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"I saw the dark side of things over there," says Ian Eagleson of his time in Kenya. "I experienced a lot of what they go through there. I didn't really suffer that much myself, but I saw how difficult it is for a lot of people over there, being so poor. It makes you not take so many things for granted. I still end up doing that, but I know how bad things can get from being over there. But on the other side, it was a really good thing, the people over there - I made some really good friends. And despite all the hardships they go through, they manage to enjoy themselves and be generous and friendly people. Even with all those horror stories I told you, I still love visiting that place."
Sometimes the most difficult circumstances create the most rewarding experiences. Perhaps nowhere on the planet is this more evident than in Africa. As Ian Eagleson, one-quarter of the international band Extra Golden, learned first-hand, life in Africa is a struggle unlike anything we experience in the United States. We've all seen the infomercials, we watch the news and read papers, but beyond the shocking images of genocide in Rwanda and starvation in Ethiopia is the day-to-day life of a struggling Continent. Teachers, taxi drivers, farmers, public servants, artists, everyone struggles; and the effects creep into every corner of society. Corruption is rampant, water is scarce, children work the streets, poverty is everywhere, and these are the lucky, or so we're told. Yet somehow Africans are often able to use their pain to help them find joy. Listen to Africa's most famous musical exports, like Hugh Masekela, Ali Farka Toure, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, and even Fela Kuti (to an extent). Although there is often great emotion and pain in what you hear, the music maintains a positive, up-beat, undeniably cathartic quality. It's the same thing that led to African slaves singing in cotton fields, and eventually to America's greatest artistic accomplishment ever - jazz.
Extra Golden (Eagleson, Jagwasi, Minoff)
Way down this lineage is the half-Kenyan, half-American benga-rock group Extra Golden. The seed for this trans-continental collaboration began in 2000 when Eagleson began conducting doctoral research on traditional Kenyan music. Benga, the popular, guitar-driven, dance music found all over Kenya, is the direct descendant of Kenya's Luo people and their syncopated rhythms and eight-string nyatiti (a lyre). In order to gather information, it made perfect sense for Eagleson to begin documenting today's benga bands, which led him to Otieno Jagwasi. Otieno was an established, highly-skilled benga guitarist and vocalist who was able to connect Eagleson with musicians who are often spread out over vast, rural areas of Kenya.
At this point Jagwasi was fronting his band Extra Solar Africa with renowned Nairobi session drummer Onyango Wuod Omari, and Eagleson was busy with D.C. rock band Golden. In 2004 Eagleson would return to Kenya for a full year, doing further research for his doctorate and once again working closely with Otieno. This time Eagleson brought a portable recording studio with him and had Golden band mate Alex Minoff come over for a few weeks to cut some tracks and explore their longstanding love of African music. Eagleson and Minoff (the Golden part of Extra Golden) began recording with Otieno and Onyango (the Extra part) and the result is the 2006 Thrill Jockey release, Ok-Oyot System. Translated directly: It's Not Easy. From blackmail to the death of Otieno, nothing about this record was easy, but you'd never know it based on the six sunny tracks that make up this "sleeper of the year" album.
Ok-Oyot System has an inescapable groove. The intertwining African rhythms, slinky guitar, and soulful vocals are sure to induce uncontrollable head-bobbing. Later, after one begins to digest the music on a deeper level, words like "Osama" and "sometimes you get eaten" start to show up. Then you read the titles: "Tussin' and Fightin'," "It's Not Easy," and "Osama Ranch." There's something under the surface. While the sounds are uplifting, bright, soothing, and often flat-out joyous, the message is predominantly painful. "All benga music is meant for dancing at a party or a bar, so that juxtaposition of dark content with an upbeat, dance feel is real common" explains Eagleson. "The first song, which is a story John Otieno was telling about how he was betrayed when he was ill in the hospital, you wouldn't guess that coming from the musical background we have. Because in the U.S. we tend to associate minor chords with a somber atmosphere, and they don't really think about music like that."