If there was ever a band with the inalienable right to wear the sounds of life's bittersweet justice on their sleeves, Extra Golden would be the unfortunate example. Founded by Golden members Ian Eagleson, Alex Minoff and Kenyan Otieno Jagwasi while Eagleson was doing his doctoral research on the Kenyan form benga, Extra Golden knocked out their first release, Ok-Oyot Sound System, by recording on a laptop over three days in a Kenyan nightclub. It's a seamless fusion of East Coast soul music (everyone else is callin' it "western rock," but there's obviously a lot more to these guys than that) and benga, which often sounds a bit like soukous at 16 rpm. The brittle, chiming guitars and skipping snare beats of East Africa took turns in the driver's seat, but when the band slowed down, the perpetual jubilance of the band's sound often ceded to a melancholy undercurrent, perhaps a prescient nod to Jagwasi's impending submission to HIV/AIDS a year later. Still, the recording itself retains a buoyancy that suggests neither the crumbling outdoor nightclub setting, nor the hardships of life in Kenya (e.g. the group's run-in with the Kenyan secret police over a spurious drug bust that left them nearly penniless after the officers collected their "fees").
Back with Jagwasi's brother Onyango and fresh off some new challenges, Extra Golden returns with Hera Ma Nono, a more polished excursion into the same imaginary landscape – miles above the earth, somewhere between Kenya and the band's original hometown of Oberlin, Ohio. The album opens with "Jakolando," a surprisingly cheerful tribute to the departed Otieno, the title a nickname the two brothers shared. The addition of a funky and uplifting piano suggests Golden's keepers of the flame and their new-found African brothers were listening to a lot of Little Feat. They visit that sound again on "Street Parade," the band's high-life rumination on the resilience of New Orleans and its people in the wake of Katrina.
Hera Ma Nono retains its stride with its centerpiece, "Obama," an ecstatic time-shifting homage to the Illinois senator, whose office intervened at the last minute to assure Onyango Jagwasi and drummer Onyango Wuod Omari's travel clearance to the 2006 Chicago World Music Festival. The fruits of the junior senator's were more significant than just the festival appearances; the band toured for six weeks and then secluded themselves in a cabin somewhere in the Poconos to record Hera Ma Nono.
As with their earlier release, Extra Golden seems to shine particularly in two speeds: an amped up tango rhythm that seems to accompany the more soul-driven songs, and a faster gallop that tends to yield the most sweat. Despite the fact that the the Kenyans in the group are bona fide benga superstars, there's nothing in the way of separation between them and the group's American founders. It's one funky stew that takes the same ingredients from Ok-Oyot Sound System, but propels itself forward with less melancholy and more optimism.