Afro Synths: Early Days

The story of synths in Africa is primarily one of movement — of people, instruments, and sounds. It’s also a story of resourcefulness and experimentation, driven by social and economic changes, lack of infrastructure, and, in some cases, unexpected fortune: the sudden influx of money, music, and access to new technologies.

The tale of how synths first got to the continent starts with a touch of fantasy: According to a story told by the label Analog Africa on the occasion of the release of their fantastic compilation Space Echo — The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed!, in the late 1960s a mysterious ship appeared on the Sao Nicolau island of Cabo Verde, far away from the coastline, as if it had fallen from the sky. After Portuguese colonial authorities had conducted their investigations, the villagers opened the containers to find piles of machinery they’d never seen before: synthesizers. According to Analog Africa, anti-colonial leader Amílcar Cabral ordered for the instruments to be distributed to islanders who had access to electricity, including schools, and the children who grew up experimenting with the new equipment would go on to become the islands’ great musicians, modernizing local styles like Funaná, Mornas, and Coladeras. Though it makes for a great story (and even greater music), there is likely more than a touch of embellishment here, and synths likely didn’t reach the islands until a few years later (and probably in a more conventional manner).

In other parts of the continent synths arrived in less fantastical but still meandering ways. According to Nigerian writer and scholar Uchenna Ikonne everything changed in Nigerian music when, in 1975, Jimmy Cliff was forced to leave his equipment behind after an African tour due to problems at customs. For a while these ultra-modern synths and amps languished in the EMI studios, but soon started popping up in their newest productions, kickstarting a move away from band-led highlife and afrobeat and towards a new craze for the synth-led disco and boogie sounds.

With the economy booming, throughout the 1970s and 80s independent labels and state-of-the-art studios like Phonodisc and Ginger Baker’s Arc flourished and artists became increasingly experimental with the new technologies. No one pushed them further than visionary synth wizard William Onyeabor, who, rather than using synths to recreate the sounds previously made by instruments, made music that didn’t owe anything to tradition.

While the Nigerian music scene thrived, in nearby Ghana the situation could not have been more different. A series of dictatorships and prohibitive import taxes on musical instruments all but killed the once vibrant music scene, and musicians started leaving Ghana for Europe. One of the first was legendary highlife musician Pat Thomas (although his motivations were less financial and more romantic) whose style quickly evolved from more traditional instrumental highlife to a new modern and international sound that merged West African melodies with disco, boogie, and funk with the use of DX7 synthesizers and drum machines. Thomas was one of the early pioneers of “burger highlife”, the diasporic sound created by Ghanaian immigrants in Germany and other parts of Europe and spearheaded by George Darko with his 1982 album Friends

Just like the Ghanians in Germany (and those back home who wanted to emulate their modern new style), musicians all over the continent experimented with these new technologies, in many cases maintaining traditional melodies and scales but with an ear to developments in other parts of the world. In Cameroon Francis Bebey placed synthesizers and drum machines alongside traditional African instruments; In Somalia, bands like Iftin and Waaberi began using synths in their tracks, fostering a “Golden Era” of Somali music; just over the border, Ethiopian musician Hailu Mergia played his old accordion alongside a Rhodes piano, synthesizer, and drum machine on his 1985 record Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument, creating a sound that is at once evocative and futuristic. In Kenya many bands imitated the slick sounds of American disco, but in some cases experimented with more local electro hybrids, such as in the case of African Vibration’s mijikenda track Hinde.

But nowhere did the arrival of synthesizers have as much of a widespread impact as in South Africa, a country still in the violent grip of apartheid segregation and discrimination. Despite the socio-political situation, the airwaves were filled with the joyous grooves of bubblegum music, which was pioneered by the likes of Brenda Fassie and Sello “Chicco” Twala and merged synths, keyboards, drum machines and soulful vocals with typically South African harmonies and melodies. Outwardly frivolous and fun, bubblegum’s appeal overcame the racial divide and quickly became a political battleground, with musicians openly including anti-apartheid and pro-Mandela messages in their music. 

Bubblegum reigned throughout the 1980s, but as apartheid ended so did bubblegum’s popularity. Music became increasingly electronic and dance focused, and Kwaito emerged as the expression of South Africa’s new-found freedom, combining the sound of mbaqanga with simple percussion loops, bright synth stabs (the Korg M1 was especially popular), and rapped vocals. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s shangaan disco, pantsula, Bacardi House, gqom, and most recently amapiano, emerged as new music and dance styles in South Africa. 

All over the continent 1980s synth music has evolved into countless new sounds as synthesizers, computers, and programs like Fruity Loops have become more widely available. In some cases these new musical technologies have fostered the emergence of homegrown, localized electronic scenes rooted in traditional sounds, such as the electroacholi scene of Northern Uganda or modern Fra Fra music in northern Ghana. At the same time a growing number of African producers are making techno, trap, and house music, inspired by sounds from outside the continent (and vice versa, as the internet has made this exchange much easier). Today, in all its forms, African electronic music is as exciting and vibrant as ever.

Megan Iacobini de Fazio

La Musique Électronique Du Niger

Mamman Sani
La Musique Électronique Du Niger cover

Nigerien composer Mammane Sani Abdullaye was already well known for his TV and radio compositions when he came across an Italian Orlo organ in 1978. With it he produced some of the most groundbreaking music on the continent at the time, weaving  these entrancing, languid soundscapes that sound like something that would be beamed down from outer space. The songs are based on folkloric music of the Wodaabe and Tuareg tribes, but in the hands of Mammane Sani, they take on a timeless, universal quality. There were only 100 tapes made of “La Musique Électronique Du Niger”, but one of these was discovered in a dusty archive by the guys at Sahel Sounds, who reissued the album in 2013.

Space Echo - The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed!

Various Artists
Space Echo - The Mystery Behind the Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde Finally Revealed! cover

The story of how synths reached Cabo Verde is one full of mystery, magic, and — maybe — more than a touch of fantasy. But the legend adds yet another layer of interest to the fascinating synth sounds that emerged from the islands after independence, when local rhythms such as Mornas, Coladeras, and Funaná were transformed by the introduction of synthesizers. In the hands of musicians like Paulino Vieira and his band Voz de Cabo Verde, these new technologies added a trippy, cosmic dimension to the islands’ traditional music, veering between disco, psychedelia, futuristic electronics, and funky electro pop. 

Nuits D’été avec Abdou El Omari

Abdou El Omari
Nuits D’été avec Abdou El Omari cover

The first of a three part series focusing on the groundbreaking Moroccan organist Abdou El Omari,  Nuits D’Été Avec Abdou El Omari is a psyched-out, bewitching journey through Gnawa and Sufi traditions, seamlessly entwined with progressive jazz, rock, and funk. El Omari’s synths are sometimes eerie, winding their way through steady polyrhythms and distant, echoey vocals.

Obaa Sima

Ata Kak
Obaa Sima cover

It was with a post about the track “Moma Yendodo’’ that Brian Shimkovitz inaugurated his blog Awesome Tapes from Africa back in 2006. It’s no wonder: Ata Kak’s mysterious tape, originally recorded in 1994, was quite unlike anything else, with its pitched up vocals, part rapped part screeched Twi lyrics, frenetic drum machine rhythms and insistent synth stabs. The record has since been reissued by ATAFA, which in the meantime has become a successful record label, and although it remains utterly unique and unclassifiable, it’s safe to say that Obaa Sima was a weird precursor to hiplife, the enormously popular Ghanian blend of hip hop and highlife.

I Want To Feel Your Love

Oby Onyioha
I Want To Feel Your Love cover

With its glossy sound, upbeat disco rhythms, and bright, joyful vocals, Oby Onyioha’s I Want to Feel your Love is the perfect reflection of Nigeria in the early 80s: confident, full of optimism, and high off an oil boom and a new democratic government after years of military dictatorship. It’s also the sound of a modern, educated woman, claiming her place in the world and exhorting others to do the same: “It’s no sin, girl (to enjoy your life)/When no one else can hurt yeah (have your fun)/Interchange now (enjoy your life)/Before you find it’s too late (to have a ball)” she sings over a funky synth bass and dazzling strings. 

Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul & Synth​-​Boogie in 1980s South Africa

Various Artists
Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul & Synth​-​Boogie in 1980s South Africa cover

With its joyous township harmonies, bright synths and drum-machine rhythms, bubblegum soundtracked a pivotal era for South Africa, and crossed racial devides when the country’s apartheid government was willing to do anything to prevent that. With a selection of 18 tracks chosen by Soundway’s Miles Cleret and DJ Okapi of Afrosynth Records (the heir of afrosynth, the blog dedicated to the discovery of South African bubblegum/disco from the 80s & early 90s),  Gumba Fire: Bubblegum Soul & Synth offers a snapshot of this particular, if fleeting, moment in the evolution of South African dance music. 

Antoinette Konan

Antoinette Konan
Antoinette Konan cover

Antoinette Konan’s unassuming ahoko — the traditional instrument of the Baoulé people of the Ivory Coast, which is played by scraping a small piece of wood against a  thin, flexible stick, while a hollow nutshell at the end amplifies and controls the sounds — is surprisingly powerful alongside drum machines and synths, with its acoustic, earthy sound and Konan’s Baoulé vocals offering a pleasant counterbalance to the artificious 1980s staples. At times the 1986 album is a little saccharine (“Enfants Du Monde”, “Evignen”),  but well worth it for its charming dancefloor oddities. 

Weekend Special

Brenda & the Big Dudes
Weekend Special cover

The 1983 album didn’t only launch Brenda Fassie’s career — she would later have an incredible comeback with the enormous smash hit “Vulindlela” — it ushered a new era in South African music. The R&B infused title track, which purposefully lifts its bassline from BB&Q Band’s “All Night Long” chord structure from Sharon Redd’s “Never Give You Up”, is widely considered to be the first ever bubblegum hit, initiating a decades long reign for the disco infused, synth led bubblegum sound.

Homowo

Basa Basa
Homowo cover

Although Basa Basa’s first record was produced by none other than Fela Kuti, it was their collaboration with South African producer Themba “T-fire” Matebese on Homowo that propelled them into the future. Driven by twin brothers Joe and John Nyaku’s powerful rhythm section, and with the addition of Matebese’s futuristic synths and keys, the 1979 record is a mix of disco-funk, psychedelia, Afrobeats, and traditional Ghanaian styles. On the opening title track Matebese’s Mini Korg snakes between the brothers’ tight percussions, while on standout “African Soul Power” Afrobeat percussion and modern-sounding synth riffs are laced through a solid disco beat. It’s a thrilling synthesis of tradition and modernity, one that sounds as futuristic today as it did forty years ago. 

African Electronic Music 1975-1982

Francis Bebey
African Electronic Music 1975-1982 cover

In his 1969 treatise African Music: A People’s Art, Cameroonian writer and composer Francis Bebey wrote:  “Welding and regeneration will be the pattern for African art […] It is imperative that the future of African music be based on the idea of development and not merely upon preservation.” Judging from his music — over 20 albums on his Ozileka label — he definitely lived by his word, becoming the first musician to use synthesizers, electric keyboards and drum machines alongside traditional African instruments. African Electronic Music 1975 – 1982, released by Born Bad Records, compiles some of his most avant-garde compositions, leaving us with no doubt that Bebey was nothing short of a visionary. 

In The Music…The Village Never Ends

Letta Mbulu
In The Music…The Village Never Ends cover

With its glittering atmospheres, downtempo beats, and gorgeous vocals soaring above a thick synth bassline, “Nomalizo” has rightly become a cult classic. Originally released in South Africa in 1983, the album contains six other lushly produced pop songs: “Down by The River” has a similar slow, seductive beat to “Nomalizo”, conjuring charming forest atmospheres with its synths and gentle percussions, while other tracks move between disco, boogie, and soul. It’s a sunny, joyous, and quintessentially South African record. 

Only You

Steve Monite
Only You cover

Though it was rather unsuccessful when it first came out in 1984 on Nigeria’s EMI Records, Steve Monite’s album  “Only You” epitomizes the slick and glossy world of pop and dance culture in 1980s Nigeria, where an oil boom and the return of democracy spurred a race to build the biggest, fanciest recording studios. Steve Monite was among the first to abandon afro-beat and afro-rock in favor of this artificial, glitzy new sound, with more than a fair share of help from producer and engineer Nkono Teles, who used drum machines and MOOG synthesizers to create this unique, modern sound that would become an international dancefloor favorite decades after it was made. 

African Funk Experimentals (1979 to 1981)

Pasteur Lappe
African Funk Experimentals (1979 to 1981) cover

Little is  known about Cameroonian mystery man Pasteur Lappe, except that he was mates with the likes of Tala AM and Fela Kuti, that he made three incredibly funky albums between 1979 and 1981, and that he was one of the main proponents of the Sekele groove, the dance, music, and fashion movement which was sweeping Douala at the time. The tracks chosen here by Africa Seven move between bright disco pop, sensual calypso rhythms, synth-bass driven funk, sugary ballads, and even reggae, but it’s Lappe’s smooth voice and undefinable Sekele groove that tie it all together.

Mogadisco: Dancing Mogadishu, Somalia 1972​-​1991

Various Artists
Mogadisco: Dancing Mogadishu, Somalia 1972​-​1991 cover

The sounds of Somalia’s Golden Era of music — when tourists and locals flocked to Lido Beach and dressed up in the latest fashion to attend nightly gigs in the Mogadishu’s coolest clubs —was defined by bands like Dur Dur, Bakaka, and Waaberi, who merged disco, soul, and funk with tribal chants and spiritual Saar music. New musical technologies contributed to the development of the Golden Era sound, as bands like Iftin made synthesizers the center of the music, like on the spellbinding “Sirmaqabe” (No Secrets) and the optimistic, uplifting “Ii Ooy Aniga” (Cry For Me).

The Message

Gyedu-Blay Ambolley
The Message cover

There’s no doubt that Ghanain musician, composer, and vocalist Gyedu-Blay Ambolley was an innovator and experimenter, mastering several instruments and challenging the canons of highlife by singing about political and issues in Fante and English. He was already well known in Ghana and playing with the likes of Ebo Taylor when he became a superstar across West Africa with his hit  “Simigwa-do,” but rather than rest on his laurels he continued to experiment with different sounds, bringing electronic instruments like synthesizers into his potent highlife funk mix. Within a few seconds of the “The Message,” the stabby synths tell you this is no standard highlife record, and the futuristic sonic experiments continue across the three other tracks, making this a true electro-funk highlife gem.

Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye

Hailu Mergia
Hailu Mergia & His Classical Instrument: Shemonmuanaye cover

In Ethiopia Hailu Mergia had spent years playing in Addis’ high class Hilton Hotel with his ethio-jazz and funk band The Walias, but in the early 1980s he moved to the United States in the face of a changing political climate at home. Here he decided to record an album celebrating the vintage accordion sounds of his youth, but upon entering the studio he discovered a drum machine, a Rhodes piano, and a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, which he decided to play alongside his accordion. The resulting album is a dreamy, quietly hypnotic synthesis of Ethiopian melodies, jazz, and minimalistic touches of analog synth. At once evocative, traditional, and futuristic. 

Noir et Blanc

Bony Bikaye, Hector Zazou
Noir et Blanc cover

Noir Et Blanc is a deceptively simple title for an album that is anything but. Released in 1983, the project brings together Congolese musician Bony Bikaye, French composer Hector Zazou, and electronic duo Guillaume Loizillon and Claude Micheli, known collectively as Cy 1*, who create complex textures using a mix of acoustic instruments and analog synths that are so interwoven it’s sometimes hard to tell them apart. The gentle bird sounds, melodic horn lines, and Bikaye’s layered, rich vocals, strike the perfect balance with the metallic, blip bloop electronics.  It sounds like it’s coming from somewhere between a lush tropical forest and a metalworks factory on Mars.

World Psychedelic Classics, Vol. 5: Who Is William Onyeabor?

William Onyeabor
World Psychedelic Classics, Vol. 5: Who Is William Onyeabor? cover

As the first official reissue of this enigmatic figure’s music, Who is William Onyeabor? asks all  the right questions. While it may not quite answer them — very little is known about him to this day — the Luaka Pop record, compiled by Uchenna Ikonne, underscores just how ahead of his time Onyeabor really was: while clearly influenced by the the era’s juju music, Onyeabor used drum machines and Moog synthesizers to weave psychedelic, electro-funk tracks that still sounded futuristic when they were “rediscovered” decades later.

Tamati So

Spokes 'H'
Tamati So cover

Spokes H’s 1987 album Tamati So marks a move away from the disco, American-influenced sounds of bubblegum, and towards a purely electronic, dance orientated sound. The album in fact was an early soundtrack to the rise of the Pantsula, the fast, incredibly acrobatic dance style that emerged in black townships as a response to apartheid era policies, and that had become increasingly political in the late 1980s. Initially pantsula dancers would dance to live music, and later to the American pop and early hip hop they heard on the radio, but in the 1990s it was kwaito that would blast out of speakers at the township street parties. As pioneer of Kwaito and with Tamati So becoming an early pantsula staple, Spokes H deserves to be remembered as the legend he is.

Borga Revolution! Ghanaian Dance Music In The Digital Age, 1983​-​1992 (Volume 1)

Various Artists
Borga Revolution! Ghanaian Dance Music In The Digital Age, 1983​-​1992 (Volume 1) cover

In the early 1980s, frustrated by growing repression, restrictions on nightlife, and high import taxes on instruments, Ghanaian musicians began emigrating to Europe. Many of them ended up in Western Germany, where they experimented with the latest musical technologies, mixing highlife music with the disco and boogie sounds of the era. Upon returning to Ghana they were called “bürgers,” the German word for citizen, and their music would forever be known as “burger highlife”. Kalita Records’ compilation is the first of four to highlight the burger highlife sound, bringing together tracks by superstars like Thomas Frempong and George Darko (who many say pioneered the genre) and by more elusive artists like Uncle Joe’s Afri-Beat and Paa Jude.