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Published: 2006/05/14
by Chris Gardner

Ok-Oyot System – Extra Golden

Thrill Jockey 153

To no small degree, this is a "best we could do" effort, and that's kind of
a shame.

Extra Golden joins American musicians Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff of the
band Golden and Otieno Jagwasi and Onyango Wuod Omari of the Kenyan
collective Orchestra Extra Solar Africa. With Otieno's assistance, Eagleson
explored Kenya's guitar-heavy, danceable "benga" music for his doctoral
thesis. The present album (the bulk of which was recorded in a single day
in April of 2004) resulted from that relationship. While often promising,
the nearly (not fully) collaborative result serves more as a hint of what
these musicians might have done than as a testament to what they could do.

I say nearly collaborative because two of the album's six tracks feature
Eagleson and Minoff as an unaccompanied duo. The album's title, an
admission of and a cry against the difficulty of Kenyan life, translates as
"It's Not Easy," but aside from the fact that the English language lyrics
are a bummer there is little to tie these tracks to the rest of the album.
The Americans work as a duo, which too often sounds like a facsimile of a
plodding Ween parody, lacking the complexity, vibrancy, and spirit of the
collaborative work. It's not boring in its own right. Sonically and
texturally, the languid, just-shy-of-rocky tracks are interesting if not
gripping, but juxtaposed with the sprightly and bouncing benga it feels like
deadwood. Benga, which in Otieno's hands deals with difficulty and strife,
counteracts the weight of the lyrics with buoyancy; the Americans' burdened
fare, on the other hand, submits to the weight of the lyrics.

All of which isn't to say that the Americans are spoiling an otherwise
brilliant effort. The Otieno-led tracks are surely stronger, but there are
still wrinkles to iron out as should be expected of any single session
collaboration. In shouldering the whole of the guitar duties on the title
track, the Americans prove that they can more than hack it as benga
guitarists, often demonstrating the kind of nuanced rhythmic sensibility and
tonal interplay so crucial to the circular form, but on occasion they drift
into tones that clash with the whole, jarring the listener out of the music
rather than drawing him or her into the mix. Part of what makes this work
is the clash of styles, the rockish mashed with the benga, but the album is
at its best when it is the styles not the tones that clash.

Otieno died of liver failure a year ago this month, and while this album
serves to some degree as a tribute to his work and his willingness to spread
the genre, it also shows us what could have been. The most
collaborative efforts, those composed as a group in the studio like the
bilingual title track, show the potential of this collaboration, but this
jumbled, rushed effort which seems to append two Otieno-less tracks as
filler never fully realizes that potential.

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