World Music of Africa

A Personal History of African Music

I wasn’t planning to write this but I thought, after the World Cup had tried to celebrate the African dimension in football, I would comment on and play some African music, that I liked and influenced me, as a chronology (non-stop playlist on YouTube here). It is also Nelson Mandela Day today so as well as singing Nkosi Sikeleli Africa, here is a chance to say God Bless Nelson Mandela and enjoy some of the music from Africa. As Mendela said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Currently I am a huge fan of West African music from Sub-Saharan Mali, Senegal and Nigeria, as well as North African Rai and Arabic music. However during the World Cup I discovered that Ghana has a vibrant and developing music scene around blingy hiplife and both Cameroon and the Cote d’Ivoire have great dance music, you can follow new developments at AfroPop online. I live in London and apart from Ginger Johnson’s African Drummers, who played on Sympathy For The Devil at the Rolling Stones Concert in the Park in 1969, the first out and out African band I saw were Osibisa; criss-cross rhythms that explode with happiness. In our typical student house in London we used to play The Dawn off the first album to get us out of bed, but here is one of their minor UK hits from the YouTube Osibisa playlist by voycha; this is what they were like live. Music for Gong-Gong;  

In the late sixties African music was seen as being revolutionary as blacks in America adopted Afros and studied African history as they reworked their identities in the post-Civil Rights post-Martin Luther King Black Panther period. Many American jazz musicians adopted African, or Islamic names, and this was exemplified by the explosive The Last Poets (listen to When The Revolution Comes) but in London Africa became a source of rhythms as African musicians played congas and percussion, which us white boys had picked up from Santana in the movie Woodstock. We weren’t quite capable of distinguishing between Latin and African percussion, just between drumming and percussion, a bit. Here is a sample of what Ginger Johnson was playing in London in the early 1970s with his African Messengers. This is terrific Highlife, which was all that was available to us. The video has great notes, the track is called Majo;

So some white boys started adding congas to tracks after watching Sympathy for The Devil by the Stones with Ginger Johnson in Hyde Park, but that was as far as our percussive revolution went. My own breakthrough came from two Ethiopian lads who I was working with in a factory in East London. They came over for a meal at my council flat in Hackney and brought with them two Fela Ransome-Kuti albums from back home, Expensive Shit and Why Blackmen They Suffer Today. Fela had the interesting trick of starting his 15-minute tracks (the 2 albums contained just 4 tracks in total) with a long percussive intro, which went on for around half the track. I suspect that, playing live, Fela Anikulapo Kuti (as he became) was down in the audience dancing booty fully. It is difficult to describe what impact those tracks made on me when Rod Stewart’s Italian Girls was the epitome of our musical sophistication, and even John Peel was progged out; earthy, long, passionate, funky music which existed by and for itself; staggeringly in the moment. Expensive Shit;

Still Africa remained very much other in London in the mid-1970s, Osibisa continued playing but seemed almost sui generis, drawing strength from their Ghanaian identity, whereas London bands like Noir fell away, especially as Reggae took hold in London after Bob Marley’s Catch-A-Fire was released in 1974 and Island records promoted a certain kind of cultural difference and diversity. South African musicians in exile added some African dimension to the musical offerings in London; John Kongos had two hits in 1972, He’s Gonna Step On You (video) and Tokoloshe Man. South African Jazz musicians like Dudu Pukwana and Louis Moholo played constantly at the 100 Club and Ronnie Scotts in London especially as part of Chris McGregors Brotherhood of Breath; Here they are demonstrating their driving sound on MRA;

Promoted for a brief time by a progressive rock label Brotherhood of Breath were an eye-opening act because they were playing a new kind of jazz-funk. Unlike the Jazz-Rock that followed on from Miles Davis Bitches Blue and Weather Report, which seems to investigate the potential of electric rock instruments on jazz, the Brotherhood seems to take the rebellious spirit and energy of rock and infuse it into a traditional big band format, with terrific drive, rhythm and musicianship. But neither the percussion or the passion made a huge difference to music in London and was completely left behind when punk came along leaving reggae to aspire to African consciousness through albums like Marley’s Survival with tracks such as Africa Unite and Zimbabwe. Thomas Mapfumo a musician from Zimbabwe, originally inspired by The Beatles and Wilson Pickett in the 1960s, had been inspired by the Afrobeat of Osibisa and developed the local musical style of Chimurenga; African music coming home? Here he is with Shumba;

When Bob Marley died in 1980 Chris Blackwell at Island Records wanted a new global superstar to promote. He picked King Sunny Adé, who was from Nigeria like Fela, but not as confrontational, difficult or as exciting, but with a distinctive style of music featuring the sinous, floating guitar lines that we now associate with Africa, thanks to Ray Phiri. This is JuJu Music released in 1982, danceable, rhythmic fun, and now described by allmusic as a “great intro to Afro-Pop”. Like Fela these are long tracks which seem to reach their natural length not constrained by the limitations of recording formats. This is great live music accidentally captured in a recording studio. 365 is my Number;

Perhaps the biggest moment in African music, or Afro-Beat or Afro-Pop, going global, was the coining of the term World Music in 1986. The French had started promoting World Music Day (Fête de la Musique) on June 21st since 1982 as they had, and still have, a fabulous group of African recording artists based in Paris. Like Black jazz musicians in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, African musicians were made welcome in that city, despite the best efforts of Parisian waiters. Controversially Paul Simon used South African Musicians, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, on his recording of the album Graceland in 1986. Featuring the great Ray Phiri on guitar (in the white shirt), as well as the Ladysmith boys on vocals and dancing soles, here is the live in Harare version, featuring a full band of African musicians, of Diamonds on The Soles of Her Shoes;

As well as the term World Music being created as a marketing concept referring to a kind of pure, rootsy pop, the African musicians in Paris were going to the disco and revisioning their music in exile as new fusions. Soul Makossa had been around as almost the only token African dance track for a dozen years when Mory Kante released a massively danceable version of Yé Ké Yé Ké, which still gets me up offa my feet. Unlike 1984 and 1985 when Band Aid and Live Aid, in entirely praiseworthy fundraising activities, presented Africa in a context of hopelessly deadly incompetence, no special African case pleading was needed for the new music appearing in the mid-eighties. So enjoy the infectiously great, eighties, African dance sound of  Yé Ké Yé Ké;

Post the rootsy Paul Simon work and the Parisian sophistication of new African dance, along with having the World Music label to hang it on, it finally sounded in the late eighties as though African music had a sense of itself and a distinct musical direction. I even bought a 12″ inch single by Hugh Masekela, another South African jazz export, who lived in New York and had toured with Paul Simon on his original Graceland tour. This had the political Stimela (Coal Train) (starts this great YouTube playlist) on one side and a dance track Don’t Go Lose It Baby on the other, fusing these twin musical developments, and updating the freshness of Brotherhood of Breath to the Disco era. The seriously political Hugh Masakela who, appropriately enough on Nelson Mandela Day, recorded Mandela (Bring Him Home) as well, is having fun here, with a great townships footballing video, on Don’t Go Lose It Baby;

In 1987 Salif Keita (YouTube Playlist here), a classic Griot from Mali, brought out his great Soro, also recorded in Paris, and effectively established a new form of African music which still has influence today. It had the self-confidence and length of Nigerian music, it had the sound and dance inflections of rhythms of the new urban African music emerging from Paris, but he added both the pure voice of a great griot, and the confidence to play with form that an assured musician brings to his work. The title track is essentially a three part suite, but completely lacking the pretension that would mean in the progressive rock form, being infused with a lively musicianship designed to make the musical both listenable and danceable to all the way through. I think the album version is better, but here is a newer live version Soro;

Nelson Madela Day; So that brings us up to 1987 and the establishment of a musical identity for Africa which enabled African musicians to be heard across the world, because they were both great players and had their own techniques and forms of music that could be heard and enjoyed in a range of contexts. As it is Nelson Mandela Day today on July 18th Nelson Mandela’s 92 birthday, here is Hugh Masakela with the afore-mentioned Mandela (Bring Him Back Home)

Next on RadioYouTube; I will be returning to the monthly format of Radio YouTube on August 1st with the usual monthly update of new music that I have been listening too. I will do Part 2 of World Music of Africa 1987-2010 in September to tie in with the upcoming African Music Festival. Songlines have a full list of upcoming World Music Festivals throughout the year.

YouTube Playlists; You can hear all these tracks, as well as the bonus tracks linked to in the text, on my YouTube Channel or by choosing the World Music of Africa Playlist.


8 Responses to “World Music of Africa”

  1. Nigel Ecclesfield Says:


    Great selection and brilliant idea to follow on from the World Cup, I’d only add that the great women singers need a mention and one or two examples, as does the music of East Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe and Zaire. I’ll post a list of my suggestions tomorrow, but don’t miss Salif Keita’s – Madan from the album Mouffou, proof if ever it was needed that acoustic players can whip up a frenzy without barely an amp in sight and none of the electric instruments dominating the mix.

    On Nelson Mandela day how about something from Miriam Makeba?

    • Hi Nigel, undoubtably would be interesting to address some of the issues you raise, but this is a history of how I came to discover and love African Music. Originally through the drumming, obviously, but also through the musicians on show. I was thinking of calling this World Music of Africa 1970-1987, which is where I got up to, and most of your recommendations are from after 1987. Despite being friends with 2 Ethiopians in the 1970s they only played me Fela’s Nigerian music! I’ve only recently got into Ethiopiques. Sounds like you want Part 2 1970-2010?
      Thanks for the compliments too 🙂
      Here is a Miriam Makeba playlist on YouTube;

    • Nigel Ecclesfield Says:

      Part 2 would be good, but save this for another African anniversary, maybe one of the independence days – Mozambique?


  2. Nigel Ecclesfield Says:

    Some suggestions

    Tata Bamba Kouyate – Mali
    Rokia Traore – Mali
    Djeneba Seck – Mali
    Aster Aweke – Ethiopia
    Gigi – Ethiopia
    Cecile Kayirebwa – Rwanda
    Tarika – Madagascar
    Geoffrey Oreyema – Uganda
    Ayub Ogada – Kenya
    Remy Ongala – Tanzania
    Thomas Mapfumo – Zimbabwe

    Enough to be going on with, I guess?


    • Great choices, and I have seen three of them live, all great.
      I love Oreyama’s Beat The Border, especially The River. Great YouTube playlist on Oreyema here;

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