While visiting New York, I heard about Bembe for live, globally-influenced music. My partner and I were staying in the Greenpoint/ Williamsburg area, near all my favorite eateries in this delicious part of Brooklyn, and we opted to walk the 1.3 miles to Bembe. We might not always walk that far for a night out in LA, but I loved that in NY, we didn’t think twice.
We found it to be a small, packed, lively spot with a band just finishing their set, followed by a set from DJ Mickey Perez. With the very first song, I was enthralled by the unmistakable sounds of Tuareg guitar, set to a lilting, groovy beat. Frantically Shazam’ing while swaying, I learned the song was Philou Louzolo’s remix of “Ansari” by Tartit. While Tartit hails from the Timbuktu region of Mali (where I’ve traveled for its transportive, soul-stirring music), Philou has Dutch nationality and Congolese, Nigerian and Sierra Leonean ancestry. Awesome.
We shimmied to a fun mix of African and Latin sounds, surrounded by legitimate salsa and cumbia dancers, break dancers, and one young guy in a Mets jersey whose booty-shaking was more shameless than polished, but still fun to watch. The party was going strong. We didn’t last quite long enough to close the place down at 4 a.m., but left thoroughly satisfied.
Besides the night out that yielded new Shazams, tired feet and epic NY people-watching, the diversity of Bembe’s offerings on their online calendar really impressed me. I consider myself fairly well-versed when it comes to world music, but some of these genres I’d never even heard of! Challenge accepted. Below follows a high-level introduction of the genre, its origins, and a few representative songs.
Researching the music snowballed as I inevitably delved into its contextual places, people, language and history. Common themes emerged (summarized in the numbered list below; click on a genre to jump directly to its detail). Music illustrates identity, expansively, unlike any other medium. It reveals and reflects its creators and perpetuators over time. When identity may be difficult to define or fluid due to diaspora, music morphs with its surroundings, evolves with available technology and endures like the tides. If more than half of the human body is made up of water, then no wonder music is so intrinsic. We are built to move and dance.
These genres and the upbeat spirit they share, even if forced, which helps make them danceable today, also highlights the incredible resiliency of Africa and the African diaspora. The fervent circulation of this music also reflects the human need for something to call one’s own, to belong to something and have it belong to you.
- Funaná: associated with rural, uneducated lower classes in Cape Verde, for whom it represented hope and celebration
- Champeta: debased by Colombian politicians, but represented cultural liberation for its lower social and economic classes who descended from African slaves
- Kuduro: served as an outlet for the people of Angola to cope and normalize amid poverty and the devastation of a civil war that lasted 27 years
- Zouk: validated the mixed heritage of créolité as a collective identity for Caribbean descendants of indigenous groups, African slaves and French colonizers, particularly in Guadeloupe and Martinique
- Kompa: showcased a struggle for Haitian identity, ownership and mastery, even between competing pioneers of the genre, amid influences from French colonizers and neighboring Dominican Republic
- Coupé-Décalé: offered a brazenly escapist party within war-torn Cote d’Ivoire and Ivorian neighborhoods in Paris, reflecting the possibility to create a new and flashy life away from home
- Makossa: upheld post-independence cultural pride in Cameroon while absorbing modern international influences, navigating popularity and relatability versus authenticity and roots
- Soukous: contested in style between Congo traditions and reinterpretation in Paris by those who fled economic devastation under Zaire, now Democratic Republic of the Congo
- Kwaito: blended a long line of South African traditional music with international influences, as the country and its townships forged new identity during the end of apartheid
Hailing from Cabo Verde/Cape Verde, funaná is an enlivening style of both music and dance. Key elements include the accordion, known locally as the gaita, and the ferrinho, a metal bar that musicians scrape with another metal object to make sound. Traditionally, the ferrinho drives the rhythm, though drums and bass took over in some modern interpretations of the genre.
Funaná was historically associated with rural, uneducated lower classes. Portuguese colonizers banned the music from public performance, likely fearing its rousing, empowering qualities. Once Cape Verde gained independence in 1975, the music began a revival. This was spurred by the band Bulimundo and its mentor Carlos Alberto “Katchás” Martins, who spent time on the largest and “most African” of Cape Verde’s islands, Santiago. The electronic musical equipment he brought there yielded a new lush interpretation of the style.
Another revolutionary funaná artist, who helped export the music in its traditional form to a European audience, is Victor Tavares, better known as Bitori. He worked in coffee and cacao plantations and as a hairdresser, saving up over five years to buy his first gaita in 1959, though he didn’t have the opportunity to record music until the 1990s. According to Bitori, the name funaná originates from “the name we would give to the dust that raised from the ground when people would gather to dance and sing funaná in the streets. This is also the name we gave to those gatherings.”
His frequent collaborator and singer Chando Graciosa states, “Funaná represents the citizens of Cabo Verde, who are defined not by what they own but by what keep them going: hope. [The better-known genre, popularized by Cesaria Evora] Morna is about emigration, diaspora, loneliness, saudade / nostalgia, desperation, whereas funaná celebrates hope and is an ode to life and gives strength to whoever is singing or listening. Funaná is Cabo Verde in its deepest sense, funaná is Santiago, funaná is life.” The Portuguese word for hospitality is morabeza, a concept into which Cabo Verdeans incorporate kindness, togetherness and sharing – just as funaná is meant to be celebrated.
- Bulimundo – Mundo (from the 1982 album Ó Mundo Ka Bu Kába)
- Bitori with Chando Graciosa – Bitori Nha Bibinha (1998)
- La Mc Malcriado – É si ki’m Feitu (2011 winner of Best Funana at the Cabo Verde Music Awards)
- Pulonga’l Bita – Beijo na pescoço (2014; example of couples dancing)
- Varela Monteiro Bodinho – Bedja (2014)
Always highly danceable, Colombian champeta evolved with a pulsing beat from percussion and synthesizer, African-style guitar, bass and vocals. Its three-part structure features an introduction, a chorus, and “el Despeluque.” This latter section, which translates roughly to “messed-up hair,” is characterized by urgent, repetitive rhythms, sometimes with “placas” (interruptions counter to the rhythm). Champeta culture also involved dances to the rhythms of salsa, Puerto Rican jíbaro and reggae, and was regarded as a sort of therapy and distraction from economic problems.
Along Colombia’s Caribbean northern coast lives a large population with African roots and a history of warmly receiving music from the continent. Records arrived around the late 1960s via West African sailors docking in Cartagena and Barranquilla. The local population, known as costeños, embraced the music from places like Nigeria, Congo and South Africa, despite not understanding all the lyrics. Deejays played the records at picós, outdoor sound systems with a console, amplifier and vinyl collection where people gathered to party.
The music grew so popular that competing picó owners removed identifying labels to claim exclusivity on records they obtained, and renamed songs in Spanish. After ample bootlegging, eventually Colombian musicians began making their own records in the same style, mostly sung in Spanish – the birth of champeta.
Some champeta is also sung in Palenquero, a Spanish-based creole language still spoken in San Basilio de Palenque. Founded by escaped slaves, this settlement is now known as the first “free town” for Africans in the Americas. It received special heritage status from UNESCO in 2005.
Champeta music represented cultural liberation for Colombia’s black population, which remained concentrated in the poorer coastal areas after the country abolished slavery in 1851. Among Colombia’s mixed Indian, Latin and African heritage and tensions around race and class, champeta and the picós culture factored in building a collective identity for many marginalized Afro-Colombians.
The term “champeta” refers to a knife used by workers to gut and scale fish in Cartagena’s Mercado Bazurto. These workers were among the groups that regularly met at picós to listen to African music. Since the 1970s, conservative politicians sought to connote the music with violence and teenage pregnancy, considering it too rebellious, sexual and unsophisticated. Lyrics challenged social and economic exclusion, and dreamed of change and progress, alongside other emotional and religious topics and everyday life.
- Wganda Kenya – Shakalaode (1976; inspired by Fela Kuti’s “Shakara”)
- Son Palenque – Yo Me Voy (1981)
- Abelardo Carbonó y su Conjunto – Palenque (1982)
- Elio Boom – El Condor (1998)
- Bomba Estéreo – Fuego (2008)
- Estrellas del Caribe – Kunchuzo (2012; band from San Basilio de Palenque)
In Luanda, Angola in the late 1980s, producers mixed African percussion samples, Caribbean soca and zouk, and European techno. Their experiments created electronic dance music then known as batida (“beat”). This evolved with the technology available to record vocals and manipulate samples and synthesizers into frenetic sequences.
Kuduro arose as the sonic expression of decades of political instability. Following Angola’s independence from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975, a two-party transitional government descended into a 27-year civil war that cost an estimated 800,000 lives and reduced the country’s median age to around 16 years old. Despite being Africa’s second-largest producer of oil and third-largest producer of diamonds, about 40% of Angolans live below the poverty line. Electronic music served as an outlet and coping mechanism, particularly for young people.
The music was largely created in informal studios in musseques, Luanda’s shantytowns, and shared with candongueiro (taxi van) drivers to gain exposure. It also grew in popularity in housing projects in Lisbon, where many Angolans emigrated to escape civil war.
The term “kuduro” evolved from the “hard butt” (cu duro in Angolan Portuguese) that dancers maintain during their abrupt movements. With sped-up tempos of 140 beats per minute, ample distortions and hardened aesthetics, the music reflected dark times, yet also tried to make light of serious topics. Some of the dancing deliberately evokes movements of disabled people, as a high number of Angolans underwent amputations as a result of land mines placed during the war.
With initial influences from other Angolan music such as kizomba and semba, and incorporating various electronic dance music from Europe and beyond, kuduro continues to evolve with afro-house and other musical forms more readily explored than defined. The Lisbon-based label Príncipe has helped to amplify these sounds with contemporary artists such as DJ Marfox, DJ Nigga Fox and Niagara.
- Buraka Som Sistema with M.I.A. – Sound of Kuduro (2008)
- Papa London – Dansa Kuduro (2009)
- Pai Latifa – São Voçés (2013)
- Coréon Dú with Phil Asher – Kuduro Luvin (2013)
- Tony Amado with Karliteira – Digweza (2019)
- Noite e Dia – Lhe Avança (2019)
From the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, zouk emerged in the late 1970s as a blend of Caribbean, African and North American musical styles. Marked by a modern, synthesizer-rich studio sound, vocals were often driven by a female lead and backup singers. Rhythm featured hi-hat cymbals, with a pattern of two long beats followed by a short beat. Zouk musicians also incorporated instruments and rhythms from local Afro-Caribbean traditions, elevating some drumming techniques previously regarded as unrefined.
The genre was distinguished by lyrics sung in the French Antillean Creole language, at least initially. As zouk became more commercialized, songs were increasingly recorded in French. The Antillean Creole word “zouk” translates roughly to “party” or “festival,” and evolved from the French verb secouer (which also spawned soukous), meaning “to shake.”
Zouk represented not only a dance party, but cultural pride and the mixed heritage of indigenous, African diaspora and French colonizer cultures within this part of the Caribbean. In asserting a distinct identity despite French political and cultural domination, and carving a signature sound apart from other popular Caribbean and Latin American genres such as reggae and salsa, zouk put the French Antilles on the map. This also coincided with the cultural and literary movement of créolité, or creoleness, that strove to make sense of, accept and celebrate the islands’ mixed heritage, neither black nor white.
Zouk spread internationally in large part due to the band Kassav’, which formed in 1979, taking the carnival music of Guadeloupe, “mizik zouk,” and recording it with MIDI technology to yield a more studio-polished and orchestrated sound. As zouk was also embraced by musicians living and performing in Europe and Africa, the genre became more cosmopolitan and less “creole,” with more lyrics in French. The increasingly globally accessible genre developed additional substyles such as the romantic, sensual zouk love, and more up-tempo zouk béton (hard or “concrete”).
- Kassav’ – Zouk-la-sé Sel Médikaman Nou Ni (meaning “Zouk is the only medicine we have,” from the 1984 album Yélélé)
- Kassav’ – Rete (1989)
- Zouk Machine – Maldòn (1990 #1 single in France)
- Francky Vincent – Fruit de la Passion (1991)
- Malavoi with Edith Lefel – La Sirène (1993)
- Slaï – Flamme (1997)
- Soumia – Mes Sentiments (2002)
- Medhy Custos – Elles Demandent (2006)
In the 1950s, kompa developed as a modernized, danceable version of more traditional Haitian music, and grew in popularity throughout the Caribbean and beyond. Kompa is marked by strong brass (especially saxophone), lively rhythms, frequent improvisation, and a big band feel. Electric guitar, bass, accordion, and various percussion including the conga and tanbou (Haitian barrel drum) were also incorporated into the orchestra.
Haiti’s music has been shaped by three key factors: French colonization (from the mid-1600s until independence gained in 1804), significant populations descended from African slaves, and its geographical position sharing the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. The Haitian Creole term mereng (French: méringue) refers to a variety of music from Haiti, mostly string-based. During the early 20th century, mereng was readily associated with Haiti’s deep class divisions – satiric social and political music of the marginalized lower classes, and languid island bourgeois music of the upper classes. Kompa evolved from mereng, with lyrics typically written in Creole. However, it also appeared in French, Spanish, English and Portuguese as the music spread to neighboring Caribbean islands.
The term “kompa” originated from Spanish compás, meaning beat or rhythm. The genre became known as compas direct (“direct beat”) in French, and kompa, konpa dirèk or konpa in Creole. Meanwhile, the French term méringue may have originated from its whipped egg pastry being associated with the light movements and deft hip-rolling of traditional Haitian dance. Kompa’s accompanying dance, called a kare (Creole for square), was modeled after Dominican merengue. Haitians commonly listened to Dominican radio, although cultural nationalists wished to disregard these ties.
In 1955, Haitian saxophonist and band leader Nemours Jean-Baptiste created the band Conjunto International along with fellow musician Webert Sicot, a partnership that soon turned into a rivalry. However, both men played significant roles in advancing kompa, particularly through their saxophone composition.
In the 1980s, zouk surpassed kompa in popularity, and emerging technology such as synthesizers, drum machines and computer software reduced the number of live instruments and musicians needed to perform kompa. This left kompa bands better-suited to concert venues versus ubiquitous dance hall parties. However, the influences of kompa reached far in time and space, including through derivatives such as mini jazz, cadence-lypso (a fusion of Webert Sicot’s “cadence rampa” and Trinidadian calypso), and Cape Verdean coladeira.
- Nemours Jean-Baptiste – Ti Carole (1966)
- Les Fantaisistes de Carrefour – Ti Zoiseau (1968)
- Shlue-Shlue – Sept Jours de la Semaine (1974)
- Webert Sicot – Wachacha (1976)
- Tabou Combo – Mabouya (1978)
- Bossa Combo – Deuxième Indépendance (1987)
In 2003, at African nightclubs in northeast Paris, young Ivorian immigrants created a genre focused on having a much-needed good time, following civil war that erupted in Côte d’Ivoire/Ivory Coast the previous year. Coupé-décalé features an electronic beat that underlies samples of Congolese ndombolo. The minimalist style is bass-heavy with insistent, repetitive rhythms that compel dancing.
After a failed coup sparked civil war in September 2002, tensions between Côte d’Ivoire’s rebel-held north and government-controlled south lasted nearly five years, and resurged in 2010-2011. Many francophone Ivorians found greater opportunity to earn money in France, despite holding a critical view of the colonizing country, which retained a hand in Ivorian political affairs. While coupé-décalé surfaced from the Ivorian diaspora in Paris, it quickly flourished in Abidjan, the economic capital of Côte d’Ivoire and a hub for musical production.
Musicians sing in Nouchi, a dynamic street slang that mixes French with Ivorian languages such as Baoulé, Dyula/Dioula and Bété. Coupé-décalé translates roughly as ‘to cheat someone and run away.’ Devoid of deep political messages, at least initially, lyrics touched on earning money, relationships, and dance moves reflective of current events. Beyond the obvious party vibes, the music represented that even if by mysterious means, it was possible to achieve financial success and create a new life within a short timeframe. It was a welcome distraction from hardship.
At Paris nightclubs, the genre’s well-heeled, well-dressed founders – particularly “Douk Saga” (Stephane Doukouré), DJ Jacob and the “Jet Set” – made names for themselves, buying drinks for the masses and creating a fun, extravagant atmosphere. The time was ripe for an escapist outlet to help people forget about everything and facilitate a good mood or bonne ambiance.
Just as Côte d’Ivoire descended into political, social and economic instability, Ivorian music swept dancefloors throughout Africa, putting the country on the cultural map in a way it had not been before. Coupé-décalé both drew from and seemed to eclipse zouglou – upbeat, percussive music that spread grassroots-style in the 1990s to nationally represent Côte d’Ivoire. Both Ivorian genres represent la joie de vivre (“joy of living”), which coupé-décalé musicians continued to advance in the following years as the country’s quintessential pop music.
- Douk Saga – Sagacité (2002)
- DJ Jacob – Réconciliation (2003)
- Dj Caloudji – Caloudji (from the album Sentiment Môkô, 2003)
- Teeyah (featuring Kaysha) – Couper Decaler (2004)
- Molaré – Le Boucan (2008)
- Serge Beynaud – Mawa Naya (2015)
- DJ Arafat – Dosabado (2018)
As with many African nations striving to end colonization following World War II, Cameroon refocused on its heritage during the 1950s, and music became a source of national identity and cultural pride. The increasingly popular genres of makossa and bikutsi modernized traditional percussive music.
Bikutsi featured the balafon, a gourd-resonated xylophone, and developed from the Beti/Ewondo people living near the capital of Yaoundé. Meanwhile, makossa achieved wider urban and international appeal as more accessible, catchy pop music. Marked by strong rhythmic bass, percussion, keyboard, guitar and overarching brass, it absorbed a variety of foreign influences over subsequent decades, and evolved along with recording technology.
Makossa arose from Cameroon’s largest city and economic capital, Douala. In this bustling port city, a melting pot of cultures enjoyed vibrant nightlife and live music, particularly after Cameroon gained independence from France on the first day of 1960. Douala (or Duala) is also a Bantu language wherein makossa means “dance,” although it may also refer to rousing calls to incite musicians and dancers.
After an initial movement in the ’50s and early recordings in the ’60s, when Emmanuel Nelle Eyoum became known as the founding father of makossa, the ’70s were pivotal. Saxophonist Manu Dibango’s funky 1972 single “Soul Makossa” catapulted onto the world stage, and was picked up by New York deejays David Mancuso and Frankie Crocker. It was the first African record to reach the US Top 40, and was sampled by Michael Jackson and other artists.
As the genre skyrocketed in popularity, it absorbed elements from Congolese rumba, Dominican merengue, Ghanaian and Nigerian high-life, traditional Cameroonian guitar music Assiko, and American disco (a two-way influence). The ’80s saw economic downtown in Cameroon, and expatriation of the genre to France, as musicians took advantage of more recording opportunities abroad. The music continued to spread via television and radio, while the ’90s and ’00s brought more electronic sounds and new influential musicians.
Subsequently, makossa declined slightly with perhaps too much dilution from international influences. Leading artists held conflicting opinions whether to continue modernizing or to uphold more traditional roots. The most prolific makossa career is arguably that of Petit Pays, whose album releases span from 1987 to most recently in 2018.
- Manu Dibango – Soul Makossa (1972)
- Bébé Manga – Ami O (1980)
- Emmanuel Nélle Eyoum – Ikwalé (1981)
- Francis Bebey – New Track (1982)
- Toto Guillaume – Elimbi Na Ngomo (2003)
- Aladji Touré – Bikutsi Sans Frontières (2008)
- Petit Pays – Eboki (2018)
From the Congo Basin – comprising Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC (a former Belgian colony, known as Zaïre from 1971 to 1997) and Republic of the Congo (a former French colony and much smaller country), uniquely Congolese music evolved over the first half of the 20th Artists took traditional music and incorporated traces of son cubano, American jazz and popular French music. This evolved into Congolese rumba and ultimately, soukous, which gained popularity in France in the 1980s.
The music featured hypnotic guitars, bouncy percussion and upbeat vocals. Guitar solos gave rise to an extended dancing section called the seben, which became a focal point of the music, counter to earlier preferences for slower tempos and poetic verse. Musicians incorporated the Cuban rhythm pattern of the 3/2 clave. In the 1970s, the band Zaïko Langa Langa popularized a rhythm known as cavacha, which increased the speed of the snare drum and was associated with a train in DRC’s capital of Kinshasa.
In this same decade, the Mobutu regime bankrupt then-Zaïre, and many musicians fled the economic collapse for opportunities in Paris. Over the following decades, soukous diverged in style as music produced in France employed more fast beats and studio polish, appealing to a wider international audience, while the Congo market preferred slower-paced, lyrical, traditional rumbas.
Soukous and earlier Congolese music was often sung in phonetic French or a local language, Lingala, that spanned the region divided by the Congo River. Like zouk, “soukous” comes from the French verb secouer, meaning “to shake.” However, in eastern and southern Africa the more common term was kwassa kwassa, from the French “C’est quoi ça?” (“What is that?”) Soukous and kwassa kwassa also referred to dances associated with the music.
Key artists include smooth guitarist Nico Kasanda “Docteur Nico,” who collaborated with singer Joseph Kabasele “Le Grand Kallé” and the group l’Africa Jazz, African Fiesta, Tabu Ley Rochereau, and later his own group, Fiesta Sukisa. The singer, guitarist and bandleader ‘Franco’ Luambo Makiadi advanced the seben into greater prominence. Founding members of Kinshasa-based supergroup Zaïko Langa Langa eventually split to form new groups, which spawned subsequent generations of soukous, of whom Papa Wemba was especially prolific. Today, fittingly, multiple generations of musicians may come together to play songs new and old, as with the Soukous All Stars’ 2018 performance in New York.
- Wendo Kolosoy – Marie Louise (1948)
- Nico Kasanda “Docteur Nico,” Grand Kallé & L’African Jazz – Mbombo Ya Tshimbalanga (1962)
- Pablo Lubadika “Porthos” – Madeleina (1982)
- Papa Wemba & Viva La Musica – Analengo (1984)
- Zaiko Langa Langa & Dindo Yogo – Mokili Echanger (1985)
- Kanda Bongo Man – Sai (1987)
In the early 1990s, as South Africa transitioned from apartheid to its first democratically elected president in Nelson Mandela, musicians fused local and international rhythms to create kwaito. Born in the townships, particularly the Soweto township in Johannesburg, kwaito represented urban youth and their manner of speaking, dancing and style. The music featured mid-tempo electronica with intense kick drums and bass lines underneath lyrics rapped, sung or shouted in the local slang of Isicamtho.
Kwaito took influences primarily from South African disco and hip hop, and house music from the UK and US. In addition, it encompassed traces of reggae, dub, jazz, 1920s marabi with jazzy roots, 1950s kwela featuring the pennywhistle, 1960s mbaqanga with rural Zulu roots, 1980s bubblegum pop, and Imibongo (African praise poetry). It also subsequently gave rise to gqom, a darker, tribal, edgy form of South African house out of Durban, whose polyrhythms stray away from the 4/4 beat.
The term kwaito derives from kwaai, an Afrikaans word for “angry.” Afrikaans can be attributed as the linguistic skeleton for the colloquial Isicamtho and previously Tsotsitaal, language associated with thugs or gangsters of the townships, which also pulls from English, Zulu, Xhosa and Sesotho. In local slang, anger and other negative terms took on positive or “cool” connotations. Kwaito embodied pride in knowing and being part of the townships, despite their segregation, often poor infrastructure, limited amenities and violent conditions.
Lyrics often veered more escapist than political, but kwaito still represented emancipation and empowerment for artists to create music and connect across racial lines. As it reached wider audiences, kwaito expanded to recordings in other South African dialects.
Men typically dominated kwaito, although its stars acknowledge influence from leading South African female musicians such as Brenda Fassie and Miriam Makeba. Pioneers of the genre include Arthur Mafokate, whose 1995 hit song “Kaffir” spoke out against racial slurs. Another hugely popular, multi-platinum selling artist was Mandoza, who infused constructive messages into his music. His song “Uzoyithola Kanjani” translates to ‘how are you going to get it, if you don’t get up and go for it.’
- Thami Mdluli “Professor Rhythm” – Professor 3 (1991)
- Arthur Mafokate – Yiyo Lendawo (“This Is the Place”) (1999)
- Mandoza – Nkalakatha (2000)
- M’du Masilela & Mandoza – 50/50 (2001)
- Trompies – Fohloza (2001)
- Mandoza & Chiskop – Uzoyithola Kanjani (2010)
- DJ Spoko – #Justsnares (2015)
May your dancing shoes always be ready.