The Music of West Africa

Oct 27, 2021

For the past few months we’ve focused a lot of our attention on exploring the wider world of music. We’ve been around the Caribbean, to places like Cuba and Trinidad & Tobago. We’ve explored parts of South America, with musical visits to Brazil, Argentina, and Chile. We’ve looked at Spanish influences in Mexican music, and how music in Spain has changed. Let’s continue our journey this week, with a look at the music of West Africa.

Traditional West African Music

The traditional music of West Africa varies across the region, thanks in large part to how the landscape separated people throughout history. However, traditional music can be generally placed in two groups: Islamic music, and indigenous secular music.

Islam’s influence on the culture of West Africa goes as far back as at least the 9th century, helped along by the introduction of camels to trade routes between the North of Africa and Sub-Saharan West Africa. Generally speaking, music influenced by Islam in West Africa commonly includes the use of stringed instruments, like the goje. On the other hand, traditional secular music often makes more use of drums like the djembe.

Both of these traditional styles of music were helped to spread by wandering musicians, often called “griots,” thanks to their purpose of spreading oral tradition through musical storytelling. The griots continue to keep smaller ethnolinguistic group’s cultures alive to this day.

Contemporary West African Music

West Africa’s popular music scene is often made up of a combination of Western, Latin American, and traditional African music. Genres like Highlife, Afro-Calypso, and Afrobeat are fantastic examples of this fusion, and have each developed beyond what they started as.


Highlife is an upbeat and happy style of music that is performed in many regional languages, including Igbo, Yoruba, and Ewe. However, Highlife is rarely sung in English.

The original form of Highlife came out of Ghana, but most regions in the area have adopted the genre and created their own variations on its sound, altering the pace, instruments, and lyrics. Ghanaian music scholar V. Kofi Agawu wrote in 2006, “Highlife is invested with a bundle of attributes that include personal and communal pride, stateliness, self-satisfaction, and a strategic complacency.”

Highlife is often played by big bands made up of a variety of instruments; most of which tend to be modern, and typically European. This is a trend that goes back to the 19th century, when the Gold Coast was established and European missionaries and merchants brought accordions, brass instruments, guitars, and harmonicas with them. These instruments, combined with the more drum-focused traditional music of West Africa, created the fusion that is Highlife.


Afro-Calypso, developed from the West African kaiso, remains a popular genre today. The genre shares some attributes with Highlife, and sounds similar, but the two differ when it comes to lyrics and instrumentation. The lyrics of Highlife tend to be repeated more than those in Afro-Calypso songs, despite the subject of both genres being very similar: romantic relationships and desire.


Maringa, or plam-wine music as it is often called, evolved among the Kru people of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Using Portuguese guitars combined with local melodies and rhythms, and a dash of Trinidadian calypso, a “light, easy, lilting style” was created.

The genre was first popularized by Sierra Leone Creole musician and performer Ebenezer Calendar & His Marina Band, who recorded several popular songs throught the 1950s and ‘60s. Many contemporary West African genres have been influenced by Maringa, including Highlife and Afrobeat.

Although the genre isn’t quite as popular as it once was, it remains a strong part of West African culture, especially in Sierra Leone.


Massively popular throughout West Africa, Afrobeat originated in Ghana in the early part of the 20th century, and grew in popularity throughout the 1960s. This explosion was thanks in large part to the fame of Fela Kuti, the “Father of Afrobeat.” The sound of Afrobeat is influenced by maringa, Ghanaian Highlife, jazz, funk, and fuji.

Afrobeat is characterised by multi-instrument bands playing jazz and funk-inspired grooves, with a major focus on guitar riffs and the horn section. The lyrics have traditionally been political in nature, and Fela Kuti’s lyrics covered topics from black power to dictatorship.

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