Music styles that propelled Africa to the g****l map

Wednesday, June 8th, 2022 00:18 | By

In Africa, music is one of the most profound ways through which we showcase the rich continental culture and heritage. Adalla Allan looks at some of the music genres that have over the years helped the continent put itself on the international stage


Originating from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), soukous is a music genre that combines multiple elements of African music with global sounds that began in the 1930s. This was when Afro-Cuban music groups that played Son Cubano (a form of dance music that blended Spanish and African influences) became popular on radio stations in the Congo and Kinshasa. Nicknamed the “sorcerer of the guitar,” the late François “Franco” Luambo Makiadi is one of the primary architects of soukous music. As the leader of TPOK Jazz for more than three decades, Makiadi helped make the guitar the central element of soukous, which helped draw the interest of Western listeners. Established soukous players, like Papa Wemba, Mbilia Bel and Madilu System began performing in Europe and found fame there. Soukous also began to branch out with new variants such as Kwassa Kwassa, an adaptation that Kanda Bongo Man pioneered. 


With the conspicuous Nigerian culture and lifestyle including fashion, Afrobeat Music has also become very popular not only in Africa, but also internationally. Afrobeat has a history dating back to the 1970s. It was said to have originated with Nigerian singer Fela Kuti at the Kalakuta Republic in Lagos. The music genre involves the combination of elements of West African musical styles such as fuji music and highlife with American jazz and later soul and funk influences, with a focus on chanted vocals, complex intersecting rhythms, and percussion. We have seen the success of Afrobeat in recent years with artistes holding big international tours and collaborations with renowned international artistes such as in the recent Peru Remix between Nigerian singer Fireboy and British pop star Ed Sheeran.


The South African-born music genre is a hybrid of deep house, jazz and lounge music characterised by synths, airy pads and wide percussive basslines. Compared to other genres, amapiano is but a recent manifestation, having being around for a decade. However, right now, the genre commands such a massive following that it is justly recognised as one of the top genres at the moment. Deejays all over the world are using amapiano to cheer up the party monsters and this has worked interestingly well. The amapiano music scene is so vibrant such that there’s not a day without an amapiano jam dropping fresh from the studio. 


There has always been a thin line separating makossa and soukous genres. Makossa is a music genre from Cameroon, with a strong base rhythm and prominent horn section. The genre has long spread to other countries including the Congo where it continues to rise in popularity. The proponents of the genre are many. Popular figures include Manu Dibango, Koffi Olomide, Sam Fan Thomas, Grace Decca, and Lapiro De Mbanga. Makossa means “dance” in the Douala language where it originated. The 2010 Fifa World Cup got Makossa to the international stage as Colombian star singer Shakira sampled the Golden Sounds popular song Zamina Mina (Zangalewa). 


While countries celebrate their notable signature genres in the world, questions have always surfaced in Kenya on which genre do we consider our signature. This question has remained unanswered as most of our local music depends on sampling genres from other countries while others don’t last long or don’t appeal the international scene. A good example is gengetone, which music critics say it’s already going underground after being around for just about five years or so. However, our very own benga has been in existence since the mid-20th Century. Much of the credit for the early development of benga goes to the pioneering Kenyan guitarist John Ogara, who by the early 1960s was fusing rural rhythms with elements of music from urban centres. Benga is now mostly common among the Kikuyu, Luo, and Akamba.

Bongo Flava

What has distinguished this music style that originated in Tanzania in the 1990s is the typical Kiswahili language that the artistes use while making lyrics although increasingly there has been limited use of words from Nigerian languages due to the influence of the Afrobeat. Bongo Flava is the generic phrase for Tanzanian music, a mellifluous medley of R&B, Afrobeat, taarab, dansi and other genres. The genre is believed to have brought social upward mobility for musicians. From its very beginning, it has been regarded as a mouthpiece for the youth and the ordinary people. At the same time, it has always been seen as a means to escape poverty and to achieve a better life. However, the late Tanazanian legendary guitarist and singer Remmy Ongala is said to have helped develop Bongo music through his style, which animates most forms of taarab—the music that explores romance and marriage in Tanzania. 

African hip-hop

The list will not be complete without mentioning hip-hop, which has got a massive following in Africa, thanks to the widespread African-American influence. Artistes such as Tupac Shakur garnered a big fan base in Africa and this led to a generation of African rappers that is still alive and other artists still joining in. Kenya introduced hip-hop in the 1990s through the artiste-cum-journalist Jimmy Gathu, one of the earliest known rappers on the Kenyan scene, with his hit song Look, Think, Stay Alive that was released in 1991, a song dealing with road safety. From that point, hip-hop has always been a celebrated genre in Kenya, with hardcore urban hip-hop groups such as the Kalamashaka and Ukoo Flani Maumau being among the pioneers. It is commonly a combination of Kiswahili, English, Sheng and a variety of other tribal languages. Rap has been used as a form of political protest in Africa since it reached the continent.


A style of popular Senegalese music known in the Serer language as mbalax, it derives from the conservative Serer music tradition of Njuup. In 1979, ‘Little Prince of Dakar’ Youssou N’Dour formed the Super Etoiles and became the most popular exponent of Senegal’s mbalax pop. As well as coming out of the Wolof-dominated capital Dakar, he uses traditional polyrhythms of sabar and tama drumming. Youssou built a massive recording studio in Dakar called Xippi or ‘Eyes Open’. In 1994. His collaboration with American/British hip-hop singer Neneh Cherry in the song 7 Seconds sold over 1.5 million copies and won the MTV Europe’s Best Song award in 1994.

Somali Jazz

Somali people have a rich musical heritage. The language and music of Somalia is a mixture of African and Arabic influences. Maryam Mursal’s life and art have intertwined to produce a sound that profoundly reflects these influences: a powerful blend of Islam and Africa that she calls “Somali Jazz”. The Somali popular genre dates back to the 1940s, carrying regional features such as the use of a pentatonic scale and having the oud as the primary instrument, but also incorporating outside influences. 


This is a style that originated in Burundi where at the start of their performance, the drummers enter balancing the heavy drums on their heads and singing and playing. There are some extra members who carry ornamental spears and shields and lead the procession with their dance. They then perform a series of rhythms; some accompanied by song, and exit the stage the same way, carrying the drums on their heads while playing. Beginning in the 1960s, the drummers have toured the world and were featured inn Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, as the “drumming of the bushmen”. The inkinyara performances are a part of ceremonies such as births, funerals, and coronations of mwami (kings). The drums (called karyenda) are sacred in Burundi and represent the mwami fertility and regeneration.

More on Lifestyle