Azonto, Kuduro, Kwaito: A guide to contemporary African music

Complete guide to contemporary African music, its history, culture and rise in music industries across the world

A complete guide to the history of some African music and its growth

In recent years African music, like the gambling industry (read additional information about betting in Nigeria), has been experiencing an unprecedented rise.

The number of performers from South Africa, Mali, Senegal, Congo and other African countries at major European festivals increases every year. Some of them even enter the European and American charts.

The music industry in Africa has received a significant boost in development thanks to the technology available. Previously, you needed a studio to record a track, which African musicians often did not have the money to rent.

It was impossible to get on the world stage without a local representation of a major label or at least a guest scout. Today a laptop and a couple of controllers are enough to record.

The whole process can be organized in a bedroom or even under the open sky, as long as there is electricity. And to get the song to millions of listeners, YouTube videos are quite enough.

Today's African music grows from two roots:

  • National - musicians, are careful to maintain an identity: language, instruments, traditional rhythmic patterns or harmonies;
  • Modern and technological - electronic arrangements and focus on the club scene.

African music has integrated into the world music space and has built an ideal relationship with global trends - it does not ignore them, but it does not adjust to them in any way, as if to say, "we have something to say without you".

To get a sense of what the music of contemporary Africa is all about, we've put together a brief guide to the most important genres and scenes.


The genre originated in the early 20th century in the British colony of Gold Coast (now Ghana) and is a synthesis of traditional Akan music with the European sound of brass bands, foxtrot, rumba, and calypso - music that came to Africa with the soldiers of the British army of West Indian origin.

Highlife is performed in large ensembles consisting mainly of Western instruments, primarily guitars and brass. The rhythmic pattern of "three strokes, two strokes" tapped by the clave sticks is very similar to the Cuban, but at the same time, it is also similar to the native Africans.

However, the rhythmic patterns of African and Caribbean music have so much in common that these rhythms are collectively called "Afro-Caribbean.

Highlife is associated primarily with the African colonial aristocracy, which is where it got its name, but it reached the peak of popularity after Ghana declared independence in the 60s.


Emerged at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s: it is a synthesis of highlife and fuji (Nigerian music developed from Muslim morning songs "faith") with funk, jazz, and rock.

The creator and main popularizer of Afrobeat was Nigerian composer and multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti. He coined the term back in 1968, and at first, Afrobeat was just a local version of American music.

However, after a trip to the U.S. and interaction with African-American musicians and politicians, Fela Kuti began to pay more attention to its African roots.

Afrobeat was popular far beyond Africa and had a great influence on European and American musicians. Among the long-time fans of Afrobeat (and African music in general), for example, Blur leader Damon Albarn.

In his project, The Good, The Bad And The Queen, Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, a longtime collaborator of Fela Kuti, plays regularly.


This music is popular in Senegal and The Gambia and emerged in the 1970s as a synthesis of religious music of the Serer people with jazz, rock, and Latin American genres like the rumba.

Like most African styles, mbalax is dance music, and percussion and the traditional Sabar drum heads its sounds. However, compared to other African genres, mbalax sounds quite lyrical.

It often has a sung, drawn-out vocals, and the "progressive" clear dance groove is combined with intricate rhythmic patterns and the most complex instrumental parts.

The main popularizer of the genre in Europe was the singer Youssou N'Dour, whom we know primarily from his ballad "7 Seconds". Today, N'Dour is also the face of the Senegalese political opposition.

Despite being rejected as a presidential candidate in 2012, N'Dour became Minister of Culture and advisor to the President.


The South African variety of houses is characterized by a relatively slow tempo, deep bass, active use of African percussion, and vocals or vocal samples.

Kwaito emerged in the mid-1990s in Soweto, a group of settlements in the suburbs of Johannesburg, which during apartheid was an area of forced settlement of the African population.

It is apolitical music, surrounded by crime and promoting the beautiful life (the term itself comes from the word "kwaai," which in Afrikaans slang means something like "cool" or "handsome").