“Africa” is a song by US rock band Toto, the 10th and last track on their 4th studio album Toto IV (1982). It was released as a single in the US through Columbia Records in October 1982, the album’s 3rd single overall and 2nd in Europe. The song was written by band members David Paich and Jeff Porcaro, produced by the band, and mixed by Grammy-winning engineer Elliot Scheiner.
Critics praised its composition and Toto’s performances. The song reached #1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, the band’s only Billboard #1, and 31 on the Canadian charts. It also peaked in the top 10 in the UK, Ireland (#2), Netherlands (#4), Australia (#5), New Zealand (#5), Austria (#7), Belgium (#8) and Switzerland (#6), although missing out in Germany (#14) and Italy (#22). Ironically, in South Africa it only reached #18 (as in Spain and Finland) while in France only #27..
The song was accompanied by a music video, directed by Steve Barron, which premiered in 1983. The director also collaborated with Toto for “Rosanna”. The video features Toto in a library, as they perform and showcase various aspects of African culture. While popular in the 80s and 90s, with the song being certified gold by the RIAA in 1991, “Africa” saw a resurgence in popularity via social media during the mid- to late 2010s, including a fan-requested cover by American rock band Weezer which peaked at #51 on the Billboard Hot 100. It has since been certified 8 times platinum.
The initial idea and lyrics for the song came from David Paich. Paich was playing around with a new keyboard, the CS-80, and found the brassy sound that became the opening riff. He completed the melody and lyrics for the chorus in about 10 minutes, much to Paich’s surprise. “I sang the chorus out as you hear it. It was like God channeling it. I thought, ‘I’m talented, but I’m not that talented. Something just happened here!'” Paich reckons that he refined the lyrics for 6 months before showing the song to the rest of the band.
In 2015, Paich explained that the song is about a man’s love of a continent, Africa, rather than just a personal romance. He based the lyrics on a late night documentary with depictions of African plight and suffering. The viewing experience made a lasting impact on Paich: “It both moved and appalled me, and the pictures just wouldn’t leave my head. I tried to imagine how I’d feel about it if I was there and what I’d do.” Jeff Porcaro elaborates further, explaining: “A white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past.”
Some additional lyrics relate to a person flying in to meet a lonely missionary, as Paich described in 2018. As a child, Paich attended a Catholic school; several of his teachers had done missionary work in Africa. Their missionary work became the inspiration behind the line: “I bless the rains down in Africa.” Paich, who at the time had never set foot in Africa, based the song’s landscape descriptions from an article in National Geographic.
During an appearance on the radio station KROQ-FM, Steve Porcaro and Steve Lukather described the song as “dumb” and “an experiment” and some of the lyrics as “goofy” that were just placeholders, particularly the line about the Serengeti. Engineer Al Schmitt stated that “Africa” was the 2nd song written for Toto IV and had been worked on extensively in the studio. According to Steve Porcaro, it was the last song they recorded and barely made the cut. At one point, Jeff Porcaro considered saving “Africa” for a solo album because some members did not think the song sounded like Toto. The band was more focused on the album’s lead single “Rosanna”.
Musically, the song took some time to assemble. Steve Porcaro, the band’s synth player, introduced Paich to the Yamaha CS-80, a polyphonic analog synthesizer, and instructed him to write a song specifically with the keyboard in mind. Paich gravitated towards a brassy flute sound, which he found to be a unique alternative to the piano. Porcaro programmed 6 tracks of a Yamaha GS 1 digital piano to emulate the sound of a kalimba. Each track featured a 1-3 note gamelan phrase with different musical parameters. Steve Porcaro’s brother, Jeff, played his parts live without a click track.
So when we were doing “Africa” I set up a bass drum, snare drum and a hi-hat, and Lenny Castro set up right in front of me with a conga…and just started playing the basic groove. We played for 5 minutes on tape, no click, no nothing. We just played. And I was singing the bass line for ‘Africa’ in my mind, so we had a relative tempo…Lenny and I picked out the best 2 bars that we thought were grooving, and we marked those 2 bars on tape. […] Maybe it would have taken 2 minutes to program that in the Linn, and it took about half an hour to do this. But a Linn machine doesn’t feel like that!
Jeff Porcaro also acknowledged that he was influenced by the sounds created by fellow Los Angeles session musicians Milt Holland and Emil Richards. He also described the significance of the African pavilion drummers at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and a National Geographic Special. To recreate those sounds, he and his father Joe Porcaro made percussion loops on bottle caps and marimba respectively.
I was about 11 when the New York World’s Fair took place, and I went to the African pavilion with my family. I saw the real thing … It was the first time I witnessed somebody playing 1 beat and not straying from it, like a religious experience, where it gets loud, and everyone goes into a trance.
The music video used the radio edit and was directed by Steve Barron. It features Mike Porcaro on bass, replacing David Hungate, who had already left the band before the video was made. Lenny Castro is also featured in the video on percussion. As of August 2022, the music video has almost 800,000,000 views on YouTube.
In the video, a researcher in a library (portrayed by band member David Paich) tries to match a scrap of a picture of a shield to the book from which it was torn out. As he continues his search, a female librarian working at a nearby desk takes occasional notice of him, while a native carrying a shield that matches the picture begins to close in on the library from the surrounding jungle. When the researcher finds a book titled Africa, the native throws a spear at a bookshelf, toppling stacks of books. Africa falls open to the page from which the scrap was torn, but a lantern lands on it and sets it on fire, after which the librarian’s eyeglasses are shown falling to the floor. The scenes are intercut with shots of a spinning globe and the band performing atop a stack of giant hardcover books, in which Africa is the topmost.
The song was popular upon its release, hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1983, and the song has continued to be a popular soft-rock classic up to the 21st century. Cash Box called it an “image-filled package of pop exotica with its gently tropical synth and marimba.” The song has been utilized in many internet memes, has appeared in television shows, such as Stranger Things, Family Guy, Chuck, and South Park, and was used by CBS during their 2013 coverage of the funeral of former South African President Nelson Mandela, albeit not without controversy. It was also included in the 2002 video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City as part of the fictional Emotion 98.3 radio station.
In 2012, “Africa” was listed by music magazine NME in 32nd place on its list of “50 Most Explosive Choruses.” In January 2019, a sound installation was set up in an undisclosed location in the Namib Desert in Africa to play the song on a constant loop. The installation is powered by solar batteries, allowing the song to be played indefinitely. Two years later, the song reached 1 billion plays on the streaming site Spotify. In 2021, it was listed at #452 on Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Best Songs of All Time”.
Permanent Toto artists and guests who performed Africa:
- David Paich – lead and backing vocals, synthesizer, piano
- Bobby Kimball – lead and backing vocals, percussion
- Steve Lukather – electric guitar, backing vocals
- Steve Porcaro – synthesizers
- David Hungate – bass guitar
- Jeff Porcaro – drums, cowbell, gong, additional percussion
- Lenny Castro – congas, shakers, additional percussion
- Timothy B. Schmit – 12-string acoustic guitar, backing vocals
- Joe Porcaro – percussion, marimba
- Jim Horn – recorders