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Benga: The Best of Cultural Integration

Benga: The Best of Cultural Integration

The best companies start with the founding culture, when welcoming new recruits and inspiring the latest generation to move the company forward.

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Benga: The Best of Cultural Integration

In our discussion about the importance of storytelling in keeping the Founder’s Mentality℠ alive, we mentioned that it is critical to tell stories of how new recruits have added to the original culture, making it stronger and richer. When I talk to folks about this, I like to tell the story of Benga.

Just before my recent trip to Asia, I was in Kenya recording tribal music as part of my work with Singing Wells, a nonprofit devoted to preserving and promoting the unique music traditions of East Africa. We spent four days in Nairobi recording most of the surviving stars of the Benga movement.

Benga, which flourished in the 1970s, is a wonderful mixture of Congolese beats built on traditional music from Kenya’s Luo ethnic community. One of the major artists of that era was Osumba Rateng, who not only led his own band, but was also a session musician for all the other Benga bands. Rateng brought the Luo tradition to Benga and had a strong influence on its evolution—a great example of cultural integration. The Benga players built off their tribal music, but took it in a completely different direction.

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I first met Osumba Rateng in November 2011, when we recorded his Sega Sega band in Nyanza, Kenya, and because it was my birthday, he gave me a live chicken. I met him again this past March, when we recorded his song Flora, and interviewed him. No chickens this time, but he gave us this story about integration:

I started playing music in school, and I had a cousin, Aoka Meja, who had a guitar. We copied the style of Adero Onani, who played traditional music on the guitar. In 1958, I got my first acoustic guitar and played Rumba. In 1965, I started to play Benga.  

Benga was influenced by the beat of the nyatiti, and we interpreted that on the guitar. We also borrowed from the orutu, which followed the voice of the singer … I formed Sega Sega, and we … did a huge amount of studio work. And as Benga became popular, the three of us played on a lot of other people’s songs. This meant that our Luo sound was getting on a lot of records. The early ‘60’s was mostly about studio work, but by ’70 to ’71, when Benga was really at its peak, the Sega Sega band was very big. We were always performing at events and functions. We did okay, and I made enough to buy my farm and build the house in which I still live . . .

In this story, the two Luo instruments—the nyatiti and the orutu—represent the “founding culture.” The nyatiti is an eight-stringed instrument played like a harp. A great player will also have shakers on his legs and a ring on his big toe. A single nyatiti player will sound like a whole band, mimicking the bass and rhythm guitars, kick drum and snare. Here’s an example of one of the best players. (We recorded him on the same trip that we recorded the Sega Sega band. Sadly, he died recently).

While the nyatiti is completely unique to the Luo, the orutu is a more common instrument; it is called the tube fiddle throughout Uganda. It is a single-string fiddle played with a bow. The Otacho Young Stars use it brilliantly.

In this story, the new recruit was the guitar, and the new element of the culture was the influence of Congolese music on young Kenyan musicians. Osumba Rateng patiently showed me how he was able to replicate the beats and rhythm of the nyatiti on the guitar. Suddenly, what had initially sounded like a traditional tribal song started sounding like a blues lick. He then showed me how his guitar-vocal style mimicked the orutu, which tends to repeat the lead vocalist in tribal music. Again, you could hear the tribal origins, but what he was doing was completely different.

The latest chapter of Benga is that Osumba Rateng has become a mentor to Winyo, a modern Kenyan musician. Winyo’s album Benga Blues is very contemporary, but builds off the traditions of Benga and his own village.

I love the story of Benga. I use it to talk about how the best companies start with the founding culture, when welcoming new recruits and inspiring the latest generation to move the company forward. Benga is the story of the founding culture—the nyatiti and orutu—which is unique and differentiated. Benga is also the story of new additions: the acoustic guitar and the new influences of Congolese beats. Finally, Benga is the story of how the leaders who built the original sound are now inspiring the next generation to take the music forward.

And if you don’t like this analogy, the music remains a wonderful sound track.


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