When you listen to the music by Ali Farka Toure, Rokia Traore, Afel Bocoum and other african blues artists you can recognize it in a second.

What is it what makes the african blues so distinctive?
Is it tuning, scales, rhytm, finger technique ... ?

Well I'm pretty sure it's the combination of all these, but I would be glad if someone could shed some light into my little african mystery with more then this common sense.

Please provide some examples of these tunings or scales if you want to make me really happy.

Thanks a lot for your input!

PS: I've been quite close few times just by playing a typical blues pentatonic scale in the 'right' mood :D
but I'm sure there's a much more to explore...

2 Answers 2


Listening to some Ali Farka Toure in order to have something fresh in my head to comment.

First, I'd say that the 12-bar progression we're all familiar with is absent, replaced with repeating measures that are more a part of funk, although the blues history videos seem to tie to John Lee Hooker. You don't get the familiar shuffle, either, and I'm actually not hearing drums. The two tracks I've pulled up (From In the Heart of the Moon, if you're curious) sound more like I-IV vamps.

The instrumentation I'm hearing sounds like the melody instrument is a thumb piano and not a guitar, but I could be wrong. If you want to see as well as hear some of this kind of music being made, Bela Fleck made a movie about going to Africa and playing with African musicians, called Throw Down Your Heart, that's on Netflix Instant.

And there's an attitude difference here, too. I think there's a gunslinger vibe connected to blues guitar that I'm just not hearing here. It comes off more jamband than blues, in that respect.

  • 3
    Blues as we know it stems from slavery and the work songs produced by those people from Africa who were enslaved. Although there is a heavy (Mostly Rhythmic)African influence in the early work songs and subsequent blues; its very different from the kind of music free African people were creating at that time. More recent African music has progressed from this with only a minor western influence.
    – Bella
    Feb 21, 2011 at 19:54

I claim that it is the rhythms. One book that is aimed at drummers will give lots of examples that I think will help demonstrate the different beats is West African Rhythms for Drumset. One drummer (who does just heavy metal) claims the rhythms are too complicated for him. Another drummer (who does just jazz) claims that they're not all that hard, but are quite different from what he normally plays. Your mileage may vary.

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