West African Music

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Proving that there is no such thing as «African» music – nor does not exist a category of music which would be «world», it is necessary to listen to West African music.

West Africa area is mainly covered by Sahel desert and is composed by several countries: Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad.  West Africa is the area where live sedentary or nomads artists such as the Tamasheks Tuaregs who mix acoustics music and electricity. For example, Tinariwen, a group of musicians based in a Libyan military camp who fought for the emancipation of the septentrional zone of Mali. They developed a traditional and poetic style of music influenced by blues and rock’n’roll music which became the music style of desert nomads.

Senegal is one of the African countries with very prolific music. Several reputed orchestras in Senegal developed Afro- Cuban music style. «L’Etoile de Dakar», and after the «Super Etoile de Dakar», developed «mbalax» music style, a music of festival and dance. Youssou N’Dour is also a representative of mbalax music, but there are sometimes great differences between the music played for Western public such as his duet “Seven Second” with Neneh Cherry, and the music played for Senegalese public which is more authentic mbalax. Orchestra Baobab group plays a music style filled of arabesques of luminous guitars, which transcends mbalax style. The group professes a music of “varieties” in the real sense since it varies from rumba to salsa via mbalax. That’s why they named their album “Specialist In All Styles”. Lastly, it is necessary to mention Super Diamono of Dakar from which the two singers Ismael Lo and Omar Pene come from. Baaba Maal, who belongs to the Toucouleur ethnic group, was among Senegalese musicians who performed a lot for Western public. He gained international experience while playing with musicians such as Jah Wobble, Brian Eno, or Jon Hassell.  In July 2003, Baaba Maal was appointed as a Youth Emissary for the United Nations’ Development Programme (UNDP). But before Baaba Maal and Youssou NDour, Senegalese music was already known internationally thanks to the huge success of the group Touré Kunda which came from Casamance.

Guinean Mory Kanté comes from a lineage of griots and began his career with the «Rail Band of Bamako». As a travelling Musician, it is him who popularized the kora instrument in European countries. After the immense success of “Yéké Yéké” which was part of Paris “global sound” event in 1997, he reconverted musically and he is now playing pure acoustics with his kora. Another leading musician from Guinea is Ba Cissoko, because he successfully combined traditional kora music with modern rhythms boosted by electronic technology.

Like Senegal, Mali is a musical goldmine where several talented musicians come from. Each of them have they own way to play kora. Salif Keita, was the lead singer of Rail Band of Bamako before he plays in the Ambassador’s orchestra. He finally settled in France in the middle of the Eighties. Ali Farka Touré, played with famous American musicians like Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, but before his death in 2006, he had already retired from the music industry and was devoted to farming and he was mayor of his village of Niafunké. Among his disciples, the two virtuosos of kora, Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabaté. The case of Bara Sambarou is resolutely different. Player of ‘hoddou’ which is the traditional Malian guitar, he is one of these musicians whose talent is transmitted from generation to generation by the imitation and training. He lives in a small village located hundred kilometres of the capital Bamako and Ali Farka Touré regarded him as his Master. Among other legendary Malian musicians, are Boubacar Traoré or “Kar Kar”, very influenced by the blues, and Habib Koité who is the project leader of “Desert Blues” along with Tartit and Afel Bocoum. And then, two amazing singers; Rokia Traoré who invented a sophisticated way of singing, borrowing from rock’n’roll and the rhythm’ blues, and Oumou Sangaré whose concerts are very festive and who is a strong advocate for African women cause. As for Amadou & Mariam, they invented a new kind of afro-pop. “Malians of Paris”, they are part these communities of musicians who live between Bamako and France. The lyrics of their songs are sometimes disconcerting because they sing a simple and eternal love, as in their recent album “Companion for life”:

“My love, my darling,

My darling, my beloved lover

I think of you night and day,

I will love you all my life.”

To reach Malian public, and in particular Fulani and Dogons ethnic groups, Amadou & Mariam sing in African languages. Moreover, they did not forget the “Cuban” episode which is part of the musical history of their country as their precedent album “Beaux Dimanches” shows it. With its Latin sonorities, this album shows the strong musical bond between Havana and Bamako in the Seventies. One of the key point showing this cooperation between Cuba and Mali, is the orchestra «Las Maravillas of Mali», who spent seven years in Cuba, and naturally mixed the rhythms of the two countries on their return to Africa.

Niger is a very much Islamized country and music could be accepted there only at the end of the Eighties. One of the emblematic artists of the country is Mamar Kassey, whose music combines tradition and modernity. His music is a mix of various ingredients going from the komsa, a derivative of the lute, with the guitar and low electric.

Another leading country of the African music is Nigeria. In the Sixties, Chief Ebenezer Obey plays juju music with guitars and talking drum (The talking drum is an hourglass-shaped drum from West Africa, whose pitch can be regulated to mimic the tone and prosody of human speech). He influenced King Sunny Ade, a guitarist coming from Yoruba tradition. As for Fela Kuti, he returns to his country at the end of the Sixties after staying few years in the United States where it was influenced by the ideas of the Black Panthers.  His speech become radicalized, and his music becomes extremely energetic. He changed his name to Fela Anikulapo Kuti (literally meaning: the one who controls death) and with his group Africa 70, he becomes the creator of afrobeat. He gave concerts and produced very successful records with his Lagos club but he had a very unstable life, with his harem of twenty-seven women who are often his chorus-singers. He went several times to jail because of his critics towards ruling power. Fela died of AIDS in 1997, and he has today many heirs starting with his sons Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti , Tony Allen who was Fela’s former beater, and Lagbaja, a singer who only appears masked and whose name in Yoruba means at the same time “nobody” and “everybody”. In addition to his influence on the socio-political life of his country in the Seventies and Eighties, Fela has also greatly influenced world music just as Miles Davis and James Brown. His musical formula is made of long  musical pieces, African rhythms strongly mixed with rhythm’ blues and jazz, with a presence of groove in the first minutes, with a true musical scenario which utilizes successively the singing, horns, choirs, with lyrics  sung in pidgin, the popular English spoken in the streets, to reach the greatest number.

Benin is the country of origin of Angélique Kidjo, a typical artist of the generation of artists born in the Sixties who direct their music towards the Western public, mixing it with pop, funk, and Caribbean music. Angélique Kidjo settled down in Paris first and then moved to New York where she was involved in African causes and founded Batonga which goal is to support the education of the African young girls. Very recently, she was invited to sing in the ceremony of investigation of Barack Obama and she said: “I have the feeling that Barack Obama’ election is in connection with my destiny. With the announcement of the Obama being the first black president, my daughter, Naïma, who is mixed black and white like Obama, cried of joy during one hour.”

In Ivory Coast, Alpha Blondy made dance Abidjan with reggae rhythms. His disciple, Tiken Jah Fakoly, recorded in Jamaica with the Bob Marley’s studio Tuff Gong with Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Too critical towards the ruling power in place, he had to exile to Mali. There are other styles in the country such as ‘zouglou’, popularized by the group Magic System, and new generation artists such as Dobet Gnahoré are very promising.

Malouma in Mauritania sings political songs on a music inspired from blues, rock’n’roll and Afro-American music.

In Ghana, the musical style of the country is High-Life, as well played by biggest orchestras as by small music groups. Guitar is the main instrument and musicians are the heirs to the “music of the palm wine” (rituals during which a musician was playing as a long time as the audience gave him wine to drink). Shifted from acoustics to electrical music, High-Life is now one of the leading African music styles.

In Chad, one of the most remarkable music style is the «Woodabes» style which is punctuated polyphonies and slapping of hands. In this country, wars pushed artists like Clément Masdongar and Kaar Kar Sonn to settle down in France. Both of them are now pursuing their career in France. The first artist influenced by rock’n’roll and the second one by French music.

The Cap Verde is the country of « morna», a style similar to Brazilian saudade, illuminated by the «cavaquinho», a small Portuguese guitar with four cords. The «morna» rhythm is also influenced by the Caribbean and the Black Africa. The empress of «morna» is undoubtebly Cesaria Evora. Central artist of the revival of «morna», she recorded several unexpected duets with Senegalese Ismael Lo and West Indies singer Cali. She influenced the violinist and guitarist Bau, the singers Dulce Matias and Mayra Andrade, the Simentera group, and Boy Gé Mendes who mixes his morna with jazz, so much that he is called the crooner of the Cap Verde.