West African Notes

West Africa’s Notable Music

Singing is not restricted to only one culture or prevalent in just a few places in the world. The art of music and song is present in each country and genres have become as multiple as there are songs rolled out virtually every day. In West Africa, the more prominent ones are played and enjoyed all over the region and have even gone as far as gaining global recognition and acceptance. Two important parallel traditions that make West African musical attitudes unique are the Griot tradition, and the praise-singing tradition.


From a combination of traditional Yoruba music, jazz, highlife, funk, and chanted vocals, fused with percussion and vocal styles, popularised in Africa in the 1970s. Its main creator was the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist and bandleader Fela Kuti, who gave it its name, who used it to revolutionize musical structure as well as the political context in his native Nigeria. It was Kuti who coined the term "afrobeat" upon his return from a U.S. tour with his group Nigeria '70 (formerly Koola Lobitos). Afrobeat features chants, call-and-response vocals, and complex, interacting rhythms. The new sound hailed from a club that he established called the Afro-Shrine. Upon arriving in Nigeria, Kuti also changed the name of his group to Africa '70. The band maintained a five-year residency in the Afro-Shrine from 1970 to 1975 while afro-beat thrived among Nigerian youth. Afro-beat is now one of the most recognizable music genres in the world and has influenced as many Western musicians as it has African ones with its exuberant style and poly-rhythms.


It is a music genre that originated in Ghana in the 20th century and spread to Sierra Leone and Nigeria, among other West African countries, by 1920. It is very popular in Liberia and all of English-speaking West Africa, although little has been produced in other countries due to economic challenges brought on by war and instability. Highlife is characterised by jazzy horns and multiple guitars which lead the band. Recently it has acquired an up-tempo, synch-driven sound. Joromi is a sub-genre.


It’s a noted Cameroonian popular urban musical style. Like much other late 20th century music of Sub-Saharan Africa it was influenced by Congolese soukous, as well as by jazz, ambasse bey, Latin music and highlife. It uses strong electric bass rhythms and prominent brass. In the 1980s Makossa had a wave of mainstream success across Africa and to a lesser extent abroad. Makossa, which means "(I) dance" in the Duala language, originated from a Duala dance called the kossa. Emmanuel Nelle Eyoum started using the refrain kossa kossa in his songs with his group Los Calvinos. The style began to take shape in the 1950s though the first recordings were not seen until a decade later. Artists such as Eboa Lotin, Misse Ngoh and especially Manu Dibango, who popularised Makossa throughout the world with his song "Soul Makossa" in the early 1970s. The chant from the song, mamako, mamasa, maka makossa, was later used by Michael Jackson in "Wanna Be Startin' Something." Many other performers followed suit. The 2010 World cup also brought Makossa to the international stage as Shakira sampled the Golden Sounds popular song "Zamina mina (Zangalewa)".


The subtle rhythms and delicate melodies of the Cape Verde “Mornas” seep into a tourist so deep, some tourists attest that on their return from visiting Cape Verde, they find themselves humming tunes they didn't know they knew and maybe dancing about for no apparent reason. The morna is believed to have its genesis on the island of Boa Vista and it's thought the name derives from the English word mourn or the French morne, meaning sadness; and in its traditional form it is certainly informed by a certain sense of tragedy and melancholy (what the Cape Verdeans call sodade or the longing for home), and one theory has it that it grew out of traditional songs sung by the imported slave population. It is generally performed with an ensemble of stringed instruments including violins, guitar-like violas and cavaquinhos, a primitive ukulele-like instrument; and whatever the origins, it is a tremendously affecting form and one that is unique to the islands. The best internationally known Morna singer was Cesária Évora.

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