The devil went down to Gambia! The surprising history of African country music

·9 min read

In early July, a Twitter account called The Zimbabwean posted a thread highlighting the popularity of country music across Africa. The posts included videos – mostly phone footage from bars and weddings – that persuasively made the case for the claim. A man in a cowboy hat moonwalking to Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler; a group of women blissfully line-dancing to Kenyan country star Sir Elvis covering Wagon Wheel, a 2013 hit for Darius Rucker.

These snapshots of country music woven into the fabric of everyday African life sparked a nearly unanimous response: surprise and delight. The thread quickly gathered thousands of retweets and a stack of amazed replies. But many across the diaspora may have felt it stirred something deeper. I’ve spent years tracing my love of country music across generations and found it to be an underappreciated thread in global Black music and in Black British heritage.

Several years ago, the fascination around this thread may have been a fleeting curiosity, but the Twitter poster was savvy to the timing. Country is cool again. US and global streaming figures have risen by 50% in the past two years, and it is the UK’s fastest growing genre on streaming platforms. Country has also become a cultural talking point as we explore the tensions between the genre’s carefully constructed image of whiteness, and the diversity and complexity of its long-hidden history.

Country music has borrowed heavily from Black sources since it was created in the 1920s – a pattern that continued over decades. But efforts to correct this have been gaining ground. From grassroots initiatives such as the Black Opry, SoulCountry and Country Queer, to the success of country-adjacent acts such as Allison Russell, there is an appetite for reimagining country and reconnecting it to its true roots.

Why, then, does the idea of African country still come as a surprise? “But I’d visit Africa to FLEE country music!” read one reply to the posts. In a recent interview I conducted on NTS Radio, music historian Uchenna Ikonne discussed reactions to his 2017 compilation of Nigerian country Like Nashville in Naija. “Having these saccharine, sentimental ballads come out of Nigeria is something people don’t expect,” he said. “When people think of African music, they usually think of hot polyrhythms”, not “sappy melodies”. Or the political funk of Fela Kuti, not the conservative croon of Conway Twitty.

This perceived incongruity underpins the excitement that many found in the videos. When beliefs about culture, race and music are ingrained, there’s a joy in having the hidden ties between them revealed, challenged and remixed. There was frustration too, particularly among those who were already well aware of this cultural association: some discussions seemed to reduce the complexity of the videos to stereotypes, such as marvelling at the dancing.

The history of African country music is largely uncharted. When you piece together the fragments, a long and rich musical relationship begins to emerge. It starts in the 1930s, according to writer Jesse Jarnow, and differs hugely across the continent. But in southern Africa, the seed was planted with the screening of westerns for workers in colonial mining towns. Singing cowboys arrived later, their songs quickly becoming a radio staple alongside Jimmie Rodgers, country music’s first star.

In the 1940s and 50s, as African soldiers returned from the second world war and local radio and record labels took off, came the first recordings of country-influenced African music. Bulawayo Blue Yodel, a recent collection, compiles some of the most striking records of the period, offering evidence that country has been in dialogue with African music more or less from its commercial outset in the US. The cowboy motifs and imprints of Rodgers and the Carter Family are evident in songs such as George Sibanda’s Ekhaya or the yodelling of Matthew “the Central African Cowboy” Jeffries.

There is speculation that country was embraced because it overlapped with certain strands of African music – Shona music from Zimbabwe has long contained indigenous-styled yodelling (huro), for example. What’s clearer is that country struck a chord in parts of Africa at a time of major social change as people moved from rural areas to towns and cities. There are parallels with the genre’s rise in the US, as ethnomusicologist Aaron Fox has said: “Country music is born when country becomes a nostalgic idea.” Tales of rural folk struggling in the city can be found in the 50s music of Zambian singer Alick Nkhata, as often as the contemporary ballads of Dusty and Stones, from Eswatini.

But the genre also made many idiosyncratic and unpredictable twists as it wound its way through the continent. Even in the early years, country was blended with local influences and developed into what ethnomusicologist Tom Turino has called new “common-practice styles”. In later years, according to Uchenna Ikonne, the smooth, Christian-country of Jim Reeves, was seen as “cerebral” or “chin-stroking” music. It inspired delightful, if unlikely, sounds: the country-disco of Emma Ogosi and Oby Onyioha, and electro-funk of Willian Onyeabor. Look closely enough and you’ll find traces of country from west African palm-wine to Zimbabwean chimurenga musics. Many may be surprised to learn that country has also been a vehicle for political and progressive sentiments throughout Africa. From the pre-independence resistance music made in Zambian mining camps, to the country-rock of Ivorian musicians and activists Jess Sah Bi and Peter One – and Ogosi donned a cowboy hat while singing Slave Drivers (Get Out).

For many people across the diaspora, African country might feel surprising, yet somehow familiar – hinting, on a closer look, at something that’s always been there but was just out of view. There may be many Black Britons of African or Caribbean descent (or, like me, both) for whom it stirs memories of a grandparent, or casts light on the ways they have been subtly steeped in country from a young age.

I have found that country music runs deep through generations of my family – that it’s not just an American story, but a conversation between the Americas, Africa and Europe echoing through time. It’s there in my father’s preference for the soft country-rock of the Eagles or contemplative folk of Paul Simon over the indulgent lasciviousness often associated with 70s rock, and in the palm-wine music of SE Rogie, from his home country Sierra Leone, who was inspired by Jimmie Rodgers. I can hear shades of it in my own penchant for sentimental or wistful music today.

On my Jamaican side, it has seeped into the culture via a love of westerns, country radio and what critic Lloyd Bradley has called the “reggaefication” of the country songbook (with country borrowing sounds from Jamaica, too). But it took on additional significance for the Windrush generation. Jim Reeves and Tennessee Ernie Ford were the Sunday soundtrack for people such as my grandparents, who moved to the UK in the 50s. Reeves’s rich baritone is etched all over my uncles’ memories; my grandmother “played his songs every Sunday and all over Christmas”. His music resonated because of its Christian themes, but it also tapped into a sense of cultural alienation many in the West Indian community felt in the UK. Songs such as Across the Bridge and This World Is Not My Home ache for a home left behind or give promise of a better one waiting. It’s an enduring theme, from Toots and the Maytals’ stirring cover of Take Me Home, Country Roads, to Yellowman’s dancehall classic, Jamaica Nice: “London cold, Jamaica nice / Country roads, take me home.”

SE Rogie at the 100 Club, London, in 1986.
SE Rogie at the 100 Club, London, in 1986. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns

We’re seeing more scattered but significant examples of country’s connection to Black British culture – Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film series gave country a notable role in third episode, Red, White and Blue. But there is still so much history worth revisiting. I could often sense my uncles’ slight resistance to the idea that country was part of their heritage. Looking back on the music of their 70s youth, country might feel too conservative, too white, compared with the post-Jamaican independence resistance songs of their 70s youth, such as Desmond Dekker’s 007 (Shanty Town). They might prefer to remember the Nat King Cole records my grandad played than Reeves.

I could counter this by pointing out country’s more rebellious manifestations in Jamaican culture. The cult classic film The Harder They Come is rife with spaghetti western references, and with reggae legend Jimmy Cliff heading up the movie and its soundtrack, it’s not much of a leap to see his character as a singing cowboy with a Jamaican twist. Or that reggae stars known for their resistance songs, such Toots Hibbert or Jimmy Cliff, also played with country influences. But I think it’s just as important to remember the role that even the smooth country of Jim Reeves played in providing a sense of hope in a hostile and unwelcoming new world. When Reeves died, my Uncle Junior recalled, it was like “a death in the family. That’s how much my mother loved him.”

The story of African country is fascinating and complex. That Twitter thread brought it into the mainstream, something that more nuanced efforts have struggled to do. Social media has a way of showing the tensions and complications of a story like this with an immediacy that cuts through. But it can also condense them in ways that strip them of their richness and the experiences of people living with the music. In a social media-mediated world that makes uprooted connections travel quickly, I’m wistful for one that might give space for the delicate reality of musical expression and its cultural resonances, rather than reducing them to surprising images.