In the course of finding some video clips of Zaire’s Wendo Kolosoy, the subject of the fine documentary “Up the Rumba River“, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a mother lode of African music, including some of my favorite musicians who I only knew by their music. Seeing them in performance for the first time was a delight.
Over the past few days, I have assembled a selection that try to satisfy some basic criteria. I have tried to stay away from lip-syncing even though some excellent music videos would necessarily rely on this approach. I have also ruled out some of the more amazing performances since they consisted of nothing but the music superimposed on an album cover or photographs of the artist’s native country. Finally, I have tried to pick out only the performances that have good audio/video quality. Unfortunately, some of the more striking videos were crudely recorded.
1. Salif Keita, “Folon”
This is the great albino musician and direct descendant of the founder of the Mali Empire, Sundiata Keita, doing an “unplugged” performance in an intimate setting. Despite his royal lineage, he was ostracized from his family and community because of his albinism.
2. Oumou Sangare
Also hailing from Mali, Oumou Sangare is West Africa’s most important female vocalist. She is from the Wassoulo region and her music has political and feminist messages, although somewhat softened in order not to stir up too much controversy in a very traditional society.
3. Ali Farka Toure
As should be obvious from another musician from Mali, the country has quite a variegated mix of sounds and styles. Toure, who died of bone cancer in 2006, was a guitarist who supposedly channeled American blues musicians, especially John Lee Hooker. Perhaps it was the other way around.
4. Amadou and Mariam
Another of Mali’s great musical assets, this is a blind couple who met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind.
5. Mory Kanté
Kanté is from Guinea, but moved to Mali at the age of 7 where he was trained in the country’s musical traditions. In 1971 he became a member of the Rail Band, along with Salif Keita. Here he is performing “Yeke Yeke”, a song that he wrote and which became an international dance hit in 1987. To show its widespread influence, you watch a Romanian musician covering it here. It is not without its own peculiar charms.
6. Baba Maal
Another “unplugged” performance from one of Senegal’s two most famous musicians–the other being Youssou N’Dour. Like N’Dour, Maal has been trying to “crossover” in recent years, working with Brian Eno, Celtic musicians, etc. I much prefer the straight Senegalese sound.
7. Youssou N’Dour
N’Dour is a real pioneer of the style of Senegalese popular music called mbalax. He is also the most successful of all African musicians in crossing over to the World Music mainstream. Again, as with the case of Baba Maal, I prefer the straight Senegalese sound.
8. Orchestra Baobab
This is a Senegalese band that plays in a relatively undiluted Afro-Cuban style that both preceded and influenced mbalax.
Born François Luambo Makiadi, he was the leader of the OK Jazz band and died of AIDS in 1989. He was a superstar in the Congo who was both promoted by the dictator Mobutu as a symbol of the national culture as well as jailed for his occasional willingness to take on controversial political subjects in his songs. If you were permitted to own only one African music record, I would recommend the one that Franco made with Tabu Ley Rouchereau, who was the other top musician in Zaire. Someone once described it as the equivalent of James Brown recording with Ray Charles.
2. Mbelia Bel
A female superstar who recorded with Tabu Ley. She is singing “Boya Be”, a terrific song even though I have no idea what the words mean.
3. Kanda Bongo Man
This is a superstar group that plays in the Soukous style that is a speeded-up, more electrified version of the Rumba style of Franco and Bel. Here they are playing at SOB’s, a NY venue with a truly shitty sound system although it doesn’t seem to effect the quality of the youtube video.
4. Papa Wemba
I would rate him as my favorite musician from the continent. Here he is singing “Esclave”, a song about slavery. I believe I was in the audience for this performance. In 2004 Wemba was arrested for smuggling Congolese into Belgium who were supposedly members of his band and then spent 4 months in jail. I, of course, have no objection to his doing this but felt some regret that he charged money for doing so. His music, of course, stands on its own merits.
5. Zap Mama
Technically speaking, this is a Belgian group since the female members are based there. The leader has a Belgian father and a Congolese mother and the group incorporates pygmy music in their strikingly unusual songs.
Born José Adelino Barceló de Carvalho, he hails from Angola and many of his songs deal with the struggle against Portuguese colonialism. He was exiled from Angola in 1972. He has become disenchanted from the country’s post-independence malaise in the same fashion as Zimbabwe’s Thomas Mapfumo.
2. Aster Aweke
One of Ethiopia’s top musicians who now lives in Los Angeles. For those who have never listened to Ethiopian music, it takes a bit of an adjustment since the harmonies have an off-kilter quality.
3. Lucky Dube
A reggae musician from South Africa who was killed by car-jackers in October 2007.