When most people think of Kenyans, they think of the legendary Masai nomads, or of the Swahili people of the coast, or maybe of the Kikuyu made famous by playwright Ngugi wa Thiong’o. But few people think of the Luo. Yet with 4.2 million people settled in the western part of the country near Lake Victoria, the Luo are Kenya’s largest non-Bantu ethnic group. The Luo are also the originators of benga, Kenya’s homegrown, guitar-driven pop sound.
Now comes Suzzana Owiyo, a young, guitar-packing Luo singer-songwriter who’s showing the world that her people have more than one musical trick up their sleeve. Growing up in a family of 14, Owiyo was immersed in Luo musical tradition early, learning to play the Luo harp, or nyatiti, from her grandfather, who was an accomplished traditional musician. She also learned a repertoire of songs, and soon branched out to the acoustic guitar. Owiyo honed her craft while still in school, winning several national accolades. By the mid-’90s she had apprenticed with singer Sally Oyugi and with the Extra Kimwa Band. In 2002 she scored her first hit with “Kisumu 100,” an ode to the birthplace of benga, and garnered a nomination for South Africa’s prestigious Kora award.
Her 2004 sophomore release, Mama Africa (ARC), also serves as her international debut. And what a debut! Don’t let the “Tracy Chapman of Kenya” comparisons throw you; Owiyo knows how to rock. She’s got a clear, strong voice and wraps it around some wonderfully hook-y material. Her guitars chime sweetly and rhythmically, and she isn’t afraid to mix traditional instruments with pulsing electro beats. Though her socially-conscious lyrics are sung mostly in Luo, she makes a few rewarding forays into English. With the inclusion a benga mix of “Kisumu 100,” Mama Africa marks the emergence of an impressive new international talent.