I experienced music as a life force in West Africa. It was in every space and place, in the humblest of homes, the busiest of buses, wrapped around the twists and turns of market stalls, booming from kiosks, shops, schools, playgrounds. It was in the children’s play, the women’s cooking, the voices of girls hanging clothes, the old men on bikes. At the height of the Ebola epidemic in Liberia and Guinea when fear distanced people, music bridged the space. And, in the Gambia, I knew the three-month power cut was over when the ghetto blasters burst out of their silence into a riot of competing sounds that sent the children dancing down the street.
Africa has a mindboggling diversity of musical genres, centuries of tradition meeting decades of innovation. Music accompanies the telling of history, the blessing of names, the ennobling of kings, the fights for freedom, the cries for justice, the art of courtship.
This past month has been pure pleasure, immersing myself in music I’ve long loved from Senegal and Mali, opening up to new discoveries from Guinea Bissau, Cameroon, Gambia, Ivory Coast, and Togo and Benin. It’s been virtually impossible to choose what to share, but here it is: my small eclectic selection of favourites with a few notes about the artists,
In Africa and internationally, Youssou N’Dour (Senegal) is a legend. In an interview for Songlines in 2019, he speaks of his mission as an artist: “We the griots were once the troubadours, entertainers, keepers of history and chief advisers to the Mande kings, guardians of a culture which we have been at great pains to preserve. We have remained quite traditional until the very last minute before opening out to the world. I am a thoroughly modern griot, but I know that even today music can carry a message and change people’s lives.”
This song, ‘Bamako, takes me back to my time in the Gambia and the smooth shuffle of the women’s feet on the dance floors of dimly lit nightclubs. ‘Touba’ echoes Abdel Halim Hafez on the other side of the continent. Just from the titles of N’Dour’s albums, you get a sense of his message: Africa, Respect, History, Dakar, Nelson Mandela, Egypt, Eyes Open, From Senegal to the World – and many, many more.
Salif Keita (Mali), is one of the greatest musicians the continent has ever raised, Known as the ‘golden voice of Africa’, Keita’s music spans more than half a century. This particular track – Mandela – gets me in my soul. When I first heard it more than 20 years ago, in a Nairobi taxi, I asked the driver to play it over and over. Yamore is a collaboration with Cesare Evora from Capo Verde, in multiple languages. This interview with the Guardian offers a glimpse into Keita’s childhood, what it meant to grow up with Albinism in Mali and his musical career.
Tinariwen, a group of Tuareg musicians from the deserts of northern Mali, remind me of how much the roll and sway of the desert feeds the rhythms of its people. Watching the video, I felt the music, landscape and people move as one, with a repetitive continuity that stands in the face of the harsh and yet familiar environment.
Amadou & Mariam (Mali) have long been on my favourites list so it was really fabulous to see them in concert in Ouagadougou and again in London. Funnily, I only just realised they are both blind.
Angelique Kidjo (Benin/US), singer, songwriter, activist, actor encapsulates diversity on so many levels. Here is her rendition of an old famous Peruvian song – Toro Mata.
Magic System (Ivory Coast sung in Ivorian French slang), the Premier Gaou, the fool once more, is the impoverished musician whose girlfriend leaves him only to return when he’s rich and famous. Are you moving to that beat?
Eneida Marta (Guinea Bissau, Portuguese and Creole) – I’m just discovering her music.
And finally, for now at least, and because I love African jazz late in the evening, I’ve including Cheikh Lo (Senegal), and Titi (also from Senegal), whose music I’m just discovering.
Enjoy, keep exploring and stay tuned for the next musical journey from Africa.