Kenyan Modern Culture was born of myriad sources and influences both new and old.
Despite the many and varied influences that have shaped Kenyan society, the culture in Kenya has become truly and purely Kenyan.
If any one thing of Kenya speaks of this unique character, it is the modern melding of traditional societies and culture.
In Kenya it is possible to leave Nairobi, a city with a thriving business heart powered by the latest information technology, and drive in just a few hours to a place where life is lived in accordance to tradition and custom, where warriors armed with spears drive cattle into thorn brush enclosures to protect them from lions at night.
In Kenya the modern and the traditional live side by side, and at times the lines blur. For many visitors to Kenya, this is evident within minutes of arrival. Among the busy urban traffic, the median strips of fresh grass along the airport road are a popular place for Maasai herdsmen to graze their cattle.
Some people lament the gradual change in lifestyles, and loss of many customs and traditions in deference to modern life and values.
But much more than any other country on earth Kenya has maintained many of its traditional cultures. Indeed, in Kenya tradition and custom is not seen as being linked to the past, but as being an amorphous and evolving part of everyday life.
The result is a completely unique culture, in which it is possible to see a Maasai walking across the plains using his distended earlobes to support walkman headphones, a group of urban Kikuyu joining in a traditional wedding ritual in which a bride is sung out of her house by the grooms family, or a Samburu Business man with a traditionally beaded mobile phone cover.
The ease with which Kenyans adopt and adapt to new cultural influences has a long history. Kenyan culture is built on the acceptance and absorption of new and varied cultures, whether it was migrant nomads or sea borne traders.
The end result is a culture of endless influence and yet one completely uniquely Kenyan in character.
Music and Dance
Traditionally, Kenyan music originates from several sources.
Many of the Nomadic tribes of this region share some common ground in the use of songs and chants, particularly among Maa speaking groups.
Maa song has always played a large role in ceremonial life, and continues to. One of the best known Maasai ceremonial songs is the Engilakinoto, sung after a victorious lion hunt. Structured around a deep rhythmic chant it is accompanied by a spectacular dance in which warriors display their strength and prowess by leaping directly and vertically into the air.
Elsewhere, the use of drums became widespread and central to elaborate traditional dances. The word Ngoma (drum) is still used to describe most forms of traditional music and dance.
A variety of drums were used throughout the country. The Luhya of Western Kenya developed a very distinctive dance style called Sikuti after the local name for a drum. This extremely energetic dance is usually performed by paired male and female dancers, and accompanied by several drums, bells, long horns and whistles.
The Kamba and Chuka people both developed a distinctive drumming style, in which a long drum is leant forward and clasped between the thighs. The Kamba were well known for their athletic, almost acrobatic dancing.
Other instruments were developed, including reed flutes and basic stringed instruments. One of the finer of these was the Nyatiti, similar to the medieval lyre. The Nyatiti is commonly played throughout Kenya's West. It has a gentle, relaxing sound, and is usually played solo with a single singer, and sometimes accompanied by light percussion or bells.
Ayub Ogada is a modern master Nyatiti player from Kenya, who has become internationally famous. His first album En Maana Kuoyo is an excellent introduction to the sound of the Nyatiti.
On the coast, the growth of Swahili culture saw the growth of a unique style of music, called Taarab. Combining elements of African percussion with Arabic rhythms, Taarab become a popular form of music that remains a coastal favourite today.
Traditional Taarab music used large numbers of musicians and Arab instruments such as the Oud, combined with violins and several vocalists.
Modern Taarab continues to evolve, and is adopting some rhythms and grooves from Hindi film music and bhangra. But at the heart of Taarab remains a core of very rhythmic, poetic Swahili lyrics. One of the better known Kenyan exponents is Juma Balo.
Inland, the colonial period gave rise to Beni singing, a group folk song that contained strong elements of social commentary and political criticism. Beni songs were always very long and were sung in the form of a narrative story.
The 1960's saw the arrival of both Independence and the electric guitar, and the birth of modern Kenyan popular music. There were two definite influences: From the South, South African Jazz and Zimbabwean 'highlife' guitar work, and much more significantly, from the West, the distinctive rumba rhythm of Congolese pop.
A hybridized form of music evolved- widely known as Benga, and usually rather tribally targeted. Singers sung in their own tribal language, resulting in strong ethnic followings.
Many of these artists remain popular today, such as Luo musician DO Misiani , Luhya legend Daudi Kibaka and venerated Kikuyu singer Kamaru.
The rise of Christianity greatly increased the popularity of gospel music in general and choral music in particular.
Throughout the 1970's and 80's Nairobi became a popular crossroads for African musicians, and many Zairean rumba bands either made Kenya their home or a frequent stopover concert venue.
Their influence on Kenyan music was considerable, and much of popular Kenyan music derives its central rhythms and guitar lines from Congolese pop. Even today Lingala and Congolese music is extremely popular throughout Kenya.
There was some influence from the coast, using more Swahili and Asian based styles, resulting in a short lived wave of Kenyan pop, spearheaded by Them Mushrooms from Mombasa.
The 90's and the 21st Century have seen a great deal more Western influence, and the adoption of reggae, rap, rhythm and blues and swing into Kenyan music.
A new wave of popular musicians is creating a form of Kenyan music which fuses traditional elements with the many external influences to produce something new and very interesting.
Two young Kenyan musicians, Joseph Ogidi and Jahd Adonijah began performing and recording their own compositions in 1999. They called themselves Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, and had a surprise runaway hit with 'Ting Badi Malo' an infectious pop song built around a blend of Swahili and Sheng rap.
One of Kenya's most inspiring stories is that of Mighty King Kong, an Afro-reggae singer from Western Kenya. Born in Siaya District, he was afflicted with polio at a young age, badly withering one of his legs.
When his father died, his family moved to Kisumu, where he ran away from home.
He lived for 6 years on the streets of Kisumu, during which time he made money by busking. His singing and dancing earned him local fame, and his new name 'The Mighty King Kong'. Eventually he made his way to Mombasa, where he began to get work as a DJ in several nightclubs, before finally taking to the stage with his own act performing reggae in Luo, Swahili and English.
He was an immediate hit with crowds in the clubs, and was soon playing to packed houses across the country. His first album Ladies Choice sold well throughout Kenya. He has recently released a follow up album Cinderella, an appropriate title given his own real-life rags to riches story.
From a very different background is Eric Wainaina, a young classically trained musician. His musical style is a blend of very African guitar riffs with a commercial Western feel. His first album, Sawa Sawa was a hit, mainly through the success of the single Nchi ya Kitu Kidogo, a satirical political song with a highly danceable melody.
Rap has become increasingly popular among young Kenyans, and there are several Kenya based rap acts. While the sounds of groups like Kalamashaka or Necessary Noize are virtually indistinguishable from US based rappers, the lyrics are most definitely Kenyan and have much to say about life in modern Kenya. One of the more popular Kenyan rappers is Poxie Presha, whose well cut album Total Ballaa was a massive hit.
Ragga has also become popular, with blends of Afro-reggae and rap. One of the better known Kenyan Ragga artists is Nazizi the female vocalist from rap group Necessary Noize also known for her solo ragga work.
As the current trend for fusion of world and western styles grows, many Kenyan artists are exploring this new realm of musical possibility. One of the most popular up and coming artists is Mercy Myra who combines traditional and modern, African and Western styles.
The arrival of better and more easily accessible instrumentation and recording facilities is continuing to strengthen and diversify the Kenyan music scene.
If you'd like to take home more than just memories of your trip to Kenya, you'll find a wide range of local products that make ideal souvenirs or gifts.
Kenyan products are as diverse and unique as the country itself. There are traditional artefacts, fantastic jewellrey, beautiful carvings, the world's best coffee, precious stones, furniture, beautiful cloth, excellent local music, wonderful modern art and so much more to be found.
Excellent, well stocked gift shops can be found in may hotels, lodges and camps throughout the country. But often real finds can be found a little further off the beaten track.
For the dedicated bargain hunter, Kenya's markets are the place to be. Markets selling all kinds of local arts and crafts can be found all over the country. In Nairobi, there are large open air markets held each week.
Bargaining is the expected norm in Markets and even in some shops throughout Kenya. The art of bargaining has deep roots in Kenyan culture, and is regarded as an essential business skill.
Visitors to Kenya should never be afraid to bargain, it is expected and rarely considered offensive. Opening prices are always an exaggerated gambit, and considered the first step in a long process of bargaining.
The real price is usually somewhere in the lower vicinity of half the initial price. How close you come to the real price is up to you. Bargaining can be a long and convoluted process, involving protracted negotiations. Some westerners can find this frustrating, but it is an essential and usually amicable custom.
If you are in a hurry and need to move on, it is the usual practice to finalize proceedings by declaring your 'absolute final price' (the Bei ya Mwisho) and asking for theirs. If you can both agree a figure between the two then the deal is done.
The basic rule of bargaining is this: Bargain hard but don't be unreasonable.
Don't forget that some work, especially good quality carvings and beaded jewellrey, takes a long time to make and involves a lot of hard work. Prices need to be fair from both sides.
Some tourists barter goods like old t-shirts, pens and other items for local handicrafts. This practice can be culturally questionable, and it is usually much preferred to use money. Giving sweets and candy for children should definitely be avoided.
The following is a sample of some of the best buys in Kenya:
Fine examples of basketry can be found throughout Kenya. Baskets vary in size and colour regionally throughout Kenya.
One of the most popular is the sisal basket called the Kiondoo. These baskets, commonly produced in Kikuyu areas (where you may hear them called Chondo) are a small functional basket with a leather carrying strap. They are popularly used as handbags, although traditionally they are carried by Kikuyu women behind the head, with the strap across the forehead.
These days Kiondoo are often made in a wide variety of colours, and in more modern versions with a clip, buckle or zip, sometimes in a decorative design.
Carving are probably the most popular item with visitors to Kenya. There is a wide variety of carving styles using a range of materials available. It is well worth shopping around for quality and value.
On the coast carving of ornate doors, furniture and household fittings play a major part in local culture. The best carvers are found on Lamu, where they produce excellent chairs, doors, brass inlaid boxes, picture frames and small replica dhows. Commonly used woods on the coast are the wood of older Mango trees and the wood of the introduced Neem tree.
Most Kenyans would agree that the best carvers in the country are the Wakamba from Eastern Kenya. They are well known for producing wood carvings, particularly of animals. For more information on Kamba carving and culture, see the Related Links above.
The distinctive dark ebony carvings, known as Makonde, actually originate from the coast of Tanzania. the popularity of Makonde work means that there are many Makonde artists in Kenya and their work is widely available. Some Makonde work is now made with blackened rosewood. Traditional Makonde designs are thin elongated human figures, towers of intricate intertwined human bodies known as the Tree of Life, figures from the Slave trade and surreal figures based on local mythology.
There is a current trend among tourists for buying huge carved giraffes. There are plenty of these and other large carvings available. If you have a problem with baggage allowances, freight can be arranged to have these items sent to your home country. Contact the post office or a specialist freight forwarding agent.
In recent years, deforestation has become a problem in Kenya. While the main causes for this are clearing for farmland and charcoal burning, the demand for wood carving also increases the need of wood. At the same time, the carving industry provides vital labour to many people, particularly the Kamba community, and is an important form of expression of both traditional and modern art.
However, the industry needs to be sustainable and deforestation is causing major environmental problems. The harvest of native Ebony, Mahagony, Rosewood and Olive wood is the greatest threat to indigenous forests and the species they support, through habitat loss for wildlife and destruction of water catchment areas.
The demand for carvings has meant the devaluing of precious woods such as the ebony, ordinarily a highly expensive wood. This has led to the rapid and wholesale destruction of Ebony forests.
Visitors to Kenya should try and make careful and aware decisions when purchasing wood. Certainly rare native woods (Ebony, Rosewood, Olive and Mahogany) should be avoided, or only purchased when used in high quality and highly priced carvings. Cheap objects such as salad spoons and small mass produced carved animals made from these woods present the greatest environmental threat.
Try to buy, and thereby encourage the use of, environmentally friendly woods. These include introduced and renewable trees such as the Jacaranda, Neem, Mango, Blue Gum, and Grevillea. Encouraging use of these woods allows you to protect the local environment and support a sustainable carving industry for the future.
The Kisii people of Western Kenya are gifted stone carvers. They use a locally quarried soapstone to produce a range of carvings. The most popular items are small animals, chess pieces based on traditional African designs and more functional items such as egg cups, soap dishes, coasters and ash trays.
The soapstone here varies in colour from white (the easiest to carve) through various shades of pink to a deep lustrous red (the most difficult to carve).
Collectors of ethnic artefacts and objects will find plenty of traditional and tribal items and artefacts in Kenya.
The Maasai and Northern tribes including the Turkana, Gabbra, Rendille, Oromo and Samburu are all good sources of artefacts. Buyers may find a noticeable divide between genuine functional objects and those produced for the tourist market.
Popular items include Gourds, Neck Pillows (small carved stools propped under the neck while sleeping), Shields, Gourds, Spears, Wrist knives and Traditional swords called Simis.
Cloth, Clothing and Textiles
The best available textiles in Kenya are found on the coast, known as the Khanga and the Kikoy. These traditional cloths are worn as a wrap around garment by both men and women all over the East African coast, similar to the sarong of South East Asia.
The kikoy is a bright, usually striped, cloth with knotted tassles along each hem. The khanga is larger, more elaborately patterned and traditionally emblazoned with a Swahili proverb offering a pearl of conventional wisdom.
These cloths are synonymous with the Kenyan coast, and their fabrics are often adapted into clothing, tablecloths, bedlinen, and just about anything else possible. A khanga or kikoy is perfect for the beach and can either be worn or used as a beach towel, or both.
The coast is also home to excellent tailors, who can produce clothing from local fabrics quickly and cheaply, made to order.
Inland, the most common textile is the Maasai Shukka. This is the blanket seen worn by most Maasai, always red blended with black, blue or other colours. They are warm and functional blankets, ideal for the chill of early mornings on Safari.
A common item of footwear in Kenya is the 'Thousand miler', a sandal cut from an old car tyre. These sandals are very tough and surprisingly comfortable once worn in. Thousand milers are available at most local markets.
Many Kenyan clothes designers have incorporated traditional designs and textile patterns into attractive modern garments, which are becoming increasingly popular.
Physical decoration and adornment is of great cultural significance to many of Kenya's tribes.
The beaded jewellrey and decorative items of the Maasai and other Kenyan peoples has become internationally famous. The beadwork is astonishingly intricate and beautiful, combining thousands of tiny coloured beads with cowrie shells and leatherwork.
Each of the many designs of bracelets,ceremonial adornments and particularly necklaces has its own particular traditional meaning and purpose. Today, Maasai beading has become so popular that it is possible to find many more modern beadwork items. These include belts, watchstraps, sandals and even mobile phone covers!
Other common items of jewellrey include the 'elephant hair' bracelets sold on the streets of Nairobi. Don't be overly concerned about the fate of the elephants involved, the bracelets are mostly made from blackened grass or twine. This style of knotted bracelet is also often replicated in copper or wire.
In Nairobi and Northern Kenya, a wide array of copper, brass and wire bracelets are sold. Some of these bracelets feature attractive and unusual designs, and are often made from recycled fencing wire or telephone lines.
Kenya is also a good place to find antique and reproduction silver jewellrey from Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Yemen. Excellent examples of this work can be bought in Markets and Curio shops throughout Kenya, often incorporating silver designs with stone beading, amber and camel bone ornamentation.
Kenya is a good place to find traditional musical instruments.
Drums are very easy to find. Many of Kenya's traditional cultures developed musical forms based around drumming, called Ngoma. Even today, drumming is used at many festive ceremonies, religious events and political rallies.
Drums are most large and round with a taut goat or cowhide skin. They are predominantly flat based or three legged and played by a seated drummer. Longer drums, like those used by the Shukka tribe, are leant forward and held between the thighs of a standing musician. Some of the larger drums are often bought to be used as coffee tables.
On the coast drums tend to be smaller and are used in traditional Taarab and Swahili music. Elongated drums that are held under the arm and played with a curved stick are used, as are smaller palm and finger drums similar to the Indian Tablas and large flat tambour drums played by rapidly rotating the drum across an open palm.
The coast is also home to a unique wind instrument called the Siwa which is a large, ornately carved wooden flute capped off with the horn of a cow. Good examples of the Siwa can be found on Lamu, where they play a significant role in local festivities and events.
Traditional stringed instruments are found throughout Kenya, mostly originated from the tribes of Western Kenya. The Nyatiti is similar to the European lyre, with strings bound to a curved arm. played like a harp this instrument produces a particularly beautiful sound.