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Africa’s treasure house of sweet melody

Sounds of Africa

Africa’s treasure house of sweet melody

Africa’s unique sounds and musical traditions have been attracting global attention and love since the 1930s but seem to be scaling new heights this century. Gail Collins surveys the scene.

If Africa is the cradle of mankind, then it is also surely the cradle of music – looking back at its origins and history, it would certainly seem so.

Music is one of the ancient art forms of African people, orally handed down from generation to generation over the centuries. Many of the sounds you hear today remain steeped in the influence of long-ago ancestors. It permeates African culture, playing a part in major life events – birth, marriage, death, and there are even special songs to accompany harvests – aside from providing comments on life, politics and love. Musicians have always played an important role in African society, as so many occasions cannot truly be fulfilled without them.

From time immemorial, Africa has been producing mesmerising, evocative, pulsating and exciting sounds. Ancient instruments have been discovered during archaeological digs that paint a picture of the earliest types of music. Bone tubes that would have been used as flutes or whistles were found in the Southern and Western Cape of South Africa dating to over 40,000 years ago and Iron Age musical bells were excavated in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Countries have their own distinct sounds but over time these sounds have travelled, as people began roving around. In Southern Nigeria for example, the drum is key to their traditional music, but in Morocco the ancient Amazigh music involved wind instruments. It is also common for musical customs to arise from what an area places importance on. In Western Uganda, the Kitaguiriro is music in praise of the highly valued long-horned cattle found in the region and the main instruments are the flute and drum.

The African influence on global music is immense. The beginnings of jazz can be traced back to Black musicians playing their tunes in the famous French quarters of New Orleans in the late 19th century and blues music originated in the US Deep South, emerging in the late 1860s from free African-Americans telling the stories of their experiences through song.

In the mid-20th century, soul music ascended from African gospel music and blazed the trail for the later genres of funk, R&B, hip-hop and perhaps most famously, rock & roll. Elvis Presley, who became a legend in his own lifetime and continues to have dedicated followers today, was said to be “A White singer with a Black soul”. He himself said: “The Lord messed up on me in two ways – he didn’t make me Black and didn’t make me a bass singer.”

Whilst these genres of music were being globally recognised, the African continent was producing its own great artists and musical modes that were fusing African sounds with music from Europe and America. 

West Africa

Fela Anikulapo Kuti, a charismatic and often rebellious Nigerian bandleader, composer and activist, was the pioneer of the hugely influential Afrobeat genre in the early 1970s – a fusion of the Yoruba music he had grown up with and American blues, jazz and funk. 

He came back from a 1969 tour of the US fired up by the likes of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers and began producing music that increasingly criticised the Nigerian government. This, combined with a decadent lifestyle, led to several raids and arrests by the authorities. His musical influence, however, was here to stay and was the prototype for the more sweeping Afro beats genre that defines contemporary West African pop music today.

The distinctive styles of other West Africans countries have also travelled far and wide globally and influenced and continue to influence musical traditions in places very far from their original homes. Ghana, for example, gave Africa and the world Highlife, while Senegal and Mali have produced outstanding musicians like Youssou N’dour, Baaba Maal, Ismaël , Toumani Diabaté, Ali Farka Touré, Oumou Sangaré and Salif Keïta.

Congolese music

This is perhaps the most instantly recognisable form – given the fast-paced, guitar-driven Soukous dance music, which is from the DRC mainly, but also from Brazzaville. 

You will hear its hypnotic rhythms, guitar riffs and joie de vivre, along with lilting singing, coast to coast, from Cameroon in the west to Tanzania in the east, and in dance halls extending across most of Central and Eastern Africa all the way to France, Belgium, the US and even the UK. Congolese greats include Papa Wemba, Le Grand Kallé, Franco and the legendary band Zaiko Langa Langa. Although most of these musical giants are dead, their music continues to live on and grow stronger.

Southern and Eastern traditions

In South Africa, Miriam Makeba or ‘Mama Africa’ as she was known, was the first African woman to win a Grammy and her Afro-pop, jazz-style songs were responsible for introducing a new western audience to African music, as well as being amongst the first to gain global recognition. 

Her music made her famous, but it was her outspoken activism against Apartheid that made her infamous and resulted in her exile from South Africa in 1960. She was one of the collaborators with American musician, Paul Simon, on his jubilant 1986 Gracelands album. Recording the album with local South African musicians, he controversially ignored a UN international boycott, but the resulting PR furore did no harm as it became his bestselling album ever.

To the east, musical influences are a concoction of sounds coming from its historical connections to Arabic, Islamic, Indonesian and European cultures and it boasts the introduction of the electric guitar to the continent’s musicians. 

Fundi Konde, one of Kenya’s first popular artists, added his own stylisation to the already popular blues, calypso and rumba tunes, singing in Swahili and blending in Sengenya ceremonial dance music to produce a unique sound, adding the punchy sounds of an electronic guitar long before it became a popular instrument on the rest of the continent. 

Today, genres whose names conjure up an instant picture of happiness such as Boomba and Bongo Flava – offshoots of hip-hop and funk, with their own makeover of traditional music – provide the rhythm to East African life.

North African traditions

Much of North Africa’s music has a strong blend of influences from the Ottomans expelled from Spain in the early 17th century, and the Berbers, an ethnic group indigenous to the area. 

Egypt, however, has produced some of the greatest musicians and singers from the region, blending modern instruments and orchestral arrangements with traditional ones, like the 11-stringed lute called Oud and drums, harps, flutes and cymbals that go back almost to Pharaonic times. Singers like Omm Kalthoum were celebrated as national treasures and continue to be revered throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Recordings of others like Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Fairuz and Farid Al Atrash, to name a few, are still some of the bestsellers in the Arab world.

Rai music, a genre that linked East and West and is considered to have started in 1920s Algiers (Moroccans will contest this), combined local Algerian music and popular Western styles of the time. Algerian singer, Cheb Hasni became one of the most prolific Rai artists, although his time was short-lived. He was gunned down outside his home at just 26 years of age in 1994, probably by extremists, intolerant to the taboo lyrical content of his songs. His influence however lives on and continues to inspire new generations of musicians.

Today’s generation

In the past, freedom of expression in music has been dangerous in some countries and periods. Today’s new generations of African artists have had more liberty to bring their thoughts and feelings into their creations, and have huge access to a global audience through the streaming giants of the internet.

African music is now truly dazzling the world, with artists such as Nigerian Afro beats superstar, WizKid, who was the most streamed artist in his home country and the first Nigerian to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 for the single, Essence, featuring the up and coming Tems and released from his 2020 album Made in Lagos. His World Tour, which started last year, has not done badly either, selling out London’s O2 arena in just 12 minutes!

Nigeria just keeps giving. Burna Boy continues his ascension, winning the 2021 Grammy Award for Best Global Music Album with his delectable Afrobeat, reggae and pop album of 2020, Twice as Tall. Incidentally, his grandfather was Fela Kuti’s first manager.

Tanzania has its secret weapon too, in the guise of Diamond Platnumz. The 32-year-old, who brings his Bongo Flava, R&B mix to the world, celebrated being the first sub-Saharan African singer to get 1bn YouTube channel views back in 2020 and last year partnered his own WCB record label with Warner Music. 

Whilst Nigeria is certainly heading up the global music scene with other superstars such as Davido and Yemi Alade, the rest of Africa is producing its fair share of musical talent.

Ghanaian rapper and songwriter, Sarkodie released No Pressure, his 6th studio album last year, and has become one of Africa’s most successful rappers of all time. 

Fally Ipupa, the Congolese singer and songwriter, has taken his country’s traditional rumba sound and successfully transformed it with modern influences, earning him the title of ‘The Eagle of Congo’ from fans. His popularity is such that in January last year, a small private concert in Abidjan saw a ticket price of around $1750!

In South Africa, Makhadzi, the songstress known as Queen of Limpopo dance music (the incredibly successful Jerusalema came from this genre), saw her 2020 album Kokovha (Crawl) earn her a place among Spotify’s Top 10 Most Streamed African Artists 2021. 

The challengers

The colossal streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music and Africa’s home-grown services such as Nigeria’s Boomplay and Kenya’s Mdundo, alongside video sites such as YouTube and TikTok, are the main launchpads for today’s artists. So, who is coming along to oust some of the current doyens of music in 2022?

Nigerian singer-songwriter, Arya Starr is poised to hit stellar heights and was snapped up by Mavin Records when she released her first original song on Instagram. Fellow countryman, Omah Lay is also crooning his way to the top with his honeyed Afro fusion songs. His latest release, Free My Mind, came out at the end of last year. 

South Africa’s sultry songstress, Elaine, is leading the posse of successful R&B artists making an impact in Africa and beyond. Already on Columbia Records’ roster, her 2021 single Right Now shifted her musical style from girl to woman. 

Different style, but same impact, melodic rapper Lethabo Sebetsu, known as Focalistic, garnered not just the attention of his fans but also his fellow artists with his remix single Ke Star, when the legendary P. Diddy posted an Instagram of himself dancing to it on the beach.

Across the continent there are so many more and watch out for Uganda’s Fik Fameica, Congo’s Gaz Malvete and of course Ghana’s golden boy, KiDi.

They say that music is the language of the spirit – right now, Africa’s spirit is soaring high! 

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