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5 African musical icons you need to know

By
Editorial Staff

Written by Buhlebenkosi Chinhara

From innovative maestros to powerhouse vocalists -- these are the most prominent and influential acts from the African continent.

Hear: Miriam Makeba, Fela Kuti, Cesaria Evora, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Amadou and Mariam and more!

As excellent and as accomplished as they are, there’s so much more to the musical icon canon than the likes of Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson and the Beatles. It’s particularly rewarding to cast one’s ear farther afield than North America or the UK, and dig into the overlooked, pioneering artists of Africa.

Too often, Africa’s many musical geniuses and superstar performers are relegated by mainstream media into the catch-all category of "world music." But CBC Music has compiled a list of five iconic African artists whose work has changed the world, and whose roots must be acknowledged and named as central components of the global music landscape.


Fela Kuti (1938-1997)

As the man who coined the genre Afrobeat — and who also mastered it — Nigerian-born Fela "Anikulapo" Kuti etched his name in the plaque of musical greats over the course of his lifetime. Kuti’s horn-laden, foot-stomping style spread throughout West Africa in the '60s and ’70s, eventually garnering international attention from the likes of Paul McCartney and James Brown. Kuti has also been cited by David Matthews — former arranger and band leader of the aforementioned Brown — as a source of inspiration for some of Matthews' earlier recordings with the legendary Bootsy Collins.

In 1969, a 10-month trip to Los Angeles would ignite Kuti’s passion for political activism, changing the way the musician used his art. He witnessed firsthand the rapidly growing Black Panther movement, and was also exposed to the work of Malcolm X, Angela Davis and other young Black Americans involved in the civil rights movement. The experience inspired a sense of urgency and defiance in the songwriter, which we see demonstrated in his music and activism from the '70s onward.

Kuti’s influence can still be felt in contemporary music, with hip-hop artists frequently sampling Afrobeat, and bands like New York’s Antibalas keeping the '70s genre alive and well.

Amadou & Mariam (1954 to present; 1958 to present)

Known as “the magic couple,” the Grammy-nominated husband-and-wife duo Amadou & Mariam have a storybook origin tale. The two met in 1975 while attending the Bamako Institute for the Young Blind in Mali, where they both grew to take on central roles in the institute’s artistic programs. After getting married in 1980, the couple decided to join creative forces and have since collaborated with the likes of Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, and the two opened for Coldplay during their 2009 tour.

The Malian couple calls its sound “African-based music mixed with spices of blues and rock. It’s warm, joyful. It’s party music with some messages.” The warm, joyful motif carries over to the duo’s visuals and performance attire — intricate African prints and vibrant pops of colour.

Miriam Makeba (1932-2008)

It’s difficult to speak about African icons, in musical terms and otherwise, without mentioning Zenzile Miriam Makeba, whose name has virtually become synonymous with the classification. Affectionately nicknamed “Mama Africa” by her admirers, Makeba was a South African singer, actress, civil rights activist and United Nations goodwill ambassador whose career was filled with accolades ranging from the music world to the diplomatic sphere.

Makeba’s career began in 1953 with an otherwise all-male South African band named the Cuban Brothers, singing jazz as well as traditional African and Western song covers. But it was her time spent in exile overseas when Makeba's success truly began. After meeting and hitting it off with Harry Belafonte in London, the pair performed together at Belafonte’s legendary Carnegie Hall concerts. A double album of the performances was released in 1960, earning them a Grammy. Her song “Pata Pata” then became a smash hit in the United States in 1967.

Mulatu Astatke (1943 to present)

The renowned Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke defaulted on an engineering education to pursue music, and his impressive catalogue serves as evidence that this was a wise decision. Like Kuti, Astatke took it upon himself to create a new genre of music, which he dubbed Ethio-jazz. The vibraphone-infused style is partly informed by Mulatu’s exposure to Latin jazz while studying music in the United States, and it has in turn served as inspiration for musicians and artists alike.

In pop culture, you can find Astatke’s music acting as an unassuming yet impactful frame for contemporary works: his music has been sampled extensively in hip-hop by the likes of K’naan, Nas, Damian Marley, Common and Kanye West, and Astatke's songs have been used on numerous film soundtracks, most notably 2005’s Broken Flowers, featuring Bill Murray.

Cesaria Evora (1941-2011)

Dubbed “the barefoot diva” for her propensity to perform without shoes, this Cape Verdean singer is the queen of morna music — a uniquely Cape Verdean genre — and has received international acclaim, once winning the Grammy Award for best contemporary world music album.

Evora’s singing career began when a friend of hers persuaded her to sing at a sailor’s tavern in her home city of Mindelo, Sao Vicente, at the age of 16. In the '60s she began singing in the Portuguese cruise ships that stopped in Mindelo, and also received airplay on the local radio. Her success steadily grew, and she began receiving attention in France and across the world Today, she is the only Cape Verdean to receive knighthood from the French Legion of Honour.

For more essential African artists, be sure to tune into CBC Music’s African Icons stream:

From innovative maestros to powerhouse vocalists -- these are the most prominent and influential acts from the African continent.

Hear: Miriam Makeba, Fela Kuti, Cesaria Evora, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Amadou and Mariam and more!

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Dangerous woman: a conversation with the formidable Lila Downs

First Play Live: Boogat, San Cristobal Baile Inn

Alex Cuba to Boogat: listen to past Juno winners for world music album of the year