Drums hold a very special place in African history and culture. For much of the world, drums are mainly relegated to the realm of entertainment, adding another musical dimension to songs and other performances. In Africa, drums hold symbolic meanings that have played an important part in the history of the people who call the continent their home. Considered the heartbeat of Africa, they unite the people of the continent, binding their pulses together in rhythm.
Although percussion takes centre stage, this collection also features an array of melodic instrumentation that thrives in such fertile rhythmic conditions. The opener by Wayo is taken from their album Trance Percussion Masters Of South Sudan,and is a celebration of the joy of communal music making, as the beating drums and hypnotic chants summon the ancient polyrhythms of Africa’s newest nation. This track wasn’t made by a soloist, by a band, or even by an orchestra – this was made by a village. During the music-making process, three villagers play the kpaningbo, a large wooden xylophone. Another man sits atop the gugu,a log drum, and alters its pitch by lifting his leg up and down. Other villagers circle around the ensemble, switching in and out to play the drums. Bells and other hand-drums are also passed from person to person at will. This relay race approach to percussive participation adds a tangible fluidity to every riff and figure, the mood and timbre ever changing and ever unique.
In bordering Kenya, the musical revivalists Kenge Kenge have long been guardians and masters of an ancient but living tradition. With a name which roughly translated, means ‘fusion of small, exhilarating instruments’, their music is a return to traditional Luo instruments, from which the ever popular benga beat originally drew its sound. The track ‘Obare Yinda’ is a tribute to Mr Yinda, a benefactor of the band who sacrificed so much to make sure that Kenge Kenge’s music reached out to diverse audiences throughout Kenya and beyond.
Seamlessly infusing his Berber origins with deep gnawa grooves, Simo Lagnawi’s trance-inducing music is an unstoppable expression of freedom and liberation. Now living in the UK, he has travelled across his North African homeland, learning gnawa grooves and ahwash chants from teachers and friends along the way. Gnawa is both an ethnic group and a cultural tradition that can be traced back to the slaves brought to Morocco from sub-Saharan Africa and the ancient empire of Ouagadougou. The krakebs percussion, so omnipresent in gnawa, create the hypnotising clip-clopping sound that loops under the texture. These instruments have their origins in the iron manacles that shackled the slaves together on their ill-fated journey northwards. Simo says, ‘When my mother was pregnant my grandmother dreamed that the baby was playing the krakebs before she even knew if it was a boy or a girl.’
Sotho Sounds are funky shepherds from the kingdom of Lesotho who have quite literally invented their own music, created their own instruments and now continue to follow their own mission – turning junk into funk. The band craft their instruments with aplomb, never stopping to worry about the look of the thing but are solely concerned with the sound. As a result, their thick-layered music features the rich reverberating thud of the drums, the melodious rattling of tin-can guitars and the fuzzed ring of one-string fiddles. Atop the mix, swinging unison vocals bring to mind the hugely popular choral tradition of Lesotho. ‘Ha Kele Monateng’ translates as ‘When I’m Happy’ and is a bright, positive number with catchy call-and-response vocals.
As a nomad of the Toubou tribe, the late Malam Mamane Barka was the world's only remaining master of the harp-like biram. He maintained the tradition single-handedly, bringing the boat-shaped instrument to the world's attention with his own unique blend of desert blues. With the help of percussionist Oumarou Adamou, Mamane Barka released his self-titled and widely acclaimed Introducing Mamane Barka album which pays respect to the spiritual biram, but also gives homage to the traditional percussive instruments of the rich Nigerien culture: the douma (the spiritual drum), the kalangouand the calabash.
Known as "The Princess of mbira", Hope Masike hails from Zimbabwe, and her music draws its inspiration from both traditional and modern African culture. On ‘Zunde’, Hope puts aside her mbira as she journeys into her musical roots with the help of traditional Zimbabwean percussion. Similarly, Baba MD (aka Mamoutou Dembele) is celebrated in his native Mali for mixing Bwa traditional tunes with kora and other Mandingue instrumentation. Although not known outside of his homeland, he featured on the ground-breaking Riverboat Records album Lost In Mali, which highlighted some of the country’s best kept musical secrets.
Long Before the guitar became a popular instrument in West Africa, a range of chordophones (stringed instruments) provided the harmonic and melodic accompaniment for traditional music. One of these was the critically endangered seprewa, which was given a new lease of life by three virtuoso musicians who recorded under the name of Seprewa Kasa. The beautiful track ‘Nkaso’ also features an array of percussive instruments, including the efiritrsewa – a metal clave played with two fingers – and the atumpan, which is a traditional ceremonial African drum that can be found in both a male and female version.