Golden boys: Chicago indie rock meets Kenyan dance in Extra Golden

Guitarist Ian Eagleson was studying musicology and had traveled to Nairobi on a research grant for his doctoral dissertation on Benga, a popular form of Kenyan dance music he’d been studying since 2000. At the time he was a member of the Chicago indie-rock band Golden, alongside friend and guitarist Alex Minoff, who — when Eagleson spent a year in the African country in 2004 — decided to accompany his bandmate there so the two could write some new music. 

Extra Golden: Photo by Noel Kupersmith

Extra Golden: Photo by Noel Kupersmith

“It just seemed natural to work on music while we were there, and it eventually became a record,” Eagleson explained. 

How that happened is where this story takes off: Otieno Jagwasi and Onyango Wuod Omari had been assisting Eagleson with his research. Both known musicians in Kenya, they heard a little of what Golden was up to and quickly became eager for collaboration. “They liked it, even though it’s very different from what they’re used to,” Eagleson said. 

The four musicians jammed in a Nairobi nightclub one afternoon, fusing rock songs that Eagleson and Minoff had been working on with traditional Benga music that Omari and Jagwasi had been performing in local Kenyan bands for years. “We just tried it out for fun basically and eventually I ended up making it into a record,” Eagleson said of the session, recorded with a laptop and mixing board he had brought from the States. Things advanced rather quickly. 

But tragedy struck the group the following year, when Jagwasi died of complications from a kidney and liver disease. Jagwasi’s death inspired Eagleson to release the songs he had recorded in Kenya, and Minoff’s connections with Chicago-based indie label Thrill Jockey led to the release of Ok-Oyot System in 2006. 

Eagleson said he is surprised the band’s music has managed to gain so many fans in such a short period, but he attributes their success to support from their label, numerous spins on public radio and a certain ability to transcend musical genres and audiences. “We can fit into a lot of different situations, because we have some African music going on, which can get you booked at a lot of festivals,” he explained.

The demand for live performances surged after the release of Ok-Oyot System, so Onyango Jagwasi (brother of Otieno) and Opiyo Bilongo were brought in to perform at the band’s first live show, the 2006 Chicago World Music Festival. The replacements became permanent members after the show and Extra Golden released their second album, Hera Ma Nono, in 2007, to positive response from critics and fans. The album includes an upbeat afro-pop tribute to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, properly titled “Obama.” 

At the beginning of this year, however, the band suffered another setback, when violent riots erupted in Kenya over a disputed presidential election, and the two Kenyan members were forced to leave their homes. “There was a lot of chaos and instability, and the guys were living in a really unsafe part of Nairobi,” Eagleson explained. As a result, Eagleson and Minoff organized a donor pool to help Jagwasi and Bilongo support their families and relocate to a safer part of the city.

With such a hectic touring schedule, Extra Golden — the name is a hybrid of Otieno Jagwasi’s band, Extra Solar Africa, and the obvious — has been on the road most of the year, promoting their unique brand of Benga-influenced rock at various venues and festivals in Europe and the U.S. They recently performed at the renowned Roskilde Festival in Denmark, the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, and they will of course be performing at the Forecastle Festival this Saturday evening. In between the live shows, Minoff and Eagleson recently released Extra Golden singer and guitarist Opiyo Bilongo’s solo album When I Was In U.S. through their own digital label, Kanyo. The band also plans to wrap up their third album by the end of the year. 

“Hopefully we’ll start recording after we finish up the tour and before the guys have to go back to Kenya,” Eagleson said.  

Extra Golden play Forecastle’s West Stage on Saturday, July 26, at 6 p.m.