Africa’s Musical Crusaders: New Generation of Griots

The Good Ones soothe audiences in Rwanda and internationally as well

The Good Ones soothe audiences in Rwanda and internationally as well

Africa produces its fair share of aspirational pop with glossy videos featuring fast cars and seemingly faster women. But peer under the hedonistic surface and you discover there are musicians all over the continent who are worthy successors to the griots, Africa’s traditional storytellers, says DJ Rita Ray.
West Africa’s griots or jalis, are often referred to as hereditary praise-singers, yet they are so much more.

The root meaning of jali is blood, and they circulated across African societies as transmitters of history, advice and knowledge.

They were reporter, storyteller, poet, composer and musician. Their skill in communicating and in mediation made them, according to Toumani Diabate, Mali’s kora-playing wizard and the world’s most famous griot, “the needle that sews”.

Where do we find the jali in 21st Century Africa? Who has taken on this mantle?

Across the continent and beyond there are artists from all kinds of backgrounds – lawyers, refugees, survivors and scholars with something to say.

In a way these are the modern-day jalis, with different ways of transmitting knowledge and information, and novel ways of making themselves heard.

There are those who turn their backs on the world of mainstream pop, where being successful often means working for telecoms companies and multinationals and being part of the corporate scramble for market share.

Then, it is not about content or quality, it is about the number of fans and followers.

Oliseh Odili, front man of Villy & The Xtreme Volume, was making a name for himself in Nigeria’s vibrant hip-hop and R’n’B scene.

Villy recording You Make Me Mad for BBC Africa Beats

Villy recording You Make Me Mad for BBC Africa Beats

But sick of what he saw as the docile acceptance of the status quo, he moved to Ghana to find the creative space to tease out and formulate his ideas.

Villy found musicians who shared his commitment to live performance and challenging lyrics and formed a kind of rogue boy band to deliver his uniquely catchy, harmony drenched, high-energy Afro-Fusion music.

Songs like “You Make Me” Mad provoke and berate, while sending audiences into a frenzy of dancing and singing.

When governments want our votes, Villy sings, “them do sweep we road every hour” but once secure in power “them go loot and kawa, gather we money go… we see this things happening every day, but we too busy praying to Allah”.

This new breed of jali will use everything at their disposal to get their message across, messages we sometimes don’t want to hear.

Omawumi, a qualified lawyer (also from Nigeria), came to prominence through the reality TV show, West Africa Idols.

Nigerian diva Omawumi Nigerian diva Omawumi lures unsuspecting listeners to confront social taboos

Nigerian diva Omawumi
Nigerian diva Omawumi lures unsuspecting listeners to confront social taboos

She engages sought-after producers like Cobhams Asuquo, to create a cloak of brassy, irresistible pop music.

Omawumi then uses her fantastic soulful voice to lure in the unsuspecting listener as she lifts the lid on shameful topics that are usually kept under wraps.

If “You Ask Me” is an explosive song about incest, inspired by a shocking conversation she overheard between a father and daughter.

The jali are communicators and for them, language is the key.M.anifest returned home to Ghana from the US to seek inspiration

M.anifest, winner of the Best Rapper award at the 2013 Ghana Music Awards, is a musical boundary-crosser who hones his art through collaboration, whether with Tony Allen, the legendary Afrobeat drummer, keyboard alchemist Kwame Yeboah of Alexander O’Neal and Osibisa fame, or with the now defunct Camp Mulla, the enfants terribles of Kenyan hip-hop.

He was based in the US making a splash in the world of hip-hop but was drawn back home to Ghana, his muse, inspiration and source of endless frustration.

On the track ‘Someway Bi’, a chronicle of the everyday challenges faced by his country folk, he raps in Twi, English and Pidgin, infusing additional texture and meaning with the use of relevant current catch phrases.

Tumi’s thought-provoking lyrics are delivered with easy grace

Another serial collaborator is Tumi Molekane, a South African poet and rapper, whose association with Tiago Correia Paulo, the progressive Mozambican guitarist, was the nucleus of the acclaimed Tumi & The Volume, the influential, pioneering hip-hop ensemble.

Tumi’s unfaltering lyrical flow can be as richly metaphorical as African stories of old, whose insights were hidden in proverbs and intricate tales.

Some of these artists live in exile, but continue to focus attention on the plight of the citizens of their embattled homelands.

Aziza Brahim is the granddaughter of Al Kadra, revered war poetess of the Saharawi, the people of the Western Sahara, most of whose land has been annexed by Morocco.

Born and raised in Algerian refugee camps, Aziza learnt to play the tabal, the traditional drum of her people.

Beating out the rhythm, she lifts her hauntingly beautiful voice to chronicle the history of the Saharawi, the decades of war, civil uprisings and life as a refugee, whether in the camps of Algeria or in the Spanish city of Barcelona where she now resides.Aziza Brahim uses her voice to draw attention to the plight of her people

Lala Njava is also a singer who comes from a celebrated family of musicians and she sings of her homeland from afar.

From Madagascar, but living in Brussels, she is engaged and proactive in the ecological challenges faced by her country, contributing some of her income to crucial tree-planting projects back home.

The music she makes with her brothers is steeped in Malagasy folklore, which she combines with contemporary sounds that support her surprisingly deep and dazzling voice.

Lala urges people to see her homeland before it is too late.

Lala Njava uses a proportion of her earnings to fund social and environmental projects in Madagascar

Lala Njava uses a proportion of her earnings to fund social and environmental projects in Madagascar

Back on the African mainland, Mali’s Songhoy Blues are a group of young men who specialise in the evocative desert blues made famous by the legendary guitarist Ali Farka Toure.

They had to flee their home of Dire, north of Timbuktu, along with other musicians who defied the decree by the militants Islamists that had invaded their part of country, to stop making music.

They refused to be silenced and sought safety in the capital Bamako, where they continued to make music and to denounce and resist the form of Islam that endangered their way of life.

Then there are the survivors, like the Good Ones, a disparate group of musicians, lead by subsistence farmer, Adrien Kazigira.

Armed with only their shared experience of the Rwandan genocide, a borrowed battered guitar, random percussion and voices locked in beguiling harmony, they sing in the Kinyarwanda language at weddings and funerals.

They lift themselves and their audience out from unrelenting echoes of horror, with unifying songs of love and praise.

So yes – peer underneath the surface to discover Africa’s new breed of jali.

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