It is a truism that the drum is the heart and soul of African music. But in recent years, guitarists have redefined the sound of the continent. Our reviewer Banning Eyre says new releases by Zimbabwean guitarist, Louis Mhlanga, and a group called the African Guitar Summit are proof African guitar music is now a genre onto itself.

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BANNNING EYRE: If you didn't know Africa is a hot bed of six-string wizardry, don't feel bad. Until recently, world-class pickers in places like Kinshasa, Congo, and Bamako, Mali; not to mention rural South Africa or beach towns of Madagascar also knew little about one another. Africans have long been divided by history and geography, but these days, the guitarists of Africa are meeting - and in some unusual places. A few years ago, six of them came together in a studio at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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EYRE: This is the African Guitar Summit with their second CD, a honey pot of picking and riffing that's as African as any ancestral drum rhythm. There are three guitarists on this track, Donne Robert and Madagascar Slim - both from Madagascar; Pa Joe from Ghana; and on bass, Mighty Popo from Uganda. Oddly enough, the style of music they're playing comes from somewhere else entirely, the Congo. And that says a lot about the new dialogue going on among African guitarists.

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EYRE: The guitar first came to African port cities in the hands of Portuguese sailors centuries ago. But it wasn't until the 20th century that guitar bands became the norm in African cities. The Congolese sound, which began as an imitation of popular Cuban records eventually trumped all competitors crashing through language and cultural barriers with dance drive and melodious guitar arranging. The African Guitar Summit go back still further when they hit the highlife sound, which swept through West Africa starting in the 1930s.

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EYRE: African Guitar Summit also taps into more idiosyncratic guitar genres, as in this brooding, Mandin song, led by Alpha Yaya Diallo of Guinea.

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EYRE: It took the vantage point of a Canadian city for this six African axmen to realize how much they had in common. But guitarists on the continent are also making connections. Growing up in Zimbabwe, guitarist Louis Mhlanga was not exposed to such a broad range of African styles. But in the early '90s, he moved on to the more cosmopolitan South African jazz scene and things started to click.

Mhlanga's new album "World Traveler" includes guest spots by West African pickers. And it's another example of African guitarists finding common ground. Listen to Mhlanga mixing it up with BARTHELEMY ATTISSO of Senegal's Orchestra Baobab. Once again, the Latin strain that runs through so much African pop music comes to the fore.

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EYRE: It's great that African guitarists are finally connecting, but it would be a shame if the edgy originality of their local styles get softened into a kind of Pan-African mush. The rhythms, modes and sound textures that make African guitar styles so satisfying are fragile; too much tinkering and the magic can evaporate. The African Guitar Summit and Louis Mhlanga play at this exciting and dangerous edge. At their best, they make a powerful case for the guitar as the signature instrument of modern Africa.

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SIEGEL: Banning Eyre is senior editor of He reviewed "African Guitar Summit II" and Louis Mhlanga's "World Traveler."

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NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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