Beyond Fela: A Guide To Early African Electronic Music

Call it what you will, but there’s no denying that West African funk or boogie will light up a European dance floor—and no one knows that better than Nomad and Dirk Leyers. Operating as Africaine 808, the Berliners are particularly adept at digging out and deploying electrified cuts from throughout the African continent. As the duo told Juno recently, their party Vulkandance came from a desire to inject some life and color into the Berlin club scene, which was in the chilly grips of minimal techno at the time of its conception. Nearly seven years later, the party is still going strong, and many of the tracks featured in the guide below have been tried and tested on Vulkandance dance floors.

The exhuberant mix of styles and textures represented in Africaine 808’s selections, which range from Ghanaian proto-rap to South African “bubblegum” pop, are also representative of the pair’s debut album, Basar. Out on Golf Channel in February, the LP relishes in polyrhythms sounded throughout Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. The pair have also expanded their live show to feature percussionist Eric Owusu of the Ebo Taylor Band and drummer Dodo N’Kishi. For those looking to go straight to the source though, reissue outlets like Sofrito, Analog Africa, Soundway and Kindred Spirits are good places to start.

African Vibration, "Hinde"

“There’s an amazing and very atypical vibe on this Kenyan 7”. The band African Vibration was formerly a disco/dance outfit that recorded more or less cheesy, commercial numbers, much like other ‘safari sound bands.’ This track has more of a Somali or Saharan vibe to it, and is one of the newer secret weapons we deploy during our Vulkandance parties.”

William Onyeabor, "Good Name"

“‘Good Name’ was considered the holy grail for every Afro-electro music collector before my buddies from Luaka Bop re-released it, together with close to Onyeabor’s entire back catalog. Big Will is one of the strangest, oddest characters in Nigerian music, and definitely one of the pioneers of African synthesizer music. He’s worth studying.”

Francis Bebey, "La Condition Masculine"

“Francis Bebey is another pioneer. I can’t recall how many amazing, standout tracks were produced by this guy across completely different genres—from ambient to hip-hop and funk licks to deep, hypnotic and bubbly polyrhythmic numbers like this one. You can never go wrong with old organ drum machines, especially when coupled with amplified senzas.”

Tata, "Afro Breakdance"

“Tata was one of the players from Kabasa, a South African disco/funk band. On this solo record, he played with the breakdance hype that had just reached the African continent. It’s amazing how widely ignorant the West stayed of the new synth and boogie that was coming out of the townships of South Africa or downtown Lagos or Abidjan. Now record weasels are finally getting hip to South Africa, after the prices for Nigerian boogie have already gone through the roof. At our last Vulkandance party, ESA opened his set with this track and the dance floor erupted.”

Abidjan City Breakers, "A.C.B. Rap"

“This is one of my favorite African breakdance records, with a nice old-school cover of the A.C.D. crew breaking it up in front of the Abidjan city skyline. We been playing this for almost a decade, and it’s always a winner. It also brings people who have never danced to African music before.”

Tabu Ley Rochereau, "Hafi Deo"

“DJ Armin Schmelz played this track for the first time at an after-hour of the legendary Tingel Tangel Soundsystem parties in Vienna five or six years ago. It touched on everything I love about the great Congolese singer and composer Tabu Ley and house or electro music at the same time. Just take the best of both worlds together, and you get this track. This has been a regular at the later parts of our nights, ever since.”

Paul Ndlovu, "Tsakane"

“This is another Vulkandance classic from day one. For me, ‘Tsakane’ is one of the greatest tracks in South African Shangaan disco and bubblegum/Afro-synth music. Paul Ndlovu was part of two other outfits, Mordillo and Street Kids, and had countless hits in the townships, but somehow never made it onto any charts outside of South Africa. This track always brings all the girls to the dance floor, forming hearts with their hands. It doesn’t get better than that.”

Gyedu Blay Ambolley, "Simi Rapp"

“Gyedu Blay Ambolley has been one of Ghanain music’s shining stars for more than 40 years. He was leader of the Steneboofs band and started producing and playing Afro-funk in the early ’70s. His unique style of chatting over tracks arguably made him one of the first rappers on the African continent. This track is another of our all-time favorites. Note that the bassline drops after four minutes of rap—a nice surprise.”

Header image of Francis Bebey by Pierre René-Worms