First Impressions: African Blues

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Africa is often cited as the home of the blues, both spiritually and musically. Listening to African Blues is an intense and powerful experience, whether that be through the passion of the vocals or the rawness of the music. It’s a diverse genre and can be divided into many different sub-genres; because of this, it’s difficult to give the genre one simple definition. However, what you can expect to hear throughout is an emphasis on the importance of its African roots, and instruments such as the djembes, kora, akonting, mbira and the shekere, that play a vital role in showcasing the power and beauty of the genre.

A notable figure in African Blues is Ali Farka Touré. He’s not just influential in African music, but made global prominence winning three Grammy’s in the world music category. Even though Touré passed away in 2006, his music has had a lasting impact, as evident by the inclusion of his track ‘Bèrèbèrè’ in Marvel’s 2018 movie Black Panther. In Touré’s final album Savane, before his passing to bone cancer, we are greeted with some of his best work. The title track is remarkable; the simplistic, repetitive guitar plays quietly in the background as we are made to focus on Touré’s raspy vocals accompanied by the electric guitar and kora. Though Touré may be gone, his music is alive, and his presence fills the atmosphere whenever it’s played.

The diverse nature of African Blues can be seen through the work of Fatoumata Diawara, a Malian vocalist who is known for her sensual textures and raspy voice, which is a common trait for many African singers. Diawara sings in Bambara, and like Touré, is becoming known on an international scale. Her music mixes modern elements with Wassoulou traditions. This is heard on ‘Sowa’ and ‘Kokoro’ where she mixes a variety of instruments to create a completely new and unique sound. This is what sets Diawara’s music apart from other artists in the African Blues genre; she adds new components and often experiments with her sound. Just listen to the differences of her Fatou record in 2011 to her Fenfo record in 2018 to see what I mean. Diawara’s experimentation has led to her most recent collaboration with British electronic band Disclosure on ‘Douha (Mali Mali)’ which is a joyous ode to Mali – her place of origin. Diawara is just one of many examples of how flexible and diverse the genre of African Blues is, and shows us how the genre itself has acted as the foundation of many other genres in popular culture, like hip-hop, go-go and jungle.

In Phizbarz’ music, he uses African Blues’ emotiveness and passion to voice important messages, such as in ‘Mr. Officer’. The song highlights the challenges of Nigerian youths and the mistreatment by police in Nigeria. He also incorporates other elements of African beats like the call-and-response format which sees two phrases, where the second phrase is heard as a direct commentary or response to the first phrase; for instance, in ‘Ifunanya’ which also uses traditional African percussion mixed with Afrobeat influences.

Only a select few of the amazing musicians of African Blues have been mentioned throughout this article, but there are so many that have had a massive impact  both musically and culturally across the globe. African Blues is a beautiful genre which highlights the beginnings of one of the most influential genres in the world. As Touré himself famously said, blues is “nothing but African”.

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Editor 2020/21 and a History student with a Britney Spears addiction.

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