New African music you must listen to in 2015

1. Touri Idjé Bibi – Samba Touré

Born out of conflict, but imbued with resilience and joy, Samba Touré’s latest album, Gandadiko, is a musical snapshot of contemporary Mali. Uptempo and eminently danceable, but with tension and darkness never far away.

2. Juguya – Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band

Booming out of Burkina Faso, the super funky basslines and psyched-out guitars of Baba Commandant and The Mandingo Band hark back to the glory days of West African music. Afrofunk and afrobeat from the source.

3. Mardi Gras – Pierre Kwenders

Born in Kinshasa, but currently based in Quebec, Pierre Kwenders offers up a unique blend of Congolese rumba (soukous) and contemporary beatwork that is as irresistible as it is atmospheric. Brilliant.

4. Sex Verve – Verckys et l´Orchestre Vévé

James Brown dubbed him “Mr Dynamite” when he caught his show in Kinshasa in 1974. Georges Mateta “Verckys” Kiamuangana revolutionised Congolese music by combining the funk and soul sounds coming out of America with Congolese Merengue, Rumba and Soukous. Another first class release from the ever reliable Analog Africa label.

5. Eye of the Sun – Fantasma

The latest project of South African music pioneer Spoek Mathambo, Fantasma is a five-man collective which weaves together electronica, hip-hop, traditional Zulu maskandi music, shangaan electro, South African house, psych-rock and punk. Pulling inspiration from all corners of the rainbow nation, it is the sound of modern South Africa – from the townships and the cities to the rural countryside as well

6. Terry Riley’s in C Mali – Africa Express

Terry Riley’s In C Mali by Africa Express is the first ever recording of Riley’s minimalist work by an African ensemble. Recorded at the Maison des Jeunes youth club in Bamako, Mali in 2013, it features the cream of new artists from Bamako as well as Africa Express stalwarts, Damon Albarn and Brian Eno.

7. Al Hassidi Terei – Songhoy Blues

Vibrant desert R&B from northern Mali from a band determined to make music in the face of pressure from Islamists. Songhoy and the blues, blended beautifully and seamlessly.

8. I Have No Everything Here – Zomba Prison Project

In the summer of 2013, Grammy-winning producer, Ian Brennan, and his wife, Italian photographer and filmmaker, Marilena Delli, travelled to the border of Malawi and Mozambique specifically to document and record the music of prisoners at the maximum security prison in Zomba. The result is equally uplifting and heartbreaking,

9. Tzenni – Noura Mint Seymali

Noura Mint Seymali’s deeply emotive and technically brilliant voice blends seamlessly with traditional Mauritania instruments, mixed with electric guitars, drums and modern production, to create a truly unique and contemporary record.

5 instruments you’ve (probably) never heard of and one you have

1. Funky beats on the Cape Verdean ferrinho

Three musical styles dominate the islands of Cape Verde, of which, the funaná is the most upbeat and dynamic. It originates from Santiago island and is driven by the rhythms of an instrument called a ferrinho. Usually it’s accompanied melodically by an accordion called a gaita. A simple iron scraper, or idiophone, the ferrinho traditionally defines the pace and aesthetic of funaná but is often replaced by other percussion by modern musicians.

Below is a recording of Cape Verdean musician Mayra Andrade performing her song ‘Tunuka’ with Brazilian singer Mariana Aydar. The pair accompany themselves with the ferrinho and a triangle.

2. The haunting sound of the Japanese shakuhachi

Originating in ancient China, but now primarily associated with Japan and Zen Buddhism, the shakuhachi flute is a traditionally made from a length of bamboo. Sound is created by blowing across the top of the pipe and is thought to be quite meditative.

A popular component of traditional Japanese music, the shakuhachi has also been used in jazz, folk and film music.

3. One man and his biram in Niger

The biram is a five-stringed harp native to the Boudouma tribe of fishing nomads living by Lake Tchad in Niger. It is a holy instrument and can only be played by initiated masters. It has fallen out of favour with the youth and only one master remains: Malam Mamane Barka. Barka is honouring the wishes of his late teacher who asked him to talk about the biram wherever he could, spreading its music around the world. Catch Barka on one of his visits to the UK or hear the biram in action here.

4. Perfection on the Perisan tar

The Persian tar is a type of fretted lute typical of Persian classical music. The word ‘tar’ originates from the Sanskrit word ‘tarah’ and is thought to be the root of names for other instruments like the guitar and Indian sitar. With a double-bowl shaped resonator carved out of wood and covered with stretched lambskin, the tar is plucked like many other lutes the world over.

In its present form, the Persian tar has been around since the 18th century and is now the choice instrument of Persian classical music masters.

5. The crazy American calliope

The calliope is traditionally a steam-run whistling instrument that was developed in 1855 by Joshua Stoddard. He intended it to be used as a church instrument but it was taken on by the circus and steam boats of the paddle-wheel era on the Lower Mississippi River. By no means a subtle instrument, the calliope cannot vary its volume and is controlled mechanically or via a keyboard. The calliope made a guest appearance in The Beatles’ song ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’, so next time you’re listing to the legendary band, listen out for this instrument.

6. Nimble on the West African kora

The kora originated in The Gambia and has become popular all over West Africa, but is now best known for its Malian musical exponents. It is a 21-stringed harp traditionally played by griots, members of a hereditary caste of praise-singers and historians. The instrument is constructed from half a calabash gourd covered in stretched skin. The strings sit in two parallel rows reaching up the vertical neck.

Traditionally the harp was tuned using leather tuning rings that can be moved up and down; however, in recent years koras with guitar machine heads have become more popular because they are easier to tune.

Kora maistro Toumani Diabate comes from Mali and has seen success the world over with his virtuosic kora playing. Here he’s playing ‘Cantalowes’ from the album The Mandé Variations.

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Djenne in the afternoon

I’d bought my ticket the night before, so instead of going to the bus station for my bus from Sevare to Djenne, Mali, I could just walk out from my hotel to the main road to wait.

My “Somatra” 07.00 bus turned out to be an eight o’clock bus on “Bittar,” which arrived on time. I didn’t know why my ticket said 07.00 and Somatra on it. I didn’t really care either. I’d developed a thick travel skin after the last month on the road by land from Morocco to Mali – I’d need it since I still had nine months and the rest of the world to go – and was able to roll with sudden changes.

Unfortunately, my acquired-flexibility also inhibited my ability to be surprised. I was a little less capable of revelling in those delicious idiosyncratic travel moments that inevitably pop up during long voyages. The seasoned traveller must ever fight the urge to ignore the unexpected, to embrace the novel. This is an ongoing internal tug-of-war with me, as the more I adjust to the unexpected, the less I notice it. I remembered stopping halfway through the first, ten years ago, to rent a flat in Berlin for a month so that I could sleep, let my internal buffer process my journey, and regain a sense of wonder before proceeding on my trip around-the-world.

The bus conductor waved me onto the Bittar bus and installed me into an empty seat. Kids gathered around the bus to sing a good-bye song, wishing us luck and safe passage on our voyage. This always happens in Mali. Sometimes it’s harmonious. Other times, it’s off-key and earsplitting. But it’s always adorable.

The Bittar bus, to my surprise, wasn’t overcrowded and actually had a hint of air-conditioning. Not the Arctic blast we’re used to at home, but there was enough air circulating that the passengers weren’t gasping, dripping in sweat, and complaining.

But this ride was only two hours, not like my epic journeys from Senegal to Bamako, Bamako to Segou, or Segou to Sevare. I disembarked at Carrefour Djenne – that’s the junction where Djenne-bound passengers hang around and wait for share-taxis to fill up, so that we can ride the 30km to Djenne, home of the iconic UNESCO-lauded mud-brick mosque that is the best-known symbol of Mali.

I paid for my seat, then went into the back of a hut to sit in the shade and wait for other passengers. Time crawled by, as one or two people at a time showed up to buy their onward seats.

And that’s not all that was crawling. After an hour, I noticed that the hut wasn’t just infested with lizards (that’s normal). It was also full of mice. Ick. But I prefer mice to sunburn, so I stayed put. One of the mice startled me and I jumped. The other passengers and their children in the hut found this hilarious. I couldn’t blame them. We were pretty bored and me leaping at the sight of a tiny mouse was as entertaining as it got.

A few minutes later, the driver asked to see me in private. In broken English but mostly in French, he managed to convey that he wanted to get going, but didn’t have enough passengers. Would I be willing to buy the extra seats?

I tried bargaining but he wouldn’t come down in price. So I went back to my mice-filled hut. And waited.

By the end of the second hour, I forked over another $15. I was annoyed with myself and with the driver for asking me to do this. I didn’t want to keep spending so much money, and I felt awkward about my role. Was I ethically in the wrong to buy the rest of the seats, or was it something Malians would do on their own if I hadn’t been present, splitting the cost several ways? I wasn’t sure, but the other passengers were noticeably relieved.

And then, once we were underway and the taxi boarded the vehicle ferry as one must to get to Djenne, the hassle started on the boat. Buy this, buy that. I just didn’t have a sense of humor about it today. I ignored the sellers, which annoyed them.

“You can’t speak English?”


I’d been as obnoxious as the sellers. I was annoyed with them, annoyed with myself, annoyed with being expected to buy the rest of the taxi seats, annoyed with the two-hour wait, and I was still in Mali during the hottest part of the year. I was having a fight with Mali, even if it was only in my head.

The ferry docked. We all got back into the taxi, took off, and the driver stopped at a dirt road just outside Djenne. He motioned down the road towards a mud-brick compound.

“Hotel Sophie,” he said. Which isn’t the name of Djenne-Djenno Hotel which I’d booked online. It’s the name of the owner.

And what a hotel! I wandered in pissed-off at myself and Mali, and annoyed at how I was overspending. Sophie took pity on me, offered me free breakfast as part of my stay, and installed me in a gorgeous whitewashed room decorated in traditional crafts and local materials.

The delicious food, the freshly ground coffee, the homemade peanut butter, the bogolan details and mud-brick buildings… If I weren’t here to see a UNESCO World Heritage site, I wouldn’t have left the grounds.

But there was a mosque that needed my attention, so I scampered back down the dirt road to the bridge, then took a left into town.

The sun was brutal, as usual.

I’d read that I’d be swarmed by would-be guides in Djenne. That’s an overstatement, though there were more than a few eager volunteers. One of them, Amadou, invited me into the mosque.

“It is being rebuilt right now so you are allowed in.”

And so it was. Work crews were re-bricking the mosque. But inside was fairly typical of mosques – the outside was far more spectacular. I headed back outside quickly, shoes in hand.

Amadou offered to take me the 30km to Carrefour Djenne tomorrow on his motorbike, after I went to the Monday market, since there was only one early bus a day to Bamako direct from Djenne. I wasn’t sure about the 4,000 CFA Amadou wanted. It seemed like a lot, but then, 30km is a long way in the hot sun. I told him I’d think about it, and then went to find an internet café.

But the internet place was closed, so I asked a man in long, colorful traditional clothing where I could find another one. He motioned down the road, cautioning me that it was a long walk. “But I will drive you on my motorbike,” he said.

I nearly got on the motorbike, but I was wearing a skirt. I’d seen women in India doing the sidesaddle thing but couldn’t quite convince myself to try it, so I laughed and said no thanks.

I started walking, but at the end of the block, the man on the motorbike caught up to me.

“It’s open, come back. The man has opened the internet store.”

It’s hard to stay angry at a place where random strangers chase you down the street to help you get onto Facebook. Mali was great.

And to celebrate my newfound truce with Mali, I tracked down Amadou and gave him 2,000 CFA – petrol money – towards giving me a lift to Carrefour Djenne tomorrow. I didn’t know if it was wise to go on the back of a motorbike, or if I was being overcharged, but I didn’t care.

He was offering. And I needed to get to Bamako.

Marie Javins writes books, teaches aspiring comic book colorists in New York, edits Kuwaiti comic books and travels the world by public bus. You can read more about her current expedition – a second round-the-world journey – at

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