Extra Golden started when a graduate-studies project grew into a part-American-part-African benga band in Kenya and recently won notice for their particularly timely song “Obama,” which is about the president and not the beer. Their Thank You Very Quickly is out now on Thrill Jockey. This interview by Kevin Ferguson.
Was [drummer] Onyango Omari the first person to name their child after our president?
Ian Eagleson (Guitar, Vocals): Actually, I think that was a friend of his who did that. It’s very common over there to name a child after somebody meaningful. I know people who have named their kids after me!
I don’t know if so much they’re trying to give me respect, or I just happen to be a significant person in their lives. I’ve met people in Kenya who are named after some terrible people—they just happened to making a lot of news at the time. There are a lot of people in Kenya whose name means ‘damn it’ in English! I felt honored—especially since it’s our singer who named his son after me. It’s nice knowing there are a couple of people named Ian running around Kenya now.
Did you ever get to try the Obama beer?
Yeah! It was funny because it’s like a really cheap beer. It’s actually called ‘Senator Beer’ and the name is a coincidence. In 2004 when he was elected senator they started calling that beer Obama. I tried it—pretty good!
How much benga knowledge did you have when starting the band?
I went to Nairobi specifically to do research on benga music. One of the projects I got involved with was recording benga bands over there. I was pretty inexperienced at first. I was using a little laptop and recording them in nightclubs. I got interested in Kenya a long time ago, when I visited as a college student. As I got into graduate studies and followed through on it, it was the most prominent contemporary music there. I thought it was interesting because some of the things that were happening there were like the U.S. music. The guitar is very important there, just like it is to us over here. Also there’s just a lot going on with benga! I was coming up with a research project, and me being a guitarist, it was just fun to study it. That’s how I got interested in it. And the way our band got formed was just staking it a step further beyond just observing it and studying it. We’re trying to make ourselves a part of it.
Does that mean Extra Golden influenced other bands?
Our exposure to Kenya was kind of limited to begin with. I think it’s becoming more noticeable now, but I don’t know—I don’t think so. That style has a life of its own. It’s so much greater than us! Benga has its own trends. I think a lot of people have heard about us over there, and we have made an impact, I guess. It shows some people that there is interest in benga outside of Kenya. Some people think that it’s getting outmoded—there are newer genres based more on hip-hop and so on. But I think there’s still so much potential for people to get interested!
You and Alex own a label called Kanyo—what does that mean?
Kanyo in Luo means ‘there’ or ‘it’s there’—you hear people say it a lot in songs. It’s like if someone is playing a nice solo you say, ‘Kanyo! Kanyo! Kanyo!’ It’s just a cool word, too!
Isn’t it true that many African artists never financially benefit from many of the releases? Are you guys trying to combat that?
Yeah—I always wonder about that myself, especially when I see some new record come out. We were in touch with one musician whose record just got put out recently without any licensing or notice to him. It’s just that musicians are just always complaining about that stuff, and we’re trying to make sure that what we do is legitimate. It can be hard but if you work, you can figure a just and fair way to release albums. On our website we also do download for a couple of other labels, and I think those labels have done a good job in getting money to artists. So hopefully we’re not furthering parasite behavior! Some people argue that they’re not making money anyway, so why should they worry about it so much? But it’s just wrong to assume you can diffuse somebody’s record and not even consider that they’d want to have some say in it. Sometimes musicians in Africa don’t even have the rights to music they produce themselves—they sometimes get shafted by a producer who has rights to their music. I helped somebody in the U.S. get some licensing for some Kenyan musicians once and the musician and producer ended up arguing and nobody could establish who had the rights. The producer just decided to not do it.
What happened when half of Extra Golden was detained in Paris?
We were going to play in Austria and the Kenyan [band members] flew through France. They had to pass some kind of immigration check point, and the police started asking them what they were doing, what they were doing and how come they had no money? This was even though even though they had all the paper work and everything was legit. It was a nightmare! They were stuck there for like 14 hours or something. Eventually the police tried to get them deported, but in order for them to do that they had to get them to sign something. Because it was in French, they refused to sign it. At that point they became temporary refugees and ended up at a Red Cross office—there were people there that could help them. They were able to contact us in Austria, but it was tough! We thought they were doomed!
Have Omari, Bilongo and Jagwasi ended up in the states finally?
They’re not permanent residents—they have like year-long multiple-entry visas so they can come and go as long as they have a reason. They came out earlier this year and they’re here now. We have more things planned for later on this year—looks like they’ll be around for a while! Kenya—like everywhere else—is getting squeezed by the economy and everything. It’s a lot easier for them to make ends meets here rather than there.
Is Omari self-conscious about saying ‘thank you very quickly’?
Not at all! It’s funny—there are a lot of weird English phrases in Kenya that you would never hear here in the United States. We all say that all the time now!
EXTRA GOLDEN WITH THE MEDITATIONS, FOOL’S GOLD AND YOUSSOUPHA SIDIBE ON WED., MAY 13, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 9 PM / $10 BEFORE 10PM / $15 AFTER / 21+. ATTHEECHO.COM. EXTRA GOLDEN’S THANK YOU VERY QUICKLY IS OUT NOW ON THRILL JOCKEY. VISIT EXTRA GOLDEN AT EXTRAGOLDEN.COM OR MYSPACE.COM/EXTRAGOLDEN.