A Guide to African Country Music

African Country Music

In the perpetually accelerating exchange between American and African pop music, Lil Nas X’s country-rap smash “Old Town Road,” with its near-endless remixes, has entered something of a feedback loop, creating new variants like this acoustic version by South African artists Kwesta, Elandré, and Refentse. But African country music is hardly new. It began gradually, in the early ‘30s, and coalesced into something like a market at the same cultural moment that African music first appeared on the American charts in the early ‘50s. Traced across nations and decades on a variety of compilations and reissues, it is only the tip of a largely unexplored musical path echoing with lonesome ache and distinctly African lilts.

Cowboys hit the African continent in the late ‘20s, before country music itself did. Around southern Africa, in colonial mining camps, companies arranged screenings of silent (and heavily edited) American westerns “to entice potential laborers, serving as an inexpensive distraction from the brutal working conditions and the allure of potentially toxic home-brewed alcohol,” according to Gordon Ashworth’s liner notes to Olvido Records’ wondrous recent collection, Bulawayo Blue Yodel. After the movies came the new and dangerous local archetype of the “Copperbelt Cowboy,” local men emulating on-screen behavior. And alongside that came popular, imported 78s by early American country star Jimmie Rodgers, the Mississippi-born singing brakeman and iconic yodeler. Perhaps resonating with local musicians for its resemblance to other types of African vocalizations—such as Shona mbira music, from Zimbabwe—yodeling became part of the African musical vocabulary.

While nearly every African nation has its own equivalent genres containing subtle combinations of rural and popular influences, Nashville-style country and western (C&W) spread, almost certainly in some traceable proportion with the spread of Christianity. Though the music was first a byproduct of colonialism, American C&W began to blend with numerous kinds of regional music by the early ‘50s, with the singers singing in their own languages, for their own purposes, and with their own subtly local twists. Over the next decades, “country” became a recognizable strain of African music—not exactly a standalone genre, but a stylistic approach that mixed with and influenced all different kinds of African pop.

At nearly the same time as the earliest African country recordings, African music appeared on the American pop charts for the first time, too, with a hit cover of song first recorded by Solomon Linda and The Original Evening Birds, Gallotone labelmates of several artists featured on Bulawayo Blue Yodel. Originally titled “Mbube,” the Americanized version was a respectful if naive rearrangement by Pete Seeger’s folk quartet the Weavers, retitled “Wimoweh”—their last top 10 hit before being blacklisted. Turned into the ubiquitous “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens in 1962, it’s now receiving yet another turn through the American pop cycle via the new Lion King reboot.

But, like the African country music below, “Mbube” wasn’t traditional, either. On the original recording, its most identifiable melody—“In the jungle / The mighty jungle”—was a one-time wordless improvisation by Solomon Linda. It is the creative product of the same moment as his yodeling labelmates, a moment in which the possibilities of global pop were taking root in musicians in both Africa and the United States.

Various Artists
Bulawayo Blue Yodel

Bulawayo Blue-Yodel

Bulawayo Blue Yodel captures some of the earliest African country recordings, and also provides a map of its spread up the eastern coast. There is, as the title suggests, plenty of Rodgers-influenced yodeling, from South Africa and Kenya, but also music from Zimbabwe that sounds much like the Carter Family. The musicians aren’t novelty artists reproducing international hits, but genuine and passionate, creating new expressions adapted for local conditions. Ashworth’s liner notes provides alluring context for how the artists and music crossed borders in ways that are hard to recover in full. But even without the liner notes, the mere juxtaposition of C&W styles with African voices makes the feeling of blurred boundaries palpable and inescapable in the music itself.

Recording on a South African label, the mysterious Clarkson Sithole seems to have borrowed both his American affectations and his Zimbabwean Shona dialect, hinting at the music’s many audiences, perhaps a South African playing for Zimbabweans. With a recording career beginning in 1948, meanwhile, best-selling Zimbabwean heartthrob Josaya Hadebe became a star in South Africa. The Bulawayo-born guitarist mixed ragtime rhythms, South African marabi melodies, and Carter Family nods, resulting in a laid-back style that Ashworth compares to Piedmont country-blues. Throughout Bulawayo Blue Yodel, musicians negotiate (and challenge) both C&W affectations and local traditions. But when Hadebe lets loose long, high hollers that overloads the recording equipment, he breaks through to a space all its own.

Chemutoi Ketienya and Kipsigis Girls
Chemirocha III
[From Listen All Around: The Golden Age of Central African Music]

There remain some linear paths from American country music to African country music, but most are more opaque. Perhaps the most infamous African/country crossover is an utterly magical performance credited to Chemutoi Ketienya and Kipsigis Girls, taped in Kenya by British ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey in 1950. Long known as “Chemirocha,” the recording is ineffable. Equally memorable was Tracey’s story that the song’s title was, in fact, a mutation of the name “Jimmie Rodgers.” But “Chemirocha” only barely resembles C&W so much as it exemplifies the way American influences began to creep into traditional practices. Contemporary researchers discovered a story even more amazing: “Chemirocha” is more properly “Chemirocha III,” Tracey’s third example of an emergent local style of music, each different other than the use of the title phrase. Rather than a literal mimic of Rodgers’s blue yodels, “chemirocha” became a catch-all genre for a variety of wistful, sentimental melodies, some rooted in Rodgers’s C&W, many not.

Emma Ogosi
Nobody Knows 

One recognizable country proponent in Nigeria was Emma Ogosi, whose 1981 album Nobody Knows helped lay the groundwork for the artist’s future rhinestone-studded image. But, as with “Chemirocha”-loving Kenyans on the other side of the continent, C&W was only one element in Nigeria’s larger pop brew. In Nigeria, “sentimental music” had become a shorthand for Western pop, with C&W a prominent thread and influence in numerous, unpredictable ways.

Some Nigerians who fought as American allies in the Korean War are said to have brought records back with them, including Nigeria’s first homegrown country musician, Joe Nez. Jimmie Rodgers found some popularity in Nigeria, but it was nothing compared to Texas-born singer Jim Reeves, who scored massive hits throughout Africa in the early ‘60s. And in the early ‘70s, perhaps sensing an opportunity, EMI began to heavily market gentle country-popper Don Williams in Africa. In Lagos, in a decade where radio ruled, an EMI-owned station kept Williams in heavy rotation. With a soft guitar touch that might be heard as adjacent to numerous African guitar styles and a rich voice that some described as “spiritual,” Williams’s slicker sound transformed African country music and its audience.

While Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti was operating his embattled Shrine in Lagos in the late ‘70s, homegrown American-style country music began to filter into the Nigerian pop-scape, most notably on a few mostly-country albums by pioneer Bongos Ikwue. But, more often, instead of there being specifically country singers or even country albums, C&W tracks sat in almost equal measure alongside reggae, gospel, soul, and balladry, as well as the disco and Afrobeat fusions.

Over a multi-decade career, Ogosi straddled many of the aforementioned sounds, playing guitar with the rock band the Expensives in the ‘60s and the reggae group Pogo Limited in the ‘70s. He emerged as a popular solo act in the ‘80s, and later would produce and marry the Nigerian reggae mega-star Evi Edna Ogholi. On Nobody Knows, “Give A Little” is explicitly C&W, but (with the right kind of ears) so is the chorus of the title track, at least until it hits a glorious soul-pop turnaround. With Ogosi singing in English, the sentimental moods of country can be detected almost everywhere in fragments of melodies, lyrics, and refrains, even when the beat reads as disco or reggae.

Christy Essien-Igbokwe
Give Me A Chance

Known as Nigeria’s “First Lady of Song,” Christy Essien-Igbokwe was a dancefloor-ready pop star who also occasionally went twangy. With a career that began in the mid-‘70s as a teenage singer, songwriter, and actor, her fifth album, 1980’s Give Me A Chance, saw her perched at the edge of a full popular breakthrough—and a career pivot of sorts. The title track was a full-on Dolly Parton-like anthem, introducing an album filled with eclectic and assured gems, including ominous R&B (“Saboteurs”), disco (“Rumours”), and Yoruba-sung Afro-pop (“Onwu (Death)”). Essien-Igbokwe’s multilingual recording allowed for appeal across Nigeria. In the years after Give Me A Chance, Essien-Igbokwe became an activist, too, acting in Nollywood films that addressed female circumcision and child abuse, as well as helping to form the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria (and later serving as its first woman president).

Oby Onyioha
I Want To Feel Your Love

Oby Onyioha was another cosmopolitan Nigerian pop star, delving into disco and soul, and—on 1981’s I Want To Feel Your Love—the shimmering country-pop “I’ll Put It Right Again.” It’s a sterling example of the sweet pop transcendence at the heart of “sentimental music.” There’s an abiding sadness to Oniyoha’s sweet vocal tone, part of an identifiable country sound and mood, and the lilt of the tune is pure ‘70s Nashville. Heard in the context of the rest of the album (and Oniyoha’s contemporaries), it is one part of sentimental music’s grander tradition, elevating country music to a level of pop respect it would take another decade or more to find in the United States, and creating an irresistible global hybrid.

William Onyeabor
Atomic Bomb

Country’s influence could be heard in lots of different Nigerian musicians whose music didn’t resemble country at all. Jùjú pioneer Chief Ebenezer Obey borrowed liberally from Don Williams’s melodies, resetting them to new grooves. King Sunny Ade went one step further, declaring himself a country fan, and added pedal steel player Demola Adepoju to his band by 1977. American country music remained huge in Nigeria in the ‘80s, with Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson all cited as huge sellers along with the omnipresent Don Williams in a detailed mid-’80s scene report. It was a profound influence on more underground sounds in Nigeria, too, such as outsider electro-gospel experimenter William Onyeabor, feted with a series of reissues in recent years. Though there’s not much twang in his sound, his voice comes straight from his heroes, the baritone country gods Reeves and Williams.

Jess Sah Bi and Peter One
Our Garden Needs Its Flowers

West of Nigeria, in Ivory Coast, country music never achieved regional popularity in quite the same way, though the same country artists could be heard playing an influence on Jess Sah Bi and Peter One’s Our Garden Needs Its Flowers. Perhaps the most extraordinary African country album, in part because it’s one of the few that’s C&W-influenced from beginning to end, the 1985 LP was also one of the most successful, propelling the duo to stadium gigs throughout western Africa. But country music meant something very different to Jess Sah Bi and Peter One, finding solidarity and freedom in the folk-rock harmonies of the duo’s other American favorites including Simon & Garfunkel, The Eagles, and Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Both musicians in the duo were unapologetic activists; Jess Sah Bi already had a well-established career as the first political cartoonist in Ivory Coast, and Peter One would go on to help establish a regional musicians’ union. Instead of a pop market, the two found an audience mainly of students and younger listeners. The duo’s songs—sung in English, French, and Gouro—spoke out against apartheid, and “African Chant” would be heard regularly on the BBC surrounding Nelson Mandela’s 1990 release from prison.

Dusty & Stones
My Soul is Crying
[From Sitawuphumelela—Songs of Hope]

Country music remains part of music throughout Africa in a range of ways, with a new generation of sometimes Auto-Tuned C&W gospel singers including Kenya’s Esther Konkara, Nigeria’s Ogak Jay Oke, and others. From Swaziland, a landlocked nation inside South Africa, comes Dusty & Stones, the vocal effects-free duo of Gazi “Dusty” Simelane and Linda “Stones” Msibi. There is no novelty about “My Soul is Crying,” an English language ballad, a lament in any language.

For listeners and labels exploring African music, threads of C&W might provide maps to entire scenes and generations of musicians almost certainly left to rediscover by northern ears. For those interested in understanding music’s context in the Global South, the intersection of American C&W and regional African traditions illuminates those tensions, contradictions, and beauties in all their achy-breaky complexity.

-Jesse Jarnow

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