Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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D.O. Misiani and Shirati Jazz [extended]

  • Benga Beat [Carthage, 1987] B+
  • Benga Blast! [Earthworks, 1989] A-
  • The King of History [Sterns Africa, 2010] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Shirati Jazz: Benga Beat [Carthage, 1987]
Benga is a vaguer term than the notes suggest, indicating any modern Kenyan dance-pop, not just Luo but Kamsa or Luhya or Kikuyu, that moves the light and rather folkish Kenyan guitar sound toward the big-time West African competition as it explores tribal rhythms of more meaning to Kenyans than to us. Without their guitarist-leader, self-crowned "King of Benga," Owino Misiani, Shirati Jazz recut some hits in London for this collection, a good thing in what is largely an ill-recorded singles music. They do sound light and rather folkish to me--delicate without juju's cosmopolitan intricacy, rhythmic without mbaqanga's urban drive. But in exotics, charm counts for plenty. B+

Daniel Owino Misiani and Shirati Band: Benga Blast! [Earthworks, 1989]
Not all that easy to tell this Kenya-recorded '80s-spanning compilation from Shirati Jazz's London-recorded 2/11/87 Benga Beat even though Misiani is missing from the earlier release, which consists entirely of material penned and cut/recut by members of the band he continued to lead 25 years after he invented it. Quality does emerge: Misiani's writing is catchier, and he's good for an extra measure of vocal and instrumental authority despite the U.K. production's superior audio. But what defines both is the still-delicate benga sound, uncommonly folkish for modern Afropop even though the soukous competition has prodded it toward what passes in Kenya for revisionist HI-NRG. Sweet and beaty. A-

The King of History [Sterns Africa, 2010]
This rebellious, outspoken, girl-happy Tanzanian Luo put himself in the forefront of Kenya's Luo-speaking benga style in his late twenties and was in his forties by the time two Shirati Jazz albums were released Stateside in the '80s, which was also when both were recorded. So just as Benga Blast!, a selection of Kenyan singles, bubbled more irresistibly than Benga Beat, cut later in London, the added effervescence of the chattering guitar and hyperactive bass on these 13 '70s dance tunes speaks well of Misiani's youth. Most of the front-loaded ones are social commentary, but about midway through six women's names bum-rush the track listing. Misiani had four wives and died in 2006--the victim, like his fellow Luo Barack Obama Sr., of an automobile accident. He was still recording. A-