If you are an avid NPR devotee or a world traveler with a keen ear for foreign music, then the sounds from these African musicians have certainly played in your home. The following are 10 of the most popular blues, rock, pop, jazz, and traditional artists — in no particular order — from the African continent who have developed a fan base internationally. Click on the names of some of these greatest musicians from Africa for music video links.
Grammy-nominated duo Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met in the 1970s at a school for the blind in Mali, their home country. They became a traveling musician duo, and found their first promise of a career in the Ivory Coast, where they released a series of cassettes in the early 90s. Their 2004 hit album, “Dimanche a Bamako,” was an international hit, and they have subsequently toured through Europe and America to much acclaim. Their music, categorized as “Afropop,” combines traditional Malian sounds with Syrian violins, Indian tabla, Cuban trumpets, and many other world sounds. They performed at the 2012 World Cup and with U2 in 2011, and have released eight albums to date.
Sources: wikipedia.com, allmusic.com.
Born in Niafunke, Mali, in 1939, Ali became one of the most famous blues musicians from Africa. Mastering the guitar and the njarka (an instrument similar to a fiddle), Ali found unprecedented success internationally, playing with the likes of Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder, and has also been featured in a Martin Scorsese documentary, “Feels Like Going Home.” His style is African blues — what American blues is rooted in (the blues came from West Africa, don’t forget!). A Grammy award winner, Ali was ranked No. 76 by Rolling Stone on its “100 Greatest Guitar Players of All Time” list. He died in 2006. His legacy was profound.
Sources: worldmusic.about.com, wikipedia.com.
Ali Farka Touré’s prodigal son, Vieux’s name translates to “Young Farka Touré.” Urged by his famous musician father to become a soldier, Vieux rebelled and did as his father did, becoming an accomplished guitarist and musician. He performed at the 2010 World Cup, and released a handful of successful albums including 2011’s “The Secret,” featuring his late father and Dave Matthews. Another successful collaboration was with the Israeli artist Idan Raichel. In their duo they created the Touré-Raichel Collective. The duo took their album, “The Tel Aviv Sessions,” on tour in North America and Europe.
Source: wikipedia.com, vieuxfarkatoure.com.
Fela Kuti was towering, extreme, and barrier-breaking in the African blues and rock scene. His legacy of music and political activism entered into the popular Western mainstream. Born in Nigeria in 1938, Kuti moved to London in his 20s and there started to perfect his musical fusion, Afrobeat — a combination of funk, jazz, salsa and Nigerian Yoruba, chanted and sung vocals and percussion. His music was entertainment as well as an outcry against corruption and violence in his country. As a result of political dissidence, he was arrested more than 200 times, and suffered visible physical damage. With at least 50 albums to his name, Kuti died of AIDS-related complications in 1997. In 2008, the Broadway musical about his life, “Fela!” debuted, and went on to receive multiple Tony award nominations and wins.
Sources: biography.com, wikipedia.com, fela.net.
Born in Benin in 1960, Kidjo left her unstable country to live in Paris. She now lives in New York. She joined the massively successful European-African jazz/funk band Pili Pili in the 1980s, and launched her solo career soon after. Singing in multiple languages, blending the most rousing of Beninese musical qualities with modern rock and jazz, she has had some major hits including the 2008 Grammy-winning album, “Djin Djin.” She has been featured in many soundtracks. A U.N. goodwill ambassador, Kidjo speaks out about AIDS/HIV and poverty in Africa. Forbes Magazine put her as the first woman on the list of 40 Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa.”
Sources: allmusic.com, worldmusic.about.com, wikipedia.com.
A popular singer from Cape Verde, Évora has been called “The Barefoot Diva” and “The Queen of Morna.” Morna is a multi-instrument music genre from Cape Verde, usually sung in Portuguese Creole. A performer on cruise ships and quite popular in her home country, she had a second wind in her career at age 45, releasing four albums between 1988 and 1992. Albums featuring Bonnie Raitt, and appearances on “The David Letterman Show” skyrocketed her to worldwide fame. Her notorious chain smoking got the worst of her. In 2011, she died at age 70. Her music reflects her fervent dedication to the struggles and triumphs of her country folk.
Sources: guardian.com, allmusic.com.
An all-male a cappella choral group from South Africa, these guys have been laying down hits for more than 50 years. Led by Joseph Shabalala and beginning in the early 1960s, their popularity rose so quickly that they were banned from the country’s major singing competitions. Isicathamiya, a Zulu musical tradition, is their main influence, but they also have experimented with pop and rock artists. In 1986, Paul Simon featured them as a major part of his “Graceland” album, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo was thrust onto the international scene. They have since won three Grammy awards, have toured internationally for the last three decades, and have performed with Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Dolly Parton.
Known as “Mama Africa,” here is another towering South African artist, and also a collaborator with Paul Simon. Makeba was born near Johannesburg in 1932. By the late 1950s, she had risen to prominence in her home country. Harry Belafonte noticed her singing contribution to the documentary film, “Come Back, Africa,” and helped her gain U.S. citizenship. Subsequently barred for 30 years from returning to South Africa, she embarked on a solo career in the States. Her hit single, “Pata Pata” was released in 1967. She recorded a Grammy-winning album with Belafonte, and joined Simon on his “Graceland” tour. Outspoken about apartheid, she was urged to return to South Africa by Nelson Mandela after his 1990 prison release.
Source: biography.com, guardian.com.
“Kawkab Al-Shark” or “Star of the East” in Arabic, Kalthoum was born in Egypt’s Nile Delta at the turn of the 20th century. Her father, an imam, reportedly smuggled her into a performance troupe, and the rest is history. Known to famous and generous people interested in her talents, and was brought to the Arabic Theatre Palace in the 1930s. By the late 40s, she was a sensation. Known for her swooping, melancholy voice and her concerts, which usually consisted of two or three songs running for at least three hours, she is still today considered, four decades after her death, the greatest singer from the Arab world.
Sources: last.fm, wikipedia.com.
From Ethiopia, many consider Astatke the father of Ethio jazz. Born in 1943, he was educated in London, New York City, and Boston, where he was the first African student to enroll at Berklee College of Music. Combining jazz with traditional Ethiopian sounds and Latin beats, he released many albums and performed with Duke Ellington. Hip hop artists such as Nas and Kanye West have sampled his music. He also provided the music for Jim Jarmusch’s film, “Broken Flowers.”
Sources: wikipedia.com, addismood.com.