A brief history of Afropop

King Sunny Ade

King Sunny Ade


Banning Eyre, senior editor of Public Radio International’s Afropop Worldwide, is currently working on a three-part audio documentary about the music of Madagascar. I spoke to him about his work.


I first went to Africa in 1987, the year before Afropop Worldwide went on the air. When I look back to that time, there was virtually no awareness of African music as a category or genre in America. There had been some breakthroughs: Hugh MasekelaMiriam MakebaGraceland, of course. There had been a few tours by African bands like King Sunny Ade.

But really no one was putting these pieces together, seeing that this was a whole world of music that we had been overlooking. So Afropop sort of had it as a mission right from the beginning to create that awareness—to really drive home to people that there was this whole universe of music coming out of African cities that combined tradition and reflections of modernity from America and Europe, and that this is something we should be paying attention to. And because it was great music.

So there was a lot of introducing in the beginning, a lot of, “Hey, this is what Congolese music sounds like; if you go to Mali, this is what the music sounds like.” We were painting this tableau. Within a few years it became clear that you couldn’t really limit it to the African continent. You had to deal with the Caribbean, South America, the Middle East—all these places that are totally entwined in the unfolding story of this music and the history behind it.

So that was the early ’90s, when we became Afropop Worldwide and were really were talking about Africa and its diasporas. By then there were labels, there were tours, there were bands that were starting to be more well-known and could play in big concert halls: Papa Wemba and people like this. The ’90s was sort of the golden era of African music touring in America. There were still record labels who would get behind tours. There were agents who were interested, festivals. There was a lot of excitement around the music. There was a lot of optimism; there were magazines and other radio shows. You could buy music in record stores; local DJs could keep it fresh because enough was coming out. So between 1987, when we started, until about 1995, there was a lot of change, a lot of growth, burgeoning activity.

Kasse Mady Diabate and Banning Eyre in 2010. Image: Erich Woodrum

Kasse Mady Diabate and Banning Eyre in 2010. Image: Erich Woodrum

That carries up to the time of 9/11, which is a big damper on everything. After 9/11 it becomes much harder to get visas. Everything’s more expensive; there’s more xenophobia in the public at large; record companies are failing. Things start to get much more difficult around 2001. The music’s still there, people are still coming, but the swell has definitely started to recede.

But around 2005, 2006, 2007 we start to see whole new phenomenon coming up. So much of the music that we focused on in the beginning was really generated by the ‘60s and ‘70s, that wave of independence that swept Africa. People were excited about their prospects and new lives. And they had so much influence from so much great music coming from America and Europe: they were trying to make African music that could stand up next to James Brown, and that created so much activity. There were bands with great drummers, great singers, great brass sections, unbelievable guitar players. It was live music, dance music mostly, and it all kind of hung together. You could really talk about African cities and the bands that they produced, whether you were in Luanda in Angola; or Jo’burg; or Dakar, Senegal—there was a kind of continuity between those stories.

But as I say, we get into the 2000s and things are changing a lot. What we start to see around 2005 and 2006 is more youth music, much more electronic, totally influenced by rap and hip hop and newer forms of reggae. And much more using the Internet, YouTube—not records, not record companies, not touring. But a lot of interaction between European cities—London, Paris, Lisbon—and artists going back and forth and talking to a new generation in a new way.

And this music, it’s still really emerging. There have been all kinds of little waves of success, like kuduro music out of Angola, which was characterized by really fast electronic African beats and really athletic breakdancing. You had people all over the world imitating that just by seeing it on the Internet.

Or the Azonto craze that came in Ghana over the last couple of years, a similar kind of thing—a lot of video, a lot of YouTube, and again a very modern, contemporary music, something really quite far removed from the bands, guitar players and singers we were first tuned into years ago. I’m generalizing, but this is the big picture.

And then you have things like the Afrobeat phenomenon, which kind of links the two. Afrobeat is a music that’s emerging out of Nigeria in the ’70s with a very strong influence from jazz and funk and R&B of that era. It’s a music that’s easily understood to European and American listeners. It sounds different, but it doesn’t sound strange; it’s easy to get Afrobeat. And then of course the sort of iconic story of Fela ending up as a Broadway play in 2010.

You have a really interesting phenomenon here where a lot of young musicians get turned on to Afrobeat in European and American cities, and they play it themselves. So you have good Afrobeat bands in New York and LA and London and so forth. And young people go out to see those bands. So that’s an example of where a genre that dates back to what I call the golden age of Afropop is very viable and appealing to young audiences now. There aren’t too many of those, but that’s a very striking one.

Another interesting phenomenon has been the whole Tuareg/desert rock phenomenon. That music has also found a growing audience among young listeners. It’s not all polished and pretty; it’s got rough edges and feels very authentic and kind of visceral. That seems to also have a newly emerging audience. It’s reaching people that didn’t necessarily pay attention during the whole first wave of Afropop.

How do you feel that this shift of interest in the West has affected musicians in Africa?

In different ways. Some of the older artists feel frustrated and abandoned now. The ones that had tours, it’s much harder for them to get tours now. There are definitely people who aren’t happy with the way things have gone.

But at the same time, the younger generation of artists who’ve never really had the idea that there were going to be record companies and tours, they’re using the Internet in such creative ways and feeling so connected that way.

The economics of music is changing a lot. When we were in Ghana last year, nobody was thinking about record companies. The big game is to get enough hits on YouTube and Facebook that you would become interesting to these big video and music contests where you would go to another city, Nairobi or whatever, and participate in some big televised event. And it’s all being seen on satellite television in all the English-speaking countries. So people from South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria are all watching. This is creating an impetus for these artists to sing and rap in English, because they can be understood by this much larger market. And then if they do well there they get invited to do big concerts where they can make a lot of money, much more money than their forebears would have made with concerts. And they also can get sponsorships from cell phone companies, clothing companies, that sort of thing.

So this is really the way young artists are thinking about how to make money and promote themselves in Anglophone Africa these days. That’s a pretty new phenomenon. It’s just in the last five or six years that this paradigm has developed and taken hold. So for these artists, the world is better. They’re making more money than their forebears did. But for the old-timers that option isn’t really on the table, because that satellite TV sponsorship stuff is basically aimed at a young demographic. It’s aimed at the marketplace, which is increasingly young. So it cuts different ways, and there’s no way to simply summarize it.

How did the Madagascar project come about?

Madagascar, I have to say, is not based on any sort of market research or viability studies or anything like that. It’s just a personal fascination and passion of mine and of others at Afropop. We went there 13 years ago, and I was just so knocked out by the musicality of the place, the power of the vocal traditions, the incredible complexity and intricacy of the guitar playing—just the real richness of the music all the way around. I have been determined ever since to go back.

It’s been through some really tough political times. And I talked about how difficult for groups to tour: Madagascar has four strikes against it. One, it’s really far away. You have to fly to the east coast of Africa, then cross Africa, then across the Atlantic, maybe pass through Europe . . . it’s just very expensive. The other strike against it has been the incredible political instability. The government was never that good about supporting the arts anyway, and in the years since 2001 it’s been so chaotic there. NGOs have been leaving. It hasn’t been getting the kind of support and attention that other places do.

In addition to that, I mentioned about how Fela makes sense to American listeners because they hear the funk in it. There’s a similar story you can tell about Mali and Senegal. This is a region from whence many of the African-Americans’ ancestors came, and so we share this musical DNA. We hear the music from there and we understand it naturally.

But when you get to east Africa and then even further to Madagascar, the base population’s really half African and half Austronesian—people from Indonesia and places like that. You’re dealing with a completely different history and a completely different sense of musicality: the way they hear rhythm and melody. It’s a bit more of a reach for American listeners to get it.

And so it’s a smaller group that’s going to have this kind of passion that I have. So it’s more of a challenge to market it. That’s why we haven’t seen a lot of music from Madagascar—for all of these reasons I just outlined. But all the more reason for us to go there and help reveal how amazing it is. Because despite all that stuff, the musical life is just vibrant. It’s so alive. And most of these artists are not making much, if any, money. But they’re just so into what they do that they just do it anyway. The passion shows.

On this recent trip, we went all over the island and took full advantage of the friendships that we started 13 years ago. People were right there for us and arranged incredible sessions with musicians to play for us. It was very a simpatico, eye-popping, exciting, fun experience. I’m looking forward to turning all this raw material into products that everyone can see and hear, because I think people are going to be surprised.

Published in Satellite in June 2014.
Satellite was an independent magazine published between 2011 and 2015.