A curious listener’s guide to African music genres
Dropping a few amapiano tracks in your DJ sets? Please, do your research. Here’s a guide to help you explore.
With 1.3 billion people of all shades, an estimated 2,000 dialects tucked from north to south into 54 countries, Africa’s envied musical offerings are wide-reaching. And there are deep cultural contexts to each evolving genre.
A lot of African music has been both born and buried by slavery and colonial rule, as in Moroccan Gnawa, Mozambique’s Marrabenta and Cote d’Ivoire’s coupé-décalé, or heirloomed across time in the cases of Lesotho’s Famo, Tanzania’s Singeli as well as Congolese rumba and Soukous, to name a few.
For some people, it’s hard to imagine that rock music – itself rooted in the blues – was invented by a queer, Black woman in Sister Rosetta Tharpe, or that disco, techno and house was pioneered for and by Black, queer folk in the time of Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy, let alone that the foundations of a lot of today’s pop and R’n’B rest in the hands of African slaves. Considering this, it’s fascinating to imagine what can happen next in Africa’s musical future.
With the global popularity of Afrobeats and Aaapiano surging year on year, it’s inevitable that the rest of the world will grow ever more curious as to what else can be excavated from the continent’s cultural mainstays. The problem with this lies in the fact that a lot of African music doesn’t need to be “unearthed” or even “discovered.” It’s right there, in the present day, playing on radios and smartphones, billowing from store windows right alongside the latest pop hits from the east and west, with our own pioneers fighting to prevent their precious sounds from dilution.
That said, in recent years young folks of the diaspora have been taking more and more pride in their heritage and embracing the blend of western and traditional. Artists in Nigeria and South Africa, in particular, have gained massive audiences in the UK and the USA, while the Justin Biebers, Ed Sheerans and Jorja Smiths are seeking out collaborations with Wizkids, Burna Boys and Niniolas. When these connections are made, the debate of appreciation vs. appropriation rages across social media.
Rich with spirit and culture, Africa has always had the next “hot” genre, and you’ve noticed that it might be time to spice up your catalogue with an African chant or two on your next mix. Please… don’t be That Guy. Take a beat and ask yourself: Have I done my research with reliable sources? Have I credited contributing artists and have I shared my platform with its pioneers?
Jazz pianist and composer Nduduzo Makathini says it best, in that melodious African music relies on lingo and lilt as much as Lambe, log drums and the like for cultural weight. Below is a brief history of some of Africa’s most exciting genres to further your understanding.
Country/area of origin: Soweto, South Africa
Unleashed from Soweto’s townships in the early 90s, kwaito became the voice of South Africa’s Black population and liberation from Apartheid, with acts such as Oskido, Boom Shaka, Brenda Fassie, Penny Penny, TKZee and Trompies at the helm. Since then, the playful nature of kwaito has allowed township citizens to be publicly proud of who they were for the first time. Kwaito’s andante synths and sirens, along with bouncing basslines adorned with isiXhosa and isiZulu vernaculars have inspired artists like Spoek Mathambo and Darkie Fiction to add their own flavours from local genres like maskandi, isicathamiya and bubblegum to the mix.
South Africans are fiercely protective of the music that soundtracked their hopes for freedom, and those who have tried to co-opt its legacy have been quickly fixed by Twitter mobs and booing crowds alike. It’s safe to say that if you’re at all interested in making any form of South African popular music (or a tribute thereto) start here… and make sure you phone a South African friend for some assistance!
Time travel with: Mawillies – Intwenjani (1997)
See how it’s evolved with: MUZI & Sho Madjozi – Come Duze (2021)
Push boundaries with: Stiff Pap – Riders on the Storm (2021)
Country/area of origin: Durban, South Africa
So you’ve seen Busiswa and Moonchild Sanelly live a couple of times now, and you know that DJ Lag is the king. But you still struggle when folks ask who your favourite gqom acts are? Never fear; Tipcee, Dlala Thukzin, Madanon, Mampitnsha and Campmasters are just a few acts to bring their best to the genre. A percussive, powerfully rhythmic yet sparse and airy genre born in South Africa’s Durban townships, gqom originally circulated via the public transport system amongst mini-bus drivers. Hanging around the 120 BPM mark, gqom is repetitive, seismic and heart-wrenching. In recent years, thanks to gqom’s surge in global popularity DJ Lag has found himself working with Beyoncé, embarking on four world tours and filing a lawsuit against Will.I.Am. With the legendary producer DJ Tira back in the game, the genre is seeing a wave of kwaito greats join forces with young gqom artists to bring earth-shattering sounds to clubs the world over.
Time travel with: DJ Cndo & DJ Lusiman – Yamnandi Into (2014)
See how it’s evolved with: Samba Ngolayini – Worst Behaviour (remix) ft. DJ Lag & DJ Tira (2021)
Push boundaries with: FAKA – Uyang’khumbula (2017)
Country/area of origin: Gauteng, South Africa
Before 2012, the amapiano we understand today sounded distinctly different. Full of meandering keys, soaring saxophones and little-to-no vocals, piano has grown to include lyrics beyond isiZulu in xiTsonga, isiXhosa and picked up by purveyors creating their own scenes in Mozambique, Nigeria and Ghana, as well as London and Paris. It feels safe to bet that major pop artists in the West are figuring out how they can hop on an amapiano track. With this kind of success, however, come growing pains. Amapiano samples are more specific than they might sound to untrained ears, with Tyler ICU as the most trusted amongst engineers to many of amapiano’s heavyweights such as DJ Stokie, Mas Musiq, Scorpion Kings and Lady Du. The key ingredient to any successful amapiano track is its alignment with kwaito, whether draped with elements of jazz, deep house or pop music. So removing the genre from its kwaito foundations could prove catastrophic to a producer’s reputation.
Time travel with: Kabza De Small – Cava D’Jaiv (2015)
See how it’s evolved with: Tee Jay & Rascoe Kaos – SamSokolo ft. Mr JazzQ, Sir Trill, ThackzinDj & Boohle (2021)
Push boundaries with: Frigid Armadillo, Hulumeni – uMashionisa (2021)
Highlife and hiplife
Country/area of origin: Ghana
From the legendary lyrical executioner Obrafour to multi-award-winning Sarkodie, the intertwining of highlife’s Akan rhythms with hiplife’s Western rap-centricity has been a beautiful journey for Ghana. While highlife is glittering with soaring guitars, triumphant horns and jazzy grooves, hiplife leans on a steadier foundation to comfortably accommodate its MCs. Artists Kyekyeku and Ghanalogue Highlife deliver effortlessly jovial sounds that stay loyal to highlife’s traditions. On the other hand, major Ghanian artists like M.anifest, King Promise, Worlasi and Senku Live are flying the flag for the genre while keeping it relevant to young audiences.
Time travel with: Sonny Okosun – Liberation (1984)
See how it’s evolved with: M.anifest & King Promise — Me Ne Woa (2018)
Push boundaries with: Worlasi & Senku Live — Animate (2020)
Country/area of origin: Tanzania
Brought to the fore with the help of the Nyege Nyege collective who specialise in bringing African electronic genres to stages across the world, singeli is a fast-paced, jangly offshoot of the party-friendly bongo flava genre, sped up to between 180 and 300 BPM. Not for the faint of heart, this one will keep you up for hours if you let it. Bamba Pana, Mc Yalla and Sisso are a few names to keep at the front of your mind if you like vocals that are jarring yet easy to sing along to, or Jagwa Music can warm a heart or two with a more traditional sound; however, things get a bit more “noisy” when Judgitzu is invited to the party. Whatever you favour, this sweat-inducing genre will find a way into your bones.
Time travel with: Dogo Niga – Kimbau Mbau (2017)
See how it’s evolved with: Kidene & Chege – Bajo Naijandaa (2021)
Push boundaries with: Antivairiasi – Cheleani ft. Man Fongo (2019)
Country/area of origin: Cabo Verde
With a skittish, bi-rhythmic beat backed by breathy concertinas and jangling ferrinhos, funaná is a vibrant style that can be anywhere between 77 and 157 BPM. While most lyrics take the form of poetic Creoles to narrate everyday life, recent years have seen bands such as Scuru Fitchadu add punk elements to the sound, giving it a gnarly twist that can make a folk instrument such as the accordion sound like a harbinger of revolt.
The history of funaná is in accordance with this radical spirit. The genre’s pioneer, Bitori (who taught himself how to play the accordion on a boat trip in the 1950s) returned to Praia with this frenetic new sound in hand. Once there, funaná came to be seen as symbolic of Cape Verdean independence and music of the lowbrow, eventually banned by Portuguese colonial rule. However, in partnering with vocalist Chando Graciosa, the gorgeous Indian ocean archipelago would see the genre approach a renaissance in the wake of its newly found independence. A good way to familiarise yourself is with this Analog Africa compilation, a spectacular showcase of the island’s collaborative gems.
Time travel with: Gil Semedo — Nha Funana (1999)
See how it’s evolved with: Lura – Na Ri Na (2004)
Push boundaries with: Scuru Fitchadu – Manus Planus Danus (2010)
Country/area of origin: Ghana
Also known as Ghanaian drill, asakaa has taken notes from the New York drill – which itself is inspired by the UK’s bass-heavy version of the rap subgenre. Asakaa comes from Kumasi, a southern region of Ghana. The bass-heavy, 808-driven beats are reminiscent of the early material of NYC drill figurehead Pop Smoke, while the scene’s fashion style prevalent in the music videos is now referred to as akata, for which scenesters sport baggy outfits embellished with gold chains and Timbaland boots. The Ashanti Empire prevalent in 1701 to 1957, is still very much a vivid idea in the hearts of young Ghanain drill artists, who often refer to themselves as royalty, and never fail to express pride in their heritage through this braggadocious, border-busting music.
Time travel with: Jay Bahd – Suzy ft. Kwaku DMC & City Boy (2020)
See how it’s evolved with: Kweku Smoke — Do or Die (2021)
Push boundaries with: Yaw Tog – Sore (remix) ft Stormzy & Kwesi Arthur (2021)
Country/area of origin: Reunion Island
Another beautiful thing nearly snuffed out by colonialism. The epitome of expression during times of slavery and racism, maloya was created in Reunion Island to bring people of varying backgrounds together in the form of ritual kabars, where sounds of the roulér, sati, and kayamb ring true. Pioneers Danyel Waro, Gilbert Pounia (as part of band Ziskakan), and Firmin Viry express these sentiments of marronage (liberated slaves) in immensely creative, collaborative, and cathartic ways. Contemporary outfits like Babani Soundsystem, Aurus and Aleksand Saya are bringing a freshness to maloya that lies so well next to electronic beats. Maya Kamaty’s 2019 LP Pandiye is a notably phosphorescent take on the genre which sparked a remix album made alongside fellow Reunionnaise artists such as BoogzBrown and PANGAR. This genre is rich with history and wildly underexplored.
Time travel with: Danyel Waro – Bat La Min (2002)
See how it’s evolved with: Maya Kamaty – Pandiyé (2018)
Push boundaries with: Eat My Butterfly X Inkdoz -Déor — Aleksand Saya Rework (2021)
Country/area of origin: Morocco
Illustrating the influence of Black African cultures on Moroccan music, gnawa preserves the cultures held dear by previously enslaved peoples. Meant at first to provide healing in lila ceremonies, Gnawa has garnered interest from all over the world in a more modern context, where jazz, blues, techno and even reggae are used to inject more flavour and fun. The gimbri (a three-stringed lute) is played with the qraqeb (also known as karkabas, a type of castanet), along with tbel, a drum played with a curved stick and a straight one (also known as Ganga) for more secular stuff. Don’t confuse this one with taarab (originating in Tanzania and Kenya), a genre that also contains audible Arabic roots.
Time travel with: Mahmoud Guenya – La Ilha Illa Allah Samawi
See how it’s evolved with: Simo Lagnawi, Griselda Sanderson - Bambraka (2015)
Push boundaries with: Majid Bekkas – Soundani Manayou/Mrhaba (Cervo Edits) (2017)
Country/area of origin: Côte D’Ivoire, Congo
Faster than rumba and slower than singeli, coupé-décalé is irresistible and often intricate, running at anywhere from 105 to 140 BPM. DJ Arafat, Magic System and Innoss’B are just a few names to note. The genre was originally established in the early 00s at a nightclub frequented by French-speaking immigrants in Paris, who would dress to the nines and sprinkle cash over the audience. “coupé-décalé” translates to “cheat and run away” – aimed at the Westerners who they cheated out of their chance to sideline them. With soaring guitars, triumphant horns and lilting basslines, dramatic dance moves are key along with memorable chants. Coupé-décalé” today has come to include R&B and Afro-house sentiments without losing its inimitable sparkle.
Time travel with: Douk Saga — Saga Cite
See how it’s evolved with: Josey — Espoir (2020)
Push boundaries with: DJ Lewis – Apoutchou ft. Fior 2 Bior (2021)
Afro-house, and its many offshoots
Country/area of origin: Continent-wide
Taken further afield by pioneers such as Black Coffee, Vinny Da Vinci and Heavy K in the 90s and early 2000s, South Africa has come to be known as the continent’s electronic powerhouse with creators such as Prince Kaybee, Sun El Musician, Thandi Draai and Lady Sakhe carrying the torch in Afro-and-deep house to present day. Zambia, Kenya and Uganda’s electronic scenes are overflowing with indigenous percussion and lyrics with deep meaning – so don’t add those lyrics to your tech beat without finding out what they mean, where they come from and to whom the voice belongs.
Further north and in recent years, Nigerian producer Sarz lends his hand to pop-leaning house, while Adey Omotade makes stellar use of Yoruba chants and traditional shekere and bàtá drums on this year’s NIRI album. Containing various African percussives, with languages ranging from Toshi’s isiZulu to Idd Aziz’s Mijikenda, the Afro-prefix has been tacked on whenever folks felt the need to anchor the music toward home, but make no mistake — these sounds are designed purposeful and arranged imaginatively, for all moods and means, and is proudly African.
Time travel with: DJ Kent, Ziyon – Your Love (2016)
See how it’s evolved with: Tekniq – Children of Zion (2021)
Push boundaries with: Adey Omotade — NIRI (2021)