African Music

African Music

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Africa is the second largest continent in the world, and home to a tenth of the world’s population and at least a thousand different indigenous languages. Therefore, it is impossible to describe a single entity called “African music.” 

One need only compare the sacred music of the Gnawa musicians of Morocco with the choral traditions that arose in the townships of South Africa to see the vast range of musical practices found throughout this huge and complex region. Especially during the last century, however, scholars have tried to find ways to talk in general ways about Africa’s rich traditions, while always acknowledging the sometimes very subtle differences between countries and ethnic groups. 

Beyond the recognition that African musicians maintained a vibrant and very distinct art, it has also been noted that this music— especially that of West Africa, from where the majority of slaves were taken—has played a significant role in the black cultural Diaspora, with important implications for the music of Latin America, the Caribbean. Thus, understanding a few concepts that are shared by much African music helps listeners appreciate not only the continent’s music itself but a host of related traditions. 

Fortunately, in today’s digital age, recordings of music from virtually all corners of Africa—both traditional repertoires and styles influenced by Western popular music—are readily available. The Sahara Desert, which takes up almost the entire northern third of the continent, is perhaps the most important dividing line that comes into play when discussing music in Africa. 

Countries that lie partly or entirely north of the Sahara (Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, etc.) tend to share many qualities with music of the Middle East. The rainforests and grasslands of Sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana, Cameroon, The Congo, Zambia, etc.) have produced very different traditions. In addition, distinctions are often made between Sub-Saharan musical traditions of Western, Eastern, Central, and Southern Africa.

North Africa

North Africa is the seat of ancient Egypt and Carthage, civilizations with strong ties to the ancient Near East and which influenced the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Eventually, Egypt fell under Persian rule followed by Greek and Roman rule, while Carthage was later ruled by Romans and Vandals. North Africa was later conquered by the Arabs, who established the region as the Maghreb of the Arab world.

Like the musical genres of the Nile Valley and the Horn of Africa (sky-blue and dark green region on map), its music has close ties with Middle Eastern music and utilizes similar melodic modes (maqamat). North African music has a considerable range, from the music of ancient Egypt to the Berber and the Tuareg music of the desert nomads. The region’s art music has for centuries followed the outline of Arabic and Andalusian classical music: its popular contemporary genres include the Algerian Raï.
West, Central, Eastern, Southeast and South Africa
The ethnomusicological pioneer Arthur Morris Jones (1889–1980) observed that the shared rhythmic principles of Sub-Saharan African music traditions constitute one main system. Similarly, master drummer and scholar C. K. Ladzekpo affirms the “profound homogeneity” of sub-Saharan African rhythmic principles.

African traditional music is frequently functional in nature. Performances may be long and often involve the participation of the audience. There are, for example, specialised work songs, songs accompanying childbirth, marriage, hunting and political activities, music to ward off evil spirits and to pay respects to good spirits, the dead and the ancestors. None of this is performed outside its intended social context and much of it is associated with a particular dance. Some of it, performed by professional musicians, is sacral music or ceremonial and courtly music performed at royal courts.

Musicologically, Sub-Saharan Africa may be divided into four regions:

1. The eastern region (light green regions on map) includes the music of Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe as well as the islands of Madagascar, the Seychelles, Mauritius and Comor. Many of these have been influenced by Arabic music and also by the music of India, Indonesia and Polynesia, though the region’s indigenous musical traditions are primarily in the mainstream of the sub-Saharan Niger–Congo-speaking peoples.

2. The southern region (brown region on map) includes the music of South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia and Angola.

3. The central region (dark blue region on map) includes the music of Chad, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia, including Pygmy music.

4. West African music (yellow region on map) includes the music of Senegal and the Gambia, of Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Liberia, of the inland plains of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the coastal nations of Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon and the Republic of the Congo as well as islands such as Sao Tome and Principe.

As different as African musical traditions may sound from each other, they do tend to share both cultural and musical elements. However, one must always be cautious when trying to view these traditions through a Western musical or aesthetic lens.

1. Music and dance – Linguistic scholars have been hard-pressed to find a single word that means “music” in many African languages. Music and bodily movement are usually considered part of a single whole, and sound cannot be separated from the cultural (and often religious) function of musical performances.

2. In many African cultures, music and dance are considered communal activities; the Western idea of sitting silently while a performance is taking place is an anathema to these traditions. Many musical techniques that are shared by African musics— particularly the idea of “call and response,” where a soloist or group of performers will engage in short exchanges with other performers—seem to have arisen from this communal attitude toward music-making.

3. Oral traditions – Nearly all African traditions have been passed down orally, and their study by Western scholars has often involved the transcription of performances into Western musical notation, which often proves woefully inadequate for the job. The influx of Christian choral music, especially in the southern regions of Africa, has resulted in music somewhat more easily notable, and some African musicians do now use the familiar five-line system to capture their art.

4. In many African traditions, rhythm—the way music moves through time—seems to be privileged over melody and harmony. Many African performances are highly polyphonic and made up of several layers of interlocking rhythmic ostinatos, which are combined to create an overall effect suitable for the religious or cultural ceremony for which the sounds are being produced.

5. Instruments – The variety of instruments found throughout Africa is astounding. Perhaps most impressive is the range of percussion instruments (both idio phones and membrano phones) that are often combined with distinctive uses of the human voice. In listening to performances of African music, those of us immersed in the Western musical tradition may be initially drawn to the vocal line as the most prominent feature, yet it may just be one element of a larger, complex musical texture.


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