A journey around Africa with ten great songs

25 May 2016

West Africa

Tinariwen – Cler Achel (Mali)

Like the vastness of the Sahara desert on its northern border, Malian folk music is sparse and hypnotic, featuring loopy rhythms and melodies.

Music band Tinariwen is the most established and renowned of the region’s artists, having been together in various forms over the last 30 years, performing around the world with some of the West’s biggest names including the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Carlos Santana and Herbie Hancock.

Guided by the entrancing electric guitar melodies of bandleader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Tinariwen combines the traditional folk music of the region’s nomadic Tuareg tribe with both North African/Middle Eastern and Western blues rock influences. Lyrics have a strong poetic and political bent sung in French and the Tuareg/Berber indigenous languages.

In 2012, the band won a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album for their album Tassili.

Fela Kuti – Sorrow, Tears and Blood (Nigeria)

Kuti is not only considered Nigerian music royalty, but also one of Africa’s greatest musical sons, combining soul and jazz with harmonic, upbeat West African rhythms to create some of the most original music ever recorded.

As the main proponent of this hugely popular Afro-beat sound during the 1970s, Kuti brought the sounds of African funk to the world, enjoying success in America and Europe, and influencing generations of musicians. Against the backdrop of pulsating rhythms and stabbing, noisy brass arrangements, Kuti’s potent political lyricism – sung in Lagosian Pidgin English – commented unashamedly on both Africa’s challenges and the effects of colonialism.

Kuti’s musical influence had a wide-reaching social and political impact on the continent. He died in 1997, leaving behind a vast discography of albums and unique live recordings.

Kuti’s sons Femi and Seun continue the family’s music legacy to a worldwide audience.

North Africa

Khaled – Didi (Algeria)

Being at the epicentre of a circle of cultural influence that includes Africa, the Middle East and Asia, it is no surprise that music from North Africa is some of the most unique in the world. Khaled is one of the biggest superstar of the region, thanks to his instantly catchy crossover hit Didi which not only charted around North Africa but also proved popular on the dance floors of Europe and the US.

The song became the first Arabic-language song to hit number one in France, starting an era when North African pop-dance left a subtle but indelible mark on Western pop music during the 1990s.

Khaled performed at the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa and has also performed with Johnny Clegg, US rapper Pitbull and French electronica pioneer Jean Michel Jarre.

Hamza El Din – Water Wheel (Egypt)

El Din was an influential world classical music composer and ethnomusicologist from the lower Nile Nubian region.

Specialising in the traditional stringed oud instruments, his meandering minimalist string and vocal recordings during the 1960s are recognised as some of the first world music recordings to influence Western classical music, including Steve Reich and the Kronos Quartet.

Fans included Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead with whom he performed extensively during the 1970s. He later taught African ethnomusicology at universities in the US and Japan. El Din died in 2006.

Central Africa

Corneille – Toi (Rwanda/Canada)

Singer-songwriter Cornelius Nyungura, performing under the name Corneille, was a genocide survivor who lives and performs in Canada. He released his first album, a French-language soul album in 2002, charting in Belgium and France where it reached number 4. His song Toi is one of Canada’s biggest selling French-language singles.

Corneille has performed with Jimmy Cliff and recorded with UK R&B singer Craig David. He returned to Rwanda to perform for the first time in 2005, and is currently the Canadian Red Cross spokesperson for the plight of child war refugees.

Manu Dibango – Soul Makossa (Cameroon)

Like Kuti’s afro-beat funk, Dibango’s African-tinged saxophone disco helped define the sound of Africa in the 1970s.

Recorded in 1972, Soul Makossa remains an influential song, inspiring US producer Quincy Jones in emulating the bass-rich sound for Michael Jackson’s early solo albums and then later as a go-to source of samples for a number of modern hip hop and R&B hits. The song can be heard on Rihanna’s Don’t Stop The Music and Gettin’ Jiggy With It by Will Smith.

His extensive 40-year discography features collaborations with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, reggae greats Sly and Robbie and funk rock keyboardist Bernie Worrell.

While more commercially appealing than Kuti’s extended improvised jams, Dibango never shied away from using his music to deliver a message, particularly highlighting poverty and promoting social harmony in his home country. He is a fierce campaigner against music piracy and for artists’ rights, as well as a Unesco Artist for Peace since 2004. Despite being an octogenarian, Dibango still records and performs across Africa and around the world.

East Africa

Gigi – Abyssinia Infinite (Ethiopia)

Ejigayehu Shibabaw, also known as Gigi, injects her Ethiopian musical heritage into a variety of genres, including jazz rock, reggae dub and soundtrack work. Working closely with husband, jazz producer Bill Laswell, Gigi’s ethereal and uninhibited vocal style has graced recordings with Herbie Hancock, Indian composer Karsh Kale and avant-garde rock guitarist Buckethead.

Standout solo work includes a collection of acoustic Ethiopian music titled Abyssinia Infinite and the electronica-infused Mesgana Ethiopia.

Lady Jaydee – Ndi Ndi Ndi (Tanzania)

Judith Mbibo, known as Lady Jaydee, is one of Tanzania’s most popular singers, akin to the kind of status of Brenda Fassie has in South Africa. Her upbeat kwaito-infused pop songs are gaining her new fans across the rest of the continent.

Lady Jaydee has been singing professionally since 2000, winning a number of national singing competitions and awards, including a Kora and a Channel O Music award.

She has collaborated with the likes of Salif Keita, South Africa’s Mina Nawe and the cream of Tanzanian hip hop producers.

Southern Africa

Banjo Mosele – Botsa Mmutla (Botswana)

Botswana has a rich and diverse musical culture which covers traditional and pop music, jazz, dance music and outsider genres like heavy metal.

The country boasts some of the best jazz and traditional instrumentalists in the world, including Banjo Mosele, founding member of the Kalahari Band, Hugh Masekela’s touring band during his exile in the 1980s. Mosele also played guitar in sessions with a number of music’s biggest names during including Peter Gabriel, Jonas Gwangwa and Bheki Mseleku.

Mosele released his first solo album in 2003, selling strongly in Africa, Norway and the UK. He has won numerous music awards in Botswana and continues to tour the world as a solo act and with the world’s top jazz groups.

Freshlyground – Doo Be Doo (South Africa)

In a country as diverse as South Africa, it is difficult to pinpoint a single genre, traditional or contemporary, that could do justice to defining the South African sound or even its listeners. Rock, pop, kwaito, hip hop, jazz, classical, anything goes in Mzansi and each fan base is as fierce and loyal as the next.

However, in recent years, there has been one band with one song that has gone a long way to encompassing the South African multicultural experience with the help of an inescapable feel-good earworm chorus. Doo Be Doo by Freshlyground was released in 2008 and the song was everywhere: on every radio, on every channel, on every South African’s lips.

The song became a bona-fide cultural phenomenon. It topped every chart in the country, from YouTube views to radio and television rotation. It turned the band’s Nomvula album into an instant South African classic.

South Africa.info reporter