If there is a word that best describes the past 60 years of African music, then it has to be “transformative”. From a period when African music was little known beyond its own borders to today, when music by Africans is widely played within and outside the continent, it has been an extraordinary period. Geographic and linguistic barriers have been shattered and African musicians are today listed among the world’s biggest stars.
African music genres are no longer a novelty broadly categorised as “World Music”, but are respected as distinct styles.
The description of “African music” is a misnomer because the continent has some of the most diverse styles of music: from the reverberation of rumba music in a sweaty Kinshasa club to the loud benga guitars blaring out of East Africa; from the mbalax in Dakar to makossa in Cameroon; mbaqanga and kwaito in South Africa; and highlife and Afrobeat in Lagos (now adopted as Afrobeats).
The foundation laid by giants such as Fela Kuti, Hugh Masekela, and Miriam Makeba has given rise to a new generation of confident performers, who are not afraid to create an eclectic fusion of African rhythms with global contemporary styles like hip hop, R&B, jazz, and dancehall.
There has never been a more exciting time to be an African artiste with brand-new business models that bypass the traditional record label and connect directly to consumers wherever they may be in the world, thanks largely to online streaming services, mobile telephone platforms, and the ubiquitous video-sharing channel YouTube.
Cross-border collaborations are now in vogue and artistes from the west coast of Africa are now able to conveniently collaborate with their counterparts in the eastern and southern corners of the continent.
But many of the artistes whose achievements we celebrate in these pages thrived in the adversity of the time through sheer grit, determination, and talent.
Regardless of the times that the music has been recorded, one constant has remained as a factor of success: It is the artistes who have been able to combine their unique African heritage with contemporary rhythms who have succeeded in carrying forward their music. It was the great American jazz musician Miles Davis who implored Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela in the early 1960s to develop their own distinctive style rather than just sound like an imitation of their American idols.
This is a celebration of the musicians who have put the continent on the map over the past 60 years. These are the icons of African music, the ones who have had the greatest influence on shaping the sounds and trends that have emerged from the continent over the past six decades.
One of the first African artistes to gain an international profile, Miriam Makeba was such a representation of the promise that the continent possessed that she fondly came to be known as “Mama Africa” during her 30 years of exile from South Africa.
The township girl was introduced to traditional music by her parents and won her first singing contest at a missionary school at the age of 13.
By the 1950s, Makeba was already South Africa's best known female black singer, having recorded many gospel and jazz songs with the all-girl group, The Skylarks.
When she first arrived in New York, Makeba was singing jazz standards by greats such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Until Harry Belafonte told her: "America didn't need a South African Fitzgerald. It needed Makeba doing her own music.”
The decision to sing in Xhosa, Zulu, and Sotho in a style only she could do won her many admirers in America and the rest of the world while Pata and The Click Song became international standards.
Her death at the age 76 on November 10, 2008, after a performance in Italy marked the end of an era in every sense. Makeba suffered a heart attack after performing her signature song, Pata, at a concert in support of Italian writer Roberto Saviano for his stand against the Mafia. Her last appearance on stage was to sing for the freedoms she had championed all her life.
Masekela’s love for the trumpet was sparked by watching the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn, and he was given his first instrument at the age of 14 by anti-apartheid priest Trevor Huddleston. The story of the young prodigy eventually reached his idol, US trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who sent one of his horns to Masekela through Father Huddleston.
He recorded 44 albums in a career spanning more than 60 years, with his last recording, No Borders, released in 2016. His signature song, Grazing in the Grass, still sounds fresh half-a-century since it topped the US charts for three weeks in 1968.
Masekela consistently reminded journalists and fans that he was not simply a jazz artiste, but an African musician. His style combined jazz and funk with South African township rhythms to create a distinctive brand of music that remained his identity throughout his career.
Masekela said he and Miriam Makeba, to whom he was married for two years from 1964, earned international acclaim because they stuck to their musical roots and did not imitate the Western sound.
He died in January 2018 at the age of 78. “I didn’t turn out too badly for a boy born in a shebeen,” Masekela quipped during a show in Nairobi in 2011.
The “Lion of Cameroon”, who is celebrated as the father of modern African music, has been at the forefront of the continent’s sound since the 1950s. The imposing 85-year-old clean-shaven, gravel-voiced singer/multi-instrumentalist is also a composer, producer, and film score writer.
Even at his advanced age, Dibango has remained energetic in performance along with his famous backing band, Makossa Gang. Born in Douala, Cameroon, Dibango went to study in France in 1949, arriving in Marseilles with a small sum of money and three kilos of coffee to pay for his first term in boarding school (his 1994 autobiography is called Three Kilos of Coffee).
He discovered the saxophone as a high school student but could not afford to buy the instrument, so he started playing the piano instead.
Dibango founded his band in 1967 and released his first-ever music recording in 1968. He created his signature makossa style by blending blues, jazz, reggae, highlife, and other global musical influences. His 1972 classic, Soul Makossa, made him the first African musician to score a Top 40 hit in the US, earned him two Grammy nominations, and has been sampled by Michael Jackson and Rihanna.
Fela created the Afrobeat genre from a fusion of jazz and pop with the rhythms of his Yoruba people. His songs were political attacks aimed at the successive military regimes in Nigeria and what he viewed as an oppressive world order. Sorrow Tears and Blood, Colonial Mentality, ITT (International Thief Thief, VIP (Vagabonds in Power), and Zombie were all potent commentaries that riled the authorities in Lagos. Fela paid the price for his defiance with numerous spells in jail on trumped-up charges. He built a fence around his house in the sprawling Lagos suburb of Ikeja and declared it an independent state called The Kalakuta Republic. The home has been converted into a museum and exhibition centre displaying some of Fela’s instruments, clothes, and other memorabilia.
At the end of 1975, inspired by American civil rights leader Malcolm X, Fela dropped his “slave name” Ransome and became “Anikulapo” (he who carries death in his pouch). He also abandoned the trumpet, saying it was too hard on his lips, and began playing the saxophone and the electric piano.
Fela died on August 3, 1997, at age 58 from complications associated with HIV/Aids. He released 77 albums and wrote 133 songs, some of which were released after his death.
Literally the giant of Congolese rumba, this larger-than-life band leader, guitarist, and composer along with his TP (Tout Puissant – meaning “all-powerful”) OK Jazz band, bestrode the African music landscape like a colossus for more than 40 years.
Franco (Luambo Luanzo Makiadi), more than any other of the greats from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) – his predecessors like Joseph Kabasele or even his contemporary and rival, Tabu Ley – remains the most important reference for Congolese rumba. He redefined and popularised rumba, which was fashioned on Cuban rhythms combined with Congolese music traditions, to produce a seductive sound that resonated with audiences around the world.
The “Sorcerer of the Guitar” recorded more than 100 albums in a career that started in 1956 until his death in 1989, and his influence endures in contemporary rumba music. His band grew to a size of almost 30 musicians playing an intricate web of guitars, horns, percussion instruments, and vocals. It was a spellbinding musical wonder, as those who watched the band’s performances led by the imposing figure of Franco will testify. Anthems such as Mario, Mamou, Pesa Position, Tres Impoli, and Sandoka, each clocking an average of 10 minutes, are unlike any other musical style that has been recorded in Africa.
Franco was an outspoken social and political commentator who composed songs that both charmed and criticised the fearsome dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. His life and career are a fascinating study of the tremendous power that very few musicians have wielded over an entire continent and beyond.
Youssou N'Dour was born in 1959 in the slums of Dakar, Senegal, to a family of the traditional West African praise singers, the griots. He started singing at circumcision ceremonies and became a professional singer by the age of 13, earning the name Le Petit Prince de Dakar (The Little Prince of Dakar). As a teenager, he joined the Star Band, the best-known Senegalese band at the time, and stayed in the group for three years. He left to form his own band, Etoile de Dakar (Star of Dakar) in 1979, which eventually became Super Etoile de Dakar, a rhythmic dance band consisting of as many as 14 singers and musicians.
N’Dour’s distinct sound is a combination of the traditional mbalax beat but with a variety of contemporary influences, from hip hop to R&B, reggae to jazz, and even rumba.
Through the years, he has collaborated with some of the world’s biggest stars – Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, and of course Neneh Cherry, with whom he enjoyed the global hit 7 Seconds in 1994.
N’Dour’s influence has transcended music into entrepreneurship and he runs a media empire, TV and radio stations, a newspaper, and a nightclub that employs more than 1,000 people.
“Africa’s greatest living diva” sings in English, French, and the West African languages of Yoruba and Fon. Born in 1960 in the port city of Cotonou, Benin, her stated mission is to use her success to open the way for many more artistes from Africa to come forward.
This powerhouse from the tiny West African nation has been the natural heir to the mantle of Miriam Makeba by using her star power to champion the rights of the downtrodden and oppressed. She studied Makeba to learn harmony and to “use your voice to talk about things that are universal and touch everybody”.
While Makeba used her stardom to increase pressure on the apartheid regime in South Africa to drop its segregationist policies, Kidjo is today working on improving the lot of girls and women around Africa. She is currently promoting a new fund from the African Development Bank that will see a greater number of women get access to loans and credit.
Her powerful voice and ability to combine traditional rhythms from around Africa with jazz, Latin, and soul have brought her tremendous success, including three Grammy awards, and there could be a fourth on the way after her latest album, Celia, was nominated for the 2020 Grammys.
“Nobody can stop reggae” has become a popular catch phrase in recent times, but perhaps few people remember that it is a lyric from the Lucky Dube song, Reggae Strong.
Not many African musicians have earned admiration on the level achieved by Lucky Dube during his lifetime, and his legacy has only grown after his death. Dube released his first reggae album in 1984 after years of performing Zulu traditional music, known as mbaqanga. Facing a restive apartheid system that banned all reggae music from radio and TV, Dube carefully made the transition to the music, whose socio-political message was relevant to South Africa.
He pioneered a distinctively African variant of reggae, spiced up with elements of soul, gospel, and township jive with its trademark keyboard rhythms. By the early 1990s, Lucky Dube had eclipsed Ivorian Alpha Blondy to become Africa’s biggest selling artiste with hits such as Think about the Children, Prisoner, and House of Exile.
The shocking murder of Dube in 2007 left a huge void in African reggae and the emergence of a successor with a similar global stature has been a long time coming.
“The Golden Voice of Africa” is a direct descendant of Sundiata Keita, the Mandinka warrior king who founded the Malian empire in the 13th century and, therefore, did not belong to the singing caste known as “griot”.
Undeterred by these caste restrictions, Salif spent two years playing the guitar and singing in markets, bars, and cafes. His unique voice began to attract attention and soon he was recruited as lead vocalist for The Super Rail band of Bamako in 1967.
The political upheavals under the military junta in Mali during the 1970s forced Keita to flee to the Ivory Coast then to France.
It was in Paris that his music blossomed, blending the traditional music of his childhood with influences from the rest of West Africa and Arabic sounds to create the distinctive rhythms heard on landmark albums like Soro (1987) and Amen (1991).
After an illustrious 50-year career, Malian legend Salif Keita announced in 2018 his retirement from recording during the release of his 14th album, Un Autre Blanc (Another White), which featured collaborations with Alpha Blondy, Angelique Kidjo, and Yemi Alade.
The longevity of his music career, spanning 67 albums over four decades, was due to an unmatched ability to write and compose thousands of songs and remain relevant by winning new fans while retaining the loyalty of traditional supporters.
Mtukudzi combined electric guitars, keyboard, and bass with traditional mbira (thumb piano), marimba, and the hosho shakers to create his brand, “Tuku Music”, named after an abbreviation of his surname. It was a sound that veers between traditional Shona music, South African township music, and American gospel and soul. That husky voice remained the most distinct identity of his music as heard on the 1997 hit, Todii, which dealt with HIV/Aids within the family at a time when the topic was still taboo, and other popular songs like Ndakuvara, Neria, and Hear Me Lord.
When the Time ran a cover story on Tuku in 2003, they called him “The People’s Voice”. In a country that has experienced its share of political and economic upheaval, it comes as no great surprise that most of Tuku’s lyrics dwell on the social and economic issues that dominate the everyday life of Zimbabweans. His death in January 2019 at the age of 66 marked the end of an era, not just for the music of Zimbabwe but for the entire African continent, where Tuku was venerated as one of the icons whose music defied barriers such as age and borders.