Bring the sounds of Africa to your home with this selection of musicians from across the continent. Compiled by Den Hukins
e may not be able to explore Africa at the moment, so here is a musical journey with some of the continent’s amazing musical talent to keep us feeling connected and to lift your spirits.
Zimbabwe feel-good vibes
Originating from a township near Victoria Falls, Mokoomba are an exhilarating blend of pan-African musical styles, crowned by Mathias Muzaza’s striking vocals and the groups gospel-style harmonies—reminiscent of Paul Simon’s Graceland. Their Luyando album in 2017 is a gilt-edged enthralling listen.
The Four Brothers were once described by the legendary BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel as “the best live band in the world” and it’s no wonder: their sweet guitar riffs and solos radiate feel-good sunshine holiday music. It’s that upbeat rhythm that gets festival-goers’ heads bobbing and bodies boogieing. If you had to describe quintessential African music, this could be it.
Try: Greatest Hits 1994-1996
For pure folk happiness, Malawi has a couple of gems that will be sure to get your toes tapping.
The Madalitso Band were discovered busking outside a shopping mall in Lilongwe. The two friends belt out wonderful melodies as they strum their homemade one-string bass and a four-stringed guitar as a foot drum keeps the brisk rhythms ticking along. In 2019 the dynamic duo went on a life-changing tour across Europe, including WOMAD UK, to promote their Wasalala album.
Gasper Nali (pictured above) is a one-man band, his showpiece being a three-metre one-string bass, played with a stick and an empty beer bottle. There’s a fabulous video filmed in Nali’s village on the shores of Lake Malawi where you can see him in action performing the title song from his 2015 album Abale Ndikuwuzeni
A once-in-a-lifetime icon
The Beninese singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo is one of the greatest African artists of all time. A four-time Grammy Award winner, Kidjo’s powerful commanding voice can attune to a broad range of musical styles. None more so, than the cover of Talking Heads’ 1980 album Remain in Light. Kidjo’s version is a sublime tribute to the groundbreaking album.
Highlife Ghanaian greats
The soundtrack to Ghana has always been highlife music, and we are fortunate to have two influential highlife greats still active, who both released separate albums in 2019: Ebo Taylor (Yen Ara), the guitarist and producer has been putting his own mark on African music for fifty years, and Pat Thomas (Obiaa!) known by many as “the golden voice of Africa”, whose career began in the 1960s. Both albums encompass everything highlife has been and is now: a melting pot of dazzling African rhythms, jazz, funk and afrobeat.
Whilst Africa has its own brand of Blues away from its distant cousin in the Deep South, here are two albums that really could sound at home along the Mississippi or the Niger River.
Talking Timbuktu, by Ali Farka Touré (with Ry Cooder). A Grammy winner for Best World Music Album in 1994, the album perfectly captures Touré’s deep-rooted Malian ‘Desert Blues’ style, and with the spectacular interplay from Ry Cooder’s trademark slide guitar and banjo playing, it put African blues in the spotlight internationally.
Wande by Samba Touré. This 2018 release is beautifully produced, full of cool spacious electric blues riffs and crisp rock guitar—nothing fancy here, just honest blues with a hallmark Malian sound.
If you like blues rock, then look to the Sahara for the dynamic Tuareg Rock scene. Scorching guitar riffs, campfire claps and African drums beat hypnotic rhythms across the Sahel region. Mainly played by the nomadic Tamashek (Tuareg) people, the band Tinariwen pioneered the desert sound by being the first to use electric guitars in the late 1970s.
Today, many similar bands such as Tamikrest (pictured above), Kel Asouff and Bombino enjoy international success. For a full-on axe-shredding experience, Mdou Moctar will intrigue any metal fan.
Try: Chatma, by Tamikrest, and Llana (The Creator), by Mdou Moctar.
If you have been to Marrakesh, no doubt you would have been allured by the musicians in the ancient Jemaa el-Fnaa square. The pounding drums, clanking iron castanets and the fervent chanting is not just a tourist show, but part of the largest music scene in Morocco. Gnawa music dates back centuries and still is used in ritualistic healing ceremonies.
While it’s perhaps an acquired taste to western ears, you may be pleasantly surprised by dipping into Maalem Houssam Gania’s Mosawi Swiri album and Oulad Lghabathe by Asmâa Hamzaoui (and Bnat Timbouktou) who at 16 became the first female gnawa performer.
The future voice of Africa
Fatoumata Diawara is currently the forefront of contemporary African music. The charismatic Malian activist, musician and singer has a voice as diverse and colourful as her attire. The Fenfo album, with its tasteful fusion of jazz, funk and blues, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2018 and is a real showcase for modern Africa. The album cover was photographed in the searing salt pans of the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia. Expect to hear much more from Diawara in the coming years.
Den Hukins hosts Calabash! The African Music Guide, dedicated to the African music scene in the UK.