14 African musical styles for you to explore

The continent of Africa is a rich terrain of diverse musical styles, many of which have featured on recordings we have released on Real World Records over the past thirty years. We asked Zimbabwean musician and teacher Chartwell Dutiro to introduce us to some popular and lesser known musical styles from Africa and choose some essential listening from our catalogue.

1. Soukous

Soukous is a form of music that stems from rumba. The late Franco Luambo, who died in 1989 (a.k.a. Luambo Makiadi), performed soukous music with his band OK Jazz for 30 years. Later dubbed TPOK Jazz, the band played Cuban sounds, but Franco also made prominent use of rhythms and themes from his home in the Belgian Congo, which earned him the title “Sorcerer of the guitar”.

Soukous music originated in Zaire, now The Democratic Republic of Congo. Zairean musicians looked for ways to strip Rumba music down. Paris based Conogolese artist Papa Wemba, who died in 2016, performed with two bands— Viva la Musica for soukous, and Molokai, featuring French session players, for his pop crossover music.

Papa Wema - Yolele

2. JuJu

Juju style originally came from Nigeria, a country which has produced many styles that managed to spread all around West African countries, including juju, jaija, fuji, ozzidi, palm-wine, highlife and afrobeat. Here I introduce the group Les Amazones d’Afrique, who are an all-female collective of West African musicians campaigning for gender equality. The singers are from Benin, Mali, Nigeria and Guinea. They use a variety of styles on their debut album, including Wassoulou music, Griots Pop, as well as Nigerian Afrobeat and Naija Pop in combination with EDM and Ambient Techno.

Voices of Africa

Exploring the voice has always been an exciting part of the Real World Records catalogue and some ou...


Les Amazones d'Afrique - Mansa Soyari (feat. Rokia Koné)

3. Mbalax

A style of popular Senegalese music known in the Serer language as mbalax, it derives from the conservative Serer music tradition of Njuup. In 1979 ‘Little Prince of Dakar’ Youssou N’Dour formed the Super Etoiles and became the most popular exponent of Senegal’s mbalax pop. As well as coming out of the Wolof-dominated capital Dakar, he uses traditional polyrhythms of sabar and tama drumming. Youssou built a massive recording studio in Dakar called Xippi or ‘Eyes Open’. In 1994, Youssou’s collaboration with American/British hip-hop singer Neneh Cherry —the song ‘7 Seconds’— sold over 1.5 million copies and won MTV Europe’s Best Song award.

Youssou N’dour et le Super Etoile de Dakar - Immigrés

4. Zilin

Zilin is a style rooted in Benin’s unique traditional vocal technique. The strong influence of the voodoo religion is an important part of Benin, which tells of healing and rejuvenating talismans (fetishes). Angelique Kidjo – the queen of African crossover pop, uses the zilin vocal technique. Angelique has often been criticised for having abandoned her African roots, but the impact of her career on African music is undeniable. Now based in New York, she often goes back to her native village Ouidah for spiritual inspiration.

“The world is getting smaller and smaller, I sing about problems that are not only in Benin or Africa. I write for everybody.”  ~ Angelique Kidjo

Angélique Kidjo - Angolo

5. Gnawa

Gnawa, also known as Ethno-Pop or Gnawi Blues, comes from the Sahara Desert. This music style is based around a north African repertoire of ancient African spiritual religious songs and rhythms. Its well-preserved heritage combines ritual poetry with traditional music and dance. Morocco captured the Malian city Timbuktu in the 16th Century, and brought Bambara speaking slaves across the Sahara. The fact that the gnawa’s main string instrument —the sintir or gimbri— resembles a large version of the Bambara ngoni, suggests that many of the gnawa came from there.  Moroccan cities have long supported shaabi “popular” groups playing in cafes and recording cassettes for the local market. Hassan Hakmoun and his band take this ancient Moroccan musical tradition and update it with an upfront vitality.

Hassan Hakmoun - Soudan Minitara (Bumbastic Mix)

6. Mbaqanga

Mbaqanga comes from South Africa. The word means ‘dumpling’ in Zulu, but in this instance means ‘homemade’. Mbaqanga developed out of two earlier styles— kwela, then the raucous— and jive. It came to prominence in the illegal shebeen clubs in the townships of South Africa. Perhaps Africa’s hardest-driving pop sound, it delivers frisky riffing and plush vocal harmonies over a knockout downbeat and groaning bass. South Africa, like Nigeria, has a very broad range of styles ranging from marabi (which is the root of south African Jazz) to local highlife, reggae and Zulu choral music known as mbube. Shikisha is a group of Zulu women from Durban, South Africa who mix the traditional Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa and Shangani dances with the searing electric sounds of the contemporary South African township. The name Shikisha means ‘belt it out, dance and sing like you never have before’.

Shikisha - Bayeza

7. Chimurenga

Chimurenga is a musical style which grew out of songs of liberation struggle. Musicians from the Shona majority of Zimbabwe created a new pop sound based on the chiming, cyclic melodies and rhythm of the mbira. The mbira is a sacred instrument played in all-night ritual ceremonies called bira, in order to connect with the spirits of the ancestors. Thomas Mapfumo popularised the Chimurenga sound and still plays the music today with his band, The Blacks Unlimited.


Thomas Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited - Mukadzi Wangu

8. Majika

Majika adapts local rhythms —xigubu, mapika, tufu and marabenta— originating in Mozambique. The music of the band Ghorwane features hopped-up versions of the local majika rhythm in a musical stew that sees guitars mix rock and soukous licks, and horn-like voices in a style they call quilapanga, Angolan merengue, and spicy Latin bravado. Led by Tchika Fernando, Ghorwane were named after a lake that provides scarce water in the dry Gaza province.

Ghorwane - Majurugenta

9. Ubongo

Ubongo has roots from ngoma, vugo, kumbwuya and the driving chakacha with its sexual overtones, which animate most forms of taarab: the music that explores romance and marriage in Tanzania. Swahili for “music of the brain” but it also has heart, bongo grew out of Dar es Salaam’s urban poor. Remmy Ongala tackles thorny social and political issues through music created in this style. In this track, he promotes the use of condoms to protect against AIDS. The song proved too much for Radio Tanzania, which refused to play it. But live shows and black-market tapes ensured that few urban Tanzanians missed the message.

Remmy Ongala - Things With Socks

10. Inkiranya

Inkiranya is a drumming style which has its origin in Burundi. The Drummers of Burundi are one of the finest examples of this type of music. Their performances are a part of ceremonies such as births, funerals, and coronations of mwami (kings). The drums (called karyenda) are sacred in Burundi and represent the mwami fertility and regeneration.

The Drummers of Burundi - Live at Real World

11. Palm-wine

Palm wine music dates back to the days when Portuguese sailors first introduced guitars to West African port cities. Early African guitarists and bottle percussionists played at gatherings where revellers drank the fermented sap of palm trees, a traditional alternative to bottled beer. S.E. Rogie, palm-wine music’s greatest ambassador, began his career as ‘The Jimmy Rodgers of Sierra Leone.’ He died in 1994, shortly after releasing the album Dead Men Don’t Smoke Marijuana on Real World Records.

S.E. Rogie - Jaimgba Tutu (The Joy of Success)

12. Benga

Benga has its roots in the music of the Luo people of Kenya. In the East African music capital, Nairobi, the African Broadcasting Service once aired a mix of Cuban dance music, early Congo rumba and Zairean finger style guitar, along with South African kwela and traditional sounds, mostly from Kenya’s native Luo and Kikuyu.

The Nyatiti is an instrument of the Loo people, and is used in spiritual practice as well as to accompany historical praise songs. On his first visit to Real World Studios, Kenyan singer-songwriter Ayub Ogada refused to record inside the studio at Real World, instead playing a concert outside which took three hours. By the end of his performance, the majority of his album En Mana Kuoyo had been recorded.

Meet Rokia Koné: the Rose of Bamako

The latest single by Les Amazones d'afrique features the outstanding Malian singer Rokia Koné, whos...


Ayub Ogada - Chiro

13. Somali Jazz

The language and music of Somalia is a mixture of African and Arabic influences. Maryam Mursal’s life and art have intertwined to produce a sound that profoundly reflects these influences: a powerful blend of Islam and Africa that she calls “Somali Jazz”.

Maryam Mursal - Lei Lei

14. Rababah

Pharaonic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Ethiopian, and East and West African cultures all have echoes in Southern Egypt’s Nubia region. A group of Sudanese people immigrated to the south of Egypt seven generations ago. But one family of Sudanese origins, the Mataqil, have a long cultivated alliance with gypsy families who specialised in the art of singing. Shamandi Tewfiq Metqal with his ensemble The Musicians of the Nile incarnates this form of traditional singing in epic poetic form.

Musicians of the Nile - Salamat

By Chartwell Dutiro

Main photo credit: Rosemary Pritzker

Published on Thu, 05 April 18

Further reading

Les Amazones d’Afrique assert women’s freedom of expression with new single ‘Kuma Fo’

The track features on their forthcoming Jacknife Lee-produced album Musow Danse.

The Breath announce new album and reveal first new song

The Breath have announced details of a new album, Land of My Other, ten original tracks of raw, gorg...

Africa comes to Real World: revisiting albums by six legendary artists

Jane Cornwell explores our new reissue series 'Africa Sessions at Real World'.

Guitarist Salif Koné demonstrates three musical styles from Mali

Rokia Koné and Les Amazones d'Afrique's guitarist demonstrates Mandigue, Bamana & Tuareg music.