In 2003 guitarist Ian Eagleson spent a year in Nairobi for his graduate ethnomusicology studies researching benga, guitar-heavy Kenyan dance music that often needs little more than a minimal drum tick to anchor its rhythms to any sort of beat. After spending time with vocalist Otieno Jagwasi, Eagleson invited guitarist Alex Minoff—his bandmate in the indie rock group Golden—across the Atlantic, and along with Jagwasi and drummer Onyango Wuod Omari of prominent Kenyan band Orchestra Extra Solar Africa, they cobbled together the group Extra Golden.
Extra Golden went on to record Ok-Oyot System, an album that is almost impossibly both uplifting and melancholy. It was also recorded incredibly quickly. “In about five days we did about 20 songs,” says Eagleson of the on-the-fly sessions. “Some of them came out good, others not so good.” To which Minoff adds, “When we recorded in Nairobi, we really did not have a drum kit. The head on the snare drum was ripped in half and there were no snares on it, so it was just something you could hit.”
Some might snottily toss benga in the World Music section, dismissing it as something that ethnomusicologists spend months writing about and approximately zero minutes actually dancing to, but that isn’t the case with Extra Golden. The band’s academic origins don’t give credit to the beauty of their music. It is the aural equivalent of summer afternoons transitioning into warm evenings and the songs congeal together into a humid dream.
Minoff and Eagleson downplay nearly everything extraordinary about their band, as if the tragic loss of original singer Jagwasi to HIV, a language barrier, a first record that basically happened by accident, and—oh yeah—the some 7570 mile global divide between them and their African bandmates is not even close to a problem. And maybe it’s not. With their sophomore release, Hera Ma Nono, Extra Golden have created something that is at once distinctly Kenyan and distinctly American, but the music all blends together into one pulsing mass of sparklingly gooey guitar held together by new vocalist Opiyo Bilongo’s exuberant melodies and the distinct thwack of Omari’s drums. But even from the jumble of their cross-cultural creation, the clarity of Extra Golden comes from their own simple reality: they exist because they like to play music together. They don’t emphasize all the racial, musical and literal barriers they’re breaking because they don’t need to. They are four guys who got together and formed a band, and they’re not making a big deal out of any of it.