In this week’s episode of Afropop Worldwide, “Beneath the Music: An Afropop History of Bass”, we pay tribute to the great bassists in African music history. Although often under-appreciated, bassists in Africa have taken the instrument to exciting new places and have worked to shape the sounds of modern African pop music. More often than not, the bass plays an especially important place in the continent’s music, defying the traditional support role in favor of slippery lines of great melodic and rhythmic complexity.
Here, you can find more information and links for the bassists we featured in the show, plus a few more we couldn’t get to. Of course this is not a complete list by any means–just a sampler of some of the standout talents.
Alick Macheso (Zimbabwe)
Alick Macheso’s Facebook Page
Both bassist and bandleader, Alick Macheso is one of the most popular artists in Zimbabwe. He is the top-selling national artist in sungura music, a guitar-driven style related to Congo music that is wildly popular in rural areas (and generally hated by urban elites). Formerly, Alick was a member of the Khiama Boys, one of the country’s major sungura acts. Macheso’s albums, including Simbaradzo and Zvakadaro, feature an electric bass way up in the mix, playing intricate licks that interlock tightly with the flurry of riffing guitars. In our show, we play an excerpt of “Wemakonzo,” which includes a great bass breakdown.
Aladji Toure (Cameroon)
Aladji Toure’s MySpace Page
Although the bass has found an important place throughout Africa, there is no country as bass-crazy as Cameroon. In Cameroonian music, the bass is practically the soloist, playing blazing-fast counterpoint to the guitars and vocals. Thanks to a longstanding tradition of bass playing in the country, there is a seemingly endless number of virtuosic young bass talents today working out of Paris, especially in the realm of jazz-fusion.
Along with Vicky Edimo and Jean Dikoto-Mandengue, Toure was one of the founders of this tradition. In the 1980s, he established himself in Paris as a top makossa producer/arranger, directing projects of Dina Bell, Guy Lobé, Ben Decca, Moni Bile–the stars of the genre. Behind every one of them was the indomitable Toure bass. Aladji remains active in the Cameroonian music scene, and released the solo album New Face in 2009.
Joseph Makwela (South Africa)
Joseph Makwela is the founding father of South African bass playing–literally the first black South African to own an electric bass. Prior to the 1960s, when Makwela came on the scene with the Makhona Tsohle Band, South Africans often used an instrument known as the babtoni–a homemade bass, similar to the American washtub bass, but fashioned from old plywood shipping containers for tea. Joseph developed the highly melodic, grooving bass style of mbaqanga, defining the sound of South African bass until today. Fellow bassist Bakithi Kumalo says that Makwela took his lines from the bass singers in the a cappella vocals groups common in the country at the time.
In the 1950s, Makwela worked as a domestic servant in Pretoria. It was there that he met future members of the Makhona Tsohle Band. This group of domestic workers would gather for informal jams after work. By the ’60s, these musicians had worked their way up through the ranks to become respected session players. The Mahotella Queens were formed following a recording session at Gallo Records in Johannesburg. Makwela continued playing with the group until the death of Mahlathini in 1999.
Bakithi Kumalo (South Africa)
Bakithi Kumalo’s MySpace Page
Bakithi Kumalo, one of the guests on our show, is probably the most famous South African bassist alive today, best known for his work on Paul Simon’s bass-heavy Graceland album. Bakithi was born in the township of Alexandria, and moved to Soweto at a young age, where he soaked up the rich township musical culture and eventually earned his chops as a bass player. Without ever touching the instrument, Bakithi played his first gig at age 12, filling in for a drunk bassist in his uncle’s band at a wedding. Bakithi was supplementing his musician’s income by working as a mechanic when he got a call to come into the studio and play some stuff for Paul Simon. The chemistry was instantaneous. Bakithi drew on the melodic bass-playing styles of local mbaqanga and marabi and combined them with the creamy sound of the fretless bass to craft the memorable bass parts on “Diamonds on the Souls of Her Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al.” Since then, Bakithi has played with everyone from Uruguayan legend Ruben Rada to Joe Zawinul and Chaka Kahn, never afraid to tackle new styles. He currently resides in Long Island, New York.
Ngouma Lokito, whom we interviewed for the show, was one of the top bass players in Congo in the 1980s. Born as Shungu Omba, he took the stage name “Ngouma Lokito”–meaning “power of the bass” in local dialect. Like many young African musicians, Ngouma started out with a homemade guitar fashioned out of an oil can, which he had to hide underneath his bed to keep his strict father from learning his ambitions to become a musician. Inspired by Kinshasa’s Zoro Lomimbo, Ngouma later picked up the bass and studied at the National Institute of Music. He played with many Congo groups, including the Choc Stars, and was a founding member of the successful Soukous Stars. Congo bass playing has developed its own technique based on local drumming styles in which the player picks with his thumb and forefinger, mimicking the interplay of two different drums. Ngouma told us that he always paid close attention to the village drumming styles and purposely tried to emulate the rhythms on the bass.
Francis Mbappe (Cameroon)
Francis Mbappe’s Official Website
Francis Mbappe’s MySpace Page
One of the guests on our program, Francis is among the many bright bass stars from Cameroon. Growing up in the port city of Douala, Francis recalls loving the bass ever since childhood. After convincing a friend of his father’s to build him a simple guitar, he taught himself by listening to the bass lines on Motown and funk recordings played on the Voice of America radio shows. At age 13, he decided to leave Cameroon and began to cross West Africa, paying his way with the bass. Along the way, he played with many of the greats of African music, from Fela to Ernesto Djedje. Upon arriving in Paris at age 19, he was invited to become part of the Manu Dibango band, at that time the most popular African music band around. Today, Francis lives and works out of New York City. He has released several albums as a solo artist.
Sipho Gumede (South Africa)
Joseph Makwela may have been the first South African bass player, but Sipho Gumede was the first to combine South African music with technical virtuosity. Born in Durban and raised on a diet of pennywhistle kwela, Sipho was the bass genius behind the music of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Although versed in traditional music, Sipho was also an accomplished jazz player. “He was one of my heroes,” says fellow South African bassist Bakithi Kumalo, “because he was the South African guy who could play like Stanley Clarke.” He was the first-call guy for any session. Later on, Sipho toured the U.S., Canada and the Bahamas with Harry Belafonte and Letta Mbulu. Along with Caiphus Semenya, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and Letta Mbulu, he produced the musical show Buwa, which told the story of South African music and history. In 1992 his solo album Thank You for Listening won an OKTV award for best African fusion album. In 1995 he was awarded with an achievement award from Johnny Walker Black Label for his outstanding contribution to the South African music industry. Sipho Gumede died of cancer in July 2004.
Charles Makokova (Zimbabwe)
Charles Makokova met Thomas Mapfumo in the mid-’70s when Thomas began singing with the Acid Band. It was a key point in the development of Mapfumo’s music–he began to understand how to put traditional Shona music on electric instruments in a dance-band format. Thomas made some key early hits with that band and went on to create the Blacks Unlimited. Charles was one of the musicians that he kept in the lineup and they worked together until Charles died in 1994. During those years, while working with Thomas, they created the songs that became the blueprint for how to play mbira music on bass. He was one of the real architects of mbira bass style, which is so widely imitated today that it is considered part of the national music. Other important bass players that contributed to this tradition were Washington Khavai, Shepherd Munyanya and Alan Mwale.
Probably the best known bassist from Africa in history, Richard Bona is considered by some to be the best living bass player on planet Earth. Certainly, he is one of the instrument’s true virtuosos, and has become a fixture as a performer in the jazz and fusion worlds. Richards was born in Minta, Cameroon into a family of musicians. He grew up playing the balafon. At the tender age of 13, he put together his first band for a French jazz club in Douala. The owner took an interest in him and introduced him to a wide variety of music, including the records of Jaco Pastorius, which inspired him to pick up the bass. Today, Bona lives in New York.
Yet another bass giant from Cameroon (no relation to Francis), Etienne Mbappé began studying music after arriving in France in 1978. After making the switch from acoustic guitar to bass, as many Cameroonians eventually do, he started performing alongside Rido Bayonne and his Grand Orchestra in 1985. Within a year he found himself playing alongside the likes of Mario Canonge in the Ultramarine band. With these accomplishments Mbappé established himself as one of France’s leading bass players. Over the next 20 years of his career, many musicians sought out Mbappé for work on recordings and live concerts. He worked with such names as Salif Keita, Joe Zawinul, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Jacques Higelin and Ray Charles. In 2004, Mbappé brought out his first solo album Misiya. And check this–Etienne always performs while wearing silk gloves.
Bass player, singer and composer Moussa Diallo was born in Paris, brought up in Bamako (Mali), and currently resides in Copenhagen. Throughout the 1970s and the ’80s, Diallo lent his sound to a who’s who of Danish rock/fusion bands like Sneakers, Skunk Funk, Savage Rose, Hanne Boel and many others. He was also an integral member of famed singer Anne Linnet’s groundbreaking band Marquis de Sade in 1983.
Guy grew up in Douala, Cameroon, West Africa. He first played guitar before switching to electric bass. Along with two other Cameroonian bassists, Richard Bona and Etienne Mbappe, he formed a bass trio, performing traditional African music, r&b, and jazz. In the early ’80s, he moved to Paris where his immense talent began to garner great attention. He has performed and recorded with African artists such as Papa Wemba, Mory Kanté, Oumou Sangaré and Kassav from the French Antilles. He met Jean-Luc Ponty in 1991 for the recording of Tchokola, and has been touring and recording with him ever since.