No other instrument has affected popular music quite like the guitar. The impact of the guitar on popular music scenes all over Africa is clear to see and hear, boasting some of the most innovative composers and technically accomplished performers, from soukous to maskanda and beyond. To pick out just a few guitarists from such a vast and diverse continent of music is pretty much impossible. But here, in no particular order, are some of the most influential, interesting and talented guitarists from Africa; some iconic, some less-well known, as well as a nod to the current and emerging six-stringer artists.
Mali is renowned for its rich musical history and the golden era of state- sponsored dance bands launched the careers of some of Mali’s most influential guitarists.
Kante manfila was born in Guinea and started his musical learning on the balafon (similar to a xylophone), before going on to ply his trade as a guitarist in Mali. He was the man alongside Salif Keita who saw success in the 1970s and 1980s in Les Ambassedeurs Internationaux. Kante’s ululating runs and hybrid of ‘african’ guitar playing, with what he called ‘methodique’- European chordal playing, meant he created his own stand-out trademarks. This track displays his prodigious technique and creativity, as he translates balafon melodies onto the strings of the guitar. Kante went on to have his own solo career, releasing acoustic guitar albums including Back to Farabanah, as opposed to the electric on which he had made his name earlier in his career. Later in his career he reunited with Salif Keita, who by this point was an internationally renowned artist. Kante’s impact upon guitar playing cannot be underestimated. Listen in at 5:00 in the video below to hear a virtuosic display of Manfila Kante's style of guitar soloing, Repleat with scurrying alternate picking runs, fast yet melodics, combined with the repetitive patterns reminiscent of the balafon.
Djelimady Tounkara was the lead guitarist in the super rail band, Mali’s other standout Dance band of the 1970s and 1980s, with Manfila Kante's cousin, Mory Kante as their front man, after Salif Keita had left to join Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux. Another creative and innovative guitarist, he similarly translated lines that could be played on the balafon to his electric guitar. It wasn’t until 2001 that Tounkara released his first solo album, like Kante Manfila reverting to acoustic guitar, before being reunited with the super rail band in 2002. In 'Mansa', the track below, Tounkara deonstrates his understated and tight rhtyhm guitar abilities, before gradually unleashing his lead guitar skills from 5:30 to 7:00. Initially outline the harmony with some intricate arpeggio picking, the solo devlops through some haunting melodic runs, to octave playing, before reverting the the hammer-on and pull-off articulated runs synonymous with his style. It is from 8:20 onwards however, when Tounkara really lets rip. The feel of the song, which has been steadily and patiently constructed, is completely changed with a change of tempo and groove. From here Tounkara explores the upper reaches of the guitar's range, high on the fretboard, before playing around with some chordal rhtyhmic ideas.
Mali’s deep pool of guitar talent doesn’t stop with the music of the dance bands. Ali Farka Toure’s guitar playing, steeped in the musical history of the Niger valley, gave birth to a brand of music that came to been known as 'Desert Blues' which has been popularised further through contemporary bands such as Tinariwen, Tamikrest and Etran Finatwa. The link between Ali Farka Toure’s music and the blues of the United States led Farka Toure to state that the blues music of the southern states had been influenced by the melodies of Mali, rather than the other way around. One of Ali Farka’s most famous albums is talking Timbuktu with Ry Cooder, but Ali Farka Toure’s catalogue of music boasts an array of magnificent and emotive guitar playing, which displays the folk melodies of his home, Niafunke.
Palm-wine music was a big influence on many other musical styles, including Highlife, and Koo Nimo was, and still is, a leading proponent. A classically trained guitarist, Nimo released an album on Riverboat records of Highlife roots revival sounds, with some truly phenomenal finger style guitar playing. Nimo is a hugely respected musican in Ghana and was awarded a gold medal as a distinguished citizen, for his role in the preservation of Ghana's musical heritage. Listen out at the start of the track below for Koo Nimo's ornamentated finger-style guitar lines at the forefront, with inflections of tremolo picking before the song launches into its groove and Nimo's meandering guitar lines strike up conversation with the lead vocalist.
No writing about influential African guitarists should be absent of Franco. François Luambo Makiadi is considered by many as one of the world’s greatest guitarists. His music has spread across the globe from the heart of Congo. The founder of the group OK jazz, he recorded a vast amount of music and encompassed much stylistic variety in his playing. From his Cuban-infused ‘rumba Lingala’ in the 1950s to ‘authenticite’ acoustic recordings in the 1970s and large ensemble arrangements in the 1980s, his creativity knew no boundaries. In the live footage below, Franco pins down the rhythm with his playing. Hear his playing take centre stage at 4:50.
Franco's legacy was widespread. Look no further than Diblo Dibala, known as ‘the Machine Gun,’ such was the speed of his alternate picking technique, firing out guitar licks and riffs.
Oliver Mtukudzi’s trademark husky voice and guitar playing rose to prominence in the late 1970s with his band ‘The Black spirits.’ He is considered one of the greatest cultural icons to come out of Zimbabwe, with his signature sound of ‘Tuku Music’. His electric guitar playing was laced with energetic plectrum-picked riffs and solos, but Mtukudzi was also able to play the acoustic in a solo setting, with a sensitive and soulful tone to accompany his vocals.
The South African music of Maskanda produced several brilliant guitarists.The late Shiyani Ngcobo was such musician, whose music demonstrates the sound of rural KwaZulu- Natal. An instrumental teacher at the University there, Ngcobo resisted using drumkits and sythensizers alongside his guitar sound. This was the dominant maskanda sound, originally popularised by another guitar great, John Bhengu aka Phuzushukela. With the help of producer Hamilton Nzimande, Phuzushukela brought maskanda into the mainstream in the 1970s with his extraordinary picking technique and the 'modernized' maskanda ensemble. Ngcobo preferred retaining a raw acoustic sound. Despite touring Europe, Cuba and the UK, Ngcobo remained fairly unknown in South Africa beyond his pupils and colleagues, despite their immense respect and admiration for his palying abilities.
Depsite the apparent focus on guitar greats of the past, the future of the instrument is in safe hands. The constant swathes of Hip hop and electronic music dominating the airwaves does not mean that innovation on the instrument is stifled. The continent is brimming with up and coming guitarists, playing both traditional sounds and carving their own musical paths. Just listen to Vieux Farka Toure, channelling his father’s sounds and tone while emphasising his own identity as a guitarist.
Ali Farka Toure's influence also lives on in the music of Samba Touré, one of his protégés. Samba Touré toured with the man himself and in 2009 released a tribute to his mentor and the continuation of the 'desert blues' legacy.
Perhaps one of the most interesting guitarists from the continent in recent times is Lionel Loueke, from Benin, who channels the traditions of his heritage through jazz and intricate finger-style technique. Having studied at Berklee College of Music, Loueke has gone on to play alongside many prominent musicians including Robert Glasper and Terence Blanchard. He also features on two Herbie Hancock albums, Possibilitiesand River: The Joni Letters, as well as having his own acclaimed releases, including Karibu and most recently Heritage.
We’ve only mentioned Mali, Guinea, Congo, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Benin… The wealth of creativity and technical prowess emanating from across the whole continent shows that guitar music is emphatically alive and well.