Ladysmith Black Mambazo (South Africa) – Arguably one of the most prolific South African bands in existence, this a capella all-male singing troupe has been around for more than 40 years. Their fusion of traditional South African sounds with Christian gospel and even pop has set them apart and brought them to centre stage. Founded by lead singer, director and composer Joseph Shabalala, they’ve collaborated with Paul Simon and Melissa Etheridge, provided soundtrack material for The Lion King II, and have been invited to perform for Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth II and the late Pope John Paul II. Oh, and they don’t mind getting recognition from the Grammys either, having been nominated 13 times since 1988, and winning three of those nominations, including most recently in 2009 in the “Best Traditional World Music Album” category for Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu.
Most recent album: Songs From a Zulu Farm (Razor & Tie; 2011)
Razia Said (Madagascar) – Not just another beautiful, exotic voice, Razia Said combines the traditional sounds of the small, ecologically isolated island of Madagascar with socially, environmentally and spiritually conscious messages. Despite having relocated to New York City to pursue her musical career, her love of Madagascar holds fast and shines through in her music. Zebu Nation, her latest release, is a collection of Malagasy songs with a new-age edge, written about her longing for her country in spite of the poverty, tribal dissonance and environmental suffering experienced there. The album serves as her way of raising awareness of the troubles of her homeland, which is being destroyed by slash-and-burn agriculture, climate change and industrial development.
Most recent album: Zebu Nation (Cumbancha; 2009)
Tamikrest (Mali) – After being referred to as “the future of Tuareg music,” Tamikrest has a lot to live up to. But after listening to their psychedelic, desert-inspired synthesis of Tuareg, rock ‘n’ roll, electric blues and pop, you’ll understand why. Singing entirely in Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg people, they use traditional sounds such as youyous, djembés, as well as electric guitar, bass, drums and vocals to bring you on your own personal hallucinogenic desert oasis trip. The nine band members, all in their early ‘20s, received musical training at a small desert oasis school, but didn’t move beyond playing traditional songs until the Internet became available and they were able to discover iconic Western musical heroes Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Bob Marley. Although you might not associate their sound with a heavy message, the Tuareg people have endured great suffering, including a five-year-long civil war in the early ‘90s which shaped the music and philosophies of these young musicians.
Most recent album: Toumastin (Glitterhouse Records; 2011)
Burkina Electric (Burkina Faso) – In a wild cohesion of electronic and African sounds, Burkina Electric pulls out all the right stops to have you moving and grooving. The group is actually led by Lukas Ligeti, an extremely talented, Austrian-born drummer and composer who happens to be the son of the famous film and classical composer Gyorgy Ligeti. Burkina Electric is more than just a band—think The Mighty Mighty Bosstones—they also have two dancers, tying together the long-held tradition of music and dance for the African people. By seeking out rare and unknown African rhythms, this sextet is spearheading electronic world music with ancient rhythms and instruments, such as those of the Sahel, combined with their own original beats and sounds. Lead singer Maï Lingani sings in four languages, including French, and alongside guitarist Wende K. Blass, electronicist/VJ Pyrolator, Ligeti, and dancers/choreographers Vicky and Zoko Zoko, this Burkina Faso band is sure to impress.
Most recent album: Raem Tekra (Listenable Records; 2007)
Upcoming album: Not yet named, no official release date.
King Sunny Adé (Nigeria) – At 65 years of age, King Sunny Adé is still pumping out the high energy traditional African rhythms that most people would associate with the widely diverse continent. He and his band, the African Beats, deliver Yoruba Nigerian Jùjú music and are widely considered to have popularized the genre in the world music scene. To say he’s accomplished is an understatement—he’s been nominated for two Grammys, collaborated with Stevie Wonder, released well over 100 albums, and he has even graced the silver screen three times. And don’t think that you’ll have to miss out on a wild performance when it comes to this veteran performer. With anywhere from 23 to 50 band members on stage at any given time, a concert by Adé is probably a bigger party than anything you might have seen during frosh week.
Most recent album: Morning Joy (Master Disc; 2010)
Die Antwoord (South Africa) – If Nicki Minaj’s latest schizophrenic Grammy awards show offering has left a stale Lady Gaga-esque taste in your mouth, turn to Die Antwoord for an even filthier take on grunge hip hop. Die Antwoord, “The Answer” in Afrikaans, is weeding Zef style into mainstream rave electronica with the help of the Pitchfork and Coachella obsessed. Its three members, Ninja, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, and DJ Hi -Tek are at the forefront of the South African Zef movement, and boast the dirt-poor yet flashy lifestyle. They fuse fashion with music, drawing on the clash between rich and poor in the wake of South African apartheid. Their music video for “Enter the Ninja” went viral in 2009, leading to a deal with Interscope Records and an international tour. In keeping with the Zef lifestyle, Die Antwoord left their major label and started their own, Zef Records, in 2011.
Most recent album: Ten$ion (Zef Records; 2012)
Michael Kiwanuka (Uganda) – Fresh off backing Adele’s 2011 tour, Michael Kiwanuka is bound to bask in his tour mate’s glorious 2012 Grammy shutdown. The London-born 23-year-old is the offspring of two Ugandan refugees who fled the Amin regime, escaping political repression and mass killings that resulted in the deaths of up to 500,000 people in the 1970s. Kiwanuka lived quietly as a session guitarist until going solo in 2011 with his debut solo EP, Tell Me a Tale. Always with a guitar in hand, Kiwanuka is a wholesome, soulful crooner, reminiscent of Otis Redding and Bill Withers. Though he has yet to release an album, he beat out the much hyped Azealia Banks and Skrillex for the BBC’s Sound of 2012 poll. Past winners of the award include Jessie J, Adele and Ellie Goulding, so Kiwanuka is destined for stardom.
Most recent album: I’m Getting Ready [EP] (Communion Records; 2011)
Upcoming album: Home Again (Polydor; 2012)
The Parlotones (South Africa) – Africa isn’t all drum circles and pan flutes, and even The Parlotones are proof that the continent didn’t escape the britpop epidemic of the ‘90s. Hailing from Johannesburg, The Parlotones is a traditional four-piece rock band known for churning out stadium anthems and harmonious ballads à la Coldplay. The band was signed to Universal Records, the world’s largest record company, but has failed to catch on in North America despite achieving moderate success in Europe. The band members won’t walk the streets of Cape Town or Johannesburg unnoticed, however, for they have achieved multi-platinum status in South Africa. The Parlotones performed alongside Shakira and The Black Eyed Peas at the FIFA World Cup Kick-Off Celebration Concert in 2010, and band members are also spokespersons for Live Earth and Earth Hour.
Most recent album: Eavesdropping on the Songs of Whales (Sovereign Entertainment; 2011)
Upcoming album: Journey Through the Shadows (Sovereign Entertainment; 2012)
Freshlyground (South Africa) – This seven-piece Cape Town outfit has achieved international recognition for its ability to blend traditional African music with social commentary, yet simultaneously attract a mainstream pop appeal that defies demographics. Zolani Mahola, Freshlyground’s lyricist and energetic vocalist, always seems to sing through a smile. Mahola’s silky voice sails through piano, violin, guitar, mbira, saxophone and percussion instrumentals provided by her musical compadres who gather from Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa to perform together. The band draws on kwela, the skiffling street dance music of South Africa, as well as African folk music, alternative rock and tin pan alley harmonies. Freshlyground became the first South African group to win the MTV Europe Award for Best African Act in 2006 and performed the official anthem for the 2010 FIFA World Cup with Shakira.
Most recent album: Radio Africa (Sony BMG Africa; 2010)
D’Banj (Nigeria) – In a world where rap and hip hop is dominated by glock-happy, gold-toothed, ganja-bragging criminals, D’Banj’s harmonica is a full breath of fresh air. After signing with Kanye’s label, G.O.O.D. MUSIC, in 2011, the Nigerian native will bring a slightly less hard face to American R&B. D’Banj was born into a conservative family and was expected to follow his father’s footsteps into the military, but he found himself drawn to drums rather than guns. In tribute to his deceased brother and the harmonica instruction he received from him, D’Banj continues to stick with the instrument, playing it on stage and in studio. His reggae-Afrobeat tales of chasing kokelets (beautiful women) and struggling for acceptance bring youthful humour to hip hop.
Most recent album: The Entertainer (Mo Hits Records; 2008)
Upcoming album: Mr. Endowed (G.O.O.D. Music; 2012)