The best new music releases out of Africa in 2009 reveal two strong trends. First, the whole notion of blues and rock intermingling with their ancestral precursors in West Africa continues to yield fruit, and the blends just keep getting better. The Tuareg electric-guitar-based band Tinariwen beat out Bob Dylan and Grizzly Bear for the 2009 Uncut Music Award, and theirs is not a crossover record. These nomadic poets are simply doing what they do, and rock fans are paying attention as never before. African rock has emerged as a credible genre. This year, Mali alone has produced a stack of noteworthy releases with overt rock connections, and two make this list.
New uses of technology provide the other big story in African music, as hybrids of tradition and techno turn a new generation of listeners on to Africa. The group The Very Best consists of Swedish and French DJs who mix beats and vocal tracks to fill out compositions by a Malawian singer.
On his new album, Television, Senegalese star singer Baaba Maal has produced a reflective, techy sound unlike anything in his long history. And K'Naan — the leading light of African rap these days — is mixing up samples from classic reggae and '70s Ethiopian pop in highly contemporary, genre-bashing tracks that address, even challenge, mainstream hip-hop audiences, which have so far shown little interest in their African peers. Meanwhile, the creators of the Congotronics franchise have uncovered a remarkable band of street musicians in Kinshasa, Congo: Staff Benda Bilili, whose lineup includes a homemade, one-string, electric violin that sounds like a Theremin on uppers.
Meanwhile, some of my favorite new work out of Africa comes from veteran artist doing yeoman's work. Algeria's Khaled and Mali's Oumou Sangare have weathered the push and pull of any number of fads, but their new recordings place the emphasis on traditional sounds, vocal excellence, and the power of sticking with a core idea, while judiciously partaking of modernity. In the end, that might be what great African art is really all about, and of all the fine music on this list, Khaled's Liberté and Sangare's Seya are the two I feel most confident will stand the test of time.
Click here for more entries in NPR Music's ongoing look at 2009's best.