Beyond 'African music': sounds from a diverse continent

From Botswanan heavy metal to Tanzanian singeli, the music coming from Africa is as diverse and vibrant as the nations and cultures it is home to.

By Annie Brookstone
Published 24 Jul 2019, 15:00 BST
Endeguena Mulu (aka Ethiopian Records).
Endeguena Mulu (aka Ethiopian Records).
Photograph by Mekbib Tadesse

Derek Debru, co-founder of Nyege Nyege — a Kampala-based musician collective whose influence is being felt the world over — talks about music from Africa and its global appropriation 

What have you learnt about the direction of Africa’s music?

It's inward and forward. So many young producers – including more and more women – are eager to carve their own sonic identities, to experiment and to collaborate. Producers get together and develop their own sound, sometimes against all odds – that’s how we got singeli and gqom – and now that more connections are made through the internet, there’s a real creative acceleration.

Producers are also turning to classical music and ancestral rhythms for inspiration, re-incoporating that into their performance, while at the same time there’s also a trend of deconstructing and re-appropriating existing genres and cross-continental collaborations. Micro-scenes are connecting across the continent, more DJs are travelling for shows and promoters in Africa are taking notice.

Just like ‘world music’, the term ‘African music’ can be problematic and reductive, so it’s time we leave the labels behind and let people make what they want and call it what they want.

How do you see music from Africa influencing the global scene?

You can find the influence of African music everywhere — from funk to techno, from hip-hop to jazz — but too rarely is that influence properly recognised and too often it amounts to simple appropriation. The rest of the world has been in a long slumber since it wrapped all music coming out of Africa in a few simple categories. Today we see more and more African acts on international festival programmes, more emerging and outsider acts getting booked, and more African producers and DJs making an imprint on the international scene.

What genre are you excited about?

Singeli, the hard, fast and uncompromising sound coming out of Dar Es Salaam, is a real coastal blend of many genres, made in the most DIY way, which gives it a really punk, ravey sound.

What is Nyege Nyege’s mission?

Our studios, the labels, the parties and the festival are all aspects of an incubation process that promotes and nurtures alternative music from East Africa, carving spaces for expression.

Check out Ethiopiyawi Electronic in Ethiopia

What it sounds like: Emerging African genres are giving traditional sounds a fresh spin. In Ethiopia, cultural heritage is particularly rich, with more than 80 ethnic groups and dozens of native instruments. Ethiopiyawi electronic is a movement creating new spaces for traditional elements — be they lyre or lute samples or chants of azmari (folk singers) — interwoven with chopped up grime or house beats.

Where it started: Also the birthplace of Ethio-jazz, Addis Ababa is where producers Mulu and Seifu have been lauded as the future sound of Ethiopia. Mulu is adamant that the modernisation of Ethiopian music shouldn’t be equated to its Westernisation; it has, however, captured Western attention, with US-based label 1432 R putting out EPs from both artists.

Where to find it: Ethiopian Records plays with different live instrumentalists every second Tuesday at Effoi's Ankober Lounge and Rooftop Bar in Addis Ababa.

Biggest stars: Endeguena Mulu (aka Ethiopian Records), Mikael Seifu

Listen now: Ethiopian Records

Singeli DJ, Tanzania.
Photograph by Supplied

Check out singeli in Tanzania

What it sounds like: Singeli has been described by music platform Boiler Room as “East Africa’s new wave” — and at breakneck speeds of up to 300 beats per minute, it’s less gentle surf and more of a hard-and-fast, punk, ravey sonic swell. Imagine a lot of loops weaved together and played at supersonic pace, with
pitch-shifted percussion and frenetic, rapid-fire rapping.

Where it started: Singeli is characterised by a distinctly punk-rock DIY attitude that transmutes the outdated into the futuristic. With no access to musical instruments, enterprising young producers in bedroom studios across Dar Es Salaam started taking already existing sounds — whether from bongo flava, a popular genre of Tanzanian hip-hop, or taarab, a Swahili coastal music with Arabic influences — and, using only rudimentary software, putting them onto the audio autobahn to create something that felt fresh. 

Where to find it: The four-day Nyege Nyege Festival, hosted in the southern Ugandan town of Jinja, has become the most important annual event to showcase contemporary African club music. Singeli’s influence has infiltrated all the way through to Tanzanian pop music, though, so you’re pretty likely to hear some version of it blaring from a Dar taxi, too.

Biggest stars: Sisso, Bamba Pana, Jay Mitta

Listen now: Sounds of Sisso

Heavy metal band Overthrust.
Photograph by Supplied

Check out heavy metal in Botswana

What it sounds like: As elsewhere, metal in Botswana is a renegade subculture, addressing its own issues with its own voices. The crunchy guitar riffs and guttural incantations synonymous with the genre on a global level are there, but you’ll also hear elements of funk, punk, dub, psychedelia and prog-jazz. 

Where it started: Like the prolific psychedelic Zam-rock scene, which flourished in Zambia at roughly the same time, Botswana’s rock scene kicked off in the 1970s with pioneers Nosey Road.

Where to find it: At more regular, smaller gigs and festivals throughout the country. Keep an eye out for the scene’s Queens: female fans giving a middle finger to gender norms within the genre.

Biggest stars: Overthrust, Wrust, Amok, Metal Orizon

Listen now: Wrust

DJ Lag, South Africa.
Photograph by Supplied

Check out gqom in South Africa

What iT sounds like: A dark, undeniably hypnotic electronic dance style, gqom is a gritty new sound of South Africa’s urban youth that strips house music down to its bare bones and blends in elements of kwaito and ghost trance — often with traditional Zulu vocals or chants. 

Where it started: DJ Lag, from Durban’s Clermont township, has been hailed as the scene’s pioneer, in turn saying he took inspiration from the broken beats of fellow Durban locals Nakedboyz. In just a few short years, gqom has found its way onto dance floors from London to Berlin. 

Where to find it: Cape Town Electronic Music Festival, an annual gathering of South Africa’s finest electronic music talent.

Biggest stars: Rudeboyz, Distruction Boyz, Formation Boyz, Emo Kid, DJ Lag 

Listen now: Gqom Oh!

Desert blues band Imarhan.
Photograph by Supplied

Check out desert blues in Mali, Niger, Algeria and the Sahara

What it sounds like: ‘Tichumaren’ is the name of the genre in the Tamasheq dialect of the nomadic Berber-speaking Taureg, but it’s better known as desert blues. It’s one of the most successful breakthrough genres, with the electric guitar bringing vitality to the genre’s revered African and Middle Eastern folk roots, creating a sound as evocative, expansive and awe-inspiring as the desert that birthed it. 

Where it started: The late Malian bluesman Ali Farka Touré is considered the earliest pioneer of the genre, having earned global critical acclaim for ‘reuniting’ two branches of African music: that of his West African homeland and that of the American delta bluesman, its DNA still in the songs brought over by African slaves. Bands like Grammy Award-winning Tinariwen have infused the genre with a distinct political rebelliousness, the pervasive themes of loss and homesickness resonating in every note.

Where to find it: Mali’s annual Festival au Désert was the premier event in the 2000s, but regional unrest has left the event itself exiled. Much like its nomadic creators, the music is currently without a home, although artists like Tinariwen and Niger-born Bombino are regulars on world stages.  

Biggest stars: Tinariwen, Imarhan, Mdou Moctar, Bombino, Kel Assouf

Published in National Geographic Traveller (UK) — Africa Collection 2019

Follow us on social media 


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2024 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved