Whilst the origins of stringed African instruments such as the kora and ngoni can be traced back several centuries, the humble six-string guitar only really began making serious inroads into African music during the 20th century. Due to its incredible versatility, it has helped shape many of Africa’s much-loved musical styles such as Congolese soukous, highlife, marrabenta and the desert blues of West Africa and continues to help push the boundaries of the continent’s music.
The album is brought to life by Malian bluesman Samba Touré, a guitar protégé of the legendary guitarist Ali Farka Touré (1939–2006). Now a stellar name in his own right, Samba has created his own style of Songhai blues by adapting his playing from a traditional string instrument setting to an electric guitar, whilst at the same time keeping alive the profound influence of Farka Touré’s guitar wizardry. Likewise, fellow Malian Anansy Cissé’s souped-up guitar distortions re-work the West African desert blues genre with a new, agitated attitude. Accompanied by ngoni, bass and calabash, Cissé’s sound harnesses musical traditions and spits it out anew, a style succinctly described by the title of his 2014 debut album Mali Overdrive.
From neighbouring Niger, Etran Finatawa's hypnotic guitar grooves evoke the breathless heat and shimmering horizon of the Sahara. By bringing together musicians from both the Wodaabe and Tuareg tribes, whose traditional way of life is very much at a crossroads, the band’s music reflects on their roots with a nostalgia and warmth that mirrors the majesty of their desert home. Similarly, the band’s guitarist Alhousseini Anivolla treats us to a sublime solo track ‘Tamiditin’ from his album Anewal/The Walking Man. With a guitar technique related to the ichumar style, which was developed during the 1970s by Tuaregs exiled in Libya, Alhousseini’s music also resonates with the influence of traditional Tuareg stringed instruments used to animate music and dance.
Koo Nimo is something of a cultural treasure from Ghana. Now in his mid-80s, he is one of the last living masters of the palm wine guitar, forerunner of the classic highlife music of West Africa. He also embodies the cultural traditions of the Asante people of central Ghana with his songs that carry the stories of his people. While studying science in the UK in the early 1960s, Koo Nimo became a fan of jazz, classical and flamenco guitar music and began to incorporate these elements into his own work. This musical grounding is very much apparent in his wonderfully named ‘Old Man Plants A Coconut Tree’, a song with a profound meaning about a boy and his ninety-year-old grandfather.
A grand master of the native marrabenta dance rhythm of Mozambique, Dilon Djindji’s pure and heartfelt guitar playing on ‘Maria Teresa’ accompanies his story telling of a man torn between two women. As a twelve-year-old, Djindji built himself a guitar and three years later began performing in public, however it wasn’t until the ripe old age of seventy-five that he made his first international release on the simply named Riverboat Records album Dilon, an innovative collection of recordings that placed marrabenta in a previously unexplored acoustic context.
Shiyani Ngcobo was a sublime guitarist and teacher from South Africa who was a major figure in spreading the popularity of maskanda outside of its homeland of South Africa. This rich musical tradition was born of the Zulu experience of labour migrancy and is a musical dance style typified by lush acoustic guitar picking and distinctive rhythms. Renowned for his brilliance on the home-made igogogo petrol-can guitar, on ‘Ngisizeni’ translated as ‘Can You Help Me?’, Shiyani demonstrates how he is equally at home on a conventional acoustic guitar.
Nuru Kane's many-sided music is part-Moroccan, part-Senegalese, part-blues, part-whatever else he fancies throwing into the mix. Born in Senegal's hustling bustling capital city Dakar, Nuru built his first guitar in his teens, and began to strum and thrust his fishing-wire strings along in rhythm. Recorded totally live in one take, Nuru’s heartfelt and bluesy ‘Gorée’ concerns the infamous Gorée island located just off the coast of Dakar that served as an outpost for slave trading.
Often cited by many as one of the greatest guitar players in Africa, Syran Mbenza grew up listening to the Congolese guitar legend Franco's music and taught himself to play guitar in a similar style. The featured ‘Liwa Ya Franco’ sees Syran’s guitar-playing soar to new heights as he accompanies Ballou Kanta’s beautiful vocals in an epitaph to Franco’s passing.
As this collection proves, the fusion of Western guitars with traditional African instruments, rhythmic structures and musical styles has been a match made in heaven and responsible for some of the most vibrant, exciting, and original music you're ever likely to hear from the African continent.