Contrary to popular perception, the music of West Africa is anything but insular. Being on the North-Westerly Atlantic coast of the continent and thus integral to trading since the sixteenth century, West Africa has played host to a fusion of indigenous styles, French, British and Portuguese instruments, as well as ‘returning’ hybrid styles from the USA, Caribbean and South America. All this plays a part in an incredibly rich musical heritage that is often overlooked, or simply not acknowledged.
European trade, conquest and colonialism brought instruments and styles to important Atlantic ports like Dakar, Bissau, Freetown and Accra; a returning New World diaspora, mainly descendants of slaves, brought already hybrid musical styles for further experimentation in their home countries; early 20th century Cuban and Caribbean influences were ubiquitous in the Atlantic coastal stretch from Senegal to Cameroon, diffusing inland and providing a framework for the incorporation of American styles such as funk and disco in the latter half of the century.
Some 36 million people scattered across 18 different states share in this musical heritage, with a large degree of fluidity within and between regions such as Ghana, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, for example, or Senegal, Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia, allowing for the use of the term ‘West African music’ to encompass the musical culture of this vast geographical region.
Instead of trying to pinpoint an essence or vein that runs through the entire region, we’ve opted to give 45 amazing songs that give a good representation of the massive musical spectrum in this part of the world. From delicate palmwine jeremiads to psychedelic funk and dancefloor disco heat, from Cabo Verde to Cameroon, we aim to give you an overview the sounds of West Africa in the 20th century. Here’s part one of 45turns introduction to the music of West Africa.
Palmwine & Highlife
Although influenced by European styles, palmwine and highlife are among the most traditional of West African styles that we have recorded evidence of. Originally played on Portuguese guitars brought into the Atlantic ports of Liberia, palmwine music was performed out in the street, often with makeshift instruments – whatever you could get your hands on – and was used as a form of social commentary and complaint, generally revolving around a lush, sweeping guitar. Check out Kwaa Mensah’s ‘Kalabule’ and ‘Obra Ye Ku’ for some classic palmwine . Sunday evening hangover music.
1: Kwaa Mensah – ‘Kalabule’
2: Kwaa Mensah – ‘Obra Ye Ku’
Highlife in the 20th century (it’s important to distinguish this from the highly commercial sound of contemporary ‘highlife’) has more to do with jazz and Afro-Cuban music from across the Atlantic. It began in Ghana in the 1930s as a reserve of the affluent local elite who would watch bands play indigenous styles with Western instruments, eventually nicknamed highlife as a tongue-in-cheek jibe from the poorer folk who couldn’t afford the entrance fee to the clubs.
By the late 1950s highlife had spread to become the dominant form of popular music in coastal West Africa, from The Gambia to Nigeria. Here’s our pick of great highlife tracks:
3: S. E. Rogie – ‘Twist with the Morningstars’
Rockabilly-crossed highlife (!) with a calypso vibe from Sierra Leonean legend S. E. Rogie and his band, The Morningstars.
4: Dr. K. Gyasi & His Noble Kings – ‘Nye Mani Kan’
Ghanian highlife from Dr. K. Gyasi & His Noble Kings. Note the brass section, organ underpinnings and bluesy feel on this that nod to the conventions of mid-20th century US jazz.
5: Fela Ransome Kuti & His Kola Labitos – ‘It’s Highlife Time’
Here’s future afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti in his early days leading a highlife band. Fela’s highlife incorporated a seriously Latin jazz feel- we’ll hear more of this Afro-Latin crossover below.
The diaspora of West Africans in the New World – as slaves, indentured workers, explorers or even slavers themselves – engaged in processes of cross-cultural exchange for hundreds of years. Afro-Cuban music, for example, was a composite of Spanish traditional styles – which had in turn been influenced by Moorish musical traditions from North West and East Africa – and indigenous West African rhythms played by forcibly displaced slave populations in Cuba; in this sense, Afro-Cuban is a music that takes influence from each corner of the Saharan desert.
6: Orchestre du Bawobab – ‘Thiely’
As well as customs, languages and foods, freed slaves returning to West Africa brought new musical instruments and ways of playing. In this way, Afro-Latin music and its associate styles could be further developed within West Africa, giving birth to a whole range of new styles and possibilities. A characteristic feature of the Afro-Latin music brought back by the diaspora was the introduction of a brass section which could work with indigenous rhythms- thus the type of highlife music that Fela Kuti was experimenting with on his 1965 debut album. As you’ll see, lots of the music on this list call heavily on Afro-Latin styles.
7: Orchestre Laye Thiam – ‘Kokorico’
As an important destination in the material and cultural exchange between Cuba and Africa, Senegal was a hotbed for the development of Afro-Latin music within Africa. Kokorico is an Afro-Cuban gem from Senegal’s capital on the Atlantic coast, Dakar.
8: Val “Xalino” Silva – ‘Danca Danca T’Manche’
A much later example of Afro-Latin musical crossover. ‘Danca Danca T’Manche’ sings the indigenous Cabo Verdean funaná style in Portuguese and injects it with a heavy dose of the synthesizer sounds that were prevalent within the musical culture of the Cabo Verde islands by the 1980s. Head on to page 4 for some West African reggae, and a selection of tracks from Mali.
Reggae sounds from Jamaica resonated strongly with West African musicians . It’s particularly popular today in The Gambia, where they like to call themselves true and faithful rastas.
9: Chief Checker – ‘Impossibilities’
The deepest track from a 1980s reggae album recorded in London by Nigerian musician Chief Checker. Big in Japan.
10: Theadora Ifudu – ‘Hello There!’
Reggae disco soul crossover from Nigeria. A treasure trove for samples.
Mali is one of the biggest countries in West Africa and home to a plethora of national styles. The prevalence of the French language here has been instrumental (pardon the pun) in opening up ‘world’ music to an international audience.
11: Oumou Sangaré – ‘Ah Ndiya’
Oumou Sangaré from Mali with the Ah Ndiya, performed in the highly traditional and largely female-only Malian folk style called Wassoulou. A music that, like palmwine, also performs an important social function.
12: Ali Farka Touré – ‘Al Du’
A folky number from Mali by the spearhead of ‘world’ music, Ali Farka Touré. Dig the African blues.
13: Fatoumata Diawara Fatour – ‘Sowa’
Another Wassoulou tune performed with a more contemporary café pop twist.
14: Salif Keita – ‘Madan’
Salif Keita, another Malian pop sensation.
15: Youssou N’Dour – ‘Médina’
Here’s Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour with Médina, a nostalgic ode to the district in Dakar where he grew up.
If you enjoyed part 1 of this introduction to West African music, please let us know or 45turns on Facebook (click here or use the sidebar to the left). In the meantime, enjoy the music. You can find part 2 below, where we go through the raucous sounds of afrobeat and psychedelia that took the Western world by storm.
An introduction to the music of West Africa, pt. 2: afrobeat & psychedelia