By Steve Hochman
June 10, 2008
When we last spoke to Alex Minoff of Extra Golden last fall, a big topic around the band was ‘Obama,’ the tribute song the half-American/half-Kenyan benga-rock band had recorded honoring the senator and his staff for helping to get the African members into the U.S. for some concerts.
Now, as the band embarks on a U.S. tour, there may be a new tribute song called for, and this one with a lot of names to consider — not to mention some darker political aspects behind it. At the end of December, while Barack Obama was just getting his then-underdog campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination up to full speed over here, in Kenya a contested election exploded into violence and strife, bringing singer Opiyo Bilongo and drummer Onyango Wuod Omari, the Kenyan members of Extra Golden, their families and other friends and musical associates into grave danger and serious hardship.
“The all live in Nairobi,” says Minoff. “Onyango had traveled with his local band to West Kenya, kind of the stronghold of the Luos, the party of the opposition, basically planning on playing celebration parties, which obviously didn’t work out. So he ended up stranded there about a week while his family was still in Nairobi. He was basically freaking out.”
The D.C.-based Minoff and the other American musician in the band, Ian Eagleson, were also freaking out and once again looked for assistance. This time, though, they couldn’t go to U.S. officials. Instead they turned to their fans.
“We made an appeal through our Web site for fans to donate money — asked for five-dollar donations to help those guys,” he says. “We ended up getting a good amount, and were able to move them to different areas. Two of them had to move twice; their places were looted. We were able to move them to a safer place, but there was a curfew and, for a few months, no work at all. The donations really helped to keep them afloat for that period. Ian and I always send them money, help them out in a pinch. But this was beyond our means. I’m a bum and Ian is a bum with a degree — he’s a student and I’m a musician, so not a lot of money. Without the fan support I don’t want to think what might have happened.”
With or without a new tribute song, both the Kenyans and Americans will have the opportunity to thank many of those supportive fans in person on the tour, and in the process perhaps explain some of the oft-misunderstood circumstances behind the fights — and possibly even tie it back into discussions relevant to the situation their one-time patron Obama (whose father was, of course, born and raised in Kenya) is in now.
“I think there’s a connection between the Kenyan political situation and the U.S. political situation and the global situation,” Minoff says. “It’s something we’re going to address this time around, whether through songs or talking. The thing that disturbed me so much about the Kenya situation was the way it was portrayed as an ethnic conflict, a tribal conflict, and the way the Kenyans allowed that to be the way it unfolded. To me they’re feeling the aftereffects of the colonial system, made powerful by a divide-and-conquer strategy. They’re killing each other in slums and they have got to realize they’re doing the dirty work for the leaders. And I see a similar situation here — obviously not as extreme, but it speaks to a growing economic divide, here and globally.”
With their Internet success in helping their colleagues and friends, Minoff and Eagleson have now launched another venture aimed at creating both revenue and interest in the Kenyan music community — an online outgrowth of their Kanyo record label. The Kanyo Digital store has started offering titles from Kenya and other African countries, most of which are otherwise unavailable in the U.S. or in some cases anywhere else at all, including the complete catalog of the Netherlands-based Dakar Sound label’s impressive collection of Senegalese treasures.
“Dakar Sound has about 25 releases and they’ve never put anything out here,” Minoff says. “The majority of stuff on the label is ’60s and ’70s Senegalese music. It’s a really great label.”
They’re also going to be presenting their own download-only releases, including ‘When I Was in U.S.,’ a new album from Bilongo recorded with Extra Golden during the 2006 sessions for the band’s second album, ‘Hera Ma Nono,’ released last fall by Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records.
And fittingly, perhaps, the initial digital-only release from the Kanyo store brings things full circle. It’s a collection of some of Kenya’s top benga figures paying tribute to that country’s now-favorite-once-removed son: ‘Senator Barack Obama Hoyee,’ put together by Onyango Jagwasi (brother of original Extra Golden singer Otieno Jagwasi, who passed away in 2005 from liver disease). The album features six extended tracks expressing support for and pride in Obama’s meteoric rise in American politics.
The next hope for Extra Golden is that the American duo will be able to return to Kenya in the near future. Minoff hasn’t been there since the band came together four years ago while he was visiting his friend Eagleson, who was living in Nairobi and studying Kenyan music for his doctoral dissertation. The inability to travel there, and the possibility of a future trip, rest more on economics than on politics, at least at this point.
“It’s an expensive plane ticket,” Minoff says. “And obviously it’s not of all times the best to travel to Kenya, though I don’t know whether traveling there would be more or less dangerous than any other time. I wouldn’t have wanted to go last January, of course. But really at this point it’s a money thing.”
Maybe time for another Internet appeal for contributions? Minoff has a better idea: “Those are donations people can make by buying our album.”