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

In the late 20th century, as the sun rose and set over rural England, some of the greatest artists in Africa came to the village of Box in Wiltshire to make records. More specifically, they came to Real World Studios, that state-of-the-art residential facility bathed in natural light, fashioned from organic materials and built next to a millpond reflecting the sky. 

“It was the dream studio environment I had always wanted,” says Real World founder Peter Gabriel, whose original vision included open-plan rooms designed for peak communication — crucially, there would be no separation between artist and producer/technician — and a production team at the top of their game. 

“When you’re working with people from all over the world, suddenly music rather than language becomes the central communication tool. We wanted Real World Studios to be a great place for that to happen.”

Over the course of several years, from 1989 to 1997, recording sessions by six African acts turned out albums that, today, are widely regarded as classics: Songs for the Poor Man by late Tanzania-based icon Remmy Ongala & Orchestre Super Matimila. Faso Denou by spectacular percussion troupe Farafina from Burkina Faso. Dead Men Don’t Smoke Marijuana by the late beloved Sierra Leonean singer/guitarist S.E. Rogie.  


“When you’re working with people from all over the world, suddenly music rather than language becomes the central communication tool. We wanted Real World Studios to be a great place for that to happen.” Peter Gabriel

The legendary Master Musicians of Jajouka journeyed from their village in Morocco’s southern Rif mountain range to record Jajouka Between the Mountains, the album they would later deem their personal best. Nigeria’s King Wasiu Ayinde Marshal I magicked the fizzing, beats-driven Talazo Fuji Music Party! in a recording session done on-the-fly, and against the clock. Senegalese A-lister Omar Pene & Super Diamano delivered Direct From Dakar in the cathedral-like Big Room, with its vast windows, wrap-around console desk and tranquil water view.

Each artist was made to feel part of the recording process: physically, psychologically and professionally. 

“The musicians were integral to the production team,” says Gabriel, who co-founded the WOMAD festival in 1982. “This made it harder for the engineer but it meant you got a great feeling and better performances.”

Essential to the quality of each recording, to facilitating peak performances, were the world-class and increasingly world-renowned producers in situ at the Studios, and/or convening for the celebrated Real World Recording Week: Tchad Blake (Tom Waits, U2). Daniel Lanois (Bob Dylan, Brian Eno). Peter Walsh (Scott Walker, Pulp). 

Remmy Ongala & Orchestre Super Matimila at Real World Studios in 1989. Photo credit: Francis Drake.

Real World Sessions: Remmy Ongala & Super Matimila, 17 August 1991

Rupert Hine and Stephen W Tayler look back on the 1991 session which yielded Remmy Ongala's 'Mambo'.


Congolese-born singer, bandleader and social warrior Remmy Ongala was already hugely famous in his adopted East African home of Tanzania when he arrived at the Studios in 1989, match-fit from a WOMAD tour and eager to make his first album in a western environment. The Canadian producer Dave Bottrill (Peter Gabriel, Smashing Pumpkins) was assigned to engineer, mix and — with the group’s tour manager Basil Anderson — co-produce the recording in the Big Room. 

“I’d never worked with a band that had so many guitarists playing together,” says the Grammy-winning Bottrill of Super Matimila, whose musicians doubled the guitar lines with conga parts. “They had this heavy chorus thing going on with individual melodies playing throughout the groove. They had been touring Europe and were kicking ass.” 

“When Songs for the Poor Man started getting five-star reviews I wasn’t surprised,” he continues, of a work deemed the eighth greatest album of 1989 by the critic Robert Christgau. “That session felt unique. With everybody in the same room the collective energy was strong.”

Farafina, from Burkina Faso, at Real World Recording Week 1992. Back row (L-R): Seydou Zon, Bêh Palm, Baba Diarra, Tiawara Keita, Yaya Ouattara. Front row (L-R): Souleymane Sanou, Soungalo Coulibaly, Bakari Traoré. Photo credit: Stephen Lovell-Davis.

So it was for Farafina, who’d only just KO-ed the crowds at the 1992 WOMAD festival when they rolled in to Real World for Recording Week — a seven-day extravaganza of recording sessions by artists made album-ready by intensive touring. Recording Week was a musical holiday camp, a creative safe space free from the demands of major labels and A&R departments. Musicians and producers lived on-site, connecting, collaborating, eating together. Exploring the possibilities of performance. 

Daniel Lanois was unaware of Farafina and their aural might (just as Farafina were unaware of Lanois) when he found himself producing one-half of the seminal Fasou Denou in the oak-panelled Wood Room (the American-Panamanian drummer Billy Cobham produced the other half).

“Farafina’s sound came at you like a moving building,” remembers the French-Canadian Lanois, a multiple Grammy-winner. “Their tapestry of melodies and textures had a real rock energy. You’d think it couldn’t possibly go any higher then up it would go another ten pegs. We all just went along for the ride.”

Longtime Real World engineer Richard Evans was there. “Dan is one of the finest producers I’ve worked with but this album in particular stands out,” he says. “Within ten minutes of walking into the studio he had the band bouncing off the walls, believing that they were making the album of their career. And they were! 

“Recording Week was like that,” he continues. “You’d get a gigging band in terrific shape coming into a place with highly competent people and great acoustics and equipment, needing to record an album really quickly. This sense of urgency gave a real positive energy.”

S E Rogie and Tchad Blake at Real World Studios, 27th January 1994. Photo credit: Stephen Lovell-Davis.

An upbeat ambience was a priority for Tchad Blake, producing S.E Rogie’s mellow, heartfelt Dead Men Don’t Smoke Marijuana in the Big Room and the smaller upstairs Work Room, Peter Gabriel’s personal studio, over several weeks in early 1994.

“For music like this the most important thing is to get your energy in a positive state,” says the Texan-born Blake, a multiple Grammy winner. “Especially in the Big Room. It was a lot of fun to be in the same space as Rogie and [English bass player] Danny Thompson, feeling the emotion. 

“You can’t troubleshoot sounds easily until after the fact so it’s a trade-off,” he continues. “But I’m one of those people who’ll just keep going if something goes wrong. I know I can add an arrangement change or find a little sound — a drum, a bell — that works in a really cool way.” 

‘World Music’ or A World of Musics? An African Perspective

Youssou N'Dour looks at the complex relationship between western music and music of African origin.

"When I first put the binaural dummy head in front of him he roared with laughter. He told me it was definitely a friendly spirit from his village" Tchad Blake

In this instance, runnings were smooth: “Rogie was like a long lost granddad. I loved the man. We would sit down and he’d let me know what he wanted to convey with each song. Nothing fancy. He was all about telling stories from home in Sierra Leone and making great music. 

“With the right sound, which we got, it was an unbeatable combination.” 

Rogie was particularly enthralled by Blake’s signature recording device — a dark grey Surrealist stylisation of a human head (with ears but no eyes), inside of which two microphones create the 3D effect of being at the same place as the recording.

“When I first put the binaural dummy head in front of him he roared with laughter,” remembers Blake of Rogie, who passed away later that same year. “He told me it was definitely a friendly spirit from his village.” 

Tchad Blake with The Master Musicians of Jajouka led by Bachir Attar at Real World Studios, 1995. Photo credit: Stephen Lovell-Davis.
"Jajouka is healing music. Today’s generation needs this music more than ever." Bachir Attar, The Master Musicians of Jajouka

From Ethnic to Electronic: Real World Engineer Reveals All

An interview with David Bottrill, originally published in the first issue of The Box.


Blake would return to Real World Studios for the 1995 Recording Week, one of several high-level producers-in-residence. Among the acts coming in “all day every day” to avail of his services was Sufi trance collective the Master Musicians of Jajouka, who sat on the floor of the Wood Room and gifted three long, palpably spiritual songs before a rapt audience that included Peter Gabriel and Recording Week aficionado, Joe Strummer. 

“Real World was the most beautiful studio I’d ever seen in my life, with the river flowing under the floor,” remembers the group’s leader, Bachir Attar [the Stone Room features include a small section of transparent flooring]. “We gathered the best of our musicians, young and old. Many have now passed away, which is also why this recording is so special.

“We chose songs that made you listen and feel the power of this ancient music. It is music that opens doors. Many great writers and musicians in the Sixties and Seventies understood our sound: William Burroughs. Timothy Leary. Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones. Our jajouka music took them to other dimensions.

“Jajouka music is healing music,” he says. “Today’s generation needs this music more than ever.”

King Wasiu Ayinde Marshal I - Talazo (live at Real World Studios)

That same 1995 Recording Week saw Dave Bottrill invited to produce King Wasiu Ayinde Marshal I following the band’s storming live debut at WOMAD. Space was at a premium and timing was tight. The subsequent eight-hours-late arrival of Wasiu Ayinde and his 16-strong line up meant Bottrill had to think fast.

“We didn’t have time to experiment,” he says. “I ran around the Big Room placing microphones. There were percussion instruments I’d never seen before. I’d ask where the sound came up then go, ‘Okay, I’ll put a microphone here, and over here’. 

The studios’ extraordinary technology has always been at the service of the musician. “My goal was never to let the technology overwhelm the performance,” continues Bottrill, “and with such incredible equipment it didn’t. Luckily the band was so fit from touring we knew we could just set them up and let them go. They were awesome. Everybody — me, the band, the band’s entourage, a small audience of friends and other musicians there for Recording Week — was dancing, digging it. 

“It was an eye-opening experience for me, a real learning curve. It could have been a nightmare, but somehow the whole thing just took off.” 

King Wasiu Ayinde Marshal I and his band at Real World Studios in 1995. Photo credit: Stephen Lovell-Davis.

Peter Walsh had recently completed front-of-house mixing for Peter Gabriel’s Secret World live tour and co-producing the Grammy-winning album Secret World Live when he took part in the 1995 Recording Week. He found himself in the Big Room with Senegalese superstar Omar Pene, a singer and bandleader then at the height of his career. 

“I remember that Omar and I seemed to hold each other in high regard, and also that his band had a lot of musical elements,” says Walsh of Super Diamono, which was touring as an eight-piece and had expanded to include two UK-based horn players. 

“At that point they were like an engine, percussive and rhythmic. My job was to simplify, to make them more palatable for home listening while keeping the authenticity, to recreate the excitement of a live show while making the flavours more distinctive.” 

Omar Pene & Super Diamono at Real World Studios, 24 July 1996. Photo credit: Stephen Lovell-Davis

Producer Kevin Killen remembers the birth of Real World Studios

The legendary recording engineer/producer worked on projects at Real World Studios for Peter Gabriel...


The Big Room’s design was a gift for a large band — and especially suited to the sprawling dance orchestras beloved of West Africa. 

“When you have a lot of musicians playing together you can still separate each instrument acoustically, which means you get more control over the balance but still have that important visual contact between the players.”

Walsh listened through headphones, making certain of the sounds he was recording. “While we needed some additional recordings for this session [duly implemented by Tchad Blake] I was familiar enough with that room to know how to get a good sound. We worked hard,” he continues. “There’s a photo of me at the end where I look completely wrecked.

Peter Walsh at Real World Studios, 24th July 1996. Photo credit: Stephen Lovell-Davis.

“But I remember the Big Room was full of screens and microphones and with the lights turned down, looking out over the millpond at dusk, just felt incredibly intimate. It was the kind of experience we live for.”

Real World Studios has long been a landmark location for capturing the outstanding performances at the heart of great music. And indeed, great African music. From Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone; Morocco, Nigeria and Senegal: six acts. Six classic albums. 

If ever proof were needed, this is it.

Words by Jane Cornwell

All six albums in the Africa Sessions at Real World series will be released on coloured LP and CD on 24 June 2022. They are available to pre-order now via the Real World Store individually, or in a specially priced bundle deals which include a Real World Studios ‘Blueprint design’ limited edition bag or t-shirt.

Order on CD & LP

Featured Releases

  • Songs For The Poor Man

    Remmy Ongala & Orchestre Super Matimila

    Released 30 October 1989

    Recorded at Real World Studios over three days during May 1989, this album is the first Remmy Ongala & Orchestre Super Matimila produced in a Western environment. The tracks feature Matimila’s touring nucleus of eight musicians, and provide a great introduction to this unique and compelling band.
  • Faso Denou


    Released 08 May 1993

    This electrifying West African percussion ensemble deliver a live session of breath-taking speed and skill. Farafina's music has a polyrhythmic structure that is complex and yet immediately clear, but above all the music is an irresistible driving force to dance.
  • Dead Men Don’t Smoke Marijuana

    S.E. Rogie

    Released 21 May 1994

    Floating from the bars of Sierre Leone comes palm wine music. With his mellow baritone and acoustic guitar, Rogie weaves gentle melodies with canny reflections on life and love to create a natural high.
  • Jajouka Between the Mountains

    The Master Musicians Of Jajouka led by Bachir Attar

    Released 24 June 2022

    A 4,000 year legend, the Master Musicians of Jajouka and Bachir Attar— songs of a mythic past never before recorded or heard outside Morocco.
  • Talazo Fuji Music Party!

    King Wasiu Ayinde Marshal I

    Released 24 June 2022

    Talazo fuji music is big music, made by many drummers. Big messages. Big confidence. Dense, throbbing rhythms that carry the pulse of West Africa. This is Nigeria’s most popular style of modern music and King Waisu Ayinde Marshal is its brightest star.
  • Direct From Dakar

    Omar Pene & Super Diamono

    Released 24 June 2022

    A music legend in Senegal, Super Diamono’s dynamite performance centres around the soulful voice of Omar Pene, mixing jazz-mbalax rhythms with rap and reggae.

By Jane Cornwell

Renowned for her informed, engaging writing and copywriting on music, arts, culture and travel, Jane Cornwell is a jazz and world music critic for the London Evening Standard and writes for major newspapers and online platforms in the UK and Australia. She is also a compere at WOMAD, a contributing editor of Songlines magazine and a writer of books, press releases and programme notes.

Main image: Remmy Ongala at Real World Studios in 1989. Photo credit: Frank Drake.

Published on Wed, 25 May 22

Further reading

Producer Kevin Killen remembers the birth of Real World Studios

The legendary recording engineer/producer worked on projects at Real World Studios for Peter Gabriel and many others throughout the years.

From Ethnic to Electronic: Real World Engineer Reveals All

An interview with David Bottrill, originally published in the first issue of The Box.