popular african music

popular african music: a history

my interest in african music started in 1973 in the algerian sahara. four of us had planned to travel with two citroen 2cvs to west africa, but when jumping over the first small dunes on the road south to hassi messaoud, i managed to ruin the frame (chassis) of my car and had to return to hassi messaoud to get it welded. when checking the car a few days later in tamanrasset before crossing the sands to niger, i found the frame had broken again in the same places. no chance of getting it welded in tam, and my friend and his girlfriend decided to head instead for the cave paintings near djanet, which my wife and i knew already. before returning north, my wife and I took some short trips around tam: to tilet, assekrem, and finally to amsel, where we spent a few nights at a small lake. This lake was in a kind of crater. in the evening, when I switched on my eddystone short wave receiver, we heard the most amazing music, supplied by the GBC (ghana broadcasting corporation) and radio nigeria. what was this music? i had no idea, and only discovered its name much later.

thanks to an excellent welder in in salah, we made it back to germany. as soon as we reached frankfurt, i started hunting for that wonderful african music. i bought every piece of African music i could find, but it was all traditional music -- not at all what i was looking for. it was not until over a year later, when walking down tottenham court road in london, that i heard it coming from the door of a small shop. i walked in. in the back room was a black man playing "my" music! i left him all the money i could spare and got back to frankfurt with a box full of records. at last i knew it was highlife that i had been hunting for! even better, i now had the names and addresses of its london producers, as well as of international producers like decca and EMI.

i listened to everything i could get my hands on. i loved a lot of it; what I liked somewhat less, i began selling on the frankfurt flea market. there i met beatrice, a german girl whose ghanaian boyfriend - a musician - was looking for a european producer….and that was how popular african music came to be. its first release in 1982 (pam lp 01) was taste me by mc god and the people's band. a few further releases followed on vinyl.

during the following years, i organised tours for youssou n’dour, les ambassadeurs, philip tabane and les amazones de guinée. After meeting sona diabate during the amazones tour, i produced and recorded my first album: "kankele-ti" (pam lp 06). we recorded this album in the rehearsal room of a paris studio with an allan & heath 10-track mixer directly on vhs tape. After some very nice reviews of the album in the uk, I ventured to record kante manfila in his home town, kankan, in upper guinea. i used the same desk but recorded on 2-track dat.

this recording, “kankan blues”, was well received and in 1992 became the first cd on my label. at that time it was still possible to earn a living selling music – so the label grew: i produced re-releases of my favourite african albums (african dancefloor classics and and the out of africa series), as well as releases of historical recordings in cooperation with dr. wolfgang bender’s archiv der musik afrikas (pamap series). whenever time and money allowed, i made more recordings on my own, both in africa and in european studios.

looking back over those years, i must say that two of the nicest times in my (professional) life were in farabanah, guinea, recording “kankan blues verse III” and in havana, recording los afro salseros de senegal en la habana” in the egrem studios.

gunter gretz