10 Influential Musicians

The African artists who got the world moving, by Josaya Wasonga

African_children_choir1 Siti Binti Saad
Taarab, Tanzania
From Mtumwa to Mtume. Born in 1880 in Zanzibar, binti Saad was nicknamed ‘Mtumwa’ – Kiswahili for ‘slave’ – by Arabs, many of whom were slave traders. ‘Mtume’ means prophet in Kiswahili– the language binti Saad sang in. African women – let alone ‘barely bondservants’ – weren’t allowed to make music, but with her ‘sauti ya kumtoa nyoka pangoni’ (voice that charms a snake) Mtume changed all that. It’s because of her efforts that women balladeers on East Africa’s coastal strip now strut their taarab stuff, spared male chauvinism. Mtume made an impressive 150 hot gramophone records.

2 Youssou N’Dour
Mbalax, Senegal
If Africa were ever to burst into song it would sound exactly like Youssou N’Dour. Rolling Stone magazine described him as ‘the most famous singer alive.’ N’Dour is the main artist behind the development of a unique style of popular Senegalese music known in the Serer language as Mbalax. Youssou N’Dour’s style is unmistakable; robust, possessive and hounding. The New York Times described his voice as an “arresting tenor, a weapon deployed with prophetic authority,” demonstrating how his voice had slipped into the world’s musical culture as a unique sound from Africa.

3 Mbilia Bel
Congolese Rumba, DRC
It took the introduction of this belle, by Tabu Ley Rochereau in 1981, ostensibly to counter Franco’s influence, to bequeath Africa a prodigy. As fame would have it, Mbilia Bel grew too big for veteran Tabu Ley’s band, Afrisa International, leaving for solo pursuits (talk about creating a monster musician!). Mbilia’s biggest work is Phénoméne – a killer of a debut solo album from the silken soprano. Working with Ringo Star, she gifted us a heritage, although subsequent offerings weren’t all that. Ever the show-woman, Mbilia hasn’t let age slow her down one beat.

4 Angelique Kidjo
World beat, Benin
This diva’s name’s a mouthful. Breathe in … Angelique Kpasseloko Hinto Hounsinou Kandjo Manta Zogbin Kidjo. Her awards, performances, distinctions and magnitude of humanitarian work will also leave you breathless. Born 53 years ago, Angelique isn’t an artiste – she’s an institution. Not just any so-called musician can field questions from Christine Amanpour or David Frost, or hang out with Jay Leno or David Letterman. For ‘Kidjo-lately’, start at one. Check out Logozo. The evergreen serenade, Malaika will woo you. By the time you get to Djin Djin, her defining record, you’ll be a groupie. That is, if you’re not already.

5 K’naan
Hip hop, Somalia
Keynaan Abdi Warsame is the only Somali to ever ‘play’ in the World Cup. His single, Wavin’ Flag – the 2010 football anthem – has been done in myriad versions. Everything from Arabic to Chinese. It also scored listings in about 25 charts. No mean feat. This rapper-poet-singer’s first handle – he contracted it to ‘K’naan’ – means ‘traveller’ in his native Somali. His family fled war-torn Somalia in 1990. They first had a sojourn in New York, before settling in Toronto, Canada. K’naan is now an activist and award-winning artiste, besides working with big-ticket types in showbiz. For a taste of hip hop, sample The Dusty Foot Philosopher. It’s K’naan’s magnum opus.

6 Miriam Makeba
World music, South Africa
With her soubriquet of Mama Africa, this songbird’s star is carved in granite. Living through the adversities of apartheid South Africa, her citizenship was revoked in 1960. Statelessness didn’t blunt her – it turned her into world citizen and equality ambassador-at-large. In a 54-year career Makeba released 23 studio albums, numerous compilations, and tens of singles. Her masterwork is the 1967 release Pata Pata. It reached number 12 on Billboard. The cover title has multiple versions.
Artistes were born to do their thing. Only a chosen few exit the stage with songs on their lips. Makeba died in 2008, moments after performing in Italy. Makeba’s influence is unrivalled. Period. From screens, to humanitarian endeavours, to awards, to nifty numbers, Mama Africa – just like her namesake – is still breathing.

7 François Luambo Makiadi
Congolese Rumba, DRC
In his heyday Franco was the go-to songsmith for everybody – president, pauper. Even Pope. The ‘sorcerer of the (lead) guitar’, with gargantuan gait and sonorous vocals, entrenched the capital of African music in Kinshasa, Zaire. Gifted protégés whom his TP OK Jazz churned out – and the usual copycats – continue blazing the rumba trail long after his death in 1989. ‘Le Grande Maitre’ taught himself how to play the guitar, composing a love song by the age of 13. Thereafter, it was all making music and history – and boy, did he do both! Franco released over 150 albums. Narrative tracks, like the all-fans’ favourites Mario and Mamou, run for nine blissful lifetimes. Let’s talk influence. Real rumba influence. You need look no further than fly-by-night Congolese bands (and bards) to see the Franco effect. Or the Franco wannabes.

8 Salif Keita
Afro-pop, Mali
The album cover of Moffou – Salif Keita’s 2002 release – pictures the crooner in traditional garb. Barefoot. Looking reflectively to one side. His bògòlanfini top is slightly blown by a breeze, his back against a plateau. That’s the feel of Moffou. Reflective. Wistfully breezy. Elemental, or, if you like, barefoot beats. Moffou is Salif’s redemptive record after several previous bombs. It was featured in Tom Moon’s book 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die. And you thought you already had enough stuff in your bucket list. Salif isn’t just any Keita. He has blue blood pumping in his veins. Still, his albinism led to him being ostracised by his family. That notwithsanding, he claims direct descent from Sundiata Keita, founder of the Mali Empire. Salif turned challenge into ‘change’. His golden tenor not only sings our stories, but also hollers, globally, for hot-button issues.

9 Abdel Halim Hafez
Classical Arab, Eqypt
First, some facts about this Julio Iglesias lookalike. Versatile composer. Sold-out concerts. Nearly 120 songs to his name. Philanthropist. Outselling other Arab musicians. All that, and he rarely released a studio record. Hafez’s sprightly live performance of his classical Qariat Al Fingan (The Coffee Fortune Teller) in his trademark rich baritone, will take you ‘there’. Or, if you’re like me, straight to language school so you can learn what a fortune teller’s got to do with this crooner’s perkiness. Hafez died in 1977, yet his music was the ‘soundtrack’ for the real-life televised movie, the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. Which is ironic, because he hobnobbed with presidents. Previously, Jay Z sampled Hafez’s Khosara for his track Big Pimpin’. That’s my posthumous Arab and rap revolutionary. Small wonder this humble brother is called the “King of Arab Music”.

10 African Children’s Choir
Choral, Multi-national
This group’s genesis was a godsend. 19-doggone-84. Awful year for Africa. Irish humanitarian gives Ugandan boy a lift. The former’s got inner personal turmoil; the latter’s caught in a civil war. Boy starts singing. Bulb lights atop Ray Barnett’s bean. The rest is, well, history. This rainbow choir now draws kids from Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria and Rwanda. They’ve performed in major arenas to big cheese, raising dough and hope for African kids’ causes. Just goes to show that our ‘overseas’ solutions are, after all, right before our plain old noses. On a scale of one to 25, I’ll swing these angels a well-deserved 28. That’s how long – in calendar years – that they’ve been doing their singing and saving. It’s a ‘revolving door’. Some exit, others join. Which means we’re in it for the longest haul.