Americans have this bad habit of lumping all non-English music into this one big genre called “World Music.” This year (as is the case every year), if you glance at “2017 Best World Music” lists, you’ll see that West African musicians dominate the genre.
Here are a few of my favorite West African albums that came out this year. There are a couple longtime favorites of mine (Amadou et Mariam, Tinariwen), but I was introduced to a lot of new artists in 2017.
Another trend I noticed this year is West Africans who are immigrants (or children of immigrants) making music that is a fusion of their family’s traditional tunes and their new homeland’s.
Les Amazones d’Afriques – République Amazone
Les Amazones d’Afrique is the ultimate African women’s supergroup. It is comprised of famed Malian jelimuso and kora player Kandia Kouyaté, Beninese diva Angélique Kidjo, Mariam Doumbia (of Amadou & Mariam fame), Nigerian hip-hop artist Nneka, Gabonese afro-fusion singer Pamela Badjogo, and seven other popular West African female singers.
Despite coming from different musical traditions across the continent, what they all have in common is the experience of the being a woman in the male-centric West African cultures. And they make sure they address the issues that African women face when it comes to abuse, prejudice, and oppression. Take a listen to “I Play the Kora” below and pay attention to its uncompromising lyrics.
Amadou & Mariam – La Confusion
This blind Malian couple has been cranking out optimistic Afropop tunes for decades but in the last decade they’ve been on a tear – releasing one incredible album after another.
La Confusion keeps their hot streak going with a record full of music meant to be danced to. The lead single “Bofou Safou” is a reference to young Malian men who prefer to dance in clubs all night instead of work in the day. Even the depressing verses of the title track are tossed out for a peppy bridge that echoes “May the whole world dance, dance, dance … move, move, move … sing, sing, sing!”
Trio Da Kali & Kronos Quartet – Ladilikan
What genius dreamed up pairing Malian griots with the Kronos Quartet? Give that human a high-five for me! The combination of the string quartet’s violins, viola and cello with the Malian balafon, lute and griot works perfectly.
Oumou Sangaré – Mogoya
I had never heard of Sangaré before this year but apparently she is quite the legend. They call her “the song bird of Wassoulou” and since the 80s she has defined the sound of popular music in southern Mali. In this comeback album, she enlisted European producers to polish up her tracks and make them shine. One thing she didn’t change was her longstanding habit of addressing difficult and controversial topics in her lyrics such as suicide, the dangers of West Africans migrating to Europe, and the loss of trust in her homeland due to political unrest.
Ibibio Sound Machine – Uyai
Pitchfork said that if you crossed ’70s Nigerian highlife with LCD Soundsystem you get something like Ibibio Sound Machine. I love how clean and crips the production quality is without compromising that wonderful West African pop sound.
UK-based Nigerian lead singer Eno Williams’ voice shines against an edgy Afro-Electro soundscape that just makes me grin when I listen to their tunes.
Tinariwen – Elwan
Honestly, this eighth studio album is just Tinariwen doing Tinariwen and doing it well. By now they are confident in their famed desert blues rock but they don’t come across as pretentious – just authentic.
I’ve heard that guitarists Kurt Vile and Matt Sweeney collaborated with them on this album but I can’t hear their guitars standing out or stealing the show at all. And that’s a good thing. Those fellas are good in their own right but I don’t want anyone taking away from those droning Saharan rhythmic guitars.
Tamikrest – Kidal
Tamikrest is another Tuareg band from Mali/Algeria like Tinariwen. Their sound differs a bit from their mentors but their cause – indepedence for the Tuareg – is shared. Many of their songs deal with the great disappointment the Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali back in 2012. Just when they thought they had a chance at freedom, their revolt was hijacked by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim). Strict sharia law was imposed and musicians like Tamikrest were outlawed.
Kidal is a reference to the city that was the center of the failed 2012 revolt and the hometown of many Tamikrest band members. The album has a somber feel to it and my heart aches a little when I listen to it.
Sampha – Process
Born to Sierra Leonean immigrants and raised in the UK, Sampha Sisay is a producer who gained considerable recognition working on projects with Drake, Solange, FKA Twigs, The XX. Process is his first album and offers a raw expression of emotions as he deals with the loss of his mother to cancer and the changes in his life due to his newfound fame. It’s beautiful, heavy and doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before.
Moses Sumney – Aromanticism
This is one of my favorite albums of the year but probably the least West African sounding.
Sumney was born to Ghanaian parents in the US but returned Ghana at age 10 for several years. He openly admits that the transition was a difficult one but it has certainly influenced him. The record is a dreamscape that is a bit Bon Iver, a bit Gallant, and a bit James Blake. He layers his incredible falsetto voice and builds luxurious harmonies that echo amongst sparse instrumentation. It’s so soothing.