Fifty years of African music

Africa pumps up the volume

Miriam Makeba sings in the Italian city of Naples
Miriam Makeba sings in the Italian city of Naples AFP/Carlo Hermann

African music has won international recognition. The continent has a diverse range of music - rhythms ranging from traditional to more contemporary styles, appreciated for their entertainment value and, perhaps even more, for their cultural and historical context.


African recordings can now be found in music stores all over the world, advertised in magazines and on specialized websites. The growing international interest in African music provides opportunities for more bands to tour internationally and participate in festivals.

But, if African music is acclaimed, sales figures released in a monthly report by the French music research group L’Observatoire de la musique showed that only 4.9 per cent of CDs sold in France in November 2009 were African - fewer than CDs of jazz and blues and classical music.

The Western music market is considered one of the most lucrative for African artists but in 2008 only the new albums by Amadou & Mariam and Magic System sold more than 30,000 copies, way more than albums by Tiken Jah Fakoly and Rokia Traoré. Popular French artists like Francis Cabrel or Christophe Maé put these figures in the shade.

From folk to cultural mix

Half a century after independence artists have tried to do away with the folk label stamped on their music during the colonial period.

Artists from the two Congo states of central Africa known for Rumba music and their pioneering music sounds have had a strong influence in the sub-Saharan region both before and after independence.

But, in the early days of these states’ existence, artists started looking for inspiration from other genres, such as jazz and other Western music, aiming to distance themselves from their roots by finding a different identity.

This period of self-examination, which ended in 1972, brought out sounds like those of the successful Soul Makosa group revealing the talent of saxophonist Manu Dibango and paving the way for him to become an important figure in the evolution of African music.

The greats:

  • Grand Kalle: Indépendance Tcha Tcha
  • Miriam Makeba : Pata pata
  • Manu Dibango : Soul makossa
  • Alpha Blondy: Sweet Fanta Diallo
  • Johnny Clegg : Scatterlings of Africa
  • Fela: Lady
  • Amadou & Mariam : Dimanche à Bamako

Africa, music and the future

Preservation of west African traditions and history in the form of music, stories or poetry has long been the responsibility of griots.

The Malian Salif Keita who started his musical career as a member of the Rail Band is said to have covered his face because his social status was incompatible with that of a musician. Now it seems the compatibility of the two roles has become institutionalised.

In Guinea, music has become a matter of national concern, it serves as a political instrument for strengthening national sentiments to the point where bands are financed by public money and appear on the state-owned Sylliphone lebel.

When South African singer Miriam Makeba ran into difficulties while in exile in America, President Sékou Touré invited her to live in Conakry and continue her music career and her fight against apartheid. Makeba has been an icon and a reference for generations since then.

Nigerian artist Fela Kuti has captured interest in Africa and beyond through taking up Western funk beats, athough his rebellious nature has also attracted attention.

Other rhythms like Jamaican reggae also won world renown in the 70s when the first colonies to gain independence were mostly concerned with the installation of a new planetary international economic order. They proved that even beats from developing countries can achieve international success.  Reggae star Bob Marley was also concerned about Africa, as the sleeve notes of his 1979 album Survival show.

Beyond borders

Other artists have taken up the banner of African reggae, for example the late Lucky Dube and Alpha Blondy who both sang reggae tunes with traces of African influences.

As they tried to move from traditional to more universal rhythms, Dube dropped the mbaqanga tunes that had pushed him into the limelight in his native South Africa. However, his white compatriot Johnny Clegg turned round the trend by using Zulu influences. Borders have become porous, cross-cultural encounters and fusion are  the order of the day.

As the music continues to evolve, it has crossed borders, making Paris its extraterritorial capital. Many musicians looking for new opportunities and recognition come to the French capital. It has served as a springboard for artists like Touré Kunda and Khaled, while Cesaria Evora and Youssou N’Dour have become international ambassadors for Africa. And globalisation is helping bring together musics of peoples separated by history.

“From the banks of the Niger to the cotton fields on the other side of the Atlantic, things are very similar,” say American bluesman Taj Mahal and his Malian counterpart Ali Farka Touré.

Recently, the father of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatké, together with the young British band the Heliocentrics have opened up new and promising horizons. Thanks to its rich creativity, even more than to its heritage, African music that it will continue to spread to new lands.

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