Kenya is bestowed with well over 40 different ethnic groups with different languages and dialects, traditional arts & crafts, architecture in homestead designs, clothing and jewellery, food, social and economic activities. Successive migrations and invasions, right until the British colonisation in the late 19th Century, have left their mark in the rich mixture of tribes, race and customs seen in Kenya today. If any one thing of Kenya speaks of this unique character, it is the modern melding of traditional societies and culture. Kenya’s culture is both diversified and fragmented, born of myriad sources and influences both new and old.
In Kenya the modern and the traditional live side by side, and at times the lines blur. For many visitors to Kenya, this is evident within minutes of arrival. In Kenya it is possible to leave Nairobi, a city with a thriving business heart powered by the latest information technology, and drive in just a few hours to a place where life is lived in accordance to tradition and custom, where warriors armed with spears drive cattle into thorn brush enclosures to protect them from lions at night.
The Kenyan official national language is English and Swahili. Swahili is the most widely spoken African language, with 50 million speakers in East Africa and Central Africa, particularly in Tanzania (including Zanzibar) and Kenya.
There are many other languages spoken by each Kenya’s 42 different ethnic groups,including Kikuyu, Luhya, Kalenjin, Luo and Kikamba and many more The average Kenyan therefore speaks atleast three different languages.
A more modern language spoken amongst the younger members of society is Sheng. This is a mixture of Swahili and English along with a words of other languages.
Kenyan food includes a variety of African and Indian recipes. Ugali (porridge made from cornmeal or millet flour), groundnut soup, stews and kebabs are favourite dishes. Use of spices and coconut feature in Kenyan cuisine. Indian food such as pilau rice, samosas and chapatis are often eaten with meals. Tea is served very hot and sweet.
The education system provides for eight years of primary, four years of secondary and four years of university education. This is referred to as the 8-4-4 system of education. Currently, Kenya has five public and many private universities, polytechnics, institutes of technology and technical training institutions. There are a number of international schools catering for various educational systems e.g. American, British, French, German, Japanese and Swedish.
The Constitution of Kenya guarantees freedom of worship and there are hundreds of religious denominations and sects in the country. The followers of Christian faith are the majority, with 40% being Protestant and 30% Roman Catholic. Islam is the main religion for most of the communities along the coast and the Somali community. The Asian community is mainly Hindu. Some Kenyans observe traditional methods of worship.
Traditional Song and Dance
Songs and dance have always played an important role in African culture, used especially to mark important events and ceremonies. For example, the Maasai had the Engilakinoto, sung after a victorious lion hunt. Structured around a deep rhythmic chant it is accompanied by a spectacular dance in which warriors display their strength and prowess by leaping directly and vertically into the air.
The Luhya of Western Kenya developed a very distinctive dance style called Sikuti after the local name for a drum. This extremely energetic dance is usually performed by paired male and female dancers, and accompanied by several drums, bells, long horns and whistles.
The Kamba and Chuka people both developed a distinctive drumming style, in which a long drum is leant forward and clasped between the thighs. The Kamba were well known for their athletic, almost acrobatic dancing.
On the coast, the growth of Swahili culture saw the growth of a unique style of music, called Taarab. Combining elements of African percussion with Arabic rhythms, Taarab become a popular form of music that remains a coastal favourite today.
The first Kenyan recording studio in 1947, and local musicians inevitably set about defining a national sound. The two main influences are from the South, South African Jazz and Zimbabwean ‘highlife’ guitar work; and from the West, the distinctive rumba rhythm of Congolese pop. A hybridized form of music evolved- widely known as Benga, and usually rather tribally targeted. Singers sung in their own tribal language, resulting in strong ethnic followings. Many of these artists remain popular today, such as Luo musician DO Misiani , Luhya legend Daudi Kibaka and venerated Kikuyu singer Kamaru.
Guitar pickers had long mimicked the quick, syncopated melodies of the Luo’s eight-string nyatiti lyre. Now, as the electric guitar emerged in the 60′s, the nyatiti’s push-and-pull character also influenced prominent electric bass lines. Notable singers here include Daniel Owino Misiani – Shirati Jazz ,Collela Mazee,Ochieng Nelly Mengo ,Ochieng Kabeselleh, and Gabriel Omolo.
The nimble sukuti guitar sound of the western Luhya highlands, were popularized by ’50s stars George Mukabi and John Mwale. In the ’60s, Luhya guitarist and singer Shem Tube and his group Abana Ba Nasery (“Nursery Boys”) recorded hits with dueling acoustic guitars, three-part vocal harmonies, and ringing Fanta-bottle percussion. Since the ’80s, Sukuma Bin Ongaro has remained the top Luhya benga star.
The godfather of Kikuyu pop Joseph Kamaru burst onto the scene in 1967 with a Kikuyu take on benga that also nods to country-and-western music. Kamaru rejects love songs to focus playfully but pointedly on a variety of social topics using masterful “deep Kikuyu,” full of proverbs and metaphors. Peter Kigia and the Chania River Boys also take on social themes, while Councilor DK sings love songs that are popular with the young crowd.
Kamba people inhabit the parched highlands south and east of Nairobi and play music close to the benga/rumba mainstream, but with distinct local melodies. Popular acts include Peter Mwambi and his Kyanganga Boys, Kakai Kilonzo’s Kilimambogo Brothers and the Katitu Boys, who also sang in Swahili and achieved mainstream success.
The 90′s and the 21st Century have seen a great deal more Western influence, and the adoption of reggae, rap, rhythm and blues and swing into Kenyan music. A new wave of popular musicians is creating a form of Kenyan music which fuses traditional elements with the many external influences to produce something new and very interesting.
Basking in the glory of this new genre that has been wildly embraced by young Kenyans include performers like Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, Kalamashaka, Necessary Noize, Nazizi, Poxi Presha and Mercy Myra.
The arrival of better and more easily accessible instrumentation and recording facilities is continuing to strengthen and diversify the Kenyan music scene.