The African Twist: East Africa's First Commercial Music

African dance and music sensation the "African twist."

*photo of Mock Jazz Band. Ca. 1960. From ‘The Kaddu Wasswa Archive’.

By the early 1960s, gramophones were relatively available: you could buy one in an Indian dukka in Kampala, Ugandan for example. Equator Records opened in Nairobi, Kenya and pressed and distributed records all over East Africa. Equator's signature 'African Twist' recordings created the region's first major commercial music. Played sparely on acoustic guitars, this localized version of the American Twist was primarily influenced by Congolese Rhumba brass bands, American doo-wop and rock and roll, and traditional singing styles.

The Twist is a popular American style of dance defined by the hips and legs moving left to right. Chubby Checker shouting into the microphone 'Come on Baby, do the twist!' is both its namesake and inspiration. As Rock n' Roll played on gramophones in Nairobi, musicians began to imitate the rocking doo-wop beat on their acoustic guitars. In 1960 the British-born Charles Worrod took note and launched Equator Sound Studios, which would become the hub of the African twist. Below we detail some of the most well known African twist recordings.

Fadhili William, "Malaika"

William's rock and roll groove is the first known recorded version of this Swahili folk tune. A love song by a suitor who, even though in love, cannot pay the bride price for the girl, "Malaika" has become a notably popular song to record, including a cover by Miriam Makeba.

Daudi Kabaka, "African Twist"

This is the definitive sound of 1960s Equator Records. Though playful-sounding on this track, singer/guitarist Daudi Kabaka of the Equator Sound Band was known for his use of political lyrics.

Fred Masagazi, "Atanawa Musolo"

The most iconic Ugandan musician of the twist era, Fred Masagazi's music was defined by both his traditional vocals as well as his unique rhumba-fusing style of guitar rock.

Daudi Kabaka, "Helule Helule" (1966)

Kabaka's Swahili recording borrows heavily from traditional Kenyan singing. The track's rootsy feeling is reminiscent of the early 1960s music Miriam Makeba made with Harry Belafonte. The British beat group the Tremeloes recorded a cover of the track in English two years later.

Moses Katazza & Frida Sonko, "Nona Ente Yo" (1966)

In what could serve as the archetypal soundtrack to a 1960s romance film, this doo-wop-like call and response ode to love and marriage features Nairobi's Equator Sound Band backing the Ugandan duo.

Daudi Kabaka, "Harambee Harambee"

Kabaka's anthem is known for having popularized Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta's advocacy for rural development. Masses could be found dancing at political rallies to Kabaka's slightly faster take on the Twist.


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This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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