You are an African city and want to be taken seriously? Then have a jazz festival: The hottest scenes

African musicians are some of the most exhilarating producers of contemporary jazz music

A FEW days ago the Mail & Guardian Africa editor was in Lagos, the giant commercial capital of Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy. He went into into a big music store in one of Lagos’s biggest mall and asked for “Nigerian jazz”. The store attendants looked puzzled. “No, Nigerians don’t play jazz and we don’t have any such music”, they said emphatically. It is possible to spent weeks in Nigeria and not hear or read about jazz. It is just not the thing.

The striking thing about this is that Nigeria does have not only world-known jazz musicians like Kunle Ayo, but a festival - the Lagos Jazz Festival that had just ended. And because Nigeria has deep pockets, the Lagos Jazz Festival does actually bring the kind of big-hitting international names, like Branford Marsalis, who headlined the 2013 festival, that you might not always run into at the Cape Town Festival, without doubt the continent’s leading jazz bonanza.

These days it seems if you want to be taken seriously as an African city, then have a jazz festival, however small. Uganda’s capital now has one. Kigali, Rwanda, has jazz events. Nairobi has Jazz Under the Stars. Addis Ababa has one, and one of the most lively jazz clubs on the continent. Johannesburg, perhaps tired of living in Cape Town’s jazz shadow, is growing its “Joy of Jazz” festival admirably. This year’s event begins on September 6. Name any African city that takes itself seriously, and its country is not at war, and it has a jazz thing going. So how did Africa get so jazzy? 

Our Special Contributor AIDA MBOWA, tells the story:

IN THE  beginning, Jazz was American. Today, African musicians are some of the most exhilarating producers of contemporary jazz music. Moreover, African festivals and audiences are a fundamental aspect of the global appetite for jazz.

African American innovative manipulations of tempo and rhythm gave birth to the international spread of this rule-breaking style of music at the beginning of the 20th century - the music itself had been born much earlier, evolving in America from slave songs and the blues. During the Cold War, the United States State department sent legendary jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie, to different countries in Africa to counteract the Soviet Union’s socialist influence by spreading the gospel of Americanism via a music form that had African roots. 

Afro-jazz is born

This was an ironic move, given the fact that African Americans in the US were still treated like second-class citizens at the time. Nevertheless, jazz ambassadors toured newly decolonised countries between 1954 and 1968 essentially marketing American-style freedom while selling out concert halls. The result is that American musicians inspired African artists to create Afro-jazz, but similarly, African musicians inspired American acts, by introducing new instruments and even joining their bands.

In the wake of independence, came a musical freedom of expression and new styles of music like Congolese jazz - exemplified by the group T.P OK Jazz. Congolese jazz has had a powerful influence on music in East and Central Africa, as well as in the African Diaspora. In Nigeria, artists like Fela Kuti took both the continent and the Diaspora by storm in the 1970s, making music that was as political as it was entertaining. “Ethi-jazz” developed in Ethiopia under the influence of musicians like Mulatu Astatke and since the 1960s, South African jazz has been a force to be reckoned with both in and out of Africa.

Here are the countries and festivals around the continent renowned for today’s hottest jazz scenes:


July and August sees Tunisia abuzz with musical events. Since 1973, Tunisia has hosted the Tabarka jazz festival in July. The popular event features local and international talent. The Carthage International Festival is the country’s biggest festival. It takes place in an amphitheater in July and August and it has rewarded jazz enthusiasts since 1963 by hosting legendary artists like Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Youssou N’Dour. The World, Latino & Rai Music Festival takes place in August, providing yet another musical extravaganza in the North African world. When Dizzy Gillespie wrote the song “Night in Tunisia” in 1942, it became a jazz standard, with hundreds of musicians creating their own iteration of the song. The song has little to do with Tunisia, other than the title, but without a doubt, the words “Tunisia” and “jazz” go well together.


Today, Ethiopian jazz is well represented by musical stars like female vocalist Aster Aweke. Born and raised in Ethiopia, the American-based artist makes music that fuses traditional Ethiopian sounds with Afro-funk. The jazz scene in Ethiopia can be found in local watering holes—Asmari Bets, international hotels, and at the African Jazz Village. The African Jazz village was founded by renowned Ethio-jazz artist Mulatu Aztatke. It is both a school and a performance space, which trains and produces Ethiopian jazz artists.

Cape Verde

Since 2009, Cape Verde has hosted an exciting annual festival—The Kriol Jazz festival. It takes place in a town called Praia on the island of Santiago in the Cape Verde archipelago. Cape Verde is a country that has a lot in common with the birthplace of jazz—New Orleans. Both places host fusion cultures whose strength lies in their hybridity. Whereas New Orleans heritage includes those of French, Spanish, and African descent, Cape Verde’s creole culture is Lusophone and African. However, this year’s Kriol Jazz festival saw homegrown artists share the stage with artists from Jamaica, Brazil, Angola, the United States and many other regions of the world.  


The Indian Ocean jazz scene is alive and flourishing in Madagascar’s capital—Antananarivo. Each year, the “Madajazzcar” festival brings together local and international performers as well as artists from neighboring regions, including Mauritius and Reunion. Three young Malagasy doctors started the festival in the late 1980s. This October will see the 25th iteration of the event. Highlights for last year’s festivalgoers included acts by the French group Zikos Non Identifies (ZNI), the Malagasy group Jazz Quart, and Saxaphonist Prof Jah Pinpin from Reunion Island.

South Africa

South Africa has a lively jazz scene with the Cape Town International Jazz festival being the flagstone event each year. Taking place at the end of March and beginning of April, this festival brings close to 40,000 jazz lovers to experience 40 artists (half of whom are South African) to experience jazz acts over two days. 

Recently, the Cape Town Fashion festival has run alongside the jazz festival to encourage South Africans to invest in local textiles, shoes, and designers. The resultant jazz fashion event has spruced up an experience that already holds great appeal as one of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest arts and cultural affairs. The Joy of Jazz festival in Johannesburg is gaining stature.


The Lagos Jazz series is quite young, barely four years, but happening in an ecosystem with the world’s second largest movie industry, Nollywood. Together with South Africa, it is the most dominant popular music conquering the continent this is the jazz festival to watch.

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