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Traditional Kenyan entertainment

Traditional Kenyan entertainment

With 42 tribes in Kenya, defining a specific entertainment as ‘traditional’ is almost impossible without going into an excessive treatise on the subject. Each tribe has songs, dances, costumes and musical instruments typical of its area. This article gives a brief overview of the types of entertainment, some examples from various tribes, and where you can find traditional entertainment when you come to Kenya.

Singing is a traditional form of entertainment almost everywhere in the world, so it’s no surprise that Kenyan tribes also sing. Each of the 42 tribes has their own language, so it’s easy to tell where the song comes from…as long as you can recognize the language! In all tribes one thing is the same: there are different rhythms and words for the songs associated with the various ceremonies. This means that when a Kikuyu returns to his village and hears singing, he can tell what is happening. However, that does not mean that if a Taita goes to a Kikuyu village, he too will be able to tell what is happening, unless he understands Kikuyu. So each tribe has circumcision songs, festival songs, wedding songs, funeral songs, newborn songs, etc.

Along with singing comes dancing, and again, movements differ between tribes. The Kikuyu wear ankle bells with men and women paired together, palms together and swaying. In Luhya culture, dancing is all about the shoulders and for the Luos it is about the hips. Maasai men jump and it is a show of manliness if they can jump higher than their peers.

The dance is complemented by traditional costumes that are made from materials found in a tribe’s area. Luo men wear grass skirts from the reeds of Lake Victoria and cowhide on the back. Towards the coast, the Taita men wear kanga of Swahili culture while the women wear grass skirts. In the central highlands, Kikuyus clothing is a bit more substantial to keep out the cold, with sheepskin hats confusing many travelers as they resemble typical Russian hats. The men generally dress in white and the women in a brown-beige color. Kikuyu men also carry swords and have a belt made of animal skin to carry the sword.

Musical instruments often accompany singing and dancing, and most people are familiar with the African drum. But there are even differences in how the drum is used in Kenya. For example, the Kamba sit with the drum between their legs while the Luhya hold the drum under their arms. Kamba also uses a whistle to signal a change of pace.

Storytelling is common and the elders teach lessons through tales to the young children. Today comedy is becoming popular, with skits performed between music ensembles. The stories and sketches are often set in everyday situations that Kenyans can easily relate to.

Bomas from Kenya put on a lengthy performance every afternoon showcasing songs, dances, costumes, and musical instruments from each of the tribes. Shade Hotel in Karen also offers a more informal evening of traditional entertainment every Sunday and on public holidays. If you visit a Maasai village on your safari, the villagers will perform a welcome dance for you. The Samburu peoples do the same in northern Kenya. Finally, the Turkana Lake Cultural Festival might be the best opportunity to see a variety of traditional entertainment. A gathering of 14 tribes from northern Kenya, this Festival is a celebration of different cultures living together. They sing, dance, build huts, cook, dress traditionally, it’s fantastic! It takes place every May in Loiyangalani on the shores of Lake Turkana and is well worth the trip.

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