Published on March 11th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron1
Digging Deeper into African Music
The inspiration for this mixtape comes from a couple of excellent nights out I’ve had at a reggae-surf joint near my house called Kulu Kulu Cafe. As soon as I walked in and saw the two turntables, rack of ’80s vintage amps from Yamaha, Denon, and Onkyo, and pair of classic JBL monitors in the center of the room amid islands of deep and comfortable couches, I knew I had found my new favorite bar.
The owners are very nice people with superb taste in music–jazz, reggae, rocksteady, and hip-hop on the times I’ve been there–and last weekend they were kind enough to run me off a CD of some cool local jazz for me.
To return the favor, I pulled together a bit over a dozen of my favorite African bands. I tried to capture a cross-section of styles from different regions–Cuban rhumba from the Congo, jazz from Ethiopia, highlife and the psychedelic 70s from Nigeria, and desert blues from Mali. There is actually a bit of something from everywhere on here, but this is intended as “An Introduction to…” rather than some sort of comprehensive list. The album could have been three or four times as long.
Anyway, let’s start exploring, and at the bottom of this post, I’ll give you a link to download the tape.
Orchestra Baobab — Autorail from the album “Bamba”
This legendary Senegalese band should need no introduction. They formed in 1970 and play Afro-Cuban-style jazz. The band made a revival in the 1990s during the craze for Cuban music and are now among the best-known bands from Africa–although their lineup of musicians is comprised of many different nationalities and also regularly changes. This track is taken from their 1993 album “Bamba” which is super-solid.
Mulatu Astatke — Emnete from a 10″ Soundway LP
This guy is known as the godfather of Ethiopian jazz. Although he was born in Africa, he was sent to study engineering in Wales and later studied jazz formally in Boston and New York. He was one of the first to successfully combine traditional jazz with the sounds and flavors of his homeland.
The Rail Band — Tamadiara from the album “Orchestre Rail-Band, Buffet Hotel de la Gare Bamako”
The Rail Band from Mali was originally sponsored by the local Ministry of Information to promote cultural events. They became well known when performing at a Railway Hotel in Bamako. The band started out playing Latin and Cuban-influenced jazz but later incorporated various other cultural elements, instrumentation, and musical styles, from the sub-Saharan area that resulted in a unique and thrilling sound. These included western instruments like drums, electric guitar, bass, and organ with the addition of Griot praise-singing vocals, kora, balafon, and African percussion performed in the Manding and Mande hunter styles of the Sahara. Intoxicating.
HEDZOLEH SOUNDZ – Rekpete from “Introducing Hedzoleh Soundz”
Hugh Masekela is a South African-born, world-famous jazz trumpeter, who rose to local fame in a series of jazz and Afrobeat bands before befriending Harry Belafonte and launching an internationally successful career. One excellent work in his discography is the 1973 rock-tinged jazz and Afrobeat record with Ghana’s Hedzoleh Soundz.
SIR VICTOR UWAIFO – Egbe Natete from the Album “Sir Victor Uwaifo: Guitar Boy Superstar: 1970-1976”
Again, if we’re doing classics, you can’t leave Nigerian wunderkind Sir Victor out. Although considerably outranked by many of his Commander-in-Chief and Admiral-General peers, nobody could touch him on the guitar. Dude rose to prominence in the 1960s with a series of highlife and rock hits and wowed crowds with his ability to play his guitar with tongue and both feet. (How that works I’m not sure). But I love his stunning ear for melody. This record is an exceptional collection and, as it was issued recently, is still freely available.
PEACE!! — Peaceful Man from the Album “Black Power”
Every song on this 1971 “Zamrock” psych rock band is a goddamn balltearer. Not much info on the band other than this LP is regarded as a classic in the genre, maybe even the best. I couldn’t find Peaceful Man on YouTube, so here is the title track instead. You get the idea.
TINARIWEN – Matadjem Yinmixan from the Album “Aman Iman”
These sub-Saharan psych-blues rockers blend regional scales, vocals, and instrumentation to guitars, bass, and drums to create a sound known as “desert blues” or “Toureg blues”. They rose to international fame in the latter half of the last decade with the 2008 LP “Water is Life”… I think it’s an essential album if you dig rock music. Their career has been going from strength to strength and it’s something else to see them perform wrapped in their desert robes, black glittering eyes set in sun-and-wind weathered faces. Their music is very evocative of their environment.
Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe & His Nigerian Soundmakers — Ezi Oyi from the album “Egbunam”
This guy was a chief for real and very well loved by everyone. His parents actually forbade him to participate in music as a kid, as they thought it would be a waste of time, but he disobeyed them and ended up the king of Nigerian highlife, for me anyway. His voice is like butter and the horns in this band have this dreamy, sun-burnished quality. I couldn’t find the B-Side cut I used on my mix on YouTube so here is Side A, the title track. Pure pleasure. Incredible.
SOUL THROBS – Little Girl from a compilation “Next Stop Soweto”
I think this band only ever put out one album in the mid 70s and this track wasn’t on it, and it almost certainly has gone out of print and is otherwise difficult to find in physical form. So a real gem of a find on Soundway’s compilation disc “Next Stop Soweto” which is worth obtaining for sure.
Ali Farke Toure & Toumanu Diabate — 56 from the S/T Album
Time to take it down several notches to the heavenly harmonies and rhythms of another of Africa’s most famous and loved guitarists, Ali Farka Toure, and his friend and equally respected kora player Toumani Diabate. Both let traditional folk melodies saturate through their music–improvisations on accoustic guitar and the kora, with staggering virtuoso performances from both players. Another joy of an album. Highly recommended for those late nights with the lights low.
VICKY ET OK JAZZ – Bea from the S/T Album
Another pure gem from the 1970s, this time from the Congo with Franco’s OK Jazz featuring Vicky Longomba. A masterpiece of laid-back Cuban-infused jazz with mindblowingly beautiful vocal harmonies. A real find, this one, although it’s probably a very well-known album among fans of the guitar legend Franco. Note the below video is the whole album. My tape features just the title track.
W.I.T.C.H. — Lazy Bones from S/T Album
We Intend To Cause Havoc (W.I.T.C.H.) from Zambia blended 60s style rock with funk, recorded on primitive instruments, and totally ripped it. These guys we among the lucky few bands from the 70s to have usable tapes left over, and all four of their albums were rereleased as a box set and are now easily available. Groovy as hell. Get on it!
ELECTRIC SIX – Can You Feel It from the Compilation Album “Next Stop Soweto”
Another gem rescued from obscurity and collected on the “Next Stop Soweto” album. There are scores and scores of these compilation records available, some brilliant, some pretty crap and superficial. Another band that dropped a record or two in the 1970s before disappearing. Beautiful organs, though, and with funk sweating from every pore.
TABU LEY & ORCHESTRE AFRISA – Dialogue from a 1973 Single
Tabu Ley Rochereau was a Congolese singer-songwriter that popularized his form of jazz by combining elements of local folk with Cuban, Salsa, and Rhumba. This song I like to imagine is a conversation or argument between two lovers. The end section has one of the most beautiful little guitar chord progressions, it just kills me every time.
Naturally, this collection doesn’t even come close to scratching the surface, and my knowledge is limited to what I’ve found for myself and what a couple of friends have introduced me to. I selected the songs to be played in a bar/restaurant so it’s a mix of both low-key stuff and more happy, danceable music. If it sounds like you, grab the mix in MP3/M4A from here.