Daniel Owino Misiani, popularly known as D. O. Misiani, occupies such a huge foundational space in Benga music that one wonders what would have happened to the genre had the king of Kenya’s definitive sound charted a different course after his devout Christian father smashed the budding musician’s first guitar into pieces. His ambition unthwarted, the Tanzanian-born Misiani eventually bought his first electric guitar in 1965. Along with the Shirati Jazz collective which was founded in 1967 and which underwent several iterations in forthcoming decades, he went on to produce many popular songs. Misiani sang about an array of themes, ranging from love to politics. Some of his polemical lyrics would get him into trouble with authorities but he forged on, becoming the undisputed colossus of Benga.

The distinctive finger-plucked lead guitar is Benga’s distinguishing feature, borrowing from traditional nyatiti (an eight-stringed traditional lyre) and orutu (one-stringed vertical fiddle) playing techniques. The arrival of two Congolese musicians in Kenya, Jean Bosco Mwenda and Edward Masengo, in the 1950s and their interaction with Luo musicians, then adept at traditional instrument playing, coupled with the introduction of Spanish guitar brought back by soldiers of the King’s African Rifles who fought in the Second World War, created the foundation for the fusing of traditional finger-plucking styles with modern guitar playing to birth a new sound: Benga.

Benga travelled from the shores of Lake Victoria to Nairobi with migrant labourers. It spread south to Zimbabwe, when the Kenyan record producer, Phares Oluoch Kanindo, exported thousands of Benga records to South and West Africa in the 1970s. Oluoch Kanindo founded POK Music Stores, a record label lauded for taking Kenyan Benga music to Zaire (today’s DRC), Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Nigeria. From Zimbabwe, Benga seeped into South Africa. When the record label merged with EMI international, hundreds of recordings of African music found a pathway to Europe, and travelled further afield to receptive audiences across the Atlantic.

In Zimbabwe, Benga left an indelible mark. Local musicians adopted the sound and fused it with indigenous styles. This new style became known as “Kanindo”, after Oluoch Kanindo. The owner of POK Music Stores was also a veteran politician and Kenyan Member of Parliament for the larger Homa Bay constituency from 1979 to 1988.

Kanindo also founded another record label, Sungura – which is Swahili for “rabbit”. Records from Sungura were a faster variation of the Kenyan imported Benga. Kanindo and Sungura soon became a stable of Zimbabwe’s music scene, danced to by freedom fighters as they lay night vigil during the country’s independence wars. Musician Simon Chimbetu, a great who kept the morale of liberation fighters, was one of the pioneers of Sungura. Another great was Leonard Dembo who became active musically in 1982, post independence. Some Sungura and Kanindo artists even collaborated with the legendary Oliver Mtukudzi.

Even in the post-independence period, in the 1980s, bands such as Bhundu Boys shot their way to international fame using Sungura beats. Listening to Leonard Dembo’s “Zvaunoda Handingazvigoni” or Simon Chimbetu’s “Chautah” today, one is thrown back to Luo benga, in the 1940s to 80s, unmistakable tunes rippling the shores of Lake Victoria.

East African sounds greatly influenced compositions in Zimbabwe. A glimpse of the unmistakable influence can be seen in the duet between Sulumani Chimbetu and Oliver Mtukudzi in “Kwedu”, a song which sounds almost like Les Wanika of Super Mazembe’s “Kajituliza Kasuku”.

Benga arrived in Colombia after Osman Torregrosa, a businessman of picó dances in Barranquilla who, looking for music, went to Aruba and Bonaire, then to Martinique, Suriname, New York and Paris to look for music that would cause a sensation, for a sound that was modern and traditional at the same time. In Colombia, Benga is known as ‘música rastrillo’.

The term rastrillo alludes to Benga music from Kenya and Tanzania. Rastrillo means rake in Spanish. “It refers to the rake-like sound of the music and above all it is a metaphor for a music that destroys everything that is garbage,”says Nicolás Contreras, pioneer researcher in the studies of champeta and the picotero world. “It represents rebellious and tribal sounds that sound ancestral. That is what rastrillo music is for those of us who feel most proud of being champetúos and of having African blood. It is rebel music.”

Rastrillo is mostly played by connoisseurs. “There are many people who say that this music is for gang members and lumpen and people who are very champetúo,” adds Contreras. The term champetúo refers to the most African person of soul and physical appearance. The champetúo is an African and Afro-descendent urban vision.

“In the stations we listened to in 1978, [rastrillo] was played as background music in a programme called ‘La descarga de los barrios’. They played Daniel Owino Misiani. [The music] had flavour and was very danceable,” says Contreras. “But they only played it in the background. I liked it so much that a cousin of mine who was a picotero, named Esteban Julio Salgado, gave me a cassette tape. He had obtained it as a gift from a colleague of El Supersónico picó in [the city] Cartagena. This was in 1980.”

But it was in the city of Barranquilla that Benga really took off. “I went to Barranquilla in 1985 and in the corner of the Santo Domingo de Guzmán neighborhood, a famous picó was playing this music. This picó challenged another local picó, el Gran Freddy, that also had this music. The picó was El Timbalero by the late Víctor Alemán,” says Contreras. Today El Timbalero is known as the Kenyan musical embassy in Barranquilla and in the whole Caribbean. It is the promoter of Benga from the Luo people of East Africa.

Sidney Reyes is an avid collector of this music. “In Colombia, an African record is like property, especially if no other person has it, if it’s exclusive. We baptise it with a name,” he says. Shirati Jazz Band’s Obiero Olumbe and Harusi ya MK are some of his favourite songs. He first heard Benga in 1983, at KZ Son Palenque in Barranquilla. “I always wanted to know the origin of this music. I looked at the LPs and that is why I started investigating it,” he says. “Donaldo García from Barranquilla and picotero from El Solista picó brought the LPs from a trip to Paris,” he says.

In a piece for Africa is a Country titled “The Cuban Atlantic“, Boima Tucker writes: “British sociologist Paul Gilroy suggested the history of culture in the Atlantic world is characterized by constant exchange. One of the most traceable elements of that exchange, is the musical connections between communities of African descent on either side of the ocean. These musical practices operate as sites of resistance, cultural retention, and social cohesion that allow us to understand some of the ways we all are formed by trans-continental processes. […] The beauty in black Atlantic cultural formation is in the continual exchange of information that persists between peoples of African descent across language, national borders, and even time.”

Today, Benga music has lived in Colombia’s mundo picotero—the picotero world—for decades. It falls under African champeta to differentiate it from the Creole champeta of Colombia.

Champeta combines the structures and characteristics of Latin American music with African musical elements and instruments to create a hybrid sound. The picó, a musical symbol of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is a powerful sound system consisting of a console, amplifiers, and a vinyl collection. It is where champeta is played.

The mundo picotero is a social, economic and cultural order around a sound aesthetic that is defined by marginality, seduction and appropriation of spaces. With its own circuit of economic relations, thearound the picó, or sound system, is a disco scheme and non-commercial music station with strong African influences. Picotero culture consists of the various imaginaries that arise around the sound machine that have to do with the type of music, the way of dressing, and the type of music that people enjoy. “[Picotero culture] is a way of seeing the world,” says Contreras. “The picó and its culture where the champeta comes from, is a rebellion against what is viewed as Eurocentric.”

In dancefloors across the Atlantic, thousands of kilometres from the shores of Lake Victoria where traditional Luo stringed styles married the guitar to birth a hybrid sound, to the nightclubs of Nairobi and the dancefloors of Colombia, Benga has stood the stern test of time, carrying with it the universal soul of music.

Sign up to receive the most diverting fiction, essays, analyses and news across Africa in your inbox, on Monday every week.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.