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New Africa

if your music feels lacklustre, dabble in dance rhythms from the dark continent

After years in obscurity, African music is now taking its rightful place in the pop consciousness of the Western world. And though Afro-pop often sounds complicated, playing it yourself needn't be.

THE POPULARITY EXPLOSION of African music over the past five years has been a shot in the arm for a jaded British pop scene. Although all Western pop owes a great debt to Africa, it's only recently that acknowledgment of this has been explicitly made. African rhythms form the basis of hip-hop and other black American styles, and are increasingly evident in British pop.

While cynical motives can play a part in plagiarising ideas, there's no doubt that a long overdue appreciation of African (and other "world music") styles has provided a fresh stimulus to British Creativity, which had long been searching for some new direction.

British audiences and musicians were first exposed in numbers to the potential of African music in the late '60s and early '70s, when Ginger Baker took off to Nigeria to explore the roots of the British blues he was playing. Percussionist Gaspar Lawal had already done session work with the Rolling Stones when Ghanaian afro-rockers Osibisa burst on to the London club scene, and the Master Drummers of Burundi were featured on Joni Mitchell's 'Hissing of Summer Lawns' LP.

Malcolm McLaren's 'Duck Rock', Peter Gabriel, and an energetic African community in London kept interest alive through the late '70s, but it was the work of record companies like Stern's and Earthworks, and organisations like WOMAD (in which Gabriel played a leading role) which nudged Big Record Companies out of their dozing and awakened them to the compatibility of klinking cash registers and kwela.

Whatever Paul Simon's artistic or political merits, there is little doubt that people are buying Ladysmith Black Mambazo records, and the Mahotella Queens are invited to play Wembley benefits, as a direct result of 'Graceland'.

African pop has been developing for over 70 years and, as you'd expect from a contingent measuring up to 5,000 by 5,000 miles with 4,000 distinct languages and ethnic groups, has produced a vast catalogue of diverse work.

On the map, a convenient dividing line can be drawn through the Southern Sahara, which splits the continent culturally and politically as well as musically. To the North the Arabic and Islamic influences are dominant, and North African pop, with Algeria "rai" in the vanguard, is attracting growing interest.

This article is about sub-Saharan pop which, because of its history, can be considered as a single phenomenon - even though the Zulu harmony singing of the Azanian (South African) townships may sound drastically different from the Islamic vocal delivery of Senegal's Youssou n'Dour.

Like most popular music, African pop is a fusion of influences. There are three main elements to the equation: Traditional tribal music plus European (pre-pop) music plus Afro-American music equals modern African urban pop. Got that? It's the varying balance between these elements which defines the various styles throughout the continent. And to add yet more spice to the mixture, these styles have also influenced each other within Africa over the course of the music's development.

From a historical point of view, the slave trade deposited millions of Africans in the New World, where their tribal traditions mixed with white music to produce jazz, rhythm 'n' blues and, later, soul and funk. With the arrival of radio and recordings, Africans heard this music and incorporated it into their urban culture.

Before that, the colonial occupation of Africa by European states in the late 19th Century brought Western ideas of harmony and melody which were similarly adopted, sometimes reluctantly. The Europeans also brought their own musical instruments, which were taken up by Africans.

Going even further back, it's important to appreciate the role played by music in African tribal societies. Here, music was always an integral, part of a wider social activity: religious, ritual, medical, celebratory, or whatever. There was no tradition of "concert" music as pure entertainment. As urban culture came to predominate, rituals and initiation ceremonies became less relevant, but the idea that music was very much a communal activity remained strong. Thus dance remains integral to African pop as a way of sharing it socially, even as modern music industry practices try to enforce a division between player and listener.

In the early '80s, it was West African styles such as "highlife" and "juju" which first caught the attention of the British public. The development of highlife illustrates the way modern African pop has been shaped by tradition, historical circumstance and outside influences. It's a pattern that's repeated throughout the continent - with slight changes in the balance of ingredients, depending on such things as the dominant European power (British, French, Belgian or Portuguese); the poverty of the country; and the musical traditions of the local people.

Highlife originated in Ghana after the First World War, growing out of the dancehall music played for rich white city dwellers (hence "High Life"). Inside the dancehalls, African musicians were playing European songs taught them by the colonial settlers - maybe a regimental band master or a missionary. Gradually the music was interpreted in a more African way: more complex rhythms, more syncopation. And outside the halls, the poorer locals took what they heard and adapted it to any available instruments - traditional, cheap, or homemade.

The Second World War brought American and British troops to West African bases, and with them came new instruments like saxophones, and new influences like jazz, swing and jive. The incorporation of these continued through electrification, and the crowning of trumpeter E T Mensah as the "king of highlife".

The music reached a high point in the '60s, and its late '70s/early '80s manifestation was actually a revival.

Highlife spread beyond Ghana, but its development in Nigeria was severely impeded in the early 70s by the country's civil war. The Eastern musicians who dominated the scene in the highly populated West had to flee, and "juju" music stepped into the space.

Juju is a fusion of West Nigerian Yoruba music and highlife influences. It first surfaced in the 1930s, and was modernised in the '50s by I K Dairo with the introduction of electric instruments. Electrification, of course, revolutionised music everywhere. Africa was no exception. The leading figures of any style at the time of electrification were given the title "father of modern highlife, juju, Congo jazz", or whatever, and any previous influential figures became "grandfathers".

Juju is more relaxed than highlife, and is characterised by a spacious use of guitars and a heavy, throbbing percussion section featuring the talking drum. It became internationally known in the 1970s through the work of Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade.

An updated juju called "yo pop" is played by Segun Adewale, and includes more influences such as funk and reggae.

In 1980s Nigeria, "fuji" music, which incorporates more Islamic elements and has less emphasis on guitars, has been the most popular style. The leading figures are Barrister, Kollington and Wasui Barrister, but the music is not yet easily obtainable in Britain.

Nigeria is Africa's most populous country. With over 90 million inhabitants and 400 distinct ethnic groups, it was odds on that it should produce at least one figure of cosmic importance. Fela Anikulapo Kuti is the man, and since the '60s his music has had a lasting influence throughout Africa and beyond.

After studying music in London, Fela returned to Nigeria heavily into jazz and schooled in Western musical theory. Influenced by the music around him and his own Yoruba roots, he developed "Afro-beat" more or less singlehandedly, and has released scores of albums. His music is at once African, jazz and rock, and features his own highly rated sax playing and a touring troupe sometimes 80 strong. His consistently militant black nationalist stance, expressed through his lyrics, has landed him in jail several times, but he shows no sign of going away.

In fact, due to Africa's turbulent history throughout the pop era, it has been impossible for African pop lyrics to be preoccupied with boy-meets-girl or how wonderful life is.

During the Zimbabwean liberation war, pop went underground with political lyrics and acted as a unifying force. Shona traditions provided musical inspiration, exemplified by Thomas Mapfumo, whose guitarists have reproduced the cross-rhythms of mbira (thumb piano) music to stunning effect.

Zimbabwean music is currently flavour of the month in Britain in terms of airplay and touring bands, with the Bhundu Boys, Real Sounds, Devera Ngwena and the 4 Brothers all visiting these shores on more than one occasion.

Zimbabwe's victory was celebrated with the appearance of Bob Marley at the festivities in Harare, but over the border in South Africa, the struggle continues.

Since the 1960s, countless SA musicians have been forced into exile to pursue their art. Predominant amongst these are jazz musicians like Dudu Pukwana, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Abdullah Ibrahim. Their music contains strong echoes of traditional and township styles, and is popular beyond jazz audiences for its dancey rhythms.

The tightening of government control over all aspects of life in South Africa has led to a loss of venues, and an increasingly desperate situation for any bands who do not meet the state's rigorous standards for the blandest, safest "entertainment" music. Nevertheless, the strong bonds of an oppressed community have actually encouraged music-making as a communal act, and as a partial antidote to repression.

South Africa has rich tribal cultures, and was also well-exposed to American jazz at an early stage. A merger of the two produced a highly successful township jazz. As life for black people became increasingly difficult with the institutionalisation of apartheid in the late 1940s, "kwela" music became popular. This was really township jazz, played on cheap instruments like penny whistles and guitars.

Kwela gave way to sax jive in the '60s, as more sophisticated instruments became available. Both sax jive (featuring strong unison sax riffs and, unusually in Africa, a very simple beat) and mbaqanga (a blend of urban and traditional music) have retained their popularity over the last 25 years. The Mahotella Queens and Zulu vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo are well-known to British audiences after appearances at Mandela's birthday bash and Paul Simon's use of the latter on his 'Graceland' LP.

In general, urban African pop developed sooner in British occupied countries than in French, Portuguese or Belgian possessions. The British encouraged the mixing of cultures while the French, for example, sought to stifle it.

In West African states like Senegal, Mali, the Ivory Coast and Guinea, the colonial power was France. Together with the Manding heritage of the area and a strong Islamic input, the French influence produced a distinctive style which did not really take off until the 1970s.

A strongly Islamic vocal delivery is common to the area. Mali's most successful exports, the Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs, featured the haunting voice of Salif Keita, now an international solo star. Senegal's Youssou n'Dour has also achieved superstar status (he sang with Gabriel on the latter's world tour), almost matched by the band Toure Kunde, whose fusion contains strong elements of reggae.

Reggae also features in the Ivory Coast, in the work of Alpha Blondy. His first release was called 'Jah Glory' and he is currently concerned with uniting his Rasta beliefs with his country's Islamic culture.

From Guinea the main exports are Les Amazones, an all-policewoman group 15-20 strong, sponsored by the State Police Force (honest!) and Mory Kante, whose single 'Ye Ke Ye Ke' was a dancefloor hit all over Europe, and was given the first Afro-Acid mix by Martin Young of M/A/R/R/S.

The music of Central Africa is dominated by the Congo-Zaire sound. The astounding popularity of Afro-Cuban music from the '40s onwards led to the emergence of Congo jazz in the '50s, exemplified by the bands OK Jazz and African Jazz. The music was distinctly rumba-based and gentler and less overtly percussive than the West African styles.

In the mid-1960s the term "soukous" (meaning "good time") became the all-embracing name for Congo jazz. Songs were written in two parts. The first section was a slow, smooth rumba, acknowledging the past, which stopped suddenly and started up again at a faster, more percussive pace. Guitars were not lead and rhythm in the rock 'n' roll sense, but played intertwining tenor and alto parts. Following in the footsteps of the fathers of Congo jazz like Le Grand Kalle, Franco and Dr Nico came Tabu Lay, otherwise known as Signeur Rochereau: composer of over 2,000 songs and undisputed top dog of soukous. A newer generation of stars is led by M'bilia Bel, Kanda Bongo Man and Nyboma (who is not that new, but whose international success is).

Congo jazz and soukous have had a far-reaching impact on the music of neighbouring countries. Soukous musicians travelled East to Kenya and Tanzania to influence musical development there. And from Cameroon came Manu Dibango. During his five years fn Zaire, Dibango played with Le Grand Kalle and African Jazz, then returned to his native land to merge what he had learnt with indigenous dance rhythms and strong religious traditions to produce what became known as "makossa".

Since the release of his 'Soul Makossa' LP in 1973, Dibango has been in the forefront of Cameroonian musical development. But his 'King of Makossa' mantle has been taken up by Sam Fan Thomas, now that Dibango has branched out to win awards for filmscores, play with Sly 'n' Robbie, and make successful African electropop with the help of Americans Bill Laswell and Herbie Hancock.

African pop is now well-established outside the Dark Continent. Local musicians are beginning to see some rewards for their efforts.

But as its popularity increases and large, non-African record companies compete to make a killing, some disturbing trends are surfacing. The worst is the Westernised production style that has been lavished on some of the larger stars. Salif Keita's voice is among the most beautiful recorded, but his first solo LP 'Solo' was ruined by the addition of synthetic washes of sound which seem totally inappropriate. In a misguided attempt to give Western audiences a more familiar beat, some producers are watering-down (or destroying altogether) the musical spirit which gives African pop its distinct identity.

For all that, the immediate future of the music is assured. The hope is that commercial pressures and Westernisation won't come to dominate African pop, or cause its stagnation. Given that the history of the music is one of progression through the incorporation of new influences, there is a chance that the hope may be realised.


The distinguishing feature of modern urban styles is the traditional input. And while tribal traditions vary from Cape Town to Lagos, at least two common threads run through.

The first is in the approach to form. African music does not share the European preoccupation with melodic and harmonic development. Long pieces can be built on a basic rhythm and simple chord structure which are maintained throughout. Vocal delivery and use of dynamics, and sometimes solos, fill out the song.

The second crucial element is the rhythmic tradition. Instead of being tied to a strong 4/4 beat, African music utilises various 4/4 3/4 and 6/8 (and more complex) rhythms at once, sometimes starting at different places in the bar.

The result is a pulse which is felt, rather than a beat which is stated. This use of cross-rhythms is not limited to percussion, and is evident in the multi-guitar styles of West and Central Africa.

If you live in a town that has a sizeable Afro-Caribbean community, you may well have an opportunity to learn African percussion at workshops. If you don't, there's still a great deal you can learn from listening carefully to records (see under the 'Where It Is' section).

Don't be afraid to mix different styles together to compensate for your own playing technique. African pop is a shining example of what can happen when influences are openly received and mixed with your own heritage. And you could do a lot worse than to follow that example.


The larger retail chains like Virgin and HMV now have African sections. On the whole, only the major contemporary artists with good distribution deals are stocked. These are certainly worth checking out, but if you get into it you'll need to go to trendier independent record shops, specialist suppliers, or mail order firms to get the latest stuff out of Africa or, indeed, obscure earlier works.

Besides the individual artists and bands, there are some good compilations available. These are not only good introductions to various styles, but also contain excellent music and musicians which would otherwise be difficult to find.

There are two 'Sounds d'Afrique' compilations, one featuring highlife, the other soukous. Ghanaian highlife is to be found on two volumes of 'The Guitar and the Gun'. Among several South African compilations, 'The Indestructable Beat of Soweto' (two volumes), 'Soweto Street Music' and 'Rhythms of Resistance' are relatively easy to track down.

On national radio, DJs Peel and Kershaw continue to play excellent African music, and it's featured more and more by specialist shows on local networks.

But the best way to see it is live - sweat, smiles and all. A good live performance conveys something of the essence of African pop as a social activity shared through dancing. More bands are visiting from Africa and Paris, while London-based bands like Taxi Pata Pata and Somo Somo do the rounds regularly.

One day, you might do the same...

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