Music Traditions of Kenya

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Kenyan music is defined as music created by a Kenyan. Others say that it is music produced on the Kenyan soil. This makes it complex to comprehend what Kenyan music is and hence its history.

When asked who a Kenyan is many students saY that it is any body who holds a Kenyan citizenship, anyone whose parents are indigenous Kenyans or any one born and raised on the Kenyan soil. These definitions make it difficult for some scholars. It also tends to give a limited view of what Kenyan music is and complicates further the definition of Kenyan music.

Kenya is a multicultural society. Its music and culture is therefore not homogenous but heterogeneous. We have

  • Arabs,
  • Indians
  • other people of Asian origin

whose music though may have developed some characteristic of its own on the African continent is viewed as belonging to the oriental family.

We also have people of European and American origin who music is not seen as Kenyan because of its roots in their mother countries.

We also have music of Africans have migrated to Kenya from other Africa countries; Numbians in

  • Kibira
  • Kisumu
  • Kisii.

We are again not sure whether to include their in the category of Kenyan music.

There are African communities whose musical cultures have there roots on the Kenyan soil. This is the music which is considered by a majority of people as Kenyan. In this music there is a network of distinct yet related traditions. They also overlap in certain aspects of style, practice, usage and share internal Patterns. One common thing is the diversity it accommodates.


The indigenous people of Kenya are very diverse. They live in groupings of people who share common culture-ethnic groups. There are more than 42 such groups in Kenya. Each of these groups has characteristic music styles associated with it. For example isukuti is associated with the Abaluhya, sengenya with the Mijikenda, Kilumi with the Akamba and mwomboko with the Agikuyu.

Several factors account for the diversity of the music tradition of Kenya · There histories followed different causes. Most of the ethnic groups believe they have a common legendary ancestral origin. The Agikuyu believe the originated Gikuyu and Mumbi, the Luos believe that their ancestral father is Ramongi. Apart from the first people to live who gathers and hunters (Khoi and sani; Boni lived between Tana River and juba; Okiek and Dorobos living on the slops of Mt. Elgon) all the others migrated from other places into Kenya. The Bantu speaking people are said to have migrated from the kongo forest, the Nilotes from the sudan and the cushites from the north. Each of the different followed different roots and encountered different situations that lend to creation of different cultures and music. Hence the diversity. · Environmental conditions of the areas they settled. We have variety topography in Kenya. These provide different environmental conditions that influence the culture and the music of the people. The diversity I the surrounding conditions and resources leads to a diversity of the music created. · Occupation the different groups have different occupation; some are purely agriculturists, pastoralists, Long distance traders and light industries-pottery, weaving, wood covering and iron art. All these influence d the kind of music that people created and performed. · Political organization: some groups had central political institutions like chiefs while others were led by a council of elders. Those with chiefdoms developed music made for the chiefs and related features. Those who had council of elders developed different music for the different functions in the structure. · Religious organization: the believe in a supernatural


The earliest contact between the Kenyan indigenous communities with external cultures started in the BC; before the birth of Christ. The record of this contact is found in the “Periplus of the Erythrian Sea” (written in 120AD-1st century) and the “Geography” (written in the 5th century). Both of these documents are written in Greek. The records in these documents indicate that the Egyptians, Greeks, Persian (Arabs) and Chinese had traveled to the east coast of Africa in the time before the birth of Christ. It should be noted that the boundaries that today divide African continent into different countries were a creation of the Berlin conference of 1885. So before this time there was no Kenya (Map of Africa). When we talk of the earliest contact with external cultures we are referring to contact with east coast of Africa and not just Kenya.


The Orient refers to countries of the East especially East Asia; Arabs, Indians and Chinese. As noted in the “Periplus of the Erythrian Sea” and the “Geography”, this contact started in the BC. However, there is no indication as to when it started. It is known that at about the 12th century AD, the Arabs settled in the Island of Zanzibar, Pemba, Lamu, and Mombasa. It is said that there were some conflict on religious matters that led some Arabs to flee from there countries. The gede ruins, in Malindi, are said to have been build in the 13th century AD. In the 15th century AD the Portuguese on their way to India settled in Mombasa and drove away, temporary, the Wagwana (a mixture of Arabs and other Asians) out of the Town. All along the Arabs controlled the trade between the East African cost and the orient. This remained so until the 18th century. This prolonged contact between the Arabs and the Bantu people of the East coast of Africa had several results; the two co-existed and intermarried to produce a new people who were neither Arabs nor Africans. A new language, Kiswahili, came as conglomeration of Arabic and Bantu languages. The language unified the people of the new culture, the Swahili culture. Swahili is not a name of any one ethnic group but identifies several people bound together by the Swahili culture and more so the Kiswahili language. The of the African culture and the Oriental culture was also experienced in music. Musical materials derived from both cultures were also blend to produce that bears evidence of the two cultures coming into contact. This includes both music genres and musical instruments used. Among the most known music genres that developed from this contact are Taarab and Chakacha. Singing is the foundation of the two music genres. The singing is characterized by a tense nasal voice quality as well as the ornate style of vocal execution. Taarab Music.

Katuli (talk)02:29, 5 June 2008