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African contemporary music, commonly called Afropop, is as diverse as the African continent itself. It encompasses more than 50 genres, which in turn convey an array of languages, cultures, histories, political movements and personal stories.
The public radio show Afropop Worldwide, along with its website Afropop.org, is a leading source of information, commentary and criticism on African music around the world. So to put together a primer on Afropop, we asked executive producer Sean Barlow to share his picks for the top 10 most popular genres within Afropop music. While this roundup only begins to scratch the surface of today’s African music scene, it should help you stock up on mp3’s in preparation of your next trip.
Pioneered by Nigerian musicians Fela Kuti and Tony Allen in the 1970s, Afrobeat combines jazz and highlife (a mix of jazz, calypso and brass band music), according to Frank Tenaille, author of Music is the Weapon of the Future. Kuti borrowed heavily from American funk and soul, which he encountered while staying in Los Angeles. His lyrics were rife with political criticism directed at Nigeria’s military dictatorship.
Sample: Teacher Don’t Teach Me No Nonsense, by Fela Kuti (YouTube)
Where to hear it: The New Afrika Shrine in Ikeja, Nigeria is one of the foremost hubs of Afrobeat music. World renowned artist Femi Kuti, the son of Fela, performs there often.
Coupé-Décalé hit the dance floors of the Côte d’Ivoire only after it was invented in a Paris nightclub by Ivorian DJs in 2002. Associated with provocative lyrics, coupé-décalé is especially popular with a younger crowd, but its playful rhythms can make anyone feel like getting up and dancing.
Sample: Sagacité, by Douk Saga (YouTube)
Where to hear it: Rue Princesse street in Abdijan is brimming with nightlife and many of its clubs play coupé-décalé hits. (As a warning, the area is also known as a red light district.)
This popular Egyptian genre, which has roots in traditional folk music, is sometimes considered to be music “of the people”. Shaabi’s quick tempo lends itself well to Arabic belly dancing.
Sample: Bent El Sultan, by Ahmed Adaweya (YouTube)
Where to hear it: Cairo’s hotel nightclubs, like the Marriott’s Empress Entertainment Lounge, sometimes feature belly dancing performances.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, soukous is dance music based on Cuban rumba and accented by rhythms from Congolese folk traditions. The genre’s name may come from the French “secouer” meaning “to shake”. Soukous is associated with the kwassa kwassa dance, made popular by musician Kanda Bongo Man, according to author Frank Tenaille.
Sample: Good Morning, by Diblo Dibala (YouTube)
Where to hear it: In the diaspora, soukous can be found at African nightclubs in major metropolitan cities. In London, for instance, Club Afrique is a fun place to dance the night away to soukous and other Afropop styles.
Afropop Worldwide describes fast-paced tsapika music as “electric guitar pop boogie”. It’s a fast and furious island mix of guitar finger-picking, keyboards, high-pitched vocals, and stomping that is very popular in Madagascar’s southern beach towns and mining camps.
Sample: Tulear Never Sleeps, a compilation album featuring Jean Noel, Teta and Tsy An-Jaza, among others. (last.fm)
Where to hear it: Discos like Mafana Club in southern Madagascar’s Fort Dauphin play Malagasy music including tsapika.
Mbalax emerged in 1970s Senegal, combining influences from the local drumming genre sabar with influences from Latin genres. Exhibiting the time period’s turn away from colonial influences and toward African roots, many mbalax songs are sung in the local Wolof language.
Sample: Seven Seconds, by Youssou N’Dour and Neneh Cherry (Dailymotion)
Where to hear it: Youssou N’Dour, arguably Senegal’s most famous singer, is currently touring internationally. When he’s back in Senegal, he can be seen performing Fridays and Saturdays at his club, Thiossane in Dakar (Sicap Rue 10 Point E; 33-824-6046).
Kwaito grew out of South Africa’s post-apartheid age, blending South African jazz and pop music with Western house and hip hop. A documentary from public radio station WBUR details how kwaito has become “the hip hop of South Africa”, emerging as a resistance genre for South African youth.
Sample: Yiyo Lendawo, by Arthur Mafokate (YouTube)
Where to hear it: Kospotong-Ghandi Square is one of several clubs in Johannesburg spinning kwaito music.
Tuareg blues tells the story of the marginalized Tuareg people, a nomadic population in Mali and Niger. The perfect example of the genre’s evolution comes from the world-renowned band Tinariwen. Tinariwen formed when its Tuareg members met in refugee camps in Algeria and spent time together in a military camp in Libya. When the Tuareg Rebellion broke out in Mali and Niger, the band fought in the southern Sahara. Through song, Tinariwen perpetuated the rebellion’s message, spreading awareness about the government repression of the Tuareg people.
Sample: Lulla, by Tinariwen (YouTube)
Where to hear it: Tinariwen is currently on tour. The European portion of the desert blues band’s international tour begins 4 October in Villa do Conde, Portugal.
It didn’t take long for Jamaica’s native genre of reggae to spread across the world. In the 1970s, African reggae began to take hold, with Nigerian musicians like Sonny Okusuns integrating reggae with other local genres including highlife (a mix of jazz, calypso, and brass band music). In other countries – Senegal, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Zimbabwe and South Africa, to name just a few – artists continued to creatively weave reggae into local Afropop genres. Today, reggae can be heard all over the African continent, and all over the world.
Sample: Prisoner, by Lucky Dube
Where to hear it: Cape Town has a Rootz Reggae Tour that offers a little bit of everything: sightseeing, live music, dancing and an education on reggae and Rasta culture.
American hip hop was born out of beats and rhythms from African music. So it’s only fitting that hip hop would come full circle, finding a place in its motherland. As with reggae, African artists have adapted hip hop to create regional versions of the genre. The result is an addictive cross between old and new, traditional and innovative.
Sample: Inch’allah, by MC Solaar
Where to hear it: The annual Waga Hip Hop Festival will take place between 10 October and 15 October this year, in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and in other surrounding cities. The FrancoMix website has detailed information about artist line-ups and venues.
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