Dave’s African Guitar Heroes

Some of the best guitarists I’ve ever seen or heard are/were from Africa. There are a huge variety of guitar styles across the African continent. In this blog post I explain a bit about some of these styles and some of the great musicians from Africa who have influenced me.  Some of their music is on the playlists below. If your knowledge of the music of Africa begins and ends with Paul Simon’s Graceland album, this blog post may open your ears to some amazing new music!

1. Franco, Michelino & Simaro from TPOK Jazz (DR Congo)

Congolese legend Franco Luambo Makiadi was one of the greatest musicians to come from Africa. From the 1950’s until his death in 1989 he led the magnificent band TPOK Jazz to produce a legacy that no other band in Africa, or arguably anywhere, can rival. Franco recorded over 3000 songs, composing over 1000 of these, with the rest composed by other TPOK Jazz members. Many of these songs are over 10 minutes long and each contains  an ecstatic instrumental climax called a sebene where the guitars chime out in glorious counterpoint. OK Jazz was an incredible band with many members through its history. At its peak in the late 70’s and 80’s It operated like a football team with musicians and singers substituting for others depending on the song that was being played. Franco was known as ‘The Sorcerer of the Guitar’ and his distinctive style has been very influential to me. Among the many great guitarists to pass through the ranks of OK Jazz my favourite is probably Michelino who is seen playing lead guitar in the Youtube clip of the song ‘Kamikaze’. Franco is beside him, cutting an imposing figure whilst the other guitarist is Simaro, a wonderful composer who was Franco’s right-hand man and played the rhythm guitar parts. Tracks like ‘Coupe du Monde’ and ‘Tu es Méchante’ showcase the infectious, multi-layered guitar sound of Franco and TPOK Jazz, my favourite band in the world!

2. Jean Bosco Mwenda (DR Congo)

I first heard of Jean Bosco Mwenda through a recording by classical guitarist Timothy Walker of Mwenda’s beautiful guitar piece ‘Masanga’. Mwenda developed an intricate acoustic guitar finger-picking style that was hugely influential, likely influencing Franco and his colleagues. I don’t know much about Mwenda, other than he his regarded as one of the pioneers of Congolese guitar playing and he sang beautifully to his intricate accompaniments. Famous classical guitarist John Williams has also recorded ‘Masanga’, although he can’t get the rhythm and feel quite like Mwenda!

3. Ephraim Karimaura with Thomas Mapfumo (Zimbabwe)

Thomas Mapfumo is probably Zimbabwe’s most famous musician, a legend in Africa, he now lives in exile in the USA, after years of disputes with the Zimbabwean government. He was jailed by both the white colonial government of Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe, whom he once supported in the struggle for independence. In the 1970’s Mapfumo developed a music style called ‘Chimurenga’, meaning ‘struggle’. It was the soundtrack to Zimbabwean independence. Guitarists like Jonah Sithole and Joshua Dube developed a special guitar style to go with Mapfumo’s new sound. They mute the strings to imitate the sound of the traditional ‘mbira’, what some Western musicologists might call a ‘thumb piano’. I’ve been listening to Mapfumo’s music for many years, since first discovering it randomly in the World Music section of the Ilac Centre Library in Dublin! I particularly like his albums ‘Hondo’ and ‘Vahnu Vatema’, which feature the beautiful guitar playing of Ephraim Karimaura. In 2000 I composed a piece in Mapfumo’s honour called ‘Chimurenga’, which has been recorded by the Dublin Guitar Quartet. I’ve seen Mapfumo and his amazing band The Blacks Unlimited twice, Great nights of music!

4. Djelimady Tounkara and Salif Keita (Mali)

Mali’s greatest band is probably the Super Rail Band, which features the incredible guitarist Djelimady Tounkara. Originally known as the Rail Band in the 70’s, the group has fostered many brilliant musicians including Salif Keita and Mory Kante, who both went on to successful international solo careers. Tounkara’s guitar sets the Super Rail Band apart, he is one of the greatest guitar virtuosos from Africa. His style takes influences from Malian traditional instruments like the Kora and Balafon. Tounkara and the Super Rail Band played the 2007 Festival of World Cultures in Dun Laoghaire and I was lucky enough to be there for that briiiant concert. I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing Salif Keita in concert twice, most recently this year on his retirement tour. Now 70, his golden voice is as good as it ever was.

5. Jonah Sithole (Zimbabwe)

As mentioned before, Jonath Sithole pioneered the Chimurenga guitar sound during his time playing with Thomas Mapfumo. In the 1980’s he started a solo career which brought him success and some international releases. I bought one of his CDs about 15 years ago when I lived in London. I got it at a great shop called Sterns African Music Centre, which unfortunately no longer exists other than as an online store. They used to have a café and lots of CDs to browse through that you couldn’t get anywhere else. The digital streaming age ended Stern’s viability. Strangely enough, Jonah Sithole’s music isn’t available on Spotify or other streaming services, but some fans have put his music up on Youtube. A great guitarist and his own albums are very enjoyable, in a similar style to Thomas Mapfumo.

6. Souza Vangu with Youlou Mabiala (Congo-Brazzaville)

Youlou Mabiala is a singer and composer from Congo-Brazzaville, a country beside DR Congo. He was a member of Franco’s TPOK Jazz for some time, and he is Franco’s son-in-law having married one of Franco’s daughters. He became a solo star in the late 70’s and 80’s, producing some great albums with his band ‘Orchestre Kamikaze’, named after the song ‘Kamikaze’ which he composed.  Orchestra Kamikaze’s lead guitarist was a man called Souza Vangu, also from Congo-Brazzaville. His lead playing on the track ‘Walimeya’ is some of the most uplifting guitar playing I’ve ever heard! 

7. Beniko Popolipo, Zamwangana & Jimmy Yaba of Zaiko Langa-Langa (DR Congo)

Zaiko Langa Langa come from the generation after Franco and TPOK Jazz, they developed the styles known as ‘soukous’ and ‘rumba rock’, which are generally a bit faster than the music Franco and TPOK Jazz played. The guitarists who have played with Zaiko Langa Langa over the years generally have to be able to play very fast! They are one of the most influential bands to come from Africa and their members included the late Papa Wemba, who became an international star, signed to Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. I haven’t listened to a huge amount of their music, I don’t find it as good as Franco and TPOK Jazz. However there is a great energy to some of their music from the 70’s and 80’s, like the song ‘Antalia’.

8. Ali Farka Touré (Mali)

One of the best known musicians from Africa is the late Malian guitarist Ali Fark Touré. He gained fame through his collaborations with artists like American slide guitarist Ry Cooder and kora player Toumani Diabate. He is also featured in Martin Scorcese’s documentary about the roots of the Blues, ‘Feels like Going Home’, where the music he played is called ‘Desert Blues’ and identified as the origins of the blues. Touré played in Dublin in the early 2000s and I intended to go, but it sold out fast so I missed out. I did eventually get to see him playing in London’s Barbican Centre in a magical duo concert with Toumani Diabaté.

9. Niwel Tsumbu (DR Congo/Ireland)

Niwel Tsumbu is from DR Congo but has been living in Ireland for many years. Niwel is simply the best all-round guitarist I know. He can play anything! His own style seems to be a mix of Congolese styles, flamenco, jazz and contemporary music. I’ve worked with Niwel many times, he is a member of my ensembles D.F.F. and the Irish Memory Orchestra and in 2014 I composed a piece called Joy for Niwel and I to play with the Crash Ensemble. That piece is like a mix between Congolese Rumba and New York minimalism! Niwel has been putting some fantastic clips on youtube recently explaining various guitar styles. A recent video surprised me as he explained how the Open G tuning, that I use for Irish trad, is a tuning used in the Congo many years ago!

10. DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra (Tanzania)

In the early 2000s, with the advent of blogging, a treasure trove of rare African records were uploaded to blogs like World Service. These were records that were mostly unavailable commercially, so it was fantastic to be able to hear all this music for the first time, as most of it was unknown outside of Africa. It was on one of these blogs I discovered the Tanzanian band DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra. I can’t find a lot of info about them, but it seems they were Tanzania’s most popular band for many years. When you hear a track like ‘Edita’ that’s not surprising. Towards the end of the song it seems to my ears that there are four electric guitars, which is unusual, as it is more common for these larger bands to have three guitarists. But it could be that one of the guitarists is so good they sound like two guitarists playing at once!

11. Western Jazz Band (Tanzania)

Another Tanzanian band I know little about is Western Jazz Band. I discovered their music through the beautiful song ‘Rosa’ on a compilation CD I bought many years ago called ‘The Most Beautiful Songs of Africa’. There are indeed beautiful songs on this album, though they aren’t necessarily ‘the most beautiful’ songs of Africa! I think they missed out on ten thousand or so other beautiful songs in compiling this album! An interesting aspect, to me, of the song ‘Rosa’ is that it has occasional odd rhythmic beat structures where a beat seems to go missing every now and again. I love the guitar playing on this beautiful record, I don’t know who the guitarist is though.

12. D.O. Misiani (Tanzania/Kenya)

Also on ‘The Most Beautiful Songs of Africa’ is an artist called D.O. Misiani and his band Shirati Jazz. From what I’ve read Daniel O. Misiani was one of the most important band leaders in Africa during his heyday. His songs were important political and social songs that got him in trouble with the authorities from time to time. The style of music he pioneered is called ‘Benga’, and the album ‘Benga Blast’ is a great example of this style, which is a bit more pared down than the larger African ‘orchestras’. I particularly like the way that the songs sometimes break down to just the rhythm guitar and drums, so you can hear the intricacy of these guitar parts that are usually in the background. Misiani passed away a few years ago.

13. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (South Africa)

Lots of people refer to Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album as being influenced by ‘African’ music, the truth though is that it is influenced by music styles purely from South Africa, like Township Jive and Palm Wine. Prior to ‘Graceland’ an album called ‘The Indestructible Beat of Soweto’ came out and proved hugely influential in the West. I got this album on tape in the 90’s, not sure where it is anymore, I may have worn it out! There’s lots of great guitar-based tracks on the album and I particularly like the tracks by Amaswazi Emvelo and Johnson Mkhalali. I don’t know anything about these artists to be honest, I just enjoy the guitar sounds and distinctive vocals. Part of my composition ‘The Clare Concerto’ is influenced by this kind of music, ‘Quilty Township Jive’ mixes ideas from Irish trad and South African Township Jive and is dedicated to the Irish Memory Orchestra’s South African conductor Bjorn Bantock.

There are so many other great bands and solo artists from across Africa, some more of which I’ve added to the Spotify playlist. This blog post only scratches the surface of the jewels to be found when you start looking for guitar music from Africa. I hope this post inspires you to discover some of this amazing music!