It’s Sunday night at Aba House, an open-air bar in Lomé, Togo’s capital, and stylish young men and women in modern African dress fill the dance floor as the bass guitarist pumps up the tempo. Powerful! Soulful!
The lyrics are in Mina, a local language in southern Togo and parts of neighboring Benin, but the music is unmistakably Afro-Cuban, a genre with global acclaim.
The weather is cool, the air filled with a misty marine breeze coming from the roaring Atlantic Ocean.
Across the street, onlookers marvel at the colorful dresses and practiced dance moves and watch as patrons nibble on finger food and wash it down with beer, whiskey and soft drinks.
A few minutes earlier, the band had played an up-tempo reggae tune and a highlife rendition of a Christian hymn, but it was the sound of the Afro-Cuban rumba that got people spinning, shimmying and swinging their hips on the now-crowded dance floor.
“This is my father’s bar and we play here every Sunday evening,” George Lassey, the bandleader, told Africa Renewal. “We play all kinds of music: reggae, gospel, salsa and others.”
However, Mr. Lassey says, salsa is “by far the most requested during our live performances.”
Salsa music has remained popular in West Africa since it was introduced in the region in the 1950s, reportedly by sailors.
From Lomé to Bamako in Mali, Conakry in Guinea, Cotonou in Benin and Dakar in Senegal, live bands have gained international fame playing catchy Cuban dance tunes.
Among the well-known bands incorporating the Cuban groove are Orchestra Baobab and Le Super Etoile de Dakar, the latter famed for mbalax and Latin-influenced dance music, in which Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour, who is also a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, shot to fame. Others include the Rail Band in Bamako and Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou.
In early 2010, some of Africa’s renowned salsa vocalists joined forces with New York–based musicians to form Africando, a group that successfully brought African-flavored salsa to the global music market.
Growing up in Benin, Angélique Kidjo, now an internationally acclaimed artist and another UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, felt a strong connection to salsa.
“As I was listening to Celia, I could hear Africa,” Ms. Kidjo remembers, referring to Celia Cruz, often called the “Queen of Salsa.”
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