Music

A history of African electronic music in 10 essential tracks

© Santiago Borthwick
From the 1970s to now, this suite of tracks from across the continent prove that Africa has a long tradition of experimental, body-moving electronic composition.
Written by Phillip WilliamsPublished on
Traditionally, plenty has stood in the way of an African musician hoping to make a splash on the world stage. The continent’s sheer size and lack of music industry infrastructure has meant that even pioneering musicians have often toiled in obscurity, unknown outside their communities.
Still, this kind of isolation often breeds a can-do attitude, and over the years, countries like Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa have proven remarkable breeding grounds for a remarkable array of new sounds and styles. In a connected, social media age, it’s easier than ever for localised sounds to find their way to a mass audience. In the last decade alone, music from Egypt’s electro chaabi scene, to the g’qom sound of South Africa and long-lost music unearthed by labels like Awesome Tapes From Africa and Analog Africa have thrilled dancefloors and collectors alike.
Read on for a quick-fire dash through the history of African electronic music in 10 tracks, touching on Cameroon, South Africa, Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo… but first, let’s stop at Nigeria.

William Onyeabor – Good Name

A self-made musician from the Nigerian town of Enugu, William Onyeabor – or “The Chief”, as he was known – recorded a string of exceptional electro-funk records throughout the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Onyeabor attained a sort of mythic quality among his people, to the extent that many didn’t believe he actually existed – something to do, perhaps, with his rather unlikely biography; he ran his own music pressing plant, ran a successful flour mill and food processing business, became a born-again Christian, and was even chairman of his local football team, The Enugu Rangers. A 2013 film, Who Is William Onyeabor? finally placed him in the spotlight, and saw his music reinterpreted by a number of famous fans including David Byrne, Damon Albarn and Hot Chip.

Francis Bebey – Super Jungle

A restless soul and a rare intelligence, Francis Bebey had already worked as a sculptor, attended the Sorbonne in Paris, and studied journalism and media studies at NYU when he started making music in the late 1960s. Blending influences from Western electronic composition and the makossa music popular in the cities of his native Cameroon, Bebey’s early experiments in synthesized music – collected on the highly recommended compilation African Electronic Music 1975-1982 – must have sounded unprecedented at the time and still sounds pretty avant-garde today.

Zazou, Bikaye + Cy1 – Lamuka

Noir Et Blanc must have sounded like a spaceship landing when it came out on Crammed Discs in 1983. Congo-born musician Bony Bikaye was living in Belgium and making a record with a traditional soukous band when he struck up a conversation with the French producer Hector Zazou. Discussing their shared love of Stockhausen and krautrock, Zazou arranged further recording sessions with electronic musicians Guillaume Loizillon and Claude Micheli. The result is this strange, futuristic record – a sort of African Kraftwerk that sets Bikaye’s deep, soulful vocal amongst mechanised rhythms, metallic textures, steel guitar and kalimba.

Ata Kak – Obaa Sima

Ata Kak at Awesome Tapes From Africa
Ata Kak at Awesome Tapes From Africa
In 2006, New Yorker Brian Shimkovitz started a blog called Awesome Tapes From Africa, dedicated to rediscovering and posting obscure African music that he tracked down from street vendors while studying in Ghana, west Africa. The very first post on his blog was this gem – a bouncy, upbeat mix of highlife, disco and rap with an effervescent spirit that easily transcends its simplistic, lo-fi recording style. The cassette wasn’t new – in fact it had been released 12 years earlier. But when the tracks met with huge reception, Shimkovitz set out to track down Ata Kak – real name Yaw Atta-Owusu – who was now based in Ontario, Canada. Now, Ata Kak is touring the world – in large part to a post on a MP3 blog.

Konono No.1 – Lufuala Ndonga

Konono No.1 were formed in their native Kinshasa way back in 1966, but the wider world didn’t hear of their existence until their 2004 album Congotronics. The group’s instrumentation is an impressive feat of can-do invention – three electric likembe thumb pianos, plus percussion salvaged from junkyards and a mobile amplification device built out of a car generator. From such humble beginnings, Konono No.1 – now led by founder Mingiedi Mawangu’s grandson Makonda – make a funky electronic racket that’s won them fans from Bjork to The Simpsons’ Matt Groening.

DJ Mujava – Township Funk

Throughout the ‘10s, Africa has bred a number of inventive dance music styles, often made by amateur laptop musicians on cracked software. Township Funk was an early example of this style. A rugged, lo-fi mix of kwaito rhythms and nagging electronic melodies, it was licensed by Warp Records – who in the track no doubt saw something of their early bleeps-and-bass sensibility – and blew up worldwide, finding its way into record boxes of everyone from Gilles Peterson to David Guetta. Unfortunately, Mujava – a producer from the poor rural township of Atteridgeville in west Pretoria – would never capitalise on his success; aside from a handful of collaborations with fellow Pretorian producer DJ Spoko, none of his other tracks have made it out into the world.

D’banj – Oliver Twist

Afrobeats – a modern fusion of pop, hip-hop and West African styles like hiplife and highlife – is everywhere right now; in the hands of artists like Wizkid or Burna Boy, it’s a true global sound that effortlessly crosses borders. One of the father of the style is D’banj. After a decade’s graft in his native Nigeria, he signed to Kanye West's G.O.O.D Music in 2011 and scored a global hit with Oliver Twist, a thumping Afro-house track that showed off a keen eye for the ladies. It cracked the UK Top 10, perhaps aided by the video that featured a bunch of his famous labelmates – Big Sean, Pusha T and Kanye himself.

DJ Lag – Ice Drop

DJ Lag se produira au Confort Moderne à Poitiers pour le Red Bull Music Tour 2018 en France.
DJ Lag
Where DJ Mujava laid the ground, other South African producers would soon follow. Around the early ‘10s, a new sound, G’qom – pronounced with a click consonant on the ‘q’ – grew out of the Durban townships. Like Township Funk, much g’qom is relatively spartan in form, characterised by hollowed-out atmospheres, droning synths, and propulsive percussion. It’s also – as you’ll see from DJ Lag’s Ice Drop, one of the stand-out tracks of the genre – a compulsively danceable sound, with its own distinctive moves, such as the gwara gwara. Part of g’qom’s success is down to its adaptability. Easy to mix into a broad-minded techno or dubstep set, its spread across global dancefloors has been a wonder to observe.

Tsheto Boys – Nwa Pfundla

Yes, this is the third track from South Africa in this rundown – but it would be wrong to wrap a list like this without touching on Shangaan electro. Shangaan electro is effectively a one-man genre – the work of a sometime mobile phone repair man named Richard Mthethwa, aka Nozinja, from the rural Limpopo province. Once heard, it’s never forgotten: a quirky electronic sound that takes gossamer-light percussion and pushes it up to unfeasibly quick tempos – 170bpm, 180bpm, sometimes even more. To this, add to this soulful, romantic choruses by Nozinja and his collaborators, and some charming lo-fi videos in which Shangaan locals dress up in traditional dress or clown suits and bust out some incredible footwork.

Nihiloxica – Kadodi

The African percussion group play live at Red Bull Music Festival London.
Nihiloxica
Nihiloxica are emblematic of the sort of cross-border exchange that’s becoming more and more common as Western musicians build links with Africa, and vice-versa. A collaboration between British drummer Spooky-J, synth player Peter Jones and a seven-piece Bugandan percussion group named the Nilotika Cultural Ensemble, Nihiloxica make a head-spinning racket, broiling electronics fired through ferocious African drum patterns. Nihiloxica’s music sees the light of day on Nyege Nyege Tapes, a Kampala-based label run by Arlen Dilsizian and Derek Debru dedicated to unearthing under-the-radar sounds from across Uganda.