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)
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.
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)
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)
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
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)
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)
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)
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)
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
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
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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