According to the United Nations, West Africa consists of 16 countries. Musically speaking, “West African music” is quite varied, though a few commonalities exist. Most of this particular playlist, for example, pulls from the African-American influence on this region during the 1960s, when African bands borrowed soul, funk and R&B, as well as Afro-Latin styles occurring in Cuba and the Caribbean. It was quite a fertile time for music.
I’m excluding Mali because that country will receive its own playlist later this year, considering how rich and diverse the nation’s musical contributions are. Nine countries are included in this playlist: Benin, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Senegal.
The first five tracks come from one of Africa’s most important musical families in history. Fela Kuti is as important a global musician as Bob Marley, though given his intense political leanings—he was arrested more than 200 times and created his own compound in the middle of Lagos—not nearly as well-known. He discovered American soul and jazz while studying medicine in London in the 1960s and pursued a career in music against the wishes of his father. Kuti’s songs range from 10 to 30 minutes in length; each is an exploration. I could hit play and return in a week and still his catalog would not be exhausted.
“Colonial Mentality,” one of his best midtempo grooves, kicks us off. This is followed by his son, Femi, on a track I had the honor of remixing for him a few years back, alongside my EarthRise SoundSystem partner David Schommer. Seun, another Kuti offspring, follows that with a down-tempo gem. “Rise” is one of his most impactful and inspiring tracks to date. The set is rounded out with Kuti’s bandleader and drummer Tony Allen, who continues to tour the world today, and Brooklyn-based Antibalas, the ensemble whose revival of Afrobeat in the late ’90s made Kuti a household name (and even a Broadway show).
My favorite Senegalese band is up next. Orchestra Baobab also closes the set because I needed to include something upbeat (“Nijaay”) and soft and beautiful (“Utrus Horas”). Later on, Senegal’s most famous ambassador, Youssou N’Dour—you’ve likely heard him on Neneh Cherry’s “7 Seconds” and Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”—appears with a song from his fantastic Sufi album “Egypt.”
Ghana gets its due with Ebo Taylor, who styled his sound after Kuti—he collaborated with Kuti while in Britain—followed by fellow Ghanaians Oscar Sulley and The Ogyatanaa Show Band. All three tracks are highly danceable, rhythmic grooves.
As is the song by T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo, a band that remains one of Benin’s biggest today. Things keep cooking with a stellar track from Guinea-Bissau’s Super Mama Djombo on “Dissan Na M’Bera.” Anytime I introduce someone to this track, they immediately hit Shazam to keep it locked in memory.
From there, we travel to Guinea for Bembeya Jazz National, one of the nation’s top Afropop groups of the ’60s. “Petit Sekou” was sampled by the next crew, Brooklyn’s Blitz the Ambassador, on “Accra City Blues.” Blitz is a Ghanian-American hip-hop artist and filmmaker; this homage to his home city is my favorite track of his to date.
Next, we journey to Côte d’Ivoire to visit one of Africa’s most renowned reggae stars, Tiken Jah Fakoly. Jamaica’s Ken Boothe joins Fakoly on Syl Johnson’s civil rights–era smash “Is It Because I’m Black?” Boothe had already covered the song in 1974 in a version as gorgeous and powerful as the original. The African instrumentation on Fakoly’s version adds depth to this important song.
We end our West African journey with Cape Verde’s queen, Cesaria Evora, on the jaw-dropping “Petit Pays,” and the woman who many consider to be next in line to take over Evora’s crown: Mayra Andrade. A generational shift is felt between the two songs, though both will have you tapping your feet and shaking your head in agreement: These women know how to sing.
Photo credit: Quentin Keller, Unsplash