Major Kenyan Art: music, dance, Sigana and theatre.


Kenyan Art.

Here is a short overview of the major Kenyan art forms; including music, dance, Sigana, theatre and performance, literature, cinema, crafts and other Kenya art.

Music : Benga is a truly Kenyan music style. Benga is a high-energy dance music that originated after the 1940s when Luo musicians started playing traditional tunes with modern electrical instruments. Taarab is the traditional Swahili music played at the coast, and is heavily influenced by Arabic and Indian music styles.

Dance : The hypnotic swaying and leaping in Masai and Samburu dancing, are the best known forms of Kenyan dancing. In their energetic dancing, warriors display their strength by leaping high in the air. The Masai and other tribes perform regularly for tourists who visit their villages. In tourist venues along the coast, Mijikenda dance groups often give performances


Sigana : Sigana is a traditional performance which contains elements of all the major Kenyan forms of art: storytelling, song, music, dance, rituals etc. Active participation is a key feature of sigana. The line between performers and audience is less clear than in many other Kenya art forms.

Theatre and performance : There are several theatre groups in Kenya, most of them based in Nairobi. Names to remember are the Mbalamwezi Theatre Group and the Phoenix and Miujiza Players. They often perform at the foreign cultural centres in Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu. In Nairobi, there’s the Kenya National Theatre..

Literature : In Kenya, oral narratives are the oldest form of literature. Oral stories are still important in many communities. Written literature, in Swahili and English, emerged in the beginning of the twentieth century. However, only after Kenya’s independence (1963) a body of national literature came into being. An important author (novelist, playwright and essayist) is Ngugi wa Thiong’o. As a child on missionary school, he was a devout Christian, but later he rejected Christianity and became a fierce critic of colonialism. He changed his name from James Ngugi to Ngugi wa Thiong’o in 1976 and embraced his native Kikuyu culture.

Crafts : In Kenya you will find much beautiful and fine craft work. It’s sometimes amazing to see people in rags sitting outside their ‘home’ (if you could call it that), and produce wooden carved tables and chairs of a beauty you won’t see anywhere in North America or Europe. Most crafts are produced for tourists. It’s best to set aside any purist misgivings you might have over their authenticity, and just enjoy them for their own beauty (which they often have). Wood carvings of people and animals can be bought everywhere. Classic are the very long sculptures of women carrying baskets on their heads.

Soap stone objects are another popular for of Kenya art. Soap stone is mined in western Kenya by the Gusii and Abagusii tribes. They then produce beautiful sculptures, chess sets etc. from it. Each piece is carved individually by the craftsmen and then wet sanded, polished and dyed all by hand. Soap stone products can be bought everywhere in Kenya. Jewelry (often in the form of beads) are another Kenyan speciality and they can be bought in all colours of the rainbow. Jewelry is important in African culture. Much Kenyan jewelry contains cowry shells. They are not only beautiful but also symbolic. Masai spears and shields are also popular souvenirs. But first check with your air company and your customs whether you can take them home. Another solution is having them sent home by mail. Some tourist shops offer this option.

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