There are always, without fail, shouts of protest when year-in-review lists crop up like fungus this time of the month. Everyone has a favorite band or singer and everyone knows critics, and their lists can be as arbitrary as fortune cookies or horoscopes. There are always shouts of “no fair!” and “these lists blow.” Year-end lists never get it all right. They’re not supposed to. They are struggles between the old and the new; what is hot and what has been hot; and however widespread knowledge a critic (or group of critics) has.

Kelly Fraser
Barack Obama totally loves these guys. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THRILL JOCKEY)

I’m not sure if I’ve successfully masked my intention – pushing on you my own indignant “no fair!” Regardless, the show must go on. On the stand is Extra Golden’s second album, Hera Ma Nono, which dropped in October. The half-Kenyan, half-DC band’s version of benga – traditional Kenyan music with electric guitars, pedal boards, funk, pop and dancerock – is some of the best stuff of the year, hands down.

We don’t usually editorialize on our Arts pages, but we find it pretty awesome that Barack Obama, junior senator from Illinois and a Democratic presidential candidate, is a key figure in Extra Golden’s history.

In 2006, the band was trying to make it to the United States to tour and eventually return to the studio. It took the string pulling of none other than the charismatic Obama (who is also half-Kenyan) to get the band into the States. One of the group’s original singer-songwriters/guitarastist, Otieno Jagawasi, succumbed to liver disease nearly one year after the group’s first record was recorded in 2005. (That record, Ok-Oyot System, is a warm tableau of afrobeat rhythm sections, reggae and rock guitar and is nearly as good an album as Hera Ma Nono, if significantly rougher in production). The band members were determined to bring Otieno’s tracks to the public. They recruited Opiyo Bilongo, a prolific benga musician, and looked to the States to jump-start their career. Once here, they secluded themselves in some hinterland hovel in Pennsylvania and reappeared with Hera Ma Nono: an epic campfire of love for their deceased friend.

They went on a short American tour, and luckily I caught them at Detroit’s Bohemian National Home a year ago, where there couldn’t have been more than 15 people. With few bodies, the venue was even more cavernous (it’s a huge auditorium), the drums full of natural reverb and nuance. The group’s live music is as tightly woven as it needs to be, derivations from the studio versions unforced and purposeful.

Maybe unforced is the best word to start with when talking about Extra Golden. Benga music co-opts Western instruments onto an existing, non-Western musical frame of reference. The snare hits fall outside the 4/4 grid we’re so accustomed to – instead of holding down beats 2 and 4 of a measure, they alternate between the 3 and the 4. So when do you nod your head? Snap your fingers? Trust this music, westerners. There are so many poly-rhythms (two or more different rhythms overlapping each other) that your bobbing head is bound to hit one correct beat or another. It invokes the same type of eternal head nodding that reggae is so good at creating.

The second track of Hera Ma Nono, “Obama,” begins with cyclical guitar and vocal melodies. It quickly relaxes into a pocket groove of bass with the snare on the back beat. And once this sinks in, the song “outros” for over three minutes with a massive, overdriven rhythm guitar riff and driving beat. At a little over eight minutes, the song is comfortable in its own existence. There is no head or chorus. It’s an effortless progression. The production on the entire album is such that dramatic changes don’t rely on simply raising the master volume control. Far from compressed and largely similar to its first album, Extra Golden’s tonal dynamics are near perfect on this track and record.

Extra Golden also uses more straightforward time signatures – where they’ll leave you agape is how they manipulate them. They open the album with “Jakolando.” A hardline funk beat backs up the acoustic guitars, until the guitars and the whole band chime in for the uplifting chorus. They treat their jams with origami delicateness, and soon their groove unfolds into a breakdown – then transformed once more by a slower backbeat; guitars with light vibratos; syncopated bass and snare; and flutter picking from the rhythm guitarist. Stacked harmonies burn, then fade overly long.

The band is patient. The drums are usually a song’s aggressive counterpoint: the high hat always in motion, the bass drum falling outside western rhythm, the snare reigning it all in as the back beat while the guitars continue to softly mingle in the background.

Lyrically, Extra Golden switches between English and Kenyan. The liner notes are less lists of actual lyrics and more sketches of each track’s context. The band’s vagueness never suffers, though. Its aesthetic is wedded to rhythm and melody is their undiluted forms. There are drums, bass, vocals, percussion and an idea, an emotion – less is more. The band’s once conceit to studio flourish arrives on the album’s final song, the title track.

Essentially the entire song is an outro, a harmonic vamp on a single verse. The guitars double the vocals at times, riffing in campfire sedation elsewhere. Oyango Wuod Omari is on drums, keeping the meandering guitars in place. He’s also on lead vocal. Near the song’s final phase (the outro to the outro), a buzz starts somewhere low in the mix, growing slowly under Omari’s narration until it erupts as a euphoric synth-trumpet line, breathlessly on loop as the song eventually, painfully fades out. It’s perhaps as powerful an end as could be imagined.

At one point in the track, Omari calls out “ok-oyot system,” the title of the band’s first album with Otieno. Roughly translated, it means, “it’s not easy.” It’s a small phrase of resignation that bears the weight of the band’s past. But it’s sadness countered with elation. Few bands can do that.

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