Four years ago, Washington, D.C., ethnomusicology major and Extra Golden guitarist Ian Eagleson was sitting in a Nairobi nightclub with local musician Otieno Jagwasi, a leading light in Kenya's Benga music scene and guitarist in his own band, Extra Solar Africa. Eagleson was in the midst of a yearlong stay in Kenya doing his graduate work, assisted by Jagwasi, who he had met through local contacts four years earlier and who had provided invaluable guidance in Eagleson's field work.
"I'd been a fan of African music for a long time in my studies," says Eagleson. "I ended up in Kenya when I was an undergraduate, a semester abroad type of thing. I enjoyed it there and I made some connections with musicians. I started getting into Benga because I was enjoying the guitar styles and the whole scene was very interesting to me, so I decided to focus my dissertation on that."
In 2004, Eagleson, Jagwasi, Golden's other guitarist Alex Minoff and a small cast of other Kenyan Benga players assembled a musical hybrid of the regional African style melded with elements of American Indie Rock. Utilizing a laptop and a makeshift instrumental rig, the group came away with the basic framework of what would ultimately become 2006's Ok-Oyo System, the first album credited to the U.S./Kenya collaboration Extra Golden
But before the album could be shopped around, Jagwasi succumbed to his long battle with liver disease. He never witnessed the realization of his long association with Eagleson.
"It was really poignant that he couldn't see what happened," says Eagleson. "He'd been sick a long time. He'd been hospitalized with cirrhosis and struggled with it, even when I was there the first time. It was clear he wasn't going to be around too long. The last couple of years of his life were pretty good. He was very active in music and having a good time so I'm glad we got to do that thing while he was still around."
Eagleson and Minoff didn't have to shop long before Chicago's Thrill Jockey expressed serious interest in releasing Extra Golden's debut album. Not long after, Eagleson received an offer he couldn't refuse ... but nearly had to.
"We got invited to play in Chicago at this city-run music festival and the arrangements took place late in the game considering how much red tape you've got to go through in Kenya to get a visa to the U.S.," recalls Eagleson. "It got to the point where we weren't going to get the visas in time unless someone with connections could intervene at the U.S. Embassy to give us a break."
After the requisite wheel-greasing of corrupt Kenyan officials, Minoff contacted the embassy which started a sequence of events that ultimately led to Illinois senator Barack Obama. With Obama's endorsement and a couple of other strings pulled, Extra Golden was able to make its U.S. debut,
"Those guys were able to get what they needed in time and we were very grateful for it," says Eagleson. "One of the Kenyan guys composed a song commenting on that."
That song, "Obama," appears on Extra Golden's sophomore release from last year, Hera Ma Nono, an album which bears an obvious difference from its predecessor because of Jagwasi's tragic absence. The critical success of the first album convinced Eagleson of Extra Golden's viability, but the death of his friend and colleague presented a slight bump in the road going forward.
"When the CD came out, we were like, 'Wow, it's too bad we can't play this,' " says Eagleson. "Then we got the offer to do the festival and the money was enough to support getting some people over and our label was willing to help us out. But we'd have to get somebody else to play lead guitar and do some singing and that's how we got Opiyo Bilongo. I tried to think who could do that and he was a pretty obvious choice."
Bilongo, an equally renowned Benga player, had never heard Jagwasi's work with Extra Golden until Eagleson played it for him, but he liked what he heard and was eager to join the aggregation. ("Obama" is his composition.) Just as importantly, this latest iteration of Extra Golden also features Jagwasi's brother, Onyango, on drums and vocals, a fitting and heartfelt tribute. But clearly the differences between the albums run deeper than the shift in personnel.
"On the first record, everything was composed beforehand and then we taught each other each song so we knew it good enough to play, then we went in and recorded it," says Eagleson. "The second one was more like we started together, although every time you write a new record you definitely dig up some things from the past that you didn't use before but that get transformed when you work with different people. The process was definitely different. It involved more collaborative work in composing the songs. The first one we just kind of juxtaposed each other's styles."
With African and American rhythms even more integrated and unified on Hera Ma Nono and the lineup settled into some semblance of permanence, Extra Golden is ready to entertain audiences on every continent beginning with their home nations.
"It's unusual for both audiences, I guess," says Eagleson of reactions here and in Kenya. "It's cool for the American audience because they don't get to see African music in a bar in a Rock context. They end up seeing it in a festival or a concert hall. Kenyan audiences just appreciate the fact that we exist."
Extra Golden performs Friday at the Lite Brite Indie Pop and Film Test at the Southgate House. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.