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Frequently Asked Questions

What is African jazz?

What are the styles of African jazz?

Who are the seminal figures in African jazz?

What is today’s African jazz scene like?

What is the future of African jazz?

Who are the greatest African jazz musicians of all time?

Who are the best African jazz musicians today?

What is distinctive about African jazz?

How is African jazz related to African American jazz?

What other styles of music have influenced African jazz?   

What is African jazz?

Africans themselves should define what African jazz is rather than critics, scholars or well wishers from other parts of the world.  African jazz therefore consists of styles of music developed primarily by Africans in Africa which they themselves describe as jazz, such as South African jazz and Congolese jazz.   

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 What are the styles of African jazz?

The dominant African jazz style is Congolese jazz. Prominent exponents of this style such as the bands African Jazz (1950's and 60's), T.P. OK Jazz aka Bana Ok (late 1950's onwards) and solo artists such as Tabu Ley Rochereau, the late Madilu System and Mbilia Bel have been the most popular and influential jazz acts across most of Sub Saharan Africa and have spawned numerous imitators and local styles. For example, styles derived from or closely related to Congolese jazz can be found in Cameroun, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Benin, Guinea and Mali . However, Congolese jazz and related styles are frequently omitted from historical accounts of jazz and are rarely marketed as jazz outside Africa because they are the most African in African jazz and have the least direct influence from African American jazz. For this very reason it is arguable that Congolese jazz and related styles are the most significant contribution that Africa has made to jazz – i.e. a contribution which is distinctive and more fundamentally African than anything else in jazz.

     An important exception to the dominance of Congolese jazz has occurred in South Africa where a local style has been dominant in part perhaps because it was rarely heard in South Africa under the racist apartheid political system and because by the time the apartheid regime fell South African jazz was already well established. In essence South African jazz consists of a crossover between Southern African music and African American jazz, and for this reason it does usually feature, to some extent, in accounts of the history of jazz and is often marketed as jazz outside Africa. Styles derived from or closely related to South African jazz can be found in Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, etc. Often, jazz from these neighbouring countries displays the influence of Congolese jazz too.

 Another exception to the dominance of Congolese jazz occurred in Ethiopian which developed a style of jazz now widely known as Ethio jazz which has its origins in the work of musicians such as saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria and pianist/composer Mulatu Astatke who pioneered the playing of Ethiopian music on Western instruments and whose music owes nothing to Congolese jazz.

    A further important group of styles originate from Anglophone West Africa – Ghana and Nigeria - where danceband highlife and afrobeat can usefully be categorised as styles of African jazz. Danceband highlife is an older style than Congolese jazz which later absorbed a great deal of Congolese influence especially in electric guitar playing. Afrobeat, a style largely developed by Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, has its roots in danceband highlife and owes little to Congolese jazz.   

     There are also relatively isolated and non mainstream but nonetheless individual styles in various parts of the continent such as:

    These relatively isolated styles are all the results of a similar process to what occurred in South African jazz i.e. a crossover between local music and African American jazz. Consequently, like South African jazz, they are relatively accessible and recognisable as jazz to a western audience. Arguably, Ethio jazz owes rather less to African American jazz but it too s found a good market outside Africa especially in its instrumental form.

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Who are the seminal figures in African jazz?

Seminal figures in African jazz include Ghanaian trumpeter and highlife musician E.T. Mensah, Ethiopia’s Getatchew Mekuria, Congolese guitarist Docteur Nico, Nigerian afrobeat musician Fela Kuti and two bands: South Africa ’s Jazz Maniacs and Guinea ’s Bembeya Jazz. Of these, Docteur Nico and the band in which he made his name (African Jazz led by Joseph Kabasele) stand head and shoulders above any other musicians in terms of how profound and widespread their influence was. The group African Jazz spawned numerous imitators and rivals not only in the Congo but across most of sub Saharan Africa in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. Moreover, Docteur Nico’s guitar playing, in particular, touched virtually every African electric guitarist from the late 1950’s to the current day.


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What is today’s African jazz scene like?

Congolese jazz is still graced by venerated older musicians such as Lutumba Simaro and other T.P.OK Jazz veterans together with Tabu Ley Rochereau and veterans of his bands and Congo Brazzaville’s Les Bantous de La Capitale However recent years have seen the emergence of younger artists such as Karma Pa and Olivier Tshimanga. It has also become common for younger mainstream Congolese performers to include Congolese jazz tracks in their releases e.g. Awilo Longomba, Fally Ipupa, Ferre Gola and Blaise Bula. The emergence of these younger musicians relates in part to the fact that the country is no longer at war and its economy is more buoyant than it was. The experimentation with Congolese jazz seems to have been prompted by the fact that the popularity of mainstream Congolese dance music in sub-Saharan Africa has been in steep decline for more than a decade. Mainstream Congolese stars, especially Koffi Olomide have slowed down their music, perhaps in an attempt to make it more accessible and retain popularity. Another current trend, which many Congolese jazz aficionados question, is the tendency for World Music labels to modify the music to make it more  marketable to salsa/ Buena Vista Social Club fans. These recordings by Kekele, Ricardo Lemvo, Papa Noel, etc. are popular in the West but have little following in Africa.

    The first decade of the new millennium saw afrobeat become the first African jazz style to become truly global, in the sense that there are afrobeat bands made up largely of local performers, rather than expatriate Africans, in major cities all over the world. Back in Nigeria , traditional afrobeat has declined to some extent since Fela Kuti’s demise, although Fela’s back catalogue remains popular. Musicians like Tony Tetuila and especially Lágbájá have taken elements of Fela’s music and developed it.

      There are other interesting developments in West Africa such as Blay Ambolley and Accra Trane Station’s attempts to develop distinctive  styles; the Kora Jazz Trio’s crossover recordings and the emergence of Cameroun’s Richard Bona and Manu Katché and Benin's Lionel Loueke as major global jazz artists.

In recent years, Ethio jazz has become the second African jazz style to become truly global. There are now bands in the United States, France, the UK and the Netherlands which play Ethio jazz

      However, Southern Africa boasts the most vibrant jazz scene in the continent with the  emergence of numerous new artists, such as Bhudaza, Peter Nthwane (both from Lesotho), Brian Thusi, Simphiwe Dana, Kyle Shepherd, Lwanda Gogwana, Tutu Puoane etc. plus developments such as kwai jazz and crossover styles with African house music and r n b. South Africa also benefits from older artists, such as Dorothy Masuka (originally from Zimbabwe), Jonas Gwangwa, Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Tete Mbambisa,  Letta Mbulu, Caiphus Semenya, Victor Ntoni, Pat Matshikiza, Louis Moholo, Pops Mohamed, Julian Bahula,Jonathan Butler,etc.) On the negative side, too many South African jazz releases sound under rehearsed and are marred by the inclusion of weak imitation African American jazz tracks frequently accompanied by banal English song lyrics.

     Anglophone East Africa remains a relative backwater for African jazz despite the presence of strong Congolese jazz influenced acts in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. Interesting younger artists include saxophonist Joseph Hellon and keyboardist Aeron “Crucial” Keys both from Kenya.

Broadly speaking, the volume of new releases by African jazz artists and the body of literature about African jazz have been steadily increasing throughout the current decade.

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What is the future of African jazz?

The future of African jazz is secure within Africa . But what about globally? The key to the future of African jazz outside Africa hinges on a radical reassessment of its past which is gathering momentum. The global jazz establishment (jazz lovers, musicians, promoters, academics, record company executives, etc.) which was previously largely ignorant about African jazz, is rapidly waking up to its significance. The jazz establishment is rapidly reinterpret the history of jazz of the twentieth century to give African jazz a much more prominent position. To this observer, it appears obvious that while the origins and early development of jazz were cantered in the USA, the most exciting and profound developments in the second half of the century took place in Africa . While this paradigm shift in thinking about jazz takes place, the interest in African jazz past and present will continue to increase. Eventually, once this radical rethinking about the history of jazz becomes the new orthodoxy,  the greatest African jazz musicians will take their place alongside the greatest African American jazz musicians and their influence on the global future of jazz will be commensurate.


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Who are the greatest African jazz musicians of all time?

There have been two grand masters of Congolese music elected by the members of DRC’s musicians’ union. The first of these was the singer, composer and bandleader Joseph Kabasele, also known as Le Grand Kallé. Kabasele led the seminal group African Jazz in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s which featured Dr Nico, the most influential African guitarist of all time; Tabu Ley Rochereau, the vocalist composer and later band leader and Manu Dibango, saxophonist from Cameroun. After Kabasele’s death, Luambo Makiadi Franco was elected the next Grand Maitre of Congolese music. Franco was certainly the most popular African jazz musician Africa has known and arguably it’s greatest. As singer, composer, virtuoso guitarist and above all as bandleader, he was the most popular musician in Sub Saharan Africa from the late 1950’s until his death in 1989. The reason for Franco’s success lay in the strength of his band T.P. OK Jazz which was like an impregnable fortress with the best singers, composers, guitarists, bass players, horn section, drummers and percussionists in the continent. Every member of T.P. OK Jazz (subsequently renamed Bana OK, under the leadership of Le Poète Lutumba Simaro) was a star in their own right and to this day all the recordings they have made are all sought after. In terms of quality, influence and longevity, Franco’s output is comparable to Duke Ellington’s. In Sub Saharan Africa, Franc’s/OK Jazz’s popularity was akin to that of the Beatles but was sustained for a much longer period – more than three decades.

     Franco’s only rival for the position of the greatest African jazz musician of all time is Fela Anikulapo Kuti. At his peak during the early and mid 1970’s the originality and quality of Fela’s output and band (Africa 70) were certainly of a standard that matched, or some would say surpassed that of Franco. It must be stated however that afrobeat – the style of music developed by Fela, although it’s sound is probably closer to that of African American jazz than Congolese jazz, has an ambivalent status in relation to jazz as defined by the most prominent afrobeat stars. A good example of this appears in a filmed interview with Fela’s son Femi, who also leads an afrobeat band. When asked whether or not he is a jazz musician, Femi answered “Yes…., no.”  This ambivalence continues in the music. For example, the anonymous, masked saxophonist, bassist, vocalist and bandleader Lágbájá who takes his primary inspiration from Fela and is arguably the greatest living African jazz musician, likes to describe his style of music as “Africano” which is a pun on Nigerian slang’s “African o” implying that his music is simply African. The most important source of this ambivalence lies in Fela's political radicalism. He was scathing in his criticism of what he regarded as American economic and political neo colonialism and believed passionately that Africa's own culture and values were superior to those of the West and the African diaspora. When Fela's son Femi ranks his father alongside Miles Davis, Coltrane, Billie Holiday and Ellington in his song "Do You Know" he does so because he believes Fela was as radical, original, innovative and influential in jazz as they were. The resurgence of afrobeat and Fela's ideas around the world suggest Femi is right. The omission of Louis Armstrong from Femi's list of jazz greats is intriguing - a tacit admission perhaps that if African jazz has produced a genius of Armstrong's stature  it's Franco,

    For most South Africans their greatest ever jazz musician was the alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi. Unlike Fela and Franco, Moeketsi remains relatively unknown outside South Africa and his recorded output is minuscule compared to their vast legacies. Indeed three other members of the best know group to which Moeketsi belonged are much better known outside South Africa: pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand), trumpeter Hugh Masekela and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa all of whom left South Africa and became political exiles. But all three revered Moeketsi, and are on record as rating him the best musician in their band - the Jazz Epistles - which recorded the first jazz LP in South Africa in 1960. The top jazz club in Johannesburg is named Kippie’s in his honour, and his few recordings and compositions are revered to this day.

     Arguably the second greatest South African jazz musician of all time to South Africans themselves was the pianist and composer Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, who died in 2001 at the age of 27. Outside South Africa however, Molelekwa like Moeketsi is relatively unknown. The best known South African jazz musician globally is Miriam Makeba.

  The greatest African jazz musicians could also be categorised as follows:

Male vocalist – Madilu System (other contenders would include Le Grand Kallé, Josky Kiambukata, Tabu Ley Rochereau and Salif Keita)

Female vocalist  - Mbilia Bel (other contenders would include Letta Mbulu, Miriam Makeba and  Dorothy Masuka)

  Guitarist  - Franco or Dr Nico (other great guitarists include Papa Noel, Gerry Dialungana, Dr Phillip Tabane, Chief Osita Osadebe, Gerry Gerard and Jimmy Dludlu)

Bass player – Sipho Gumede (other contenders would include Johnny Dyani, Richard Bona, Gito Baloi and Makabi Flavien)

Drummer – Tony Allen (other contenders would include Louis Moholo, Manu Katché and Nado Kakoma)

Pianist – Moses Taiwa Molelekwa (other contenders would include Abdullah Ibrahim, Ray Lema, Bheki Mseleku and Fela Kuti)

Organ player – Black Moses

Saxophonist – Kippie Moeketsi (other contenders would include Empopo Deyesse, Getatchew Mekuria, Lágbájá, Manu Dibango, Basil Coetzee, Moses Khumalo, Mankunku, Robbie Jansen)

Trumpeter – Mongezi Feza (other contenders would include Hugh Masekela, Willy Kuntima and Peter Nthwane)

Trombone player – Jonas Gwangwa (another contender would be Darkie Silinga)

Clarinettist – Kippie Moeketsi

Band leader – Franco (other contenders would include Fela Kuti and Chris McGregor)

Composer  - Lutumba Simaro (other contenders would include Franco, Fela Kuti, Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, Jonas Gwangwa, Mackey Davashe, Dorothy Masuka and Manu Dibango)


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Who are the best African jazz musicians today?

 Today’s best African jazz musicians include the following:

Afrigo – veteran Ugandan band heavily influence by Congolese jazz

Tony Allen – Nigerian afrobeat pioneer, widely regarded as Africa ’s greatest kit drummer. Now also sings, composes and leads his own ensembles  

Blay Ambolley – Ghanaian highlife vocalist, composer and multi instrumentalist   

Mulatu Astatke - Ethiopian composer, pianist and bandleader who also plays vibes

Aster Aweke – singer, composer from Ethiopia   

Bana OK – Congolese, formerly known as T.P. OK Jazz and led by Franco, now led by rhythm guitarist and gifted composer Le Poète Lutumba Simaro Massiya, who had been Vice President of the band under Franco

Les Bantous de la Capitale - big band from Congo Brazzaville founded in 1959 and still going strong

Mbilia Bel – singer from DRC who worked with Tabu Ley Rochereau and then established a solo career   

Bembeya Jazz – big band from Guinee led by veteran trumpeter Kaba

Black Moses - South African organ player best known as a member of the Soul Brothers

Bhudaza  - saxophonist, composer vocalist, band leader from Lesotho

 Richard Bona – bass player, vocalist, composer from Cameroun

Manu Dibango – sax, marimba and piano player, vocalist, composer and band leader from Cameroun . Formerly a member of the seminal Congolese band African Jazz

Jimmy Dludlu – guitarist, composer, bandleader from Mozambique

Ferre Gola - Congolese vocalist

Jonas Gwangwa – trombone payer, vocalist, composer from South Africa

Joseph Hellon – saxophonist, composer, vocalist, band leader from Kenya

Abdullah Ibrahim – Cape jazz pianist, multi instrumentalist, composer and band leader

Karma Pa – composer, vocalist and band leader from DRC   

Manu Katché – drummer, composer, band leader from Cameroun

Angelique Kidjo - vocalist, band leader and composer from Benin

Josky Kiambukata - composer, vocalist from DRC who has worked with Dr Nico, T.P. OK Jazz and Bana OK as well as being a solo artist

Lágbájá – Saxophonist, vocalist, composer, bass player, band leader from Nigeria

Lionel Loueke - guitarist and vocalist from Benin

Youlou Mabiala – composer, singer, bandleader from Congo Brazzaville, formerly with T.P. OK Jazz

Flavien Makabi – Congolese bass player with Bana OK formerly known as T.P. OK Jazz

Sam Mangwana – Congolese/Angolan singer, formerly with T.P. OK Jazz

Hugh Masekela – South African Flugelhorn/trumpet player, composer, vocalist, band leader

Dorothy Masuka – Zimbabwean singer, composer, bandleader

Tete Mbambisa - veteran South African pianist and composer

Letta Mbulu – South African singer and composer

Getatchew Mekuria - Ethiopian saxophonist

Louis Moholo – South African drummer, composer, bandleader and occasional vocalist. The only surviving member of the Blue Notes

Pops Mohamed - South African multi instrumentalist and composer

McCoy Mrubata – Saxophonist, flautist, composer, band leader from Cape Town

Papa Noel – guitarist, composer and occasional vocalist from DRC. Formerly a member of both African Jazz and T.P. OK Jazz

Peter Nthwane – trumpeter, vocalist, composer and band leader from Lesotho

Tutu Puoane - South African vocalist and composer

OK International – Congolese big band based in France and led by ex OK Jazz guitarist and composer Thierry Mantuika

Barney Rachebane - South African saxophonist

Rail Band -  big band from Mali led by guitarist Djelimadi Toukara

Caiphus Semenya – composer, singer, arranger bandleader from South Africa . Married to Letta Mbulu

Lutumba Simaro – Congolese composer, rhythm guitarist and leader of  Bana OK (formerly T.P. OK Jazz.)   

Dr Phillip Tabane – South African Guitarist, vocalist, flautist, composer and leader of Malombo

Herbie Tsoaeli - double bassist, composer, arranger and vocalist from South Africa

Olivier Tshimanga – Congolese lead guitarist, composer and arranger who made his name with Bana OK


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 What is distinctive about African jazz?

 Generally, African jazz is much more closely related to African folk/classical music than African American jazz is. In particular the geographical diversity in African jazz reflects the enormous range of African folk/classical styles which in turn reflects the rich cultural and ethnic diversity of a continent which is more than three times the size of the United States      Similarly, in vocal music there is enormous diversity in the language used reflecting the linguistic diversity of the continent.

    The harsh economic realities of urban life in Sub Saharan Africa mean that African jazz tends to be populist and is generally geared to performance in dance venues where alcohol is served. Africa ’s economics are also evident in the fact that generally only the very largest cities, such as Kinshasa, Lagos, Johannesburg and Cape Town, have a big enough market to support many African jazz musicians. Other ways in which economics have influenced African jazz include the following:

     Africa ’s climate has had a major influence on African jazz in that the use of piano is impractical across much of the continent because heat, humidity and dust have made it extremely difficult to maintain the instrument and keep it in tune. An exception to this has been in South Africa where the piano and its use in jazz is relatively common. In contemporary African jazz the use of electric keyboards is much more frequent than acoustic piano.

    The geography of Africa has  influenced the music in that the vast size of the continent combined with the lack of natural harbours and relatively poor infrastructure has been a factor in restricting communication between African jazz musicians. Frequently African jazz musicians, even today, have very little idea what is happening in jazz outside their own country or region.


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How is African jazz related to African American jazz?

 The relationship is threefold:

 1. Common historical roots - reflected in shared practices and principles i.e. African elements in African American jazz which came through the slave trade and which continued in Africa such as:

2. The influence of African American jazz on African jazz. -

    African jazz has been influenced enormously by African American jazz via:

3.  To a lesser extent African American jazz has been influenced by African jazz through the same mechanisms i.e. recordings, live performances and musicians visiting Africa . As a general rule, African jazz recordings are much less well known outside their own continent than African American jazz recordings are. However for many non African musicians that play jazz, Africa is considered a place of enormous importance because of the historical origins of jazz and the African Diaspora. For many African American jazz musicians, a journey to Africa is therefore regarded as a kind of pilgrimage. Another notable way in which Africa has influenced, or at least been exposed to the USA and Europe has been through the political exile of musicians such as Miriam Makeba, Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Letta Mbulu/ Caiphus Semenya and the Blue Notes and their associates (Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani, Mongezi Feza, Louis Moholo, Harry Miller, etc.) Often the influence of these musicians outside Africa has been political and ideological as well as musical.  Other major  musicians who have settled overseas and or spent considerable time abroad include Richard Bona, Lionel Loueke, Manu Katché, Manu Dibango, Tony Allen, Tabu Ley Rochereau,

Madilu System, Josky Kiambukata, Ray Lema and Salif Keita. Musicals, such as King Kong, Umoja and Fela! have served as another means by which Western audiences have been exposed to African jazz.

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What other styles of music have influenced African jazz?

To a greater or lesser extent every form of music from the African Diaspora has had an influence on African jazz. The biggest influence has come from Cuba in the form of recordings made in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s and subsequently marketed very successfully in Sub Saharan Africa as the GV series of 78 records. Recordings by artist such as the Trio Matomoros and Sexteto Habanero in the GV series had an incalculable influence on the early development of style Congolese jazz and numerous related African jazz styles. Modern Latin American styles such as salsa continue to be popular especially in Francophone and Lusophone Africa. Brazilian music is popular and influential too throughout Lusophone Africa. Another form of music which has had an enormous influence is gospel and church music in general. For the most part this influence has occurred through musicians attending church and participating in the music. Examples of major musicians influenced by or trained in church would include Tabu Ley Rochereau, Manu Dibango and Abdullah Ibrahim.

    Gypsy Jazz had an indirect but important influence on the early development of Congolese jazz through a Belgian guitarist Bill Alexandre who had played in Europe with Django Reinhardt and later introduced the first electric guitar to Kinshasa in mid 50’s.

    British danceband music (essentially a watered down version of American big band swing) had an influence on the development of dance band highlife in Anglophone West Africa in the 1930’s and 40’s.

    Soul and funk, especially the music of James Brown, was enormously popular in East, West ands Southern Africa at the end of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. From the mid 70’s on, reggae became popular in the same areas and the majority of African jazz musicians are able to play reggae and funk to some extent.

    On the other hand blues and rock have had relatively little direct influence on African jazz. A notable exceptions include the veteran South African singer Tandie Klaasen who is arguably the Africa ’s greatest blues artist and the Ghanaian jazz/rock fusion band Osibisa who were popular and influential in the early 1970.

    Today elements of hip hop, house and R n B can be found in African jazz. Often these are refracted through local popular styles. For example in the late 1990's South African kwai to (the local version of hip hop) spawned kwai jazz which is a crossover between kwai to and South African jazz. Prominent kwai jazz exponents have included pianists Don Laka and the late Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. Similarly in the first decade of the new millennium, the house afrika craze in South Africa has exponents who mix local house with township jazz such as the Brothers of Peace (Dope and Oskido), Revolution, Bujo Mojo, Jazzy D and Black Coffee.

    Contemporary African American popular influence is also evident in current Nigerian afrobeat and afrobeat derived styles in the music of artists like Femi Kuti, Lágbájá and Tony Tetuila. Such influences are also evident in prominent older jazz artists such as Manu Dibango, Tabu Ley Rochereau and Hugh Masekela, but in their case the influence tends to be limited to a small proportion of their recent work.     Elements of R n B can be found in the work of younger artists like Judith Sephuma (South Africa) and Karma Pa (DR Congo).

    Apart form the widespread influence of Congolese jazz across Sub Saharan Africa and of township jazz on the Southern African region the influence of African jazz musicians on each other outside their own countries has been relatively small until recently. Notable exceptions to this are two major musicians, Hugh Masekela and Manu Dibango, both of whom have worked in many different parts of Africa, are familiar with all the major styles of African jazz,  have been influenced by them and have in turn influenced other musicians. The position has changed over the last decade or so. Artists like Molelekwa, Moses, Khumalo, Lionel Loueke, Joseph Hellon and Kunlé and Jimmy Dludlu have what could be called a post-modern outlook and  elements and styles from all over Sub Saharan Africa feature in their music.   

    Western classical music has had some influence on African jazz musicians too, notably on South African pianists such as Don Laka, Moses Taiwa Molelekwa and Paul Hanmer.  

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