Beat generation

Mark Coles

African music has long been popular in Europe. But while artists from Mali and Algeria are household names in France, there are no equivalents in the UK, despite efforts by artists like Peter Gabriel to bring African music to Britain.

When I was in Ouagadougou, covering the FESPACO film festival for the BBC a few years back, a musician asked me why Britons called African music ‘world music’. I explained it was a marketing term created by specialist record labels back in the 1980s to help sell more African records in high street music stores and that, for a while, it seemed to work. “So,” he asked excitedly, “who are the big African stars in the UK now?” Which sort of threw me.

Unlike France, where musicians such as Algeria’s Rachid Taha and the Malian duo Amadou and Mariam are household names and have hit albums, mainstream Britain has never really fully embraced African music. The Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour had a top three hit in 1994 with Seven Seconds and the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo notched up big sales after their music was used to advertise Heinz baked beans on television. But, by and large, musicians from African countries haven’t had a huge impact on the UK charts.

It’s not for want of trying. At the start of the 1990s, there was great optimism. The “world music” tag had helped get albums by Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal, Ali Farke Toure and the Malian kora player Toumani Diabate into high street music stores. Womad, a new ‘world music’ festival was encouraging African artists to tour the UK, and the British rock star, Peter Gabriel, had set up Real World Records, a new label and studio designed for artists from Africa and Asia.

“We hoped it would be the tipping point – the moment African musicians were finally given a level playing field, internationally,” Gabriel told me 20 years later at his London home. “Sadly, it didn’t happen. World music got side-tracked by sandal-wearing Guardian readers.”

And therein lies part of the problem. For the past three decades, African music in the UK has undergone an identity crisis, a tug of war between tradition and modernity between the demands of the purists who want authenticity and music played on traditional acoustic instruments and the likes of Peter Gabriel, and later the Blur singer Damon Albarn, who crave collaboration and experimentation. “The music needs to evolve. If you lock it away in a museum, it will die,” Gabriel insisted. And so in the early 90s, we saw experimentation and flirtation with Western pop production. Papa Wemba made a disco record and the great Ugandan singer Geoffrey Oryema was produced by Brian Eno. But by the end of the 90s, disillusioned with lack of sales and often poor reviews for such work, musicians like Baaba Maal, Salif Keita, and even Youssou N’Dour seemed to retreat to more roots-based, acoustic music.

But it seems the pendulum is swinging back again. For me, it began with Baaba Maal’s 2009 album Television, a surprising, highly effective collaboration with two members of the New York based electro-pop group, Brazilian Girls. “This is the album I’ve always wanted to make,” Baaba Maal told me at the time.

“I’m sick and tired of being told what I should sound like. This is me, now.” I met the Malian singer, Salif Keita, in London last week. He’s got a new dance record out, featuring beats, samples, even a duet with the hip British rapper Roots Manuva. “It’s deliberate,” he told me. “It’s time for a change. I wanted to move on, to dance, to be modern.”

He’s not alone. There’s a new confidence and swagger about African music. Rokia Traore, one of the most exciting new voices to come out of Mali in years, has employed British rock musician and PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, on her forthcoming album Beautiful Africa. Arcade Fire drummer and producer Howard Bilerman has worked with the Malian ngoni player, Bassekou Kouyate, to deliver Jama Ko, a jaw-dropping new album that crackles with urgency and electricity. Toumani Diabate’s last album was an unlikely collaboration with two Brazilian indie rockers, while the young Tuareg guitarist Bombino, a name to watch out for, has just cut an album with Dan Auerbach, of the Grammy award winning US bluesrock band the Black Keys.

African rap continues to thrive too, with a new generation of musicians creating a distinctively African form of hip hop, mixing the sound of their parents’ record collections with cutting edge beats and club sounds.

The South African DJ and producer Spoek Mathambo has recently signed with the influential US indie rock label Sub Pop. His latest album Father Creepe is a masterpiece of genre-busting contemporary urban music.

There’s no denying Africa’s ambition and determination to compete with the biggest stars in the international music firma ment. Take the Algerian rai singer Khaled. He’s teamed up with the much in demand Moroccan producer RedOne for his latest release C’est la Vie. RedOne’s previous credits include the multi-million selling mega pop stars J’Lo, Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. At the other extreme, if mainstream isn’t your thing and you want different, think-totally-out-of-the-box music. One of my favourite albums of the year so far has to be new band Monoswezi’s gorgeous debut. The Village which sees the young Zimbabwean mbira player and singer Hope Masike collaborating with a bunch of Scandinavian jazz musicians.

This time, African musicians appear to be doing things on their terms, playing and recording with whoever they want, when they want and in the manner they chose rather than being pressured into something they feel uncomfortable with.

So, does it feel like a tipping point? Ask me in 20 years. But it won’t be easy. With an increasing number of specialist radio shows axed from mainstream broadcasters like the BBC, sales of African music in the UK are in decline. The ‘world music’ genre now accounts for just 0.3 percent of British album sales each year. But I’ve got a good feeling about the latest wave of African music. Creatively, Africa is on a roll.

The continent is producing its best music in decades.

About the author:

Mark Coles is a BBC music and arts presenter. You can hear his weekly music programme on


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