We're joined in this month's Original Fuzz Magazine by guest contributor Andrew Locke, frontman of Nashville's Mesmer Tea, as he dives deep into the realm of African rock music of the 60s and 70s and unveils its explosive impact on westernized music as we know it today. Learn about the people who pioneered the genre and influenced mainstreamers in popular rock and psychedelia culture. Read on, get down, and educate yourselves on the history.
My entry point into the wide and deep world of African rock began six or seven years ago, when a close friend, who knows my taste well, picked up an album out of the bargain bin that I would love. It didn’t even have a cover, just the record in a white sleeve. It was Osibisa’s 1971 self-titled album. Produced by Tony Visconti, who has famously produced for T. Rex, David Bowie, Moody Blues, and countless others, and with artwork by Roger Dean whose psychedelic style also graces Yes, Asia, and Uriah Heap covers. It was one in the first wave of albums from artists out of West Africa that reached wide Western audiences.
Osibisa charted several albums in the US and UK in the 70’s, and remains somewhat active to the present day. Led by Teddy Osei, a native Ghanaian, and formed in London, the band included friends and fellow musicians from Ghana, as well as a cast of Caribbean natives, making the band truly an international outfit. Their early style was decidedly in the tradition of highlife music in Ghana, a treatment of traditional styles with Western instruments and unique tonality, but they came to represent, along with a score of others, the African answer to the European and American psychedelic explosion.
Africa is, of course, the home of many styles familiar to Westerners, such as the blues, and originated the progenitors of modern instruments like the guitar, banjo, and marimba. Africa’s popular music remained largely confined to the continent, however, until the middle of the 20th century. This is partly because of language barriers, with most artists performing to their countrymen in regional dialects. In addition, Western producers and labels showed no interest, and while many artists gained continent-wide fame, the rest of the world didn’t get to hear much of what was going on in Africa until Miriam Makeba stormed onto the scene with a sunny, danceable international hit "Pata Pata", first recorded in 1957.
Miriam Makeba eventually would tour with the likes of Paul Simon and Harry Belafonte. A South African, her music was always tied up with her very vocal activism. Makeba was a leading voice against apartheid in South Africa, the formal system that kept the majority black population as an underclass to the white minority. Her South African passport was revoked in 1960, and at this point she began the rich tradition of African exile and expatriate acts, such as Osibisa and The Funkees.
Without a doubt, the next, and perhaps biggest, African superstar was Fela Kuti, known and loved throughout the world until his death in 1997. Kuti’s recording career began in the late 60’s and continued for decades. His heyday was the chaotic 70’s, when he released a string of albums with his band, Afrika 70. His music was overtly political, often making him enemies, but endearing him forever to like-minded Africans whose cries he broadcast to the world. He sang in English, largely, which gave him access to a much wider audience than some of his regional contemporaries.
Fela Kuti is credited with inventing the Afrobeat genre, which was a blend of the heavily percussive style dominant in Nigeria, and highlife music of Ghana. Fela Kuti and Afrobeat were hugely influential in the rest of the world, and several well-known artists in the West took it upon themselves to champion the style, incorporating it into their own music, including Miles Davis, David Byrne and Brian Eno of Talking Heads, Paul Simon, and in contemporary music tUne-YaRdS and Vampire Weekend. Kuti even recorded a live album with the drummer Ginger Baker, of Cream fame, in 1971.
Within Fela Kuti’s considerable shadow, a Nigerian rock scene exploded in the 1970’s producing bands like The Hykkers, Semi Colon, Ofege, and MonoMono. On the heels of a brutal civil war, aided by an oil boom and increased economic and cultural opportunities, Lagos, Nigeria’s population ballooned (it is currently one of the largest cities in the world), and with it the music scene flowered, as musicians from other nations and backgrounds joined forces, and as Western-style psychedelic rock and roll found its way to Nigerian ears.
For those interested there are some great compilations and reissues that document this unprecedented golden age. The Nigeria Special series from Soundway Records is highly recommended, as is Wake Up You! from Now Again, possibly the best reissue label currently running. It should be noted two of Kuti’s sons, Femi and Seun, went on to achieve their own musical fame, and in their profound respect for their father and his influence, they build on his considerable legacy.
Mali is respected across Africa as a musical nation with a behemoth tradition. Timbuktu, long a renowned Saharan crossroads of culture, saw generation after generation build a Malian musical culture while Europe toiled in its Dark Ages, that remains distinct and highly influential, and persists right up until the present day. Somewhat more pensive, and always backed by stringed instruments, Malian music is said to have originated the blues in the West, and the ngoni and kora are the forebearers of the guitar and banjo.
In Mali, where the blues and similar forms originated, the goliath of the tumultuous 60s and 70s was Ali Farka Touré. He is listed in many “best guitarists of all time” lists, and his style is emblematic of Mali and his legacy is gigantic in the country. His first recorded album, Ali Touré Farka, was produced in 1976, and thereafter he produced a string of albums that ended in 2010 with Ali and Toumani. Touré’s style stayed more rooted in the traditions of his home nation than other notable African musicians of the time, never really dipping his toes into the Western-style psychedelic rock popular at the time. He caught the ear of the likes of Ry Cooder, with whom Touré recorded and performed. His influence is heard in modern internationally famous Malian and Saharan-born musicians such as Tinariwen, Fatoumata Diawara, Oumou Sangare, Songhoy Blues, and Bombino.
At the other side of the continent, one would be remiss not to note Ethiopia’s robust musical tradition, and it’s clear 20th century king, Mulatu Astatke. His first albums were released in 1966, and his influences were decidedly more in the jazz realm than the rock and roll that Western Africa was obsessed with at that time. He is considered the father of ethio-jazz, and his album Mulatu of Ethiopia (1972) is one of the classics of the continent. With an immediately recognizable style, Astatke played vibraphone, which he honed studying in London at Trinity College of Music and in America at Berklee College of Music. There he became a fan and student of Latin Jazz, which he incorporated with the rhythm and tonality of his native Ethiopia, producing a truly unique sound. Astatke’s reign lasted decades, finding him performing with the jazz/hiphop/world music ensemble, Heliocentrics, in recent years. Mulatu Astatke is still alive and slaying vibraphones around the world.
Africa has been playing music since literally the dawn of human history, but it was some of these names that popularized the continents’ sounds in the rest of the world. They took Africa on the road, studying and touring abroad, and collaborating with artists from elsewhere in the world. It is easy to get lost in the rock and roll explosion of Europe and America during the 60s and 70s, but the scene in Africa, and particularly in Nigeria and Ghana, produced countless bands, and its own storied history, which is just hinted at here.
One can dive as deep as possible in the age of the internet and still not come up with everything worth hearing from this explosive era. Luckily compilations and reissues are being produced at a faster pace than decades previous, so hopefully this history can be remembered and treasured, not just on a page, but in our speakers as well.