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Revisiting five legendary African songs that made music history

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Mythical African songs that made history

By Léo Pajon
Posted on Wednesday, 23 June 2021 09:29, updated on Wednesday, 30 June 2021 18:56

Amarante, 07/27/2019 - Mimo Festival: Salif Keita. (Octavio Steps / Global Images/Sipa USA)

From Egypt to South Africa, The Africa Report invites readers to rediscover five legendary music hits that will never fade away...

This is part 1 of a 6-part series

The songs featured in this five-part series on African music are oddities, especially compared to today’s hits. In an age dominated by dull one-hit wonders that are quickly forgotten, artists of the hits highlighted in this series stand out because they went on to have long music careers.

And while today’s songs last three and a half minutes on average, making them 20 seconds shorter than those from five years ago (according to research from The Future Laboratory), the tracks in our selection are generally longer. Salif Keita’s Mandjou goes on for over 10 minutes, Fela Kuti’s Zombie lasts 12 minutes and Bembeya Jazz National’s Regard sur le passé is a whopping 40 minutes long. But Umm Kulthum tops them all with her almost hour-long work Enta Omri.

Could it be that these songs are longer because the artists had more to say?

Crafting an epic poem (Regards sur le passé) or attacking the Nigerian government’s depravity (Zombie) takes more time than singing a fluffy pop number. But even love songs (Enta Omri) and light-hearted dance tunes (Pata Pata) can conceal deeper meanings that are sometimes difficult to pick up on today.

We revisit five songs in their original historical, artistic and political context.

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Umm Kulthum: ‘Enta Omri’, a song to advance Nasser’s brand of nationalism

Recorded in 1964, Egyptian Umm Kalthoum’s most popular hit is more than just a beautiful love song; it’s also the brainchild of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt, who used the song to boost his influence in the Arab world.

Miriam Makeba: ‘Pata Pata’, from ‘insignificant’ ditty to anti-apartheid anthem

10 years after it was originally created, the Xhosa-language song became an international hit and put South African singer Miriam Makeba on the map as a figure of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Nigeria: Fela Kuti’s ‘Zombie’ – a struggle that lives on

In this 12-minute-long Afrobeat gem, Fela Kuti made a mockery of the military junta that held sway in 1970s Nigeria. The musician would pay dearly for it.

Bembeya Jazz National: ‘Regard sur le passé’, an epic anthem honouring Guinea’s Sékou Touré

Recorded in 1969, the long musical epic poem that pays tribute to the country’s late president, Sékou Touré has been imitated far and wide.