With 42 tribes in Kenya, defining a specific entertainment as ‘traditional’ is nearly impossible without going into an excessive treatise on the subject. Each tribe has song, dance, costumes and musical instruments particular to their 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.
Song is a form of traditional entertainment almost globally so it is no surprise to find Kenyan tribes also singing. Each of the 42 tribes has their own language, so it is simple to tell where the song is from… so long as you can recognise the language! Across the tribes one thing is the same: there are different beats and words for 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. It doesn’t mean however that if a Taita goes to the Kikuyu village he will also be able to tell what is happening, unless he understands Kikuyu. So each tribe has circumcision songs, party songs, wedding songs, funeral songs, new baby songs and so on.
Along with singing comes dancing and, again, movements differ across the tribes. Kikuyus wear bells on their ankles with men and women pairing up, putting palms together and swaying. In Luhya culture, the dance is all about the shoulders and for Luos it’s about the hips. The Maasai men jump and it is a show of manliness if they can jump higher than their peers.
Dance is complemented by the traditional costumes which are made from materials found in a tribe’s area. Luo men wear grass skirts from the reeds by Lake Victoria and cow hide on their back. Towards the coast, Taita men wear kangas from the Swahili culture while the women wear grass skirts. In the central highlands, the Kikuyus’ costumes are a bit more substantial to protect against the cold, with sheepskin hats confusing many travellers as they look similar to the typical Russian hats! The men generally wear white and the women a brown-beige colour. Kikuyu men also carry swords and have a belt made of animal skin to carry the sword.
Musical instruments often accompany the singing and dancing and most people are familiar with the African drum. But there are even differences in how the drum is used across Kenya. For example, the Kamba sit with the drum between their legs while the Luhya hold the drum under their arm. Kamba also use a whistle to signify a beat change.
Story-telling is common with the old men teaching lessons through stories to the young boys. Nowadays comedy is becoming popular, with sketches performed between music sets. The stories and sketches are usually set in everyday situations that Kenyans can easily relate to.
Bomas of Kenya put on a lengthy performance every afternoon which showcases singing, dancing, costumes and musical instruments from each of the tribes. Shade Hotel in Karen also does a more informal afternoon 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 villages do the same in northern Kenya. Finally, the Lake Turkana 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, they dance, they build huts, they cook, they dress traditionally – it’s fantastic! It is held every May in Loiyangalani on the shore of Lake Turkana and well worth the journey.