys phone cards so they could call our contacts in Austria. Fifteen hours and multiple phone calls to embassies in Austria and France later, the police let them continue on their journey. When they arrived in Linz at 3 a.m., almost a full day later than planned, we were all very happy. The thing is, they had just been imprisoned for no real reason other than being black and poor and they were much more interested in catching up with friends. I think about the way that most people deal with a bad Internet connection and, frankly, I am humbled by our Kenyan friends.
On Hera Ma Nono, the overt rock influences seem pretty subtle, perhaps just a little tip of the hat to the actual guitar and drum sounds themselves, as on the track "Obama." Was this a conscious decision or did it just naturally come out of the song arrangements?
Ian and I grew up listening to and playing rock music. However, I don't think either of us listen to very much rock now. A lot is made of Extra Golden being a combination of rock and Benga, but it's really more a combination of Benga and whatever other little snippets we throw in there. When I'm trying to come up with an idea for a part I'm not thinking, "What would Jimmy Page do?" I'm not overtly pulling from the rock lexicon for ideas. Of course that is in me, so the rock probably comes out in ways I don't even realize. People usually attribute the fuzz guitar sounds on our records to the rock half of the equation, but Africans have been using fuzz pedals for 40 years, so that's just ignorance.
Many Western forays into other countries' musical styles often reek distinctly of cultural imperialism (Paul Simon and David Byrne might be considered two major culprits) despite the best of intentions. Extra Golden's music really seems to avoid this pitfall, there's no blatant and feckless appropriation going on here. The band, particularly on this new album, just sounds so truly organic and genuine. Is the fact that the group has been such a grass-roots endeavor rather than a major label/ Starbucks type cash-in a factor here? Any thoughts on this?
That's a very nice compliment, thank you. I think there are a few reasons that our music sounds "genuine." The first reason has to do with how the group got started. As mentioned, Ian and love African guitar styles and we've both been listening to and learning from them for years. Because of that, our understanding of their music goes beyond the average musician who is simply open to jamming. This is especially true of Ian in relation to Benga, as he had been learning it in Kenya for years. I think this level of understanding is one thing that makes Extra Golden different than many other cross-continental collaborations. A lot of times those collaborations are the ideas of record companies or the whim of a musician who wants a free trip to an exotic land. The other reason Extra Golden sounds "genuine" is because it is. When we are together composing, recording and performing, we're having a lot of fun what a secret!
As for the first part of your question, I won't comment on Paul Simon because I don't know much about the events surrounding Graceland. However, I do feel the need to defend David Byrne. When you look at his career arc, you see someone who has always done what interested him. I saw his Rei Momo tour when I was 14 years old and, whether I knew it or not, I got to hear people like Celia Cruz and Willie Colon for the first time artists who I am only now beginning to appreciate. I don't believe that David Byrne is a rich man because of that record but he loved Latin music and, because of his position in the music industry at the time, he was able to put together a dream band. If you had the power to put together an awesome group of all of your favorite musicians to perform songs written by you, wouldn't you do it? David Byrne is also the reason that I bought a King Sunny Ade cassette in the late 80s, so I have a real soft spot for the man.
Oh, and if I could figure out a way to get Starbucks to sell our CDs, I'd do it in a second. There seem to be a lot of those shops popping up. Seriously, though, while it is fair to characterize Extra Golden as a "grass-roots endeavor," we could certainly use some money!
Did the Kenyan guys get a chance to check out some of your musical influences and inspirations? What was on the turntable when you all were hanging out? Tres Hombres? Trans Am?
I hate to disappoint, but when we are together, we listen to about 99% Benga. Though, when we were in Austria, we played Bilongo some ZZ Top and he was really into it. In fact, we recorded a couple of songs there, and I'm pretty sure Bilongo was thinking about Billy Gibbons when he played the solo on one of the songs.
It appears that the US government does not make lower profile international artistic collaborations such as Extra Golden particularly easy. Are things getting better or worse in this regard? What's next for Extra Golden?
To say that getting visas for African musicians can be difficult is quite an understatement. I don't know if things are improving or not in this regard, though I suppose I'll find out the next time we try to get those guys over here. Extra Golden is planning to tour in the spring and summer of 2008 in the US and Europe. That will be the next thing the group does. We just recorded a couple tracks in Austria, so Ian and I will be working on those in the coming months.
Actually, Ian and I will spend the majority of the next months working on our label Kanyo. We've released a CD by Bilongo's Benga group. We've got another CD by a current Kenyan group called Bana Kadori that should be out in a few weeks. After that, we've got a couple of reissues on deck. Both will be the first in a series multiple-volume releases. One is from Kenya and one is from Mali. That's all the info I can give right now, but we will be updating our website soon www.kanyokanyo.com.
So how have your experiences with the music of Extra Golden and your time in Africa transformed you as a person? How has this project changed your perspective as a working musician?
My time in Extra Golden and in Africa has changed me only insomuch as I see everything differently. I take nothing for granted anymore. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that Africa is in the back of my mind in every situation. I mean, look at what happened on our trips to Austria. Those guys were imprisoned unjustly, targeted only for their color and poverty. I arrived in Munich, got some Euros out of the ATM and enjoyed an espresso while I waited for my companions. And that goes for pretty much every day. Obviously, they aren't targeted by French police every day my point is just that it is so much harder for them to do the same things that we do (except write great songs).
I often meet or see people that make me think, "These people need to spend a week in Nairobi." If Dick Cheney had to spend a week living in Dandora (a Nairobi neighborhood), he might not hate poor people so much at the very least he could shoot some more exotic animals. I see reality shows here that follow around wealthy assholes as they contemplate which million dollar watch to wear, treating everyone they meet with disdain, and they probably couldn't point to Africa on a map. There's a necessary amount of humility I've gained from my African experiences that I hope never to lose.
As far as the second part of the question…"too much fucking perspective!" First off, I would be embarrassed to call myself a "working musician." Our Kenyan bandmates all work five nights-a-week and support extended families. I do odd jobs and my main concern is to make sure I get home in time to watch basketball. I would love to be able to actually make a living as a musician but that is basically impossible. That's why Ian and I started Kanyo, so that we could turn the tables and exploit the musicians ourselves!
After the interview, I received an update from Alex and Ian regarding the current situation in Kenya. It follows below:
As many of you are probably aware, the political situation in Kenya is extremely volatile right now. There was a general election on December 27 whose pro status quo results have been universally condemned as rigged by the international community. Even the incumbent's hand-picked election manager is unwilling to confirm his boss's re-election as honest and fair. While the integrity of Kenya's fragile democracy is at stake, it is the people who are suffering the most. Violence has spread throughout the country, with hundreds already murdered. Businesses that haven't been destroyed are shut.
Opiyo Bilongo, Onyango Wuod Omari and Onyango Jagwasi are three members of Extra Golden who live in Nairobi. They all have large extended families for whose well-being they are entirely responsible. Of course, as musicians, that well-being is provided for through nightly work at clubs. With dusk-to-dawn curfews in place, these men are all unable to work, and a subsistence that was already hand-to-mouth has become non-existent. They have been forced to leave their homes, which have subsequently been looted. Their families have almost no food and no clean water. Even with the swiftest possible resolution to the country's debilitating political situation, it is hard to foresee a time in the near future when these men will be able to go back to work.
As the bandmates and friends of these exceptional men, we are used to helping them out of financial jams but, as musicians ourselves, this critical situation is one that is simply beyond our own means. While the plights of Bilongo, Omari and Jagwasi are by no means unique in a country full of desperation, it is within our power to help them and their families directly. We are asking for donations of $5. Of course we will accept any amount you can muster, but we believe that with enough contributions of $5 we can make a huge difference in our friends' lives.
To make a donation, please go to www.paypal.com and choose "send money". When asked for the email address of the recipient, enter [email protected] Please feel free to forward this message. We thank you in advance for your compassion and we hope that your help will enable us to compose a song of thanks for our next album.
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Extra Golden Links:
Extra Golden official site, http://www.extragolden.com
Extra Golden MySpace page, http://www.myspace.com/extragolden
Kayo Records Official Site, http://www.kanyokanyo.com
Extra Golden online press kit w/ photos http://www.thrilljockey.com/press/index.html?id=10129