Uncovering the history of African pop music

We love music here at Gadling, and we’re always on the lookout for great new sounds to accompany our travels. Earlier this summer, Aaron posted an interesting feature on Asian music, a frequently overlooked source for some hidden pop gems. But for anyone who’s hungry for some fresh sounds, there’s no greater treasure trove of amazing pop music than the continent of Africa.

When one thinks of Africa, it’s unfortunate that the first associations that come to mind are often famine, civil strife and abject poverty. However, the many regions of Africa are home to rich musical traditions. In addition to their homegrown musical styles, 20th Century African musicians played a pivotal role in the development of Western pop, creating a rich cross-pollination with musical styles ranging from the Blues to Psychedelic Rock to Funk. From the Proto-Blues Gnawa music of Northern Africa, to Funk and Disco-laden rock of 1970’s Nigeria, to the jazzy Mbalax of Senegal, African pop offers us an unmatched depth and breadth of choices for even the most casual listener.

Over the last few years, I’ve stumbled upon some hidden gems that have ignited an obsessive search into the annals of African pop. I’ve unearthed a few of my favorites here – it’s by no means a comprehensive listing, but any music fan will surely want to give these albums a listen. Click below for Gadling’s top African pop music picks and make sure to leave us some of your own favorites in the comments.
Nigeria 70: The Definitive Story of Funky Lagos
The 1970’s were a heady time in Nigeria. Having officially gained its independence from the United Kingdom just 10 years earlier, the citizens of Nigeria were in an optimistic mood, stoked by the country’s booming new oil economy. Naturally, this outpouring of optimism found its way into the country’s music scene, particularly in the capital of Lagos. Building off the wild success of Nigerian music superstars such as Fela Kuti, a range of Nigerian bands began to experiment, combining European and American musical sounds with their own homegrown musical influences.

Nigeria 70 is a three-disc compilation of this definitive period in Nigerian musical history. The funky tracks on this outstanding compilation run the gamut from Jazz to Afrobeat to Proto-Disco. The set also comes packaged with a five hour documentary chronicling the period’s many personalities and groups. If you like music, this is about as essential as it gets.

Chrissy Zebby Tembo – My Ancestors
The 1974 album “My Ancestors” by Zambian guitarist Chrissy Zebby Tembo and his band Ngozi Family is full of catchy hooks and fuzzed out psychedelic guitar solos. What Tembo lacks in proper singing style he more than makes up in personality and the deft musicianship of his guitar and backing band, Ngozi Family. It’s a funky, warm and delightfully carefree record for an artist caught in the midst of considerable violence and political unrest in his 1970’s homeland.

Ali Farka Toure – Self Titled
Perhaps there is no more iconic symbol of the rich history of blues than West African guitarist Ali Farka Toure. Toure, who passed away in 2006, is known as the father of the blues. This unpretentious rice farmer from the West African nation of Mali, frequently cited as the African John Lee Hooker, was strongly influenced by the rich Arabic musical traditions of North Africa. His virtuoso guitar playing is starkly beautiful, mournful and infectiously catchy. Though Ali Farka Toure released a number of albums, including a collaboration with guitar impresario Ry Cooder, his best work is probably his self titled debut. The track “Amandrai,” is from this first album:

Amadou & Mariam – Dimanche a Bamako
This 2005 album, produced by Malian husband and wife Amadou & Mariam, and produced by world music star Manu Chao, catapulted the pair to international superstardom. Despite their recent fame, Amadou & Mariam represent a collaboration that dates back more than 30 years. Perhaps most remarkable is that both musicians are blind – they met at the Bamako Institute for the Young Blind in Mali’s capital, kicking off what would become a lifelong partnership. Encapsulating many of the same Malian blues influences as Ali Farka Toure, Amadou & Mariam’s album Dimance a Bamako manages to be delightfully catchy, exuberant and full of life.