D.O. Misiani

'Grandfather' of benga music


Daniel Owino Misiani, singer and guitarist: born Nyamagongo, Tanzania 22 February 1940; twice married (14 children); died Kisumu, Kenya 17 May 2006.

D. O. Misiani was one of the last surviving stars of the 1970s "golden era" of Kenyan music. Known at home as the "King of History", abroad he was dubbed "the grandfather of benga" for the speedy regional roots style which became almost synonymous with Kenyan music soon after the mid-1960s.

Born in 1940, Daniel Owino Misiani grew up in a part of northern Tanzania where the main ethnic group were the Luo, most of whom live in neighbouring Kenya, around eastern Lake Victoria. His parents were singers and Misiani started his musical journey in school, hospital and church choirs, later playing percussion with a local acoustic group. His strict Christian father smashed the first guitar his son was given, but by the end of 1963, Misiani had overcome such opposition with gifts of livestock and clothing bought from his earnings as an itinerant musician in Tanzania and Kenya.

Settling in Nairobi in 1964, Misiani continued to develop his unique style on "dry" (acoustic) guitar, combining diverse elements such as the Luo women's bodi music and finger-picking styles of the likes of the popular Congolese musician Jean Bosco Mwenda with the influence of nyatiti (eight-stringed lyre) and orutu (one-stringed violin) playing techniques to create what came to be known as "benga".

In 1965, he made his first recordings with the Victoria Boys and bought his first electric guitar. The band changed their name to Shirati Luo Voice, and soon began having hit 45s and later LPs. Benga became the most successful "vernacular" style in Kenya, influencing other local roots genres and vying for dominance of the airwaves with rumba-based Swahili and Congolese music at its height in the Seventies, during which time the band went through several name changes, eventually becoming Shirati Jazz.

Misiani was renowned for his sharp, witty lyrics, which saw him jailed several times. By the late 1980s, piracy, lack of airplay and competition from other styles meant the benga boom had passed. Out of favour with the Kenyan authorities once more in 1987, Misiani was denied a passport, thus missing the only UK tour by Shirati Jazz.

In 1989, the producer Ben Mandelson and music journalist Werner Graebner were recording Luo folklore at APS Studio in Nairobi. Misiani dropped by and the resulting internationally released album Piny Ose Mer/The World Upside Down (1989) was followed by the Earthworks compilation Benga Blast! (1989). Misiani's songs subsequently appeared on a number of compilations.

He continued to release cassettes prolifically in Kenya and was always in demand for live performances. In recent years, he and Shirati Jazz were regulars at Club Oasis, near Kisumu. The US label Equator Heritage released a CD of the same name in 2002, and Misiani made his first trip to the United States in 2004, playing low-key gigs. Last year, he undertook a short tour of Germany and Holland.

Jon Lusk

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