Africa is home to many diverse and captivating styles of music. What follows is my own personal picks of African musicians who I feel people should know about. This is by no means and exhaustive list; there are many other great African musicians. If you are interested more in African music and musicians, I recommend the website of NPR’s Afropop.
1. Fela Kuti
Kuti innovated “Afrobeat,” a musical genre that combines African popular music with American funk and jazz. He was greatly influence by the politics of the American Black Panther movement and by the music of James Brown.
2. Oumou Sangaré
Sangaré is a singer associated with Wassoulou, a genre of music derived from the region of Mali of the same name. Her lyrics deal with women’s themes and social justice. She is an outspoken critic of polygamy and promoter of marital choice.
3. Mulatu Astatke
Astatke is the father of Ethiopian jazz. He studied the music of American jazz composers like Duke Ellington while attending the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston (where he was the first African student). His music was heavily featured on the Soundtrack to the 2005 Jim Jarmusch film, “Broken Flowers.”
4. Ali Farka Touré
Touré is one of the greatest African guitarists. He is part of the West African tradition that is considered the origins of American blues. In fact, his is most known internationally for his collaboration with American blues guitarist Ry Cooder on the album Talking Timbuktu. The two genres are akin to siblings separated at birth, now in adulthood they are reuniting through collaborations such as Touré’s and Cooder’s.
Khaled is one of the greats of Raï, a popular form of music in Algeria. The genre was one of the first Arabic forms of music to achieve international success, particularly after Sting collaborated with Cheb Mami (another great Raï musician) on “Desert Rose.” Muslim fundamentalist in Algeria have strongly objected to Raï to the point of making death threats against musicians, which culminated in the murder of Cheb Hasni in 1994. Because of this, Khaled relocated to Paris.
6. Umm Kulthum
Kulthum is considered one of the greatest singers of the Arabic world, and is still an icon decades after her death. Her career lasted almost 50 years and included work as an actress. She is known for her clear recitation of lyrics, emotional style, and classic style.
7. Miriam Makeba
Country: South Africa
Makeba’s songs combine traditional South African traditions with American jazz and folk. She was an outspoken critic of apartheid, which led to her living in exile for many years. Many of her songs are sung in her native language, Xhosa.
8. Angélique Kidjo
Kidjo is one of the most internationally-recognized African musicians. She has been nominated for several and won one Grammy Award. She has collaborated with many American musicians, including Dave Mathews. Her albums combine a wide diversity of musical styles.