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The Devil Went Down to Gambia! The Surprising History of African Country Music

Country music is having a surge in popularity across the globe, and some of its biggest fans are in Africa. Despite its association with rural whiteness, it has always resonated with Africans, likely due in part to the genre’s being rooted in many African musical traditions. 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. 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.