Made up of 54 countries, each teeming with its own individual histories and rich musical traditions, it’s impossible to offer anything but the most rudimentary glance at the wealth of amazing recorded music that emerged from the continent of Africa over the last half-century. Here are a handful of wonderful, lilting albums, perfect for backyard barbecues, introspective star-gazing, or just chilling in the hammock.
1994 by Toure, Ali FarkaGet this item
Ali Farka Toure was often called “the bluesman of Africa” for his distinctive guitar-picking style forged in northern Mali. He was always happy to collaborate, and on Talking Timbuktu he teamed up with Ry Cooder and they play as if they’ve known each other forever. As refreshing as a summer rain, this one.
1996 by Sangare, OumouGet this item
Heralding from Mali, Oumou Sangare often uses her amazing voice and platform to rail against female oppression, especially the forced marriages and polygamy she witnessed growing up. Frequently backed by the kamalengoni (a kind of harp, heard on the album’s first track), this album also features the amazing horn playing of Pee Wee Ellis.
2014 by Ley, TabuGet this item
The glorious voice of soukous, a Congolese rhumba, Rochereau was one of Africa’s most popular musicians of the last century. Often surrounding himself with incredible fellow musicians, this collection of songs from 1972-75 hits a particular sweet spot, with languid, intertwining guitars, graceful horn playing, lots of space, and above all, Rochereau’s soaring vocals.
1990 by Ade, King SunnyGet this item
A slickly produced entry into the Western market, JuJu music was a nice introduction to the one of the kings of Nigerian juju music--named, some musicologist believe, after the sound made by a popular hexagonal shaped tambourine descended from Brazil. Backed by upwards of 20 musicians and exciting talking drum rhythms along with occasional pedal steel guitars, this is perhaps a touch over-produced but still an accessible, joyful introduction to Ade’s sound.
1991Get this item
A quirky but lovely compilation of popular dance music from Africa, this includes one of my favorite songs, Africa Mokili Mobimba sung by the great Joseph Tshamala Kabasele and the popular Congolese band he led, L’African Jazz. A great party compilation if you’re looking to get people up and dancing.
2019 by Diabate, ToumaniGet this item
Father-and-son duo and kora (a cross between a harp and lute) masters Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté team up for this hypnotic, transporting album of unaccompanied duets. A wonderful introduction to this beautiful instrument and these two great players.
2001 by Orchestra BaobobGet this item
This lovely 1982 album by the popular Sengalese dance band, Orchestra Baobob is a feast of Afro-Cuban rhythms, lilting guitar playing and gorgeous singing. I was super lucky to see the current iteration of the band a few years back in Chicago when they played for the Millennium Park Summer Music Series. The whole crowd was dancing.
2009 by FelaGet this item
Fela Kuti is one of the towering figures of contemporary Nigerian music. Fiercely independent and the innovator of what’s come to be known as Afro-Beat, with the great Tony Allen on drums. Zombie is one of the 50 or so albums Kuti recorded and the title track is a sweaty, call-and-response, guitar chopping, horn blasting wall of uncompromising, turbo-charged funk.
1989 by N'Dour, YoussouGet this item
Youssou N’Dour is one of Africa’s best-known musicians, a Sengalese superstar blessed with one of the most magnificent voices you’ll ever hear. His friendship with Peter Gabriel led to his duet on one of the most iconic songs of the 1980s, In Your Eyes. The Lion came in the wake of that success, with appearances by Gabriel and the incredible drumming of Manu Katche.