Op-Ed
William Onyeabor. Image: Luaka Bop.

Who Is Benefitting From the Nostalgic Vintage Releases in African Music?

Op-Ed: The practice of uncovering and licensing rare African music feeds a culture fueled by the nostalgia, but who is truly benefitting?

If I had asked you if you ever heard any music by William Onyeabor, Ata Kak or Amara Touré about 10 years ago, the answer might have been an unsurprising no.

Despite their stellar bodies of work, each of those three African musicians remained a mystery for unique reasons. Now Ata Kak is touring the world and the late William Onyeabor is recognized as a groundbreaking user of the synthesizer. With each artist, there lies a great living history embedded in the beats and melodies of their music which was lost until their work found new ears.

The stories of Amara Touré, William Onyeabor and Ata Kak are just a few of the countless that exist in African music. In 2002, London-based Soundway Records put out their first compilation of African music, Ghana Soundz: Afro-Beat, Funk & Fusion in '70s. The 14-track tape contained classics from the highlife era of Ghana music as well as other funk-inspired experimental cuts. From Oscar Sulley's pulsating "Bukom" to Ebo Taylor's serenading "Heaven," the project garnered a lot of critical acclaim and would result in the release of a second volume.

It also grew the label's reputation as one of the masters of the rare "world music" game with an extensive catalog with gems from all over the world. Other white-owned North American and European labels like Analog Africa, Awesome Tape From Africa and Luaka Bop, all inspired in some way by the success of Soundway Records, and of course the possibility of so much more hidden music waiting to be rediscovered and sprung up.

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