From his small music store in the main bus park in Gulu, northern Uganda, Felix Lutalo has provided the soundtrack to 27 years of his region's life. In that time, war has come and gone. The bustling town – best known as the epicentre of the conflict with the Lord's Resistance Army – has developed and become a city. Through it all, Lutalo has bought, copied or downloaded songs onto cassette tapes, CDs and flash discs, blasting out his own preferences while keeping a finger on changing musical tastes.
One constant has been Westlife. Lutalo swears he’s been flogging their songs since the early 1990s, even though the Irish band only formed in 1998. “They’re so famous, those boys,” he said, holding up a DVD called “West Life: Best Slows videoz”, with their faces emblazoned on the front and back. It sells for 2,000 Ugandan shillings, the equivalent of 47 cents.
Westlife, which currently has four members - Shane Filan, Mark Feehily, Kian Egan, and Nicky Byrne - are incredibly popular across Africa. I've met Westlife fans in every country I've been to, from Liberia in the west, to Sudan in the north, and Rwanda in the east.
They always turn up in unexpected places. I drank Ethiopian coffee with Seasons in the Sun as a backtrack in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya. A cafe in southern Uganda plays Westlife music every day. "Most of our USB is Westlife. We love them," the waitress, Sarah, told me. On the long busride from Kigali to Kampala, drivers were broadcasting Westlife videos on repeat when I made the journey in both 2014 and 2020. In Uganda's capital, the Sheraton Hotel has been known to play Westlife videos on a projector in their restaurant.
A friend messaged me last year from Juba, South Sudan, saying her 28-year-old taxi driver had sworn his “undying allegiance” to Westlife - the only non-hip hop music he listens to. “They are such romantic boys,” he told her.
Their music has provided solace to many people going through difficult times. In the first weeks of Uganda's coronavirus lockdown, a couple separated by a nationwide travel ban called up a radio station in Gulu to request Westlife's song Us Against the World. In 2018, by the coast in the Gambia, West Africa, I met tour guide Ebrim Tamba. The 28-year-old was telling me how he survived under brutal ex-dictator Yahya Jammeh, who was ousted the year before. People had never been able to talk freely when Jammeh was in power, and Tamba was excited to speak his mind. But he was even more enthusiastic when he heard where I was from.
“Why have Westlife never played Gambia?” Tamba asked, pulling out his phone, which had Westlife’s greatest hits loaded on it. “They do music which is really civilised,” he explained. “I listen to them every day. People say I’m boring but I just like it.”
In a time when the wrong words could get you killed, Westlife's ballads, with their soaring emotion, provided relief. Filan was his favourite, Tamba said; he checked Filan's Instagram constantly to see what he was up to, reeling off the countries his idol had been in recently.
Thousands of miles away, in Goma, on the eastern side of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, journalist Gaius Kowene told me he grew up with Westlife songs. "People still play Westlife a lot," he said. "If I listen to the first three seconds of any song I know if it's Westlife or not. They really have to tour Africa."
Kowene’s favourite member was Brian McFadden, the first to leave the band, in 2004. “Just the way he sings. He has this charisma and he’s not too aggressive,” Kowene said fondly.
In some ways, the unappreciated success of Westlife across Africa reminds me of the 2012 Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. It examined the work of American rock musician Sixto Rodriguez, who was famous in apartheid-era South Africa but never knew it, because of sanctions the country was under at the time.
Like Westlife, Rodriguez’s records were pirated and he never performed, yet his music was revered by millions of people. Officially, Westlife have sold more than 45 million records globally, but their real sales must be much higher, considering most of their Africa sales are bootlegged. That raised a question: did the band even know they were famous there?
Westlife has only ever visited South Africa on tour, always skipping the rest of the continent's 54 countries, except for one stop in neighbouring Namibia in September 2011 (a 2020 article by local media described them as among the "most notable" international stars ever to play Namibia).
"The boys were aware of their support in Africa," Mark Feehily's publicist Joanne Byrne told me in 2018, when I first emailed asking if they would ever tour the continent. "Indeed when I travelled through Botswana I texted the boys when I heard one of their songs in a tiny airport in the middle of nowhere." Despite that, she said, where they perform is related to which countries they have promoters in.
In fact, the African continent, with its 1.2 billion people, is constantly passed over by international artists. In 2013, a taxi driver in Malawi asked me what music I like. "My favourite type of music is blues music… like Westlife," he said, pulling out his 'Coast to Coast' CD. But he worried Malawi is "too poor" for the band to want to perform.
International booking agents say Africa was traditionally perceived as not having the resources to hold big concerts. Local promoters are also not as connected with global companies managing artists. Today, this is beginning to change. The continent has the fastest growing middle class in the world and burgeoning music scenes. Festivals, including Lake of Stars in Malawi or Senegal’s Blues du Fleuve festival, attract thousands of people – Africans, but also Europeans, Americans, and other music fans from across the world.
"The Westlife diehard fans are now signing cheques… a Westlife concert in Nigeria would fetch millions," tweeted Nigerian Babalola Abiola last year.
In Nigeria, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a pirate CD company called Big Boss Jigga Man began to reproduce foreign records. They did a particularly successful line in Westlife, according to Nigerians I spoke to.
"They were popular across the country," said Isima Odeh, a 23-year-old entrepreneur from Delta State. "I will put it like this: we all know how popular Michael Jackson was around the world. They were as popular as Michael Jackson. It was very common and was easy to see their CDs in people's houses then. It was easy to get into their music. Their music was very pleasant to the ears. Their videos were also engrossing."
Some Nigerians described buying Westlife lyric books, learning the words so they could woo women. Folajaiye Kareem, a 30-year-old psychologist, said it was necessary because sometimes they couldn’t understand Westlife’s slang or accents.
Yemi Fetch said songs like ‘Flying Without Wings’ and ‘Uptown Girl’ were “anthems”, and he was certain Westlife could still fill a stadium with a 60,000-person capacity in Lagos. “Think of the Beatles and what made them hot in the ‘60s. They appealed to young people… Their music resonated with teenagers who were probably experiencing love for the first time. The fascinating lyrics, rhythm and playful musical videos endeared them to young Nigerians.”
Westlife are no longer “boys”. The band split in 2012, but reunited in 2018, and the men are now in their late 30s or 40s. They recently had most of their stadium tour cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yet their music lives on through lockdown. Sitting outside an alcohol store in northern Uganda, in mid-May, during the height of the country’s coronavirus restrictions, four guys relaxed by the road blaring ‘Fool Again’. Morris Ojok (22) works as a mechanic, but Westlife reminds him of good times in secondary school. Someone would buy a CD, then students would sit and listen to it together. “All the school, they loved that music,” he said.
Ojok remembers coming across Westlife videos on YouTube. He is still enthralled by their voices. "They're the most famous people I love, they're amazing," he said. "They sing songs which teach people the difference between good or bad, it educates people. Here some musicians sing about abusing people, they say bad words, but these people [Westlife] would never do that. Their music is good, it can change your life."
In early 2018, I jokingly posted on Twitter that I was launching a campaign to get Westlife to tour Africa, and was inundated by messages from fans. Two years later, I finally got a response from the band themselves, with each member sending their own separate message.
”It’s such an honour to know we have so many fans in Africa,” said Feehily. “We have had a lot of communication through the years on social media with a small amount of you guys, but it’s sad to think that after all this time we haven’t had the chance to perform for most of our fans there... yet!
“I would love nothing more than to go there one day soon and meet them all face to face, to be together with them for a big Westlife concert! Until then we will always be connected through our music. I am aware that there are a lot of people in situations where our music may offer an escape from stress and worry and this is the most pleasing thing of all,” he said.
“I’ve heard many times from people who have travelled to Africa for work or on holiday that they hear Westlife songs everywhere,” said Filan, adding that he would also like to tour there.
“Over the years many people have stopped me at various times to tell me of the popularity of Westlife in Africa,” began Byrne. “I have even heard of barbers and cafes named after the band in some really remote areas. It has always blown my mind! Through the years we have only managed to tour South Africa and Namibia so we would relish bringing our live show to many other countries on the African continent, it’s an exciting prospect and still so many places to still see!”
“It is special to hear about our fan base across Africa,” said Egan. “All of our fans, whoever they are and wherever they come from, mean everything to us. You often hear reports about the struggles and troubles facing people in certain parts of Africa so if our music, or indeed any music, is bringing people joy then that is fantastic. We’re grateful that they’re listening to us.”