Jul 01, 2008, 05:33AM

Golden in Austin

Extra Golden, a half-Kenyan, half-American Benga band, continues their reign as one of the world's best live groups.

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Photo copyright Thrill Jockey Records

I hate being late to concerts and having to sit through bands I have no interest in. At 22, I sometimes feel like a grouchy old man with a bad back and worse knees. So when my girlfriend and I arrived at Club Deville in Austin, Texas, last Sunday and heard Extra Golden in full-on rock mode, I was horrified that I might’ve missed a big chunk of a set from one of my favorite bands in an unfamiliar city. Not to worry, though, the doorman informed me they were just wrapping up their first song (although one cowboy-hat-donning local remarked, “That was one long song!” to no one in particular).

The first time I saw Extra Golden was a much more sparsely attended affair; the audience consisted of a friend, myself and four other fans. But it was one of the greatest concert experiences of my life. The fates seemed so perfectly aligned at the time: It was June of 2006, I had just discovered Ok-Oyot System, an album that wouldn’t leave the turntable for weeks, and they were playing at one of the most unique venues in Detroit, the Bohemian National Home. They almost didn’t make it to the U.S. at all—but were saved from months of red tape by Sen. Barack Obama and his connections in the Kenyan Embassy. It was such an experience that I did something I promised myself I’d never do for any band —referred to it in writing as transcendent.

Since then they’ve written and released a song (“in the spirit of thanking people,” according to guitarist Ian Eagleson) called “Obama,” which in Club Deville they dedicated (in jest) to John McCain and received a mixture of jeers and applause. Seeing them in Austin was quite a different experience than in an abandoned school in the Motor City. For one, there was a rambunctious and sun-stretched crowd of dozens, slower to know about fashion trends but more willing to figure out how to move to Extra Golden’s interpretation of Western Kenya’s popular Benga style. The band hadn’t changed much in the intervening years, except to add a stone-faced bassist, Noel Kupersmith, and a new vocalist, Onyango Jagwasi (replacing the deceased Otieno Jagwasi). The manner in which they played, with energy and enthusiasm and the bass drum pounding on every quarter note was no different in front of five people in Detroit than a hundred Texans.

The venue was perfect. Club Deville has an outdoor stage in front of a sheer rock cliff and on a night where the weather abided—i.e., no stifling heat—one could hardly ask for a better place to enjoy a cold Bud Light, a few cigarettes and Benga grooves. It was a bit jarring to witness a sea of cowboy hats and ruffled skirts whooping and hollering at a stage full of, well, very different faces, but it never seemed like a spectacle, just damn good music and people enjoying it.

Lead guitarist Opiyo Bilongo, himself a leader of a quite popular Kenyan band, Opiyo Bilongo’s All Stars, smiled as he was introduced halfway through the show as the composer and singer of “Jakolando,” the first track off of their sophomore effort, this year’s Hera Ma Nono. For most of the show he danced and strutted while slinging his guitar around like a more limber Chuck Berry, but when he stepped up to the microphone to sing, he would tense up as if he were channeling his voice from another world or, more literally, from another continent. Bilogno, and the other star of the show, drummer Onyango Wuod Omari, radiated love, something I have a feeling most of their songs are about, even though I don’t understand the lyrics.

When I can understand the lyrics, as sung in English by Alex Minoff and Ian Eagleson, their message is clear: have a conscience, love everyone and be open-minded. Their song, “Ok-Oyot System,” which followed “Jakolando,” repeats the refrain “What goes around comes around” and wise platitudes like “On the way up/someone has to go down,” and “Sometimes you eat/sometimes you get eaten,” that might sound clichéd coming from any other band. But Extra Golden makes those words sound prophetic instead of forced, world weary instead of half-baked posturing.

After all, a lot of credit has to go to Eagleson and Minoff, Washington, D.C. musicians (formerly of Golden and Weird War, respectively) and ethnomusicologists, for a lot of work putting the band together in the first place. When I asked Minoff after the show exactly how he was able to get Obama’s help with their visas, he told me, “I just called his office.” Without Obama’s influence and accessibility, a tour would have been nearly impossible and their album on Drag City quickly forgotten. Instead Extra Golden is coming to a city near you sometime soon, as they’ll play until those visas run out.

See Extra Golden's MySpace page for tour dates.


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