Top 10 pioneers of popular African Music

We tend to focus on the emerging modern rock and metal scene in Africa here at AudioInferno. However, long before its birth, talented artists hailing from the African continent were selling millions of records worldwide, crossing national and cultural borders. They performed everything from regional folk music, to afrobeat and highlife, to blues, to psychedelic rock that almost resembles early heavy metal. You are surely familiar with some of the names, while you may never have heard others. Yet all of them deserve to be recognized and celebrated, their songs have aged like fine-wine. This list of top ten African popular music artists is our tribute to them. Let us celebrate African music!

Fela Anikulapo Kuti (Nigeria)

Fela Kuti (October 15, 1938 – August 2, 1997), Born Olufela Olusegun Oludotun Ransome-Kuti, Fela Kuti is a name well-known all over the world. Likely the most famous musician to come out of Africa, his career spanned almost four decades. He melded highlife, jazz, funk and rock to create the genre of afrobeat, and popularized it worldwide. A dedicated human rights activist, the often political subject of his lyrics incurred the wrath of the establishment. His 1970 album, Zombie was highly critical of the Nigerian military, and prompted a thousand soldiers to raid and destroy his studio/commune, Kalakuta Republic in an attack that killed his mother. This did not deter Fela from further releasing politically charged material, such as 1980’s Beasts of No Nation, which criticized apartheid and featured US president Ronald Reagan, UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and South African president Pieter Willem Botha on the cover. Fela has always felt citizens of Nigeria were lied to by the government, Fela spoke like he had thought everything through. He spoke slowly and evenly in clear sentences. Well we all know how that turned out.

At 30, Fela had more energy than those half his age. If I had a gun put to my head and asked what my favourite thing about Fela was, I would say he always said the truth. His name should be called Truth. Fela painted such vivid pictures in my mind and it opened me up as a person to be able to do what I have painted in my mind. Fela was brilliant both lyrically and visually, he had that level of experimentation and willingness to push through and believe me, that is what is keeping Fela’s fan from around the world alive till date. That bravery and attitude that Fela possessed means the world to me and his fans globally. I saw Fela’s stubbornness as a strength. Though he passed away in 1997, his songs remains strong and his legacy lives on. Universal Music remastered and re-released all of his works in 1999, and a Broadway musical based on his life was premiered in 2008. Fela is arguably the most important pioneer in the history of African music.

Ali “Farka” Touré (Mali)

Ali “Farka” Touré (October 31, 1939 – March 7, 2006) was born into the living soil of the North Malian noble family. One of the most well-known musicians to ever hail from the African continent. His music straddles the line between traditional Sahelian music and blues. As a guitarist, Toure was ranked 76 on Rolling Stone’s “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” and number 37 on Spin’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.” Ali has a son, Vieux, a Grammy winning artist who is keeping the family’s musical tradition alive.

Ali was a renowned guitarist, he always captured what you’re going to hear. His words reflected the positive vibes emanating from his heart and he was built on high intelligibility in the sense that you could hear exactly what he was saying. Everything Ali was about was a concept in itself, he was a deep thinker and the theme he explored on his breakthrough album “Ali Farka Toure” was mind-blowing. Ali’s combination of honesty and passion made him a man who stood out of the crowd.

Toumani Diabaté (Mali)

Toumani Diabaté is a Malian kora player. Coming from a long line of 70 generations of musicians, he is one of the best kora players of all time. He is easily the most renowned kora master of all time. His music is considered Malian traditional music or world music, but he has collaborated with different musicians of many modern genres, including fellow Malian Ali Farka Toure, on In the Heart of the Moon in 2005.

The greatest part of Toumani is his musicianship and I am a big fan of him as a person. Let’s say I am a fanboy on anything he touches and I can’t just lose myself also in hearing him express his method of the kora. His music has that electrifying effect on you and his album with Late Malian Ali Farka Toure won the best traditional World Music album in 2006.

Konono Nº1 (Democratic Republic of Congo)

Undeniably one of the most original musical groups to come out of Africa, in this case the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa-based Konono Nº1 produce their sounds on the electric likembé and home-made percussive instruments. The band’s sound is so original that it can’t be pigeonholed into a single genre, and has to be heard for one to draw their own conclusions. Though the group formed in 1966, they played outside of Africa for the first time in 2003 and released their first full-length album in 2004. Congotronics, released in 2004 through Crammed Discs, is their most successful work to date, and their defining opus.

They toured the Netherlands with the Dutch band, The Ex, a punk rock band. The super musical group is an exciting prospect, their arsenal is a familiar one in the sense that the songs they deliver are beyond the veil. There’s nothing to mark Konono Nº1 group out or call for further listening. Congotronics being their first full length album was received internationally, the album till date has that infectious power on you.

Youssou N’Dou (Senegal)

Born on 1st October, 1959. He is a Senegalese singer, songwriter, composer, actor, politician and a business person. Clearly, this is everything a man hopes for. Youssou was one of the most well-known singers from the African continent, his style is described as Mbalax – a fusion of traditional Senegalese music with rock, jazz, soul, and Latin music. He was the most important figure in the creation of this genre of African music. Active since the 1970s, N’Dour is still making music today, and has millions of fans worldwide.

Youssou has always had a genuine chemistry and the result of his music was a swaggering one. He was one of the bearers of an exceptional talent and he tackled the hardest of key changes and stylistic switches. The New York Times even described his voice as an “arresting tenor, a supple weapon deployed with prophetic authority”. Youssou N’Dour has also collaborated with famous worldwide musicians like Lou Reed (respect to this legend), Bruce Springsteen, Dido, Wyclef Jean. Look this guys up on google and see the powerful recipe that erupts when they sing. Youssou collaborated with Lou Reed on Peter’s Gabriel version of the song “Biko” which was produced by Richard James Burjess. In my dialect, “Biko” means please, (hahaha.) There are no questioning to his songs as he has performed at the biggest concentration concerts around the world.

Baaba Maal (Senegal)

Baaba Maal is a Senegalese singer and guitarist, and after Youssou N’Dour, the most prominent Senegalese musician. Playing modern traditional music/World Music, Baaba Maal has millions of fans around the world, and has collaborated with Western artists and contributed his music to music a video game soundtracks. Baaba Maal also plays the acoustic guitar and he is a percussionist.

The fact that Baaba Maal did not follow his way of his father made him unique, his father was a fisherman and he was expected to follow in his father’s footstep but he didn’t . He found his sole purpose in MUSIC, he was influenced by music by his good family friend, also a blind guitarist called Gaulo, he kept devoting himself to music and he kept with his notoriously tireless pursuit of music. He studied music at the university of Dakar before leaving to Paris on a scholarship to study Beaux-Arts and a chance to combine his academic and musical pursuits to look to his future beyond.

I am humbled by Baaba Maal musical presence and professionalism, he is a man down to earth and he is always happy when he is contributing to his records. He worked with Red Hot Organization recording “No Agreement” alongside Tony Allen, Ray Lema, Archie Sheep, Res for the tribute album to Fela Kuti, Red Hot + Riot: The music and spirit of Fela Kuti.

Miriam Makeba (South Africa)

Miriam Makeba aka Mama Africa (March 4, 1932 – November 9, 2008) was a South African singer. Known for her political activism as much as her music, she created music that fused traditional South African music with jazz, rock, and soul. Her most well-known song is the single “Pata Pata” released domestically in 1957 and in the United States in 1967, where it peaked on the Billboard top 100 at number 12. She was perhaps the first African artist to attain worldwide popularity.

Her first six months of life was spent in jail as her mother was jailed when she was pregnant then on March 4th 1932, a hero was born, the first African artist to popularize African music around the world. She was also a civil rights activist and was also privileged to campaign against the South African “apartheid” system. Miriam Makeba was an enlightenment of that Africa “holy space”, an illumination. Her connection to positive and fruitful energy was something anyone could die for. She was a true intellectual and her spiritual revival  blew my mind away and made her to reach incredible places.

In 1966, Miriam Makeba won the Grammy award for best folk recording together with Harry Belafonte, not only that, she won several renowned awards during her lifetime. She was that South African profound change and she brought her unique personalities to the table. The great songs she sang gave a lasting impression then and it still gives them till date.

Papa Wemba (Democratic epublic of Congo)

Papa Wemba (June 14, 1949 – April 24 2016), was a rumba rock, soukous musician. His music is best described as a mix of traditional Congolese music, reggae, rock, and soul. Wemba began his career with the band Zaiko Langa Langa in the 1960s, and later performed with Isifi Lokole and Yoka Lokole. He appeared on more than 35 recordings, as a solo artist or member of a band. Wemba passed away this year and is regarded as one of the most popular and important African musicians of all time. Papa Wemba was a strong fine man and he weathered unimaginable highs and lows over the past 67 years of his life. He was a colossal celebrated global icon. Not only that he had a great mind, he was very influential and when he was on stage and sang, it’s like he set fire to everything, that reborn feel.

Papa Wemba was an element of one-upmanship about his modernization of Congolese rumba music, a genre that played a part in becoming an influential music across Africa.

King Sunny Ade (Nigeria)

Born, Sunday Adeniyi, Sunny Adé is a name that most Africans are familiar with. Next to Fela Kuti, he is the most well-known Nigerian musician. Bringing juju music to a global audience, Sunny is one of the biggest names under the broader umbrella of world music, incorporating instruments such as the talking drum and pedal steel guitar into his sound, fused with standard guitar, bass, synthesizer and drum instrumentation. His early 1980s signing to the Western label Island Records paved the way for other up-and-coming world music artists to find a place on the roster of a Western label, making him perhaps the most important artist in the rise of the world music movement. Sunny has collaborated with both international and Nigerian artists, and has had his music featured in Hollywood movies. While retaining an undeniably Nigerian flavor, his music found a large following worldwide.

In both scale and nominal nature, King Sunny Ade audaciously exceeded the heights reached by any group in Nigeria. His live concerts had huge numbers. After six albums and an endless stream of energy and stage-crafts used for his live shows, you would know what you are going to get from King Sunny Ade also known as KSA. King Sunny Qde formed that inimitable lane with traditional juju instruments and blended it with the guitar. King Sunny Ade introduced vibraphone, synthesizers and tenor guitar into juju music.

Tinariwen (Mali)

From the interior of the vast Sahara comes Tinariwen, which means deserts in the Tuareg language of Tamasheq. Tinariwen was founded by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. At age 4, he witnessed the  execution of his father. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib began his musical career in the late 1970s, playing live in Algeria with fellow Tuareg exiles Inteyeden Ag Ablil and Liya Ag Ablil. But it wasn’t until the three traveled to Libya in 1985 to fight alongside Tuareg rebels that they met Keddou Ag Ossade, Mohammed Ag Itlale, Sweiloum Ag Alhousseyni, Abouhadid Ag Alhousseyni, and Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, to complete the lineup of what would come to be known as Tinariwen. They merged Tuareg folk instrumentation, such as the shepherd’s flute, imzad, and tindé drum with rock guitars, the first band to ever attempt anything of the sort. The band returned to Mali in 1989, with some members participating in the 1990 Tuareg revolt against the government. Though they took up arms for the cause of their Tuareg people, they again left their home territory of northern Mali in 2012, when the particularly hardlined National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad took over the region and aimed to rid it of “popular music.” Tinariwen did not receive international recognition until the 1990s, but would win a Grammy award and go on to become the most successful band to ever emerge from North Africa. And they not only sung about revolt and rebellion, but actually lived it, a claim very few artists can make.

The compositions Tinariwen produces are neck-deep in folk, surprisingly memorable, combining guitar styles which is rooted in West African music combined with Tinde drums, a percussive bombardment instrumental played by women in festive occasions. Tinariwen is a band that when they are on stage, they burst into life on their guitar plays and drumbeats that barely take a moments rest. From the start, Tinariwen has always broken the rules, knocking down great walls and their sound is engaging, solid and radiant. They are a sight to see, they mix their folk-tinged, powerful tones with awesome stage performances. Every member of Tinariwen are bearers of exceptional talent. They ignite the crowd, sewing together folk, blues and guitar plays based on regional influences.

This article was written by Tim Salter, a guest writer and was assisted by Austin of Audioinferno. Tim is a huge supporter of African rock and metal, after becoming a fan of the Angola and Botswana scenes years ago. Tim hopes to see rock and metal bands active in every single country in the world someday.

He can be reached via email mail, Facebook facebook Tim Walter

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Name is Austin, peeps call me Austinrock. I like to interact with bands. You DO NOT have my permission to utilize any of my profile information nor any of the content contained here \m/{*¿*}\m/ ...THERE...OK. I'm a huge Melodeath metal fan. I'm proud to be a METALHEAD. Metal isn't for everybody, it's for the chosen few. Most friends I have tell me they don't understand why I like metal, that it is too much noise. They just going to have to listen beyond the noise and the truth is they don't have to figure it out, it is either in you or it isn't. Metal is my morning coffee and it's my night sleeping pills...


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