Beyond Afropop: Three Must-Listen Selections from the Awesome Tapes Blog

Afropop is a term used to describe pop music from Africa. But don’t let the simplicity of this term fool you– while Afropop has some common elements, it is as diverse and varied a “genre” as anything else from a continent with over 50 countries and 1 billion people!

Furthermore, African music has helped spawn and then echoed over time some of the most beloved popular music traditions from all over the world, from jazz and rock to hip hop and beyond.

For the past few years, the blog Awesome Tapes from Africa ( has been giving people a chance to delve into what makes music from Africa so unique. The blog focuses on music that is either obscure to people in the west, or just plain obscure. Most recordings are cassette tapes found in markets and in private collections, and you can sort the extensive collection online by country, region or decade, which means you can easily find the kind of music you’re looking for– or, even better, take a trip through time and space to somewhere (and some when) completely new to you.

That’s how I stumbled on some of my new favorite recordings. If you’re looking for a place to get started, here are a few recommendations:

“Mahmoud Abdelaziz Ya Madhacha” (Sudan, 2000s) Before hearing this recording, my only familiarity with Sudanese pop music was the famous singer Abdel Aziz El Mubarak, but that was enough for me to instantly recognize this tape as being from the same musical tradition.

Part Arabic traditional music (particularly the sweeping melodies), part groove-fueled funk and reggae, this record sounds like an update on El Mubarak’s sound, with floating vocal effects and thumping low-end percussion made for dancing.

Mbilia Bel, Phénomene (Democratic Republic of Congo, 1980s) My French is not perfect, but I think the title of the last song on this record by beloved Congolese singer Mbilia Bel, “Sans Fronteire,” translates to “Without Border,” which perfectly describes what I like best about Congolese Soukous music.

Soukous from this era involves large bands playing guitars, bass, drums and horns, and both rhythmically and traditionally it fits with the Black Atlantic cultural tradition that gifted the world with the Rumba, among other beloved rhythms. And the music of Mbilia Bel–called “Queen of the Congolese Rumba”–exemplifies better than most how widespread the appeal of this music can be. If there exists a music with a universal appeal, it just might have been born in the dance halls of Kinshasa in the 1980s.

“Salaad Darbi” (Somalia, 1980s) Although there are YouTube videos and other places online where you can hear the Somali artist Salaad Darbi, this is a rare find indeed: a recording of a live performance from the 1980s.

The quality of the recording varies, but on the first half of side one the voice is sharp and clear and the bass, electric guitar, horns and strings all pack a pleasing punch as they trade phrases. I love the way this music blends the best elements of East African and Middle Eastern instrumentation and phrasing with a western jazzy pop sensibility. The band never misses a beat, and the song that starts at 7:50 on Side A is so catchy that, after only two listens, it may be stuck in my head forever!

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