African Singers

African singers are becoming more popular in the West and certain African artists such as Salif Keita and Sade are already out in front.

Twenty years ago you would have been hard-pressed to find a wide variety of world music in the aisles of the biggest record stores. Music from outside the American or European mainstream was usually relegated to a small corner of the store. Even then most ethnic artists were best found at small, specialized stores. But a variety of factors from globalization to a modernization of traditional non-Western music have increased the popularity of world music today. The most dramatic change is seen in the rising dominance of Latino music, but it isn't the only type of music taking up more room in the music store aisles. African music is becoming a trend as well, and certain African artists such as Salif Keita, Sade, and Papa Wembe are already out in front.

Born an albino in Mali, West Africa, Salif Keita had intentions of becoming a teacher. But unemployment was high in Mali during the 1970s, and Salif made his living playing in local bands. His big break in Africa came when he joined the government sponsored Rail Band. By 1973 he was working with a group called Les Ambassadeurs and was awarded the National Order of Guinea by President Ahmed Sekou Traore.

Africanmusic.org, an African music information repository, describes Salif's music as a blend of griot and West African influences with Islamic overtones. Griots are traditional Malian singers who tell the history of their patrons through song. Griots usually sing at family celebrations such as weddings. For a culture without a strong written tradition, their songs serve as a verbal history of the family lineage.

But the flavor of Salif's music has been influenced by other cultures as well. Salif switched to Les Ambassadeurs because they were playing a wider range of music. Malian political unrest in the 1980s forced Les Ambassadeurs to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast. Salif eventually settled in Paris and launched a solo career. The blend of hi-tech Euro pop with his more traditional Africa lyrics made his music an instant hit across Europe. He recently composed a song on the soundtrack to Patricia Rozema's film adaptation of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. His album "Papa" was also nominated for Best World Music Album at the 42nd annual Grammy awards.

Although Salif is based in Paris, his music has not abandoned its traditional African roots. Salif's band continues to play with traditional Malian instruments such as the balafone and the kora. While living in France, Salif has had the opportunity to mix with other notable African musicians like Tabu Ley Rochereau and Mana Dibango. And the Montreiul quartier where he lives, is home to 15,000 Malians to remind him of home.

Another African artist whose popularity has transcended borders is Sade. Sade was originally born Helen Folsade Adu in Nigeria, West Africa to a Nigerian father and an English mother. When she was still young, Sade returned to live with her mother in London. Although she grew up in London, African rhythms still influenced her. These influences, though, came from America in the form of Ray Charles, Al Green, and Aretha Franklin. Sade's direct connection to Africa may not be as strong as other African artists, but the influence still comes through in her highly lyrical style. Much like Malian griot singers, Sade's music always tells a story.

In the early 1980s, Sade retreated to Madrid to escape the pressures of fame but has recently returned to the music scene. As testimony to her worldwide popularity, Sade's concerts are always sold out in places as diverse as Australia, Japan and the United States.

For Africans, some of the best music the continent has to offer comes from its heart - the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly known as Zaire). The flavor of central, tropical Africa is captured in the music of Papa Wembe. Papa mixes the Congolese African folklore, known as soukous, with a bit of Cuban rhumba to create a unique style known as "Rhumba Rock". Papa's music was first noticed in Kinshasa in the 1970s. With his band, Zaiko Langa Langa, Papa was instrumental in introducing western drums and vocal styles to Congolese music.

Papa's influences come from his Congolese roots, but also from the African Diaspora such as North American funk and R&B. His unique style has influenced western artists, as well. In order to reach wider audiences, Papa relocated to Paris. His music attracted the attention of Peter Gabriel who invited Papa to join him on his Secret World Tour. Annie Steinhardt, the bass and fiddle player for Pele Julu, cites Papa as one of her top music choices. And Papa was selected to compose the music for Jose Laplaine's 1996 film Macadam Tribu.

The rise in African music, and ethnic music in general, has much to do with globalization. Satellites might beam MTV into households around the world, but ethnic communities living abroad still cling to their roots. Successful African artists like Salif Keita, Sade and Papa Wembe have found the right blend of traditional and modern influences. In essence, their music has become a true world language.

Sources: www.africanmusic.org , www.putamayo.com

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