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A musical tour of Africa

Philip Briggs shares some of his favourite tracks from across the continent

Travel might be out of the question at the moment, but we can still listen to music that reminds us there’s a bigger world out there, one we can start exploring again when the pandemic is finally over.

Philip Briggs, author of dozens of our guides, took the opportunity to share with us a list of ten of his favourite music tracks from across Africa, each associated with a country to which we produce a guidebook. How many of these are on your playlist?

Mali

Nahawa Doumbia – Farafina Dambe (1994)

Mali has produced an incredible wealth of music. It’s one of those rare countries where local sounds completely dominate the airwaves – actually, it was pretty unusual to hear anything but homegrown music when we last visited it about 15 years ago.

Nahawa Doumbia, from the Wassoulou region of southern Mali, is less well-known outside her home country than the likes of Oumou Sangaré and Rokia Traoré, but to me this gorgeous track unfailingly evokes the magical feel of sailing along the Niger River, following the mediaeval trade route that once connected the goldfields of Guinean rainforests to the legendary desert port of Timbuktu. It is also a sad reminder that this ancient Saharan trade emporium, with its curvaceous adobe mosques and exceptional library of ancient Islamic texts, has been all but closed to outsiders since it was captured by Jihadists in 2012.

Ghana

Christy Azumah & Uppers International – Din Ya Sugri (1976)

In the first edition of the Bradt Guide to Ghana, researched back in 1997, I described the then past-its-prime (and now defunct) Catering Rest House, on the northern outskirts of Bolgatanga, principal town of Ghana’s remote Upper East region, as a ‘depressing… partially unfinished concrete eyesore’. And although I mentioned that it also hosted the ‘occasional disco’, the soporific atmosphere at this erstwhile government hotel gave no indication that 25 years earlier it had been the hub of the Upper East’s lively party scene.

The house band back then was Uppers International, a lively Afro-beat combo whose lead singer Christy Azumah – by day, a school teacher from nearby Damongo – sadly died in exile in the US in the late 1980s. Uppers International recorded a couple of 45s, including Din Ya Sugri, which I first heard on a superb 2009 Soundway compilation CD called Ghana Special. I love the unusual synth and bass intro, driving beat and urgent melody. And is that really a flute solo squeezed in between the more conventional lead guitar and sax breaks?

South Africa

Kanyi Mavi – Ingoma (2011)

I was introduced to this by my son, who’s much more clued up than me when it comes to contemporary South African music. It’s a really exciting, energetic track, sung in isiXhosa by an emcee from Gugulethu, Cape Town. It addresses violence against women, a major issue in South Africa, and the video is as confrontational as the song sounds.

Nigeria

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 – IMF (2014)

This no-holds-barred, no-love-lost paean to the IMF evokes the Afro-beat sound and blunt political messages characteristic of Seun’s legendary father, Fela Kuti. Another great video.

Sierra Leone

Sorie Kondi – Without Money No Family (Chief Boima Remix) (2012)

This haunting Afro-electro track snuck onto an iPod playlist from I-don’t-know-where and wormed its way into my subconscious. Mixed by the Sierra Leonean-American DJ Chief Boima, it builds from a traditional kondi (thumb piano) and vocal song, performed by the blind Sierra Leonean musician, Sorie Kondi. Compare this mix with the sparser acoustic original.

Ethiopia

Aster Aweke – Tizita (1989)

I’d not heard much Ethiopian music before I visited the country in 1994 to research the first edition of the Bradt Guide, and initially I found a lot of it to be quite grating. It gradually grew on me, though, and today one of the things I enjoy most about Ethiopia is the ubiquitous local music, old and new, I hear in the bars, on the streets, and pretty much anywhere else that people hang out.

One of the first singers to grab my attention back in ’94 was Aster Aweke, who made her name in the Addis Ababa club scene in the 1970s before relocating to the US to escape the murderous Derg regime in 1981. Usually referred to by her first name only, Aster is as much of a household name in Ethiopia as Madonna is in Europe, and it is unusual to go more than a day without hearing one of her early locally recorded cassettes or ten US-released CDs blasting out in a bar or restaurant.

While Aster’s voice – pitched somewhere between Aretha Franklin (a stated influence) and Björk – is invariably thrilling, a lot of her older recordings feel rather dated thanks to the tinny production and keyboard frills. Not so Tizita, which is the standout track of her first US album, accompanied by a simply plucked krar (lyre) that lends the spine-tingling vocal performance a truly timeless quality.

Somaliland

Sahra Halgan Trio – Dagal (2015)

I first visited Hargeisa in 2011 to research the Bradt Guide to Somaliland and returned in 2018 to work on the second edition. One of the biggest changes to Somaliland’s capital over that period was a blossoming of new restaurants founded by returned refugees from all around the globe.

These included Hido Dhawr Tourism Village, a traditional Somali-style place that leaps into action as a venue for traditional live music on Friday and Saturday nights. The restaurant was founded (and occasional hosts performances) by Sahra Halgan, a female vocalist who first sang publicly in Hargeisa as a teenager, relocated to France as a political refugee in 1992, finally to return home in 2015 after more than two decades in exile. This track from the Buda Music CD Faransiskiyo Somaliland sets a strong traditional melody against a gritty guitar riff that recalls the ‘desert blues’ of Tuareg groups such as Tinariwen. A two-disc version includes a 48-minute DVD documentary, Sahra Returns to Somaliland.

Congo

Kanda Bongo Man – Aimé (1985)

Although Kanda Bongo Man hails from Congo, I’ll forever associate his music with the six months I spent travelling through Tanzania in 1992 to research the first edition of the Bradt Guide to that country.

Congolese soukous, with its trademark jittery guitar lines, was all the rage in Tanzania back then, and various cassette-only releases by Kanda Bongo Man seemed to blast away on every bus we took and in every local bar we drank in. I never saw him perform, but his influence on bands we saw live in Arusha and Mwanza was palpable. Today, his music sounds a bit dated to me, but this popular track takes me right back to East Africa in the 1990s.

Kenya

Kalambya Sisters – Katelina (1983)

Congolese soukous was a huge influence on East Africa’s music scene in the ’80s, and this 12” single by the Kalambya Sisters was typical of the music you heard in the buses and bars when I first visited Kenya three years after it was recorded.

I don’t know much about the Kalambya Sisters other than they were named Diana and Flossie, that they hailed from Akamba country to the east of Nairobi, and that, if the four songs I’ve tracked down are at all indicative, they had the endearing trademark of ending every track by chanting or stating their name.

eSwatini

Masitsela – Incaba ka Ncofula (1958)

When we explored what was then Swaziland back in the early 2000s, a highlight of the trip was a makhoyane (traditional bowed instrument) performance at Mantenga village outside Mbabane. It took place very close to the queen mother’s village where this ancient regimental song – literally ‘Fortress of Ncofula’ – was recorded in 1958 by Hugh Tracey.

Sung a capella by a group of teenage boys and girls, the song has a haunting, shape-shifting feel created by the strange swelling and ebbing harmonies of the male and female voices. It is also a fine introduction to the many thousands of field recordings made between 1948 and 1963 by Hugh Tracey, who travelled throughout the subcontinent, from South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province to the Congolese jungle and royal courts of Rwanda and Uganda, to capture traditional music that might be otherwise be lost to us entirely.

For those interested, these recordings have been anthologised over 20-odd CDs by SWP Records and this comes from a set called The Nguni Sound, featuring Xhosa, Zulu and Swati recordings made over 1955–58.

For the full playlist of tracks, click here.