African Genres

Alan P. Merriam has once divided the African continent into 7 musical regions. A popular share of the 5 Sub-Saharan areas are covered on this website, but the overview below remains a personal selection of musical genres since the independence of African countries.

Azonto is originating from the coastal areas of Ghana and is probably more famous for its dance than music genre. While recently adopted by hip-life artists it is probably the viral Youtube videos that made azonto popular in the diaspora countries and beyond.

Afro-Cuban mostly refers to the blending of Sub Saharan African music with typical Cuban music genres. When brought by African artists, the music has a distinct African timbre, for example when the rumba rhythms – developed out of Cuban son music – are leaning toward Congolese soukous, or when salsa songs are sang in French or indigenous languages.

Coupé Decalé is a popular dance music genre developed by flamboyant Ivorian DJ’s in Paris and Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Its percussive, repetitive and electronic groove is meant for clubs. Coupé decalé literally means ‘cheat and run’, reflecting the lifestyle and attitude of the music. Since 2002 a couple of different coupé decalé waves are being distinguished. 

Desert Blues ranges from old Sahara blues songs to contemporary Malian music easily finding its way to stages in Europe. Singers are sometimes associated with griots, West African praise-singers and storytellers. While dominated by the guitar, company can be joined by calabash, talking drums and balafon.

Funana (Kuduro) has emerged from Cape Verde. Its monotonic upbeat accordion rhythms resemble Caribbean music such as soca, merengue and ripsaw. Especially the more recent electronic beats whip up the dance floor easily. The relatively small population of the archipelago has produced a modest number of artists. In Angola they have a similar genre called Kudoro.

Gospel music is very present in Sub Saharan Africa. Whether in Kenya, South Africa or Nigeria, the motivational Christian songs are not limited to be played on Sundays. The music relates to the African-American style of church music, but with less of the soul and rhythm & blues elements. It can be brought by praise singers, gospel choirs or musical groups, and can have a pop music or reggae kind of sound to it.

Highlife has its roots in early 20th century Ghana. The music is relying a lot on western music instruments, and it is said that its enduring popularity can be traced to the critical ‘cry of the town’ lyrics. Highlife is an important predecessor for Afrobeat (due to its jazz and swing influences) and later, the more urban Hiplife.

Hiplife is a Ghanaian aggregation of highlife and hip hop. The genre is associated with the empowerment of youths. Like rap in the United States, hiplife is a means to help youths create their identity and gain recognition in society. Its origin is contributed to Reggie Rockstone who pioneered the genre in the 1990s. A new generation coming up in this century tended to use their voices and computer-aided arrangements instead of musical instruments.

Kizomba originates from Angola and is influenced by French Caribbean zouk on the one hand and traditional Angolan semba music on the other hand. Songs are predominantly sung in Portuguese or Creole French and often mistaken for zouk, especially since Cape Verdian emigrants started to create the Cola-zouk and Cabo Love genres. The music is characterized by strong electronic and sensual beats with a strong emphasis on the odd counts. The kizomba dance style has popularized the genre heavily in recent years.

Kwaito can be defined as slowed-down South African house music. The genre has sprang in the 1990s and derived its name from the word ‘kwaai’ which translates to angry. Lyrics are often rapped over the percussive beats and loop samples in a garish way. Kwaito is highly popular in the townships

Makossa has grown in Cameroon and developed over the years as the country’s popular genre. The music is similar to soukous, but is inspired by more styles such as rumba and highlife. Electric bass rhythms accompanied by brass instruments are used to create a vibrant and powerful dance music.

Mbalax mainly comes from Senegal and Gambia. The music is a fusion between traditional West African drumming with popular Western music such as jazz, soul and rock. The word mbalax means rhythm in Wolof language, and it is indeed the widely influenced African and Arabic vocalist stylings that make the music so distinctive.

Naija music – literally Nigerian music – is often associated with any popular music that comes out of the country since the turn of the century. It is a mix of R&B  and hip hop with African beats and highlife. Its vast popularity is heavily reliant on the circulation and international exposure via internet.

Reggae took a real hold across the African continent after Bob Marley’s Zimbabwe independence concert (1980), after which two genuine African reggae superstars emerged: Ivory Coast’s Alpha Blondy and South Africa’s Lucky Dube. African reggae often has a major roots reggae taste, but is at its best when joined by indigenous instruments and influences, giving a distinct sound to each individual artist.

Soukous (Kwassa Kwassa, Ndombolo) originated from Cuban Rumba music during the 1940s in Central Africa (mainly Congo). Its prime instrument has been the flowing guitar and its main features a nonstop upbeat pulse accompanied by tantalizing melodies. Related genres are Kwassa Kwassa, popularized by Pepe Kalle and Kanda Bongo Man, as well as Ndombolo, a fast soukous infusion currently dominating the dance floors. The Soukous music genre might be the most propagated and influential African music genre.

Zoblazo is a musical style from Côte d’Ivoire, first created in the 1990s. It is a cosmopolitan popular dance music with up-tempo rhythms and high tech instrumentation. It contains a mixture of traditional dance rhythms from southern Ivory Coast. Zoblazo music has been pioneered by Frederic Desire Ehui, best known as Meiway.

Zouglou, like Zoblazo is a style of music originated from Ivory coast during the 1990s. The dance oriented genre is initially associated with the student movement for democratization in Abidjan and achieved international renown thanks to Magic System.

Zouk in Africa has been injected into many countries by the Caribbean group Kassav. The African zouk beat is a slow-quick-quick and the music is characterized by straightforward harmonies and (romantic) lyrics.