The Best African Music Of 2008

Scroll Down To Hear Songs From All 10 Albums

Kasai Allstars 300

hide captionKasai Allstars.

courtesy of the artist

This has been a strong year for African music, with two big trends emerging. The first is the continuing integration of African music into the U.S. and European mainstream. Nigerian Afrobeat is played in virtually every major Western city these days. Africanized blues and rock acts continue to emerge in the U.S. and the U.K., while African-inspired riffs have turned up in the hands of indie-rock outfits like Vampire Weekend and jam bands like Toubab Krewe. Hip-hop is surging in Africa, but now African rappers in London (Emmanuel Jal) and Toronto (K'Naan) seem to be figuring out how to translate it successfully to the international stage.

The other trend is the ongoing unearthing of treasures from Afropop's "golden era," particularly the '70s. The two compilations included here are exceptional, but hardly alone among this year's offerings. Very tough to choose, but here's my year-end Top 10 (with one wild card).

Click here for more entries in the Best CDs of 2008 series.

Banning Eyre is senior editor at Afropop.org.

The Best African Music Of 2008

Kasai Allstars

1. Kasai Allstars

  • Album: In the 7th Moon, the Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of His Enemy by
  • Song: Mpombo Yetu

This collective draws from members of five traditional ensembles in Congo's central Kasai region. The music has roots in the ancient rituals and celebrations of the bush, but it's also urban because these musicians came together in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, and incorporate electric guitar and bass alongside metallic hand pianos, wooden xylophones, slit drums and other percussion instruments. The band's producers call the sound Congotronics. I call it mesmerizing musical sorcery.

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  • "Mpombo Yetu"
  • Album: In the 7th Moon, the Chief Turned Into a Swimming Fish and Ate the Head of His Enemy by
  • Artist: Kasai Allstars
  • Label: Crammed Disc
  • Released: 2008
 
Chiwoniso

2. Chiwoniso

  • Album: Rebel Woman
  • Song: Kurima

Chiwoniso is one of the most powerful vocalists to emerge from Africa in recent years. Born to musical Zimbabwean parents in the U.S., she returned to Zimbabwe to make her career. Her second release, four years in the making, honors the sacred tradition of the mbira (a hand piano used in Shona religious ceremonies). But it also marshals the confidence and nuance of jazz, pop and R&B -- styles Chiwoniso has absorbed during her bi-cultural journey.

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  • "Kurima"
  • Album: Rebel Woman
  • Artist: Chiwoniso
  • Label: Cumbancha
  • Released: 2008
 
Seun Kuti

3. Seun Kuti & Egypt 80

  • Album: Many Things
  • Song: Many Things

The youngest son of the late Nigerian legend Fela Kuti (founder of the funky, expansive Afrobeat sound) does himself proud with this debut. Leading the elders in his father's old band with sprightly rambunctiousness, Seun Kuti hews closer to the classic Afrobeat groove than his more experimental older brother Femi, who also released an excellent new release (Day by Day) this year. With powerhouse bands and bold political rhetoric, the Kuti brothers remain the genre's standard-bearers, despite strong worldwide competition.

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  • "Many Things"
  • Album: Seun Kuti & Egypt 80
  • Artist: Seun Kuti
  • Label: Tot Ou Tard
 
Seprewa Kasa

4. Seprewa Kasa

  • Album: Seprewa Kasa
  • Song: Nkabom

The seprewa is a venerable, gut-stringed harp whose music is part of the DNA of the influential West African dance-band sound "highlife." Kari Banaman, a guitarist with the legendary highlife fusion band Osibisa, heard the seprewa played at a world-music festival in Switzerland in 2002. He went back to Ghana and joined forces with university instructors and seprewa aces Osei Korankye and Baffour Kyerematen, and the result is one of the freshest new sounds from Ghana in years, as well as a treasure of acoustic Afropop.

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  • "Nkabom"
  • Album: Seprewa Kasa
  • Artist: Seprewa Kasa
  • Label: Riverboat
  • Released: 2008
 
Toumani Diabate

5. Toumani Diabate

  • Album: Mande Variations
  • Song: Cantelowes

Toumani Diabate is considered the greatest living master of the 21-string Mande bridge harp, the kora. Here, he returns to the solo format that launched him internationally in 1987, and he lives up to his star billing. These profoundly poised interpretations of Mande traditional repertoire cast a deep spell with understatement and subtlety. Honorable mention goes to his U.S.-based cousin, Mamadou Diabate, whose 2008 solo release Douga Mansa is explosive by comparison -- McCoy Tyner to Toumani's Bill Evans.

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  • "Cantelowes"
  • Album: Mande Variations
  • Artist: Toumani Diabate
  • Label: Nonesuch
  • Released: 2008
 
Orchestra Baobab

6. Orchestra Baobab

  • Album: Made in Dakar
  • Song: Nijaay

This vintage Senegalese band has trafficked in a blend of salsa, West African traditional pop and psychedelia since the early '70s. Its second release since a 2001 reunion finds the veterans in top form. One highlight is a reprise of the 1972 hit "Nijaay," which touts fine clothes and perfume as secrets to a successful marriage, and includes a cameo by Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour.

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  • "Nijaay"
  • Album: Made in Dakar
  • Artist: Orchestra Baobab
  • Label: Nonesuch
  • Released: 2007
 
Emmanuel Jal

7. Emmanuel Jal

  • Album: WARchild
  • Song: Warchild

African rappers have yet to make much headway internationally, but this survivor of Sudan's north-south civil war is well positioned to change that. Emmanuel Jal marshals a brutally frank account of his life as a child soldier and refugee with surprising gentleness. Rich, gospel-fused vocal layers and creative arranging by Jal's London-based Bahamian producer make for one of the most arresting and original African hip-hop releases to date.

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  • "Warchild"
  • Album: WARchild
  • Artist: Emmanuel JAL
  • Label: Sonic360
  • Released: 2008
 
Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara

8. Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara

  • Album: Soul Science
  • Song: Ya Ta Kaaya [I Want to Stay Fresh]

Soul Science is a collaboration between worldly British guitarist/producer Justin Adams and Gambian musician Juldeh Camara, a master of the one-stringed fiddle called ritti. This act is spearheading the U.K. manifestation of the ongoing Africanization of rock 'n' roll. "Yo Ta Kaaya" says it all with its rowdy, re-Africanized take on the Bo Diddley beat.

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  • "Ya Ta Kaaya [I Want to Stay Fresh]"
  • Album: Soul Science
  • Artist: Justin Adams
  • Label: World Village
  • Released: 2007
 
Cover for Francophonic

9. Franco et le Tpok Jazz

  • Album: Francophonic
  • Song: Annie Ngai Nalinga

Franco's preeminence among African bandleaders is beyond dispute. From his first session in 1953 until his death in 1989, he recruited the best singers, composers and instrumentalists in Congo (then Zaire), and his vast catalog is consistently rewarding. This two-CD set is the first installment of an eventual four-disc retrospective. The music traces the emergence of Congolese "rumba" and "soukous," while extensive notes and photos bring the social context and Franco's mercurial personality vividly to life.

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  • "Annie Ngai Nalinga"
  • Album: Francophonic
  • Artist: Franco and le Tpok Jazz
  • Label: Sterns
  • Released: 2008
 
Orchestre Super Jheeves des Paillotes

10. Orchestre Super Jheevs des Paillotes

  • Album: African Scream Contest: Raw & Psychedelic Afro Sounds
  • Song: Ye Nan Lon an

This stunningly thorough and meticulously researched compilation reveals a hidden chapter of 1970s "golden age" West African pop music. This is a world where Cuban and Congolese music and sacred Vodun rhythms merge with James Brown-style funk and its West African cousin, Afrobeat -- the latter two genres in their infancies at the time. The breathless enthusiasm and stylistic quirks of the era reach a pleasing boil in "Ye Nan Lon An."

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  • "Ye Nan Lon an"
  • Album: African Scream Contest: Raw & Psychedelic Afro Sounds
  • Artist: Various Artists
  • Label: Analog Africa
  • Released: 2008
 
Vampire Weekend

11. Vampire Weekend

  • Album: Vampire Weekend
  • Song: Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa

Okay, these recent Columbia grads -- with their peppy, idiosyncratic indie-rock -- hardly qualify as an African band. But their use of African guitar-pop amid a diverse palette of more familiar sonic colors represents a noteworthy advance of Africa into the American mainstream. Plus, this debut CD boasts some of the catchiest and most joyful pop tunes heard this year.

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  • "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa"
  • Album: Vampire Weekend
  • Artist: Vampire Weekend
  • Label: XL
  • Released: 2008
 

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