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Pet Sins January 2010

African interpretations of jazz

Jazz, whose origins can be traced in part to West African music1, has come full circle in being absorbed into the repertoire of modern African musicians.

In the following sections, we take a look at a number of meetings between jazz and various African musical cultures. (No attempt is being made to represent all of Africa, a vast and diverse continent, in this article. And in the interest of length, we will not attempt to cover all notable jazz fusion contributors from each of the countries mentioned below. Any omissions are not intended to disrespect the contributions of the many musicians who contributed to jazz fusions in Africa.)


The late composer and political activist Fela Kuti, ranked by HMV as one of the 100 most influential musicians of the 20th century, pioneered Afrobeat, which fused traditional Yoruba music with jazz, funk and rock.2 Fela Kuti passed away in 1997, but his legacy continues into the 21st century - Afrobeat has gone global and is being adopted by bands around the world.2 Current Nigerian Afrobeat artistes include Fela's sons Femi and Seun, as well as Kunle Ayo, who combines cool jazz, Afrobeat and other indigenous musical styles.3


In 1950s Cameroon, the traditional Duala dance kossa absorbed influences from jazz, ambasse bey, Latin music, highlife and rumba to form the musical style Makossa.4 The style became popular internationally due to the work of Cameroonian artists such as Manu Dibango, whose song 'Soul Makossa' was imitated by many musicians in the Americas.5

Dibango, a saxaphonist of international standing, was influenced by African American jazz players in his youth, and went on play a wide variety of African diaspora musical styles, fusing the different influences he encountered.6 In 1985, he released the album 'Electric Africa' in collaboration with black American jazz legend Herbie Hancock and other U.S. jazz artists.7 In the 21st century, Dibango has lost none of his zeal for brining together varous musical cultures, collaborating with Ray Lema to fuse jazz-groove with central African sounds in a new style "Bantou Beat". 8 Dibango was designated UNESCO Artist for Peace in 2004 for his musical projects in support of cultural exchange.9

A younger-generation Cameroonian musician who has fused traditional music and jazz is Richard Bona, a musical prodigy who set up a jazz ensemble for a French-owed club in the city of Douala at age 13.10 He went on to release a number of albums, including the Grammy-nominated album Tiki, integrating traditional Cameroonian song with jazz, bossa nova, pop, afro-beat, funk, and other global influences.11 Bona was performed together with black American jazz artistes George Benson, Herbie Hancock and Bobby McFerrin.12

South Africa

In the mid-20th century, black American culture was much admired and imitated in South Africa, and these imported influences included jazz.13 The meeting of jazz and traditional music gave rise to marabi, a distinctly South African style with jazz, ragtime and blues infuences, and mbaqanga, an offshoot of marabi which still retained its jazzy feel and Zulu roots.14

South African jazz greats such as Jabu Khanyile and Hugh Masekela had taken the sounds of mbaqanga to the international stage.15 The late Khanyile, who has collaborated international with African artistes from various countries, included mbaqangambaqanga, Afro fusion and traditional Zulu music in his jazz repetoire.16 Trumpeter Hugh Masekela, hailed as the "father of South African jazz", was a "bebopper fronting a standard jazz combo" in his early career, but later decided to express his African heritage through his music, creating a sound that "fused jazz and African folk elements."17

American jazz musicians connect with Africa

This cross-pollination of musical cultures did not just flow one way across the Atlantic. Black American jazz musicians also explored traditional African music through their work. Hank Jones, winner of the NEA Jazz Masters Award, collaborated Cheick-Tidiane Seck, a traditional Malian griot who is also well-versed in modern music, to record Sarala, a blend of jazz and Malian music.17 Duke Ellington, who has been quoted as saying "jazz is a music that came out of Africa with very deep African roots," had incorporated the sounds of Africa into his work.18

  1. Jazz on wikipedia
  2. Afrobeat on National Geographic
    Fela Kuti on Wikipedia
  3. Afrobeat on National Geographic
  4. Afrobeat on National Geographic
    Kunle Ayo official site
  5. Makossa on Wikipedia
  6. Makossa on Wikipedia
  7. Manu Dibango on RFI Music
    Manu Dibango on GlobalRhythm.net
  8. Manu Dibango on RFI Music
  9. Manu Dibango on RFI Music
  10. "Manu Dibango designated UNESCO Artist for Peace" on UNESCO.org
  11. Richard Bona on IMN World
    Richard Bona on Wikipedia
  12. Richard Bona on IMN World
  13. Richard Bona on IMN World
  14. Album literature for "Best of Hugh Masekela on Novus"
  15. Marabi on Wikipedia
    Mbaqanga on Wikipedia
  16. 'Khanyile, Afro Jazz Giant Dies' on BSN
  17. Album literature for "Best of Hugh Masekela on Novus"
    'Jazz from South Africa' on jazzitude.com
  18. "Hank Jones and Cheick-Tidiane Seck: Sarala" on jazz.com
    Hank Jones official site
    'Cheick Tidiane Seck' on mali-music.com
  19. Duke Ellington on Smithsonianjazz.org
    The Essence of Duke Ellington