Music of Kenya

Out of all the African countries, Kenya has perhaps one of the most diverse assortment of popular music forms, in addition to multiple types of folk music based on the variety over 40 regional languages.

Zanzibaran taarab music has also become popular, as has hip hop, reggae, soul, soukous, rock and roll, funk and Europop. There is also a growing western classical music scene and Kenya is home to a number of music colleges and schools.

Popular music

The guitar is the most dominant instrument in Kenyan popular music. Guitar rhythms are very complex and include both native beats and imported ones, especially the Congolese cavacha rhythm; music usually involves the interplay of multiple parts and, more recently, showy guitar solos.

Lyrics are most often in Swahili or Lingala, but are also sometimes in one of the indigenous languages, though radio will generally not play music in one of the "tribal" languages.

Benga music has been popular since the late 1960s, especially around Lake Victoria. The word benga is occasionally used to refer to any kind of pop music. bass, guitar and percussion are the usual instruments.

Partially from 1994 and wholly from 2003 Kenyan popular music has been recognised through the Kisima Music Awards. A number of styles predominate in Kenya including Benga and Reggae have separate categories, and a multitude of Kenyan artists are awarded each year.

Early 20th century

The guitar was popular in Kenya even before the 20th century, well before it penetrated other African countries. Fundi Konde was the best-known early guitarist, alongside Paul Mwachupa and Lukas Tututu. By the middle of the 1920s, dance clubs had appeared in Mombasa, playing music for Christians to dance in a European style.

During World War II, Kenyan and Ugandan musicians were drafted as entertainers in the King's African Rifles and continued after the war as the Rhino Band, the first extremely popular band across Kenya. In 1948, the group split, with many of the members forming the Kiko Kids or other bands.

By the 1950s, radio and recording technology had advanced across Kenya. Fundi Konde, the prominent guitarist, was an early broadcaster and influential in the fledgling recording industry.

Congolese finger-style and the development of benga

Beginning in about 1952, recordings from legendary Congolese guitarists like Edouard Massengo and Jean-Bosco Mwenda were available in Kenya. Bosco's technique of picking with the thumb and forefinger (finger-style) became popular. Finger-style music is swift and usually based around small groups, in which the second guitar follows the first with syncopated bass rhythms. This style of music became extremely popular later in the decade.

The next decade saw new influences from kwela and rumba become more popular than finger-style. The Equator Sound Band was the most popular band of the period. In Nairobi in the late 1960s, bands like the Hodi Boys and Air Fiesta were popular, primarily playing cover versions of Congolese, British and American hits. Other musicians were innovating the benga style, with Shirati Jazz the most popular of the early bands.

Into the 1970s, benga was at its most innovative, producing numerous popular bands like Victoria Jazz and the Victoria Kings, the Continental Luo Sweet Band and Luna Kidi Band.

Swahili and Congolese pop

The two biggest genres of pop music played by Kenyan bands are called the Swahili sound or the Congolese sound. Both are based on soukous (rumba) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Swahili music can be distinguished by a much slower rhythm, though the styles have had a tendency to merge in recent decades. The genres are not distinguished by language, though Swahili pop is usually in Swahili or the related Taiti language. Both are sometimes in Lingala or one of the native languages of Kenya.

Congolese musicians were the most popular performers in Kenya during the 1970s and '80s, only losing their mainstream acceptance in the early 1990s. Orchestre Virunga was perhaps the most popular and long-running of the Congolese bands. During this period, Swahili musicians (many from Tanzania) were mostly based around the Wanyika bands bands. This group of often rival bands began in 1971 when a Tanzanian group named Arusha Jazz came to Kenya, eventually becoming the Simba Wanyika Band. The band first split in 1978, when many of the group members formed Les Wanyika. Another notable group was Super Mazembe, based in Nairobi but consisting of Congolese musicians.

Hotel pop

Tourist-oriented pop covers are popular, and employ more live bands than more authentic Kenyan folk and pop genres. Them Mushrooms, who began playing the Nairobi hotel circuit in 1987, are probably the most popular of these bands. Lately, hotel bands like Them Mushrooms and Safari Sound have begun playing reggae.

Regional pop

The Kamba people live to the south and east of Nairobi. Their pop music is closely related to benga, but includes a second guitar that plays a melodious counterpoint to the primary guitar. The most popular Kamba pop bands arose in the middle of the 1970s and include Les Kilimambogo Brothers Bandled by Kakai Kilonzo Mwendandu, Kalambya Boys & Kalambya Sisters led by Onesmus Musyoki and Joseph Mutaiti and Peter Mwambi & His Kyanganga Boys.Other groups also include Lower Mbooni Boys Band, Muthetheni Boys Band and Ukia Boys Band . Other Akamba Pop Bands were formed in the 1980s and included Kakuku Boys Band vocalled by John Mutua Muteti whose lyrics consisted of religious, domestic, and court humour, Ngoleni Brothers which was formed by Dick Mutuku Mulwa after he left Kalambya Boys & Kalambya Sisters . It can also be noted that Kalambya Boys original members were Onesmus Musyoki (vocals), Joseph Mutaiti (vocals), Dick Mutuku Mulwa (rhythm guitar), J.M. Muli(Drums) and Peter Kisaa (solo guitar). Kalambya Boys split and Joseph Mutaiti formed Super Kaiti.

The Kikuyu, one of the biggest ethnic groups in Kenya, have their own form of pop music. Kikuyu pop can be distinguished by female back-up singers, who are rare in the rest of Kenya. The biggest Kikuyu pop star is Joseph Kamaru, whose 1967 hit "Celina" launched the field. He remained popular, inviting controversy with topical lyrics that criticized the Kenyan government, until becoming a born again Christian in 1993 and switching to gospel music. Kikuyu pop played a major role in the development of benga, largely due to the activity of Daniel Kamau.

Hip hop and reggae

Hip hop is nowadays a prominent style of music. Kenya has several HipHop Diaspora one of the many being Genge flavor with famous artists like Jua Cali (Bidii Yangu), Nonini and Jimwat. There is also the "Kapuka" style with artists like Bamboo and Nameless. These are rappers in the local Sheng & slang English. Bongo flava is very popular in Tanzania. Anything that has Swahili audio, and had a hip hop kind of style, or even a R&B sort of style would be considered bongo flava. Bongo flava is a certain style of music which has a hip hop content to it. See main article on Kenyan hip hop. Reggae music is highly popular in Kenya. Reggae elements are often mixed with local hip hop and pop music. Yet there has not been many big-name reggae musicians in Kenya. One of the best known local reggae musician is the late Mighty King Kong.

Other genres

There is a growing interest in other genres of music such as alternative rock, house and drum and bass. Local alternative rock and punk acts like Rock of Ages, Seismic and Killswitch have built a vibrant community. house and disco acts like Just A Band have also dabbled in numerous alternative genres.

Traditional music

Kenya's diverse ethnic groups each have their own folk music traditions, though most have declined in popularity in recent years as gospel music became more popular.


The Akamba people are known for their complex percussion music. Their music is divided into several groups based on age. Kilumi a dance for mainly elderly women and men,Mbeni for young and acrobatic girls and boys. Kyaa for the old men and women.Kiveve, mbalyaKinze etc. Kilumi dance the drummer usually a lady plays sitting on a large drum "Mukanda" covered on one end with a goats skin and opened at the other to act as a resonator. The drummer is also the lead singer and the choir joins in as the music hots up.


The Bajuni people live primarily in the Lamu islands, and are also found on the mainland in Mombasa or Kilifi. Women are rarely singers in Kenya, but the Bajuni women's work song "Mashindano Ni Matezo" is very well-known.


The Borana live near the Ethiopian border, and their music reflects Ethiopian, Somali and other traditions. They are known also for using the chamonge guitar, which is made from a cooking pot strung with metal wires.


The Chuka live near Mount Kenya and are known for polyrhythmic percussion music.


The Gusii people have perhaps the most distinctive form of folk music in Kenya. They use an enormous lute-like instrument called the obokano. They also use the ground bow, which is made by digging a large hole in the ground, over which an animal skin is pegged. A small hole is cut into the skin, and a single string is placed across the hole, creating a unique sound.


The Kikuyu are one of the largest communities in Kenya, and one of the most urbanized, as they live near the capital. At the Riuki cultural center, in Nairobi, traditional songs and dances are still performed by local women, including music for initiations, courting, weddings, hunting, and working.


Bantu-style drums are played by the Luhya, especially the sukuti drums.


Traditionally, music was the most widely practiced art in the Luo community. At any time of the day or night, some music was being made. Music was not made for its own sake. Music was functional. It was used for ceremonial, religious, political or incidental purposes. Music was performed during funerals (Tero buru) to praise the departed, to console the bereaved, keep people awake at night, express pain and agony and during cleansing and chasing away of spirits .Music was also played during ceremonies like beer parties (Dudu, ohangla dance), welcoming back the warriors from a war, during a wrestling match (Ramogi), during courtship, etc .Work songs existed too. These were performed both during communal work like building, weeding, etc. and individual work like pounding of cereals, winnowing. Music was also used for ritual' purposes like chasing away of evil spirits(nyawawa), who visit the village at night, in rain making and during divinations and healing.

The Luo music was shaped by the total way of life, lifestyles, and life patterns of individuals of this community. Because of that the music had characteristics which distinguished it from the music of other communities. This can be seen, heard and felt in their melodies, rhythms, mode of presentation and dancing styles, movements and formations.

The melodies in the Luo music were lyrical, with a lot of vocal ornamentations. These ornaments came out clearly especially when the music carried out an important message. Their rhythms were characterized by a lot of syncopation and acrusic beginning of these songs were usually presented in solo-response style through solo performances were there too especially the chants. These chants were recitatives with irregular rhythms and irregular phrases which carried serious messages in them. Most of the Luo dances were introduced by these chants. For example the dudu dance was introduced by the chant.

Another unique characteristic in the Luo music is the introduction of yet another chant at the middle of the performance. The singing stops, the pitch of the instruments go down and the dance becomes less vigorous as an individual takes the performance is self praise. This is referred to as Pakruok. There was also a unique kind of ululation -Sigalagala that marked the climax of the musical performance

The dance styles in the Luo folk music were elegant and graceful. It involved either the movement of one leg in the opposite direction with the waist in step with the syncopated beats of the music or the shaking of the shoulders vigorous usually to the tune of the Nyatiti an eight stringed instrument.

Adamson (1967) commented that Luos clad in their traditional costumes and ornaments deserve their reputation as the most picturesque people in Kenya. During most of their performances the Luo wore costumes and decorated themselves not only to appear beautiful but also to enhance their movements. These costumes included sisal skirts (owalo), beads (Ombulu / tigo) worn around the neck and waist and red or white clay were used by the ladies. The men's costumes included kuodi or chieno a skin warn from the shoulders or from the waist respectively to cover their nakedness. Ligisathe headgear, shield and spear, reed hats, clubs among others. All these costumes and ornaments were made from locally available materials.

The luo were also rich in musical instruments which ranged from, percussion (drums, clappers, metal rings-ongeng'o, shakers), string (Lyre-nyatiti, fiddle-orutu), wind (tung'-horn, Asili-flute, Abu-!Trumpet

The Luo (Kenya) are best-known for their Benga music, which has become the root of most Kenyan pop.


The nomadic pastral Maasai used no instruments in the past because as semi-nomadic pastoralists instruments were considered too cumbersome to move. Traditional Maasai music is strictly polyphonic vocal music. A group will chant polyphonic rhythms while soloists take turns singing verses. The call and response that follows each verse is called 'Namba'. Performances are often competitive in nature and most often are divided by age and gender.


The Mijikenda (literally "the nine tribes") are found on the coast of Tanzania, Kenya and Southern Somalia. They have a vibrant folk tradition perhaps due to less influence from Christian missionaries. Their music is mostly percussion-based and extremely complex.


The Samburu are related to the Maasai, and like them, play almost no instruments except simple pipes and a kind of guitar. There are also erotic songs sung by women praying for rain.


Taarab is a mixture of influences from Arabic, Indian & Mijikenda music. Very popular at the Coastal regions Kenya, Zanzibar, Pemba & the islands off East Africa. Singing is often accompanied by musical instruments which often mimic popular Bollywood music tracks. Some of the most popular Kenyan taarab artists are Zein l'Abdin and Zuhura Swaleh.


The extremely remote Turkana people have maintained their ancient traditions, including call and response music, which is almost entirely vocal. A horn made from the kudu antelope is also played.


  • Paterson, Doug. "The Life and Times of Kenyan Pop". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East. pp 509-522. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • Senoga-Zake, George. Folk Music of Kenya. Nairobi: Uzima Press, 1986.ISBN 9966-855-02-5

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