African albums you have to hear

It is only partly true what Zimbabwean band the Bhundu Boys sang in their hit Radio Africa song: “I’m hearing only sad news from Radio Africa.” The great news is that the continent still produces some of the finest music in the world. 

Many people know the music by African superstars such as Salif Keïta, Youssou N’Dour, Angélique Kidjo, Orchestra Baobab, Fela Kuti and Oliver Mtukudzi. But there is a whole treasure trove just outside the mainstream or maybe a little forgotten. 

To celebrate Africa Day on May 25, the Mail & Guardian is bringing you 15 of these must-haves from our continent.

Prince Nico Mbarga and Rocafil Jazz
Sweet Mother
In 2004 the BBC conducted a poll to discover Africa’s favourite song. The winner was Nigerian singer Prince Nico Mbarga’s delightful Sweet Mother. Performed in the highlife style and sung in Pidgin English, it was a song that almost didn’t see the light of day because in 1974 EMI thought it only had “childish appeal” and turned it down.

Luckily, it was released two years later and, because it was sung in Pidgin so was accessible to Africans far beyond Nigeria, it went on to sell more than 13-million copies. The rest of the album is as life-affirmingly upbeat as the title track. – Charles Leonard

Prince Nico Mbarga’s Sweet Mother was voted Africa’s favourite song and sold 13-million copies.

William Onyeabor
World Psychedelic Classics 5: Who Is William Onyeabor?
I came to the mysterious William Onyeabor late with 2009’s fabulous Nigeria 70 – The Definitive Story of 1970s Funky Lagos compilation on which his strange but compelling synth-driven Afrobeat song Better Change Your Mind was one of the stand-out tracks. But outside Nigeria little is known or available from Onyeabor.

Last year worldbeat record label Luaka Bop released a truly brilliant 13-track album, Who Is William Onyeabor? – compiled from his eight albums released between 1977 and 1985. As they say in the sleeve notes of the triple LP version, “it took time and serious wooing to persuade Onyeabor” to agree to the release this compilation of “Afro-funk”, which suggests “spaceships leading into helium-voiced choruses singing in a jingle-jangle, tuning from faraway stars”.

Onyeabor refused to fill in the gaps in his history, leaving us just with this document, and what an astonishing record it is. – CL

Orchestra Super Mazembe
Giants of East Africa
Orchestra Super Mazembe was formed in 1967 in the southern part of what was then Zaire. They moved to Nairobi and established themselves as one of Kenya and East Africa’s most popular groups in the 1970s.

This compilation Giants of East Africa is the beautiful sound of trans-border and cross-cultural pollination, a mix of Kenyan benga and Congolese soukous – you can almost smell the frangipani and ripe mangos when you listen to Super Mazembe.

The album includes their hit Shauri Yako. I agree with a reviewer who said this album would have been perfect if it included their cover of the Everly Brothers’ hit Words of Love (Maloba D’amour). But for that you’ll need to get their other fine album, Kaivaska. – CL

Do not think only Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and especially James Brown had an influence on young people – especially the budding musicians among them – in the West. Many young Africans also listened to the rock and soul of the Sixties and Seventies and assimilated it. The best for me has been where these young Africans meshed it with local styles and often turned it into something even more thrilling than the parts of the sum.

A great example of this greater sum is Zamrock from Zambia. And my favourite from this 1970s genre is Witch (We Intend to Cause Havoc!), with their fuzzy, guitar-propelled garage rock, with more than a shot of Zambian rhythms.

Introduction is, erm, a great introduction, but if you have more than a few loose rand hanging around in your wallet, go for the six LP box set. – CL

Franco Luambo Makiadi, better known as Franco, was one of African music’s true greats. Leader of the band OK Jazz, he was known as the “Sorcerer of the Guitar” for his sublime playing. He was massively popular in the Congo.

He released over 150 albums and composed more than 1 000 songs in his 40-year career. As Graeme Ewens put it in the Rough Guide to World Music: “Franco had a relationship with his audience that remains unmatched.”

When he died in 1989 the entire country of Zaire officially went into mourning for four days and, says Ewens, “the radio played non-stop OK Jazz”. The episodic 1986 musical soap opera Mario tells the story of an over-educated, lazy gigolo who has a relationship with an older woman.

I know some people will think it is sacrilege to say so, but Mario reminds me of R Kelly’s fantastically over-the-top rap opera, Trapped in the Closet, from his album TP.3 Reloaded. For me it is a massive compliment, because even when R Kelly sucks he does so with abandon. On Trapped in the Closet he is brilliant. – CL

Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou
Éthiopiques Volume 21 – Ethiopia Song
You can’t go wrong with any of the outstanding Éthiopiques series, which features Ethiopian and Eritrean musicians from the 1960s and 1970s. It is now at volume 28 and still going strong. It is mostly funk or Ethio-jazz, with one exception – by the 90-year-old nun Sister Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou. Entitled Éthiopiques Volume 21 – Ethiopia Song, it features her on solo piano. There are for me suggestions of Eric Satie and Keith Jarrett, but mostly it is just the nun, her music covered with a sadness, melancholy and otherworldliness. This rare album is one of the most delicate and exquisitely beautiful albums you will ever hear – you can take my word for it. – CL

Francis Bebey
African Electronic Music 1975 – 1982
One of Cameroon’s cultural greats, Francis Bebey was the authentic African Renaissance man. He was a proper polymath: filmmaker, sculptor, poet, author, journalist, broadcaster, musicologist, as well as a singer, guitarist and composer.

So it is no surprise that the compilation of his music, African Electronic Music 1975-1982, which was released in 2012, was unlike anything that had been released before. It is a mix of electronic and traditional instruments, with intellectual lyrics sung in a quirky way. Yet it has the catchiness of good pop music.

When Bebey died in 2001 at the age of 71, Africa lost one of its true originals. – CL

Call it Tishoumaren, Tuareg or desert blues, but be sure that it is one of Africa’s growth genres of the moment. And there is a lot of exceptional talent in this style of music originating from Mali and Niger.

The best-known group is Tinariwen,who have just released their excellent sixth album, Emmaar. Some of the other contenders to their throne are Bombino, Group Doueh, Terakaft, Group Inerane, Tartit – and Tamikrest.

In their mother tongue, Tamashek, Tamikrest means “the future”. Their just-released third album, Chatma (Sisters), is Tamikrest’s tribute to the courage of Tuareg women.

Chatma is smouldering blues with the grit of Saharan sand in the vocals and percussions. – CL

Hamid El Gnawi
Gnawa Fusion, Volume 1
More desert blues, this time from Morocco. Called gnawa, this hypnotic genre is based on the pentatonic scale, making it more accessible for Western musicians. It also has similar roots to the blues and has led to many collaborations between Moroccan and Western musicians, including Bill Laswell, Brian Jones, Randy Weston and Led Zep’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Some worked, many didn’t.

Gnawa has also evolved with modern practitioners weaving elements of reggae, hip-hop and jazz into the genre. An example is Hamid El Gnawi, who plays gnawa’s central instrument, the three-stringed lute instrument known as the gimbri or sintir, but fuses it with jazz. His collaborator is jazz keyboard player Issam Issam and together they make some beguiling gnawa jazz. – CL

Son Egal
Tarika is one of Madagascar’s finest bands. It was formed in 1993 by two sisters, Hanitra and Noro Rasoanaivo. Their second record, Son Egal, is a concept album dealing with an uprising: in 1947 the local population in Madagascar tried to overthrow their French colonial masters. The colonists used Senegalese troops to suppress the rebellion. Decades later the relations between Senegal and Madagascar remain strained.

Tarika (“group” in Malgassy) released a concept album, Son Egal, in 1997 dealing with this revolt. In their own small way they tried to make peace and recorded the album with the Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal’s backing band Daande Lenol (Voice of the People). The result is an exceptional album bringing together two of Africa’s finest musical traditions in a fresh, seamless way. – CL

Hallelujah Chicken Run Band
Take One
I’m often fascinated by how bands get their names, especially when they are quirky. The Hallelujah Chicken Run Band did not get theirs when their annoying neighbour packed for Perth. One of its founders, Thomas Mapfumo, was a part-time chicken farmer. The seminal band was formed in 1972 to provide entertainment for workers at the Mhangura copper mine in the then Rhodesia.

Take One is a compilation of their singles released between 1974 and 1978, and gives an insight into the style the brilliant Mapfumo would later call chimurenga. – CL

Maryam Mursal
The Journey
As a 16-year-old Somali singer, Maryam Mursal took on the system but did not win. She did an unusual thing for a woman in Mogadishu in becoming a professional singer, but her subtle criticism of the regime caused the end of her musical career and she became a taxi driver instead.

Mursal has always been a trendsetter. “I was always the first woman,” she told the BBC in 2005. “I was the first woman singing Somali jazz, I was the first star, and I was the first to drive a taxi! I was the first to drive a lorry, and now I’m the first woman from Somalia to have an international record. I want to show Somalis that women can be anything they want, even taxi drivers.”

Her 1998 album The Journey, produced by Peter Gabriel in the United Kingdom where she now lives in exile, tells her story – in the most eloquent but heart-wrenching way. – CL

The World Ends: Afro Rock and Psychedelia in 1970s
Nigeria In the 1970s, young Africa assimilated the sounds of young people from the rest of the world and turned them into something raucous, funky and incredibly danceable.

There have been a number of amazing compilations and reissues of the result – Afro-funk, Afro-jazz, Afropsychedelia – since the early 2000s, including The World Ends: Afro Rock and Psychedelia in 1970s Nigeria, African Scream Contest: Raw and Psychedelic Afro Sounds from Benin and Togo 70s, Ghana Special: Modern Highlife, Afro Sounds and Ghanaian Blues 1968 – 1981, Nigeria 70 The Definitive Story of 1970’s Funky Lagos, Kenya Special: Selected East African Recordings from the 1970s and ’80s and Angola Soundtrack – The Unique Sound of Luanda (1968-1976); just a few of the must-haves available. – CL

Mammane Sanni Abdoulaye
As far as I can tell, this is Mammane’s second album, after one he recorded in 1978 that was released on cassette. He plays dreamy synth, and probably owned the first organ in Niger. On Taaritt, released this month, there is some kind of huge blue spacecraft hovering on the cover (with a nod to Sun Ra) touching down in the desert, perhaps outside Niamey. This album bears some resemblance to the work of Vangelis, but only as far as the synth goes; after that, you’re on your own. – Matthew Burbidge

Hailu Mergia
Hailu Mergia and His Classical Instrument
The instrument – the Moog synth – may not be familiar to Ethiopia, but the plaintive phrasing is unmistakeably so. Hailu Mergia reckons he has made about 12 tapes. This album was recorded at the urging of Brian Shimkovitz, the blogger behind Awesome Tapes From Africa, in 1985.

The sound has this sadness, or longing, and will be familiar to those listeners familiar with the long running Éthiopiques series. And it sounds a little Cajun, because of the accordion. – MB

Mail & Guardian news editor Charles Leonard presents a weekly Monday night radio show on Radio Sonder Grense, called Radio Afrika.

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