I have been in love with the beauty, joy, sorrow, and enchantment that is African music for many years.
From the ethereal lyrics of Eneida Marta, the power and upbeat of Angelique Kidjo, to the Afrobeat of Fela Kuti that describes his fusion of West African music with Black American music, to benga, chimuringa, gnawa, the iscathamiya made by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, griot, the mbalax Senegalese (Wolof) percussion music modernized by Youssou N’Dour, marabi, mbaqanga popularized by Johnny Clegg and the Mahatolla Queens, and the wassoulo, to name just a few—–African music, songwriting and singing is as varied as the continent itself.
Instruments played by African singers include instruments indigenous to Africa before European invasion and instruments incorporated into their singing and playing styles after the colonization of Africa. Those instruments are the kalimba or mbira (thumb piano); the balafon (marimba), and the xylophone (considered to have ancient African origins by Roger Blench); the kota (African chordophone); the tama talking drums, bougarabou and djembe in West Africa, water drums in Central and West Africa, and the different types of ngoma drums (pronounced by some “engoma”) in Central and Southern Africa; as well as the guitar and piano.
Kalimba, or mbira
Kota, or chordophone
Tama talking drum. SOURCE
The polyphony, the call and response (seen also in the music and singing of Black Americans), the text and lyrics that convey and present messages and ideas that record and recount historical events, and the rhythmic structure that encompasses African music will come forth from the many types of music that represent Africa.
I first fell in love with African music when I heard the late great Miriam Makeba sing her lovely “Pata, Pata Song” when it was released on record in 1967. I had never heard any South African language (Zulu, Shona, KhoiKhoi [Khoisan], Matebele, etc.) but when I heard Ms. Makeba sing the Pata Song, I was hooked, line, and sinkered into the rhythmic beauty of her nation’s music. The Johannesburg born singer became the first African artist to win a Grammy award, with this song in 1967 giving her that international recognition. She was truly the Goddess of African music.
The other profound effect came when I heard the master trumpet player Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass”, released in 1968. I came to love hearing his trumpet playing with the other instruments in that song, but, most of all, the cowbell. I love hearing the cowbell in music when it can be used to such effect, and Mr. Masekela spoiled me on the bell. To this day, I cannot listen to “Grazing in the Grass” without wanting to shout out, “More cowbell, please!”
Over time, I will post on the various types of African music by highlighting known, and not so well-known, African singers from this beautiful land known affectionately as Mama Africa. When I am able, I will post the lyrics in the native dialect, as well as the English translation, if possible.
To get everyone started off, I now present my first two loves, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela, doing what they do best.