As summer in the northern hemisphere begins to wind down, it seemed appropriate for another injection of African warmth for those of us in northern climes. So we asked author Sean Connolly for a second round of African music favourites.
With 54 countries (give or take a couple, depending on who you ask!) on the continent, there’s a nearly-infinite variety of music available (one of the many reasons I so love travel there). So I’ve put together a selection of my favourites from a different range of countries to those mentioned by my colleague Philip Briggs in his list earlier in the year.
Some are continental heavyweights, while others are almost unheard of – but all have some delightful sounds to offer.
Dotorado Pro – African Scream (Marimbas) (2015)
Born in Luanda and now based in Lisbon, Dotorado Pro was barely 16 when he released his frenetic African Scream (Marimbas). It’s exciting and off-kilter, loopy and slightly scrambled, and makes an excellent type specimen for the batida genre of electronic beats characterised by Dotorado Pro and the like-minded musicians at Lisbon-based label, Príncipe Discos.
Dotorado Pro and Príncipe’s roster of artists all hail (or have parents) from Lusophone Africa, and their styles draw heavily on Angolan kizomba, kuduro, tarraxinha and afro-house, reworking these disparate, danceable influences into something new entirely – something faster, freakier and noisier, but remaining fearlessly and distinctively African.
Groupe RTD – Raga Kaan Ka’Eegtow (You Are the One I Love) (2020)
This brand new album from Djiboutian state band Groupe RTD (named for their official employer, Radiodiffusion Télévision de Djibouti) is a bolt from the blue and officially the first commercial album to come out of Djibouti, ever.
Despite this being their first album, the band has been playing together for decades and it sounds that way – fans of classic Somali bands like Iftin and Dur Dur won’t be disappointed. They were given just three days to record the album, and it comes out with all the warmth and welcome of an intimate home concert (but one with a full band, mind you)!
If Djibouti is ever in the news today, it’s for the unsettling assortment of countries jockeying for military base rights here, but the land has been a crossroads for centuries, and you can hear it in Groupe RTD’s sound. Unexpected Jamaican waves hit the Gulf of Aden with the shuffling reggae thump of Raga Kaan Ka’Eegtow (You Are the One I Love), while the warbling Somali vocals and Ethio-jazz horns place you firmly in the horn of Africa. It’s a latter-day golden-age album, as surprising for its diverse array of sounds as for the fact that it exists at all. A bright spot of 2020 in my house.
Orchestre Afro-Succès – Ce n’est pas difficile (1974)
Kicking off with a sugar-sweet accapella from Gabonese crooner and Afro-Succès bandleader Hilarion Nguema, this seemingly live-recorded track quickly turns into a raucous mélange of fuzzed-out guitars, over-amplified vocals, screaming horns, and the shouts of a clearly thrilled audience.
The recording quality certainly leaves something to be desired, but it’s wild, messy and feels like it’s just barely holding together at times – and that’s precisely where the joy shines through. The whole thing is alive and organic, a buzzing, throbbing, sometimes screeching medley inviting you to imagine the evening lights of Libreville and feel the nightclub sweat dripping from the brows of the band, the bottles of Régab beer, and the bodies of the dancers in the equatorial night.
Nguema shouts to the crowd at one point – “êtes vous fatigué??” and it’s not difficult to hear the answer.
Note that ‘Ce n’est pas difficile’ is mislabeled as ‘Makokou’ on Spotify. The track labelled as ‘Ce n’est pas difficile’ is another song altogether (though I’m not entirely sure which)!
Bembeya Jazz National – Moussogbe (1973)
Though Guinea’s dictatorial first president Sékou Touré is not remembered particularly fondly these days, his authenticité program of aggressively promoting national bands and culture has left behind a magnificent body of work that captured the post-independence moment and stands tall anywhere on the continent.
Of these bands, Bembeya Jazz National was the biggest of the era, releasing some 15-odd albums and dozens of singles between the late ’60s and the early ’80s, all on the national Syliphone label.
They were also among my first discoveries when I started exploring the world of classic African pop some 15 years ago, and this song has always stuck in my head as an absolute favourite. The mysterious, otherworldly feel – the enormous, swirling space conjured by the duelling horns and guitar, the percussion seeming to come from another room entirely, and the Mandinka-inspired vocals – it’s always taken me to another place, even if I’ve never quite figured out where that is!
Bembeya Jazz was an enormously diverse band as well, penning not only mysterious grooves like Moussogbe, but dancefloor burners like Téléphone (of which Hilarion Nguema was seemingly a fan – listen to our entry for Gabon), Cuban-inspired rumbas like Sabor de Guajira, and traditional griot praise-singing epics like the 40-minute Regard sur la passé.
Shine P – Mr. International (2019)
Baptising himself both ‘Mr. International’ and ‘Mr. No Bad Day’, it’s hard to argue with Shine P’s positive outlook. The Liberian-born rapper alternates between repping his origins in Liberia and his adopted home of Minneapolis, Minnesota, lending the Mr. International tag more than a bit of credence.
The longstanding links between Liberia and the United States are on full display while Shine P raps in a mix of American and Liberian Kreyol English, peppering tracks with a fun and unexpected mix of Monrovian and Minneapolitan references.
The bass-heavy Mr. International track bounces and boasts its way along at a decidedly head-noddable tempo, as Shine P alternates between showing off (“Highest-paid Liberian artist in America”), dropping pop-culture references (like to 1988 film Coming to America), and considering his position in his new home: “Coming to America, I came by myself – I’m not Eddie Murphy so I gotta go to work!”
Ton Vie – Peros Vert (2002)
Just the right tempo for a big, belted-out singalong at the right time of night, seggae anthem Peros Vert (‘Green Peros’) has become something of a rallying cry for dispossessed Chagossians in Mauritius and beyond. Originally from the Chagos Archipelago, they were evicted from their islands and sent to Mauritius and Seychelles in the 1960s and 70s in a colonial act hatched and executed by the US and UK to make way for a military base. Today they live in exile, many now in Crawley, UK, celebrating memories of the islands they lost with songs of love and longing.
Among the islands they were ripped from was the Peros Banhos atoll, the ‘Green Peros’ of which Ton Vie sings in Mauritian seggae style – a hybrid of reggae and the island’s indigenous séga music. Though the anthem laments their déracinement (uprootedness), there’s hope for Chagossians yet: 2019 saw the UK government ordered to let them return, suffering stinging rebukes at the International Court of Justice and the UN General Assembly. See chagossupport.org.uk to get involved in righting this historic wrong for the people of green Peros.
Note that the original version of the song isn’t available on Spotify, only a more uptempo remix version from 2019.
Etran de l’Aïr – Tamiditine (2018)
Believe it or not, this rollicking desert rock is the soundtrack to working-class weddings in the northern Nigerien city of Agadez.
Recorded live in an impromptu outdoor session with the fantastic Sahel Sounds label, this is as evocative as it is danceable, with spontaneous cheers and ululations painting a picture beyond the music itself – one of twirling scarves, twinkling stars and a gaggle of neighborhood kids who’ve come out into the sandy side streets to see their local stars play (indeed ‘Etran de l’Aïr’ means ‘stars of the Aïr’, in reference to the Aïr Mountains nearby).
The drummer bashes away heroically, the guitarists weave hypnotising loops over and back on themselves, the ancient equipment buzzes and wheezes throughout, everybody gives it their all singing the chorus, and it’s all over before you know it – and well before you’d like it to be!
Orchestre Impala – Iby’isi ni amabanga (198X)
Despite the fact only two of the original members are still alive, Rwanda’s most popular band can be found playing out at hotels and bars in Kigali on a regular basis, trading in a style known in Kinyarwanda as karahanyuze or igisope – golden oldies to you and me.
Given Rwanda’s history, it’s easy to let the great tragedy of the country’s modern history define it, which is part of why I love the gentle, carefree vibe and warm vocals of Iby’isi ni amabanga and other Orchestre Impala songs. They sound like postcards from the past – fleeting melodies of a more innocent time, of a period of stability before everything would irreparably change.
Orchestre Impala broke up in the late 1980s; some members of the band were murdered during the genocide, and none of them would play music together again until 2012. Today they’re back onstage, excavating some of their melodies from the past and dreaming up a few new ones as well.
São Tomé & Príncipe
Africa Negra – Carambola (1983)
The first guitar licks of this classic from São Tomé’s biggest band never fail to put a smile on my face, and it usually stays there for the full eight minutes of this driving dancefloor gem. Africa Negra has been the band in São Tomé for decades now (with local favorites Sangazuza running a close second), and Carambola is a perennial crowd pleaser in the islands (and beyond – Africa Negra toured Europe as recently as 2017).
And while it could be memories of São Tomé clouding my judgment, there’s just something undeniably tropical in the lilting soukous-inspired guitars, with players drifting in and out of the mix like so much Atlantic breeze. Lead singer João Seria takes his time, ad-libbing as he and the musicians stretch out and enjoy the vibe – taking things leve leve, as they say in São Tomé.
Discrete but danceable, it’s a mellow masterpiece that tastes like sunshine. If you’re in the islands, drop into the Pico Mocambo bar and ask where you might catch the band playing next – and stay for another taste of sunshine, the gravaninha house cocktail.
Ndongo Lo – Xarit (2005)
In the Bradt Guide to Senegal, I noted that the country “…possesses an easy self-assurance in the superiority of its own culture and music, and given the embarrassment of riches on offer to any music fan, they’re entirely justified in the sentiment.” Which, of course, makes choosing a single song to represent such a culturally luxuriant place a real challenge!
So I left the task to the people of Pikine, the rough-and-tumble Dakar suburb where Ndongo Lo is renowned as a favourite son – a hometown boy who made it big, only to be cruelly cut down in his prime.
Considered a leading light in the next wave of mbalax singers, after founding greats like Youssou N’Dour, Thione Seck and Omar Pene, Ndongo Lo passed away after an illness in 2005, dramatically collapsing on stage and dying the same weekend at only 30 years old. Some 200,000 Pikinois are reported to have attended his funeral, and his music still blasts out of storefronts and sept-places from Pikine to Plateau, Dakar’s swanky downtown.
Though he was only actively recording for five years, there’s a graceful clarity and confidence in Lo’s vocals, and the stutter-step staccato rhythms of his Jaam backing band are as crisp and clean as a finely starched Friday boubou. An atmospheric favourite anytime I’m in Dakar – or just in the den.
For more on African music, take a look out our comprehensive country guides: