Enabler Publications

Books to feed the Mind and Spirit

Youth Africa Music Experience Youth Africa Music Experience

Sample from this book:

Active listening to African music

When Alan first started as a full time as a youth worker a group of 14 to 17 year olds asked if they could have a room where they could hang out in the club and play their favourite albums. This idea was turned into reality in the form of a room that group came to have a real sense of ‘ownership’ over. They decorated it themselves coming into the youth centre over two weekends to paint the walls a deep, rich blue. On top of this they then designed a series of murals of rock musicians using a device called an epidiascope, which enlarged the pictures onto the wall, allowing the young artists to accurately paint the images onto the wall. It was back in the time of Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Marc Bolan and a very youthful David Bowie and large images of these stars dominated the room that became known at the Blue Room.

About 20-50 young people regularly brought their favourite albums into the room, which boasted two pairs of sizable loudspeakers, twin turntables and a fairly powerful amplifier complete with as a microphone for the budding DJs. Alan and the other full time staff provided small amounts of money from centre funds so that they could buy a couple of new albums each month which were then owned communally by the club. Over the next year, the young people brought in hundreds of different albums, swapped views on who they liked best, and started to organise trips out to see concerts and to organise gigs of their own. The centre was an extremely large one and included rooms where young bands could practice, a room that was used by a guitar tutor and a large hall that could hold over 1,000 people for dances. Music was enthusiastically enjoyed by many of the members, and Alan as a youth worker with a passion for different types of music, was able to introduce some different albums into the lives of those young people growing up in quite a tough environment in an Essex new town.

Active listening

This example shows how ‘active listening’ can spill over into a range of participation in:

  • Going to see live gigs.
  • Playing and performing music.
  • DJ-ing and mixing
  • Booking and promoting live music in the youth club and other venues.
  • Choosing and listening to a diverse range of music.

In relation to the themes in this book, introducing African music to young people can be an imaginative two-way exchange. For instance, try bringing in a variety of examples of music from different countries, cultures and traditions, and encourage the young people you are working with to share their music with you too. That way the listening experience really is a ‘shared’ one and a much more natural experience.

Some of the earliest African music that Alan himself heard was as a result of listening with friends to a wide variety of different musical styles and types ranging from rock, jazz, folk through to blues, reggae and later what has became known as ‘world’ and ‘roots’ music. Back then in the 1960s and early 70s music from other countries was thought to be rather ‘exotic’ and not readily obtainable. Today, it is much easier to find music from all around the globe, including most African countries either at music retailers or from the Internet. As Baaba Maal, from Senegal, and one of the most influential African performers on the world stage has said:

‘Then I discovered jazz and blues. This music went to America and then came back to us.’

It is out of the fusions, the cross cultural influences and experimentation with different rhythms, instruments and combinations of musicians that many of the most exciting albums have been recorded. In Africa, music has always been at the core of daily life, being played at births, funerals, almost all ceremonies and a whole range of life affirming moments in between. It is where it is at its most ‘authentic’ and deserves to be preserved. However, what is ‘traditional’ and what is ‘modern’ is increasingly a blurred distinction as traditional instruments such as the djembe drum, the Africa xylophone – the balafon and the single string guitar – the njarka (that Malian blues legend, Ali Farke Toure learned to play on) are used to play modern tunes, while electric guitars and other ‘western’ instruments are used to play the traditional songs and rhythms from across the African continent.

Alan remembers how he came across some of the earliest African albums in his extensive collection,

‘Well before the Sanctus track from the ‘Missa Luba’ album was used as the powerful and at times harrowing theme for Lindsay Anderson’s film ‘If’, I had bought the 1963 album of the Congolese mass. I think that it got on my mum’s nerves, especially played loudly from my bedroom with the door locked! It’s still a ground breaking record. Next up was the strange ‘Pipes of pan at Joujouka’, recorded and then overdubbed by Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones and Bill Wyman in a kif (cannabis) induced trance-like state in the Rif mountains of Morocco. With a population of only about 500 this area has produced some of the master musicians of North Africa. They mix Sufi mysticism with a pagan sound that actually does make the hairs rise on the back of your neck

Fela Anikulapo and Ginger Baker Fela and Ginger


I think next up was when Ginger Baker of Cream, Blind Faith and Airforce fame became obsessed with Africa and after the Baker Gurvitz Army band imploded, he joined as second drummer with Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s newly formed Africa 70 , which was an enormous powerhouse ensemble of about 20 players. The resulting album is pretty awesome. Fela sounds like an African James Brown and the drum combinations of African and western rhythms are some of the best ever recorded.’



The context of African music

This section of the book is not an attempt at an authoritative guide to African music, rather it should provide a starting point and a set of signposts towards some of the music, artists and teachers that exist and how to find out more. At the end of this section are some further references and online resources, plus a glossary of African musical terms.

First off, here are a few issues and points of interest that are worth bearing in mind when embarking on an African music experience with young people. The African music and artists who we are now hearing of in the UK and Europe are often neither the most popular nor the best known in their native countries. There are a number of reasons for this. Unfortunately, politics is one of these. A number of African musicians have been forced by wars and governments to flee from their homes and families. The situation in South Africa during the years of the apartheid regime was particularly sad with more than one generation of musicians living in exile, including jazz supremos Hugh Masekela (trumpet), Dollar Brand (piano) and also known as Abdullah Ibrahim and Dudu Pakwana (saxophone). Geoffrey Orema was born into one of Uganda’s most powerful families in 1953, but had to be smuggled out of the country in 1977 after his father was murdered on instructions from President idi Amin.

Politics, religion and more

Some musicians fought on against the political regimes in their respective countries and served times in prison for continuing to criticise dictators and corruption. Amongst the best known is Nigerian singer, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who sang of the Nigerian army as being ‘zombies’ and spent a number of periods in prison even though he was regarded as a virtual ‘king’ by locals in Nigeria. One of the features of his music was that many of his lyrics, much of it in a pidgin English, were an early form of improvised rap. Sadly he died of AIDS in 1997, with over a million people attending his funeral. But his legacy and musical tradition has continued in a slightly more mellow form of Afrobeat fronted by one of his sons, Femi Kuti. His band is called The Positive Force.

Congolese, ‘Franco’ Luambo Makaidi, was another superstar of African music and led the band OK Jazz until his death in 1989, which also may have been from AIDS. He was nicknamed the ‘Sorcerer of the Guitar’ and was a complex man who was both a moralist and sometimes obscene songsmith. This, coupled with occasional criticism of the government led him into periods in jail. He released 150 albums featuring exquisite guitar picking and his gradual transformation of Congolese rumba into soukous made him justly famous. It’s hard to know where to start but Originalité is one of his earliest records, Mabele with Sam Mangwana is a popular landmark album and there is a Very Best of CD released in 2000 on the Manteca label.

In Zimbabwe, Thomas Mapfumo also used his lyrics to challenge politicians and corruption. Thomas Mapfumo - collectedThis started in the struggle against the white Rhodesian government in the 1970s, when he spent 90 days in prison, which earned him the nickname, ‘Lion of Africa’. In 1998 he sang, ‘We are slaves in our own country’ as a direct criticism of Robert Mugabe’s regime. His whole form of music was called in Shona (his language) as ‘chimurenga’ (the struggle). At the time of writing, he is living in the USA, saying that it is not safe for him in Zimbabwe where his music is currently banned. However, he has vowed to return, saying, ‘I may not be welcome there, but I will go to see my mother, who is still alive, as soon as I can.’ His 2005 UK tour was appropriately titled ‘Rise Up!’

In fact, perhaps more than in many other cultures, African musicians frequently:

  • strive to keep traditional music and regional instruments from becoming forgotten;
  • use their songs to comment on social and economic issues like AIDS, disease, famine, corruption, war, genocide and poverty;
  • use music to celebrate their religious faith whether it is Islamic, Sufi or Christian;
  • play a different type of music for their home audiences than for overseas consumption, and
  • experiment with new instruments, styles and collaborations.

Obviously, to make sense of this, you have to understand that in many countries the majority of the population is illiterate or barely able to read and write, therefore the oral transmission of ideas and knowledge is far more important. Also religion is much more a matter of popular celebration than in the UK. In Uganda, where Denis is from, and Zambia where Alan visited recently, it is more common than not to see taxis and mini-buses festooned in biblical tracts. And in Senegal many of the best loved singers of recent years, such as Thione Seck, N’ dongo Lô, Cheikh Lô and Youssou N’Dour have included significant numbers of religious chants – essentially creating a new form of Islamic pop. Another aspect central to much of the music is that many singers are born into a caste based society where all family members are automatically expected to be a ‘minstrel’, ‘poet’ and ‘praise singer’, known more usually as ‘griot’ or ‘jali’ in African countries. We just don’t have an exact equivalent, except if we look back to medieval times when wandering bards and magicians entertained the courts and the lay people. Finally, the reality in many African countries is that not to sing at least some religious songs would be economic suicide.

African tastes and European tastes in African music

This is controversial. It is also pretty essential to making sense of African music in the UK and across Europe compared with African music in many African countries. Travel in Africa, visit clubs there, and what you mostly experience is a highlife mbalax blend of African dance rhythms, drum machines, synthesisers, relatively poor sound quality – music to dance and sing along to, usually using Western amplified musical instruments. To most of us from the UK it sounds like rather bad 1960s and 70s pop music. The African music that sells best on the world music circuit is either what European audiences perceive as more authentic, such as the albino Salif Keita’s high flying vocals and subtly layered masterpieces, Toumani Diabete’s hypnotic kora playing, the Touareg rebel guitar band Tinariwen, and Malian blues from the likes of Boubacar Traoré and Ali Farka Toure. In all honesty, here in the UK we are particularly besotted with Mande and Mandinka music – from Mali, Guinea and the Gambia.

In 2005 this debate continued after Biyi Adepegba, one the UK’s major promoters of African music , complained in Songlines magazine that:

‘Certain African artists get fêted here because of their links with European labels, managers and agents...The BBC Radio 3 awards for World Music are one of the worst examples. They don’t represent what Africans are listening to at all.’

If you can get hold of examples of music that represents both sides of this debate it may be one interesting issue to explore with a youth group.

The other aspect of this issue that seems to have been overlooked in the media row is the fact that the actual historical legacy of musical traditions in many African countries is a multi-layered one. Looking back to the time when the missionaries arrived in many countries, they saw African music as alien, inferior and backward. Stapleton and May (1989) suggest that for the missionaries,

‘European music represented a ‘world of order’ in contrast to what they saw
as “the inexplicable monotony and sudden passions of African drumming”.’

In point of fact, the ending of the slave trade in 1807 meant that many freed slaves returned to their home countries having experienced different musical styles and traditions than those they had grown up with. So, whilst the mission choirs brought gospel music into countries like Ghana as early as 1752 they were soon followed by many Lucky Dube - the other sidebrass and military bands employing black Africans as musicians, which led to the creation of big bands that played in the urban areas by the mid 1800s. In the 1930s dance hall music was very popular in many African countries and rumba, rock, blues, jazz, Afro-Caribbean and more recently rap and ambient music have added even further layers. Urbanisation, the mix of acoustic and electric instruments, and the fact that venues in Africa are different from in the west – usually either a dance hall, drinking club or hotel – have all meant that distinctions are complex. These fusions are actually responsible for some of the curiosities that lie within the African music that is actually played in Africa. A good example would be Thomas Mapfumo, who has been called a human juke box of 1960s UK and American pop and rock. Add to that the fact that many Africans will know more about white and black pop and reggae music than about traditional African music.

So, in some ways, making a journey into African music offers some challenges. Will the young people you work with prefer:

- the high vocal sounds of Algerian rai music?
- the danceable guitar rhythms of Nigeria’s King Sunny Adé?
- South African reggae star, Lucky Dube?
- Salif Keita’s lush lyricism?
- dance bands such as the Super Rail Band or Bembeya Jazz?

Have some fun along the way, and to start you off, Alan has listed a few CDs and artists that may be worth checking out along with links you can make using online resources and the references. It’s not meant to be competition for the real experts like Nigel Williamson, Charlie Gillett, Simon Broughton and Andy Kershaw, so they can keep their day jobs, at least for the present!

Recordings – where to start?

Alan scratched his head when trying to work out what and whom to include without this section taking over the book. This is just a personal ‘taster’ of the rich musical feast that is available. His own collection of a couple of hundred African albums, plus tracks on World collections is in no way comprehensive, but even if the following is idiosyncratic, at least it’s offered with some passion and personal commitment. Don’t rush out and buy all of these. Check out samples available on the internet, listen to world music on the radio, ask friends to lend you what they like and then share with the young people you are working with.

There also exist a number of cross-over or fusion albums which may be a stepping stone towards more traditional African music. For instance, the Talking Heads Remain in Light, produced by Brian Eno, was one of the earlier experiments in mixing African rhythms with Western lyrics; Graceland from Paul Simon became an international hit and brought a number of African performers, especially Ladysmith Black Mambazo to a much larger audience, but was attacked at the time for supporting apartheid – a charge that probably was unfair, since although the ANC charged the performers with breaking the ‘cultural boycott’ of South Africa, Joseph Shabala, leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo said that the collaboration with Paul Simon affirmed indigenous culture and was an act in defiance of apartheid; Duncan Bridgeman produced the percussion based, 1 Giant Leap, which brought together artists from around the globe recorded on a laptop and then mixed with African drumming and singing including contributions from Baaba Maal and Bada and Bakane Seck, or you might fancy dipping into Mali Music, from the eclectic Damon Albarn (of Blur and latterly of Gorillaz fame), which features contributions from Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabete. Some collaborations work well, some work some of the time, and some despoil the spirit of African music, for instance, Peter Gabriel’s makeover of Youssou N’Dour album Kocc Barma, which was produced in Senegal, and reworked as The Lion by Gabriel.


There’s quite a library of compilation CDs available of music from the whole or parts of Africa. There are also some very commendable world CD collections which include a good number of African tracks. The other comment Alan would make is that a good deal of African music is itself a blend of cultures and borrows and melds musical styles from different continents and countries.

Desert Blues and Desert Blues 2

Two gorgeously packaged double CD sets with lots of information about the music and musicians who Desert Blues 2are predominantly from various countries across the Sahara and beyond including Ethiopia, Mauritania, Mali, the Gambia, Algeria, Senegal, Egypt, the Sudan and more. Predominantly acoustic music and great vocal styles which are quintessentially African rather than mimicking the American blues. Produced in Germany. Check out: www.networkmedien.de

Africa Moves

Stern’s (see online resources) were the first major producer in the UK of African music. This CD collection from Stern’s brought together some authentic examples of Africa’s highlife, soukous and juju music including Commander Ebenezer Obey and Tabu Ley. Now available on Rounder records.

Planet Zulu

Subtitled ‘…heavenly a cappella vocals and pulsating grooves direct from South Africa’ and that’s exactly what this CD delivers. Mostly artists little known outside of Africa, excepting Ladysmith Black Mazambo and Mahlithini and the Mahotello
Queens. Released on the Nascente label.

Gilles Peterson in Africa

A double CD compiled by DJ Peterson which rather eccentrically mixes the well know like Miriam Makeba and Fela Kut with the relatively obscure (in European terms) such as Mulatu Astaqé, Lekan Babalola and Letta Mbulu. On Ether Music, one CD features older artists and the other is bang up to date.

The Music of Mali

Another Nascente compilation and this includes many of the best known of the Mali musicians including Salif Keita, Afel Bocoum, Toumani Diabete and Ali Farke Toure. Something of a treasure trove.

Free at last

A great compilation of some of the best of the best from South Africa specially recorded live under sponsorship from B and W loudspeakers and released in 1995.

World Music (annual double CD compilation from Charlie Gillett)

If you want somewhere to start in your journey into world and African music these compilations from the BBC’s dj provide a pretty good starting block. Released on the Emi Hemisphere label.King Sunny Ade - King of Juju

African musicians

King Sunny Adé

One of Alan’s all time favourites. Sliding guitars, great percussion and laid back vocals. Blissful. All of his albums are good, but particularly Synchro System and Juju Music. His ‘best of’ compilation is called King of Juju, see: www.wrasserecords.com

Salif Keita

This albino descendant of the first king of Mali, Sundiata Keita, a Mandinka warrior, has a high soaring, distinctive voice (in fact sometimes called the golden voice of Africa) and a penchant for dressing , err, strangely. His career spans the Rail Band of Bamako in 1967 to 2005’s much acclaimed M’Bemba album on the EMI label.

Amadou and Mariam

Their album Dimanche a Bamako produced and featuring the Euro superstar Manu Chao has launched these blind singers, complete with some of the loveliest vibes you’ll ever hear, onto the international stage. Modern enough in style to capture young listeners’ attention. This particular album is on the Radio Bemba label.Tarika - Son Egal


Malagasy music – the music of Madagascar - and Tarika’s name literally means ‘The Group’. Formed out of an earlier group in 1993, their Son egal is Alan’s personal favourite. That particular album is on the USA label Green Linnet Records (1997).

Fela Kuti

There’s never been anyone quite like Fela Kuti. A showman, some would say a show off, he actually studied music at Trinity School in London in 1958. His lyrics were almost as explicit as Eminem’s even in the early 1970s and his offstage antics such as putting a fence around his home and declaring it to be The Kalakuta Republic were typical of his full-on, in your face attitude. As an introduction to his music, the double CD ‘Fela Kuti: the best of the Black President’ is not a bad place to start (Wrasse Records).

Souad Massi

Soulful to an almost heartbreaking level she evokes the sounds of the desert, flamenco and the souk. From Algeria, she has a haunting voice and the arrangements on her recordings are sensitive to her voice and a range of traditions, particularly Arabic. Her 2003 album Deb (heartbroken) on Wrasse records is full of mournful purity.

Baaba Maal

Babba Maal - Nomad SoulStriking in the extreme, Baaba Maal is one of the most experimental of the modern African musicians. Michael Stip from the band REM perhaps sums him up rather neatly, ‘Baaba Maal opened his mouth and beautiful pearls and lilies and songbirds came flying out. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.’

The Palm CD Nomad Soul from 2002 established him on the world stage and features production by a wide range of western producers including Howie B and Brian Eno. But many rate his earlier album Djam Leelii: the Adventurers with Mansour Seck, as being his personal high-water mark.

Youssou N’Dour

Senegalese superstar, N’Dour has mixed and matched traditional and modern music including the Neneh Cherry collaboration, ‘Seven Seconds’ which sold over 1.5 million copies. The fact that he likes pop music makes him hard to categorise. In 2004 his album ‘Egypt’ was released. It is a celebration of Islam and widely acclaimed in the west, while apparently being largely ignored at home, despite being his most traditional recording for years. It is perhaps his most subtle album (Nonesuch label).

Ba Cissoko

Alan’s mate, Howie Armstrong, who Alan has written a few other youth work books with, introduced Alan to Ba Cissoko. Hailing from Guinea, they’ve based themselves in Marseilles, France. Alan’s copy of the Marabi label Sabolan is a much prized and played possession. It mixes traditional Africa sounds with a new and urgent urban groove. Their 2006 album Electric Griot Land (Totolo) looks set to introduce them to an even wider audience. Well worth searching out.


Mesmerising guitar music from these black gowned Touareg rebel fighters from the Sahara area of Mali, who spent years in exile in Libya. They were later championed by French band, Lo Jo and have become the stars of the Festival of the Desert, where they have played with Robert Plant of Led Zep fame. Alan’s favourite album is Amassakoul (2003) on Independent Records in the UK. But, having said that, their latest, Aman Iman: Water is life (2007) also from Independent Records, is causing very positive ripples in the world music pond. A pond which they themselves would like to get out of, and into the world of rock music per se.

Boubacar Traoré

The fact that his ‘best of’ collection is entitled The Bluesman from Mali (2003, Wrasse Records) indicates his standing in Mali. He has a great gravely voice as well as being a mate of Ali Farka Touré, the best known Malian blues legend. Another album worth checking out for its intimate street sounds and unique feel of journeying through Mail from Bamako to Niafunké is the 2002 recording Je chanterai pour toi.

Habib Koité and Bamada

Habib has an exquisite voice coupled with a great African blues guitar style. He’s a fine ambassador for African music and yet another master musician from Mali. Alan particularly rates his albums Ma Ya and Baro – both on the Putamayo label.

Bhundu Boys

Alan first heard them on the John Peel show. They changed line ups quite often, but their most accessible album to Western ears is entitled the Studio Album: Friends on the Road on Cooking Vinyl label.

Ali Farka Toure

One of the most popular African artists and one of the most unassuming. He always gives his profession as ‘farmer’, yet blues maestro, Ry Cooder said it was a privilege to play with him on their Ali Farka Toure - Radio Mali collaboration in 1994, Talking Timbuktu. Imagine sublime guitar sounds under African skies. His 2005 World Circuit release with kora king, Toumani Diabeté, In the heart of the moon is a quiet, understated masterpiece. His death in March 2006 after becoming mayor of his beloved Niafunké leaves a giant chasm in the heart of Modern African music. Hi posthumous album, Savane, on the World Circuit label, is a true epitaph to a giant of music of any kind. Charlie Gillett said of it:

‘He was a master and this is his masterpiece’.

Orchestra Baobab

After a 15 year break, the Orchestra Baobab reformed after the successful re-issue of 1982 Pirate’s Choice (Nonesuch). Youssou N’Dour then co-produced the album Specialist in all styles in 2002 which is tour de force and well deserves its critical acclaim. They are in Alan’s view the most interesting of the old school of the Afrolatin big bands.

Debbo Hande

Suuf released in 2003 on the BBC legends label (which is linked to Late Junction
radio programme) is one of the better realised cross-over fusion projects. Simon Sleath is a multi instrumentalist who used to work for Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. The album features a number of Senegalese musicians who recorded with Simon on his travels in that country. In style it mixes electric west African musicianship with jazz, reggae and even a hint of classical music.

Thione Seck

His 2005 album on Stern’s label is titled Orientation: Egypt – India – Senegal and that’s what you get. An eclectic music which blends the sounds of different countries and continents and is bound together by Seck’s lyrical voice. Tipped to give Baaba Maal a run for his money in the future.Rokia Traoré

Rokia Traoré

On the French Tâma label, her Bowmboï album finally projected Rokia’s powerful, emotional and proud voice and persona into the international limelight. From Mali she is less traditionally inclined than some of her contemporaries and this particular album mixes jazz with blues and both west African and European traditions.

Baka Beyond

Formed out of the band Outback by Martin Cradick they blend Celtic and African music with hints of everything else in between from folk through natural and ambient sounds to rock. Martin’s mission has been to work with the Baka people living in the Cameroon and on each album Baka musicians feature together with the loose knit collective of musicians from around the world. Baka Beyond are now something of an institution, and money from their music has funded various resources including a magnificent Music Hall, owned collectively by the Pygmy people. Spirit of the Forest was their first album in 1992 and 2004 saw the release of their most recent, Rhythm Tree. The Global Music Exchange is a resource that has developed out of the Baka Beyond project and is aimed at developing and preserving the culture and environments of indigenous people especially through music. They also run music and educational workshops in the UK, particularly for young people. Visit at: www.1heart.org

Afro Celt Sound System

Another eclectic mix of musicians from Africa and Europe. Their first album Sound Magic surfaced in 1996 and they made a big impact on the World stage at the Glastonbury festival with their high energy performance, driving African percussion and danceable sounds. At the end of 2005, Anatomic, Volume 5 of their global musical odyssey surfaced to wide acclaim. Simon Emmerson who first brought the Afro Celts together had the idea for the fusion of African and Celtic music after working as a producer for Baaba Maal in Africa.

Youth Africa Music ExperienceYouth Africa Music Experience

Alan Dearling with Denis Kigongo

Large format paperback with music CD

80 pages

ISBN 978-1-903855-94-2