A brief background and history of African Music
The African continent is the second largest continent in the world, and its people constitute a 10th of the world’s population with about one thousand indigenous languages spoken throughout the continent (Stone, 1998, p.2). In this context, it is important that a brief history of African music cannot be conclusive and is more complex than we realize. No scholar managed to offer a perspective about African culture that has not been contested. Given this history, we can only provide a bird’s eye view of African music. African music has a long history that has been orally transmitted from one generation to the other and captured in written form in excerpts found in journals of western explorers. Writings on African music are largely based on western theoretical frameworks, and literature available under categories such as African music; world music, global music and ethnomusicology influences the discussion of African music. Most of the African music history has been surrounded by controversy on representation of African cultural heritage by non-native observers. Modern scholars of African music such as Hugh Tracy of South Africa, Nketia of Ghana, Mngoma of South Africa, Maraire of Zimbabwe and Makabuya of Uganda and others have expressed their reservation about misrepresentation of African culture by people who did not understand the people and the functions of the arts in those people’s lives. These discussions have highlighted a need to introduce context-based approach in the study of music and dance in Africa.
Music and Dance
Dance, music, and story-telling are among the ancient art forms that have flourished for many centuries in Africa. Music and dance are terms that we will use to denote musical practices of African people. Ancient African society did not separate their every day life activities from their music and other cultural experience. Stone (1998) attests to the difficulty of separating music from the cultural context as she says:
Honest observers are hard pressed to find single indigenous group in Africa that has a term congruent to the usual western notion of “music.” There are terms for more specific acts like singing, playing instruments, and more broadly performing (dance, games, music); but the isolation of musical sound from other arts proves a western abstraction, of which we should be aware when we approach the study of performance in Africa. (p.7)
Music and dance are activities that characterize an African musical expression and play an important part in the lives of the people (Senogan-Zake, 1986). Many African cultures do not have a word for music and dance. For example, the Kpelle people of Liberia use a single word “sang” to describe a well danced movement (Stone, 1998, p7).
In this module, the term African music will encompass music and dance. Early historical accounts of music and dance among Africans can be found in oral literature that take different forms such as folk tales, myths, epics, praise poems and historical accounts on rituals. Music and dance in Africa have served both utilitarian and aesthetic functions. The utilitarian function involves the use of music in everyday activities, including music at the child’s naming ceremonies, child rearing practices, initiation rites, agricultural activities, national ceremonies, war times, religious ceremonies and those meant for the dead. In most ceremonies, even death ceremonies, music and dance go together.
African people traditionally and in the modern day have a rich oral tradition that insures the passage of cultural practices from one generation to another. Scholars such as Malmusi (1990); Rycroft (1962), Stone (1982) argue that oral literature and music are intimately connected in most parts of Africa and are often impossible to separate (Shelemany in Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2001). Listening has been an important skill that has been perfected by oral traditional practices. A number of African musical songs and dances were and are still transmitted from one generation or group to another by word of mouth.
Some African scholars, such as Ndlovu (1991), argue that the shift to writing down African music compromises the performance of African music and dance. Others, who also oppose the transcription of African songs, argue that songs tend to be forced to comply with western musical idiom or stylistic writing. Some believe that there is a need to develop modern ways of transcribing African music and dance as modern traditional transcriptions tend to fail to account for some melodic and rhythmic patterns. Dargie (1992), who has studied Xhosa singing style of the Eastern cape of South Africa known as Ukungqokola, has devised an alternative transcription method that accounts for complex rhythmic patterns. This method tries to account for some rhythmic and melodic patterns that fall outside the boundaries of the present music notational systems.
Choral music is one of the forms that has promoted the use of Tonic Solfa notation more than staff notation among black composers of Africa descent. In the 20th century, several western-educated African composers have shared their compositions with millions of people. Annual competitions and festivals have become an important facet in the musical life of African countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, and Tanzania. Celebrated composers of choral music based on the principles of four part singing common in hymns are Ayo Bankole, Rueben Caluza, Lazurus Ekwuene, Akin Euba, Alfred Assegai Kumalo, Joseph Kyagambididwa, Gedeon Mdegella, John Mgandu, Okechukwu Ndubuisi, JH Kwabena Ketia, Mkeki Nzewi an Fela Sowande (Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2001).
Choral music is a popular traditional form that has interested a number of young African students to study music formally at colleges and universities. It has also made it easier for Africans to relate to western art music, especially compositions of the Baroque and the Romantic periods, which have choral parts. Handel, Mendellson, Brahms and Schummann’s choral works, just to mention a few, are the most commonly sung works by African choirs. A number of choral composers have learned staff notation too. Many still continue to write in Tonic Solfa as most individuals who participate in church and communal choirs are school children and educated parents who have not mastered staff notation.
While the debate on the suitability of staff notation for African musical idioms continues, Tonic Solfa remains the most widely used and understood notional medium for many Africans who are music enthusiasts. Traditional music and dance in Africa are media that have remained immunized to the western notation debates. They are largely taught and transmitted from one person to the other orally. Modeling is one widely used method for teaching others. Dance troupes that visit different countries perform difficult, complex and multi rhythmic and melodic phrases and movement through oral practices that have been perfected over the centuries.
Indigenous religious practices in Africa have also been influenced by Christian and Islamic practice, among other world religions. New religious movements, such as “aladura” [foreign-indigenous interchange] groups, have skillfully linked Christianity with indigenous practices. (Stone, 1998, p. 5) Foreign religions in Africa have played an important part in shaping the current musical practices in Africa. These musical practices have helped to develop both our vocal traditions and musical instruments. Today, Africa can boast of a number of musical styles and instruments that modern Africans play due to this rich religious influence. We now have people who can play the piano, such as Noel Khumalo (South Africa), the violin, including the Soweto String Quartet (South Africa), and the flute and guitar.
Other religions, such as African indigenous beliefs, suffered a long history of suppression by colonists. A number of indigenous songs and instruments have been kept away from western Christian church services until recently. Africans who decided to join Christianity were encouraged to disassociate themselves with the traditional musical practices, while others continued to practice African traditional beliefs in secret.
On the other hand, Shilaoh (1995), in a discussion on the influence of Islamic and Arabic cultures on the musical traditions of African people, argues that the Africanization of Islam made it easier for African to adjust to the new religious imposition. Nketia in Shiloah (1995) comments that the adjustment was not as radical as it is supposed to be because the African converts did not have to abandon their traditional music completely, even when they learned Islamic cantillation or become familiar with Arabic music. The connection between African music and dance to African culture has helped to sustain a number of ancient musical practices.
There is a large inventory of literature on African music in religious contexts. The Groves dictionary of music and musicians mentions the Turner seminal work, the Drums of Affliction (1968), that focused on religious process among the Ndembu of Zambia, while Euba (1977) studied drumming for the Yoruba orisa Transcendental being Eshu (Esu). Kofi documented music in the context of “vudo” among the Fon of Togo, while Djenda focused on death among the Mpyemo society. (Ein Todesfall, 1968) Garfia wrote about dreams and spirit possession among the Shona (1979-1980), Nketia on funeral dirges among the Akan (1955), and Rouget on trance in several societies (1985). In the context of South Africa, the Vhavenda people have the “Malombo” dance that is known as a religious dance and a form of communication with ancestral spirits. Most of the indigenous religious practices have co-existed with foreign religious traditions since colonial times and are passed from one generation to another through oral tradition.
The practice of the Griot, specialized court musicians in a number of African cultures, has helped to maintain some religious dances and music. The Hausa and Fulbe are some to the African traditions where the Griots are omnipresent in the cultural life of the society.
Influences from other cultures
African music and dance has survived as long as we can remember the existence of humankind. Looking at pictorial representations that come from historical records on the existence of humans, we know that there was music in African people’s lives. Stone (1998), discussing the connection between music, dance and human lives in Africa, argues that African performance is a tightly wrapped bundle of arts that is sometimes difficult to separate, even for analysis. (p.7) She further says that as Europeans began to study Africa, and in particular its music, their interpretations emphasized a music that was rather monotonous, static and inactive. Presenting themselves as ever-adventurous Europeans, they associated themselves with music of change and development. The Europeans misconceptions came from a lack of appreciation of African musical subtleties, including language of performance.
If we acknowledge that music practices flourish within a socio-cultural context, Africa has not been an exception to this rule (Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2001, p .205). In this module, we want to acknowledge a number of global forces that have shaped the present African musical practices we know, while acknowledging that African music has influenced a number of musical practices in the New World, Europe and other continents. Some of the major influences on African music can be attributed to the role played by trade, globalization and colonialism. Some scholars argue that it is misleading to state that African music is more functional than other musical traditions. They believe that social context varies according to the cultural profile of the society. A number of writers, such as Lalendle (1988), still present African music as fulfilling a functional role in African society. The notion is related to the freezing of the African experience in the past, which is challenged by many. My observations of modern South Africans who are western-schooled led me to accept this change in the perception of African music. There are currently very few western-schooled individuals that are able to perform traditional dances from their cultures or willing to exhibit their skills in this area. This is due to the status of traditional music and dance practice in their social circles.
It is from this context that the music of Africa must be seen as dynamic. Urban Music or popular music is described by Impey (1998) as music mediated by a complex corporate network made of companies. It is this music that portrays the dynamic nature of African music and how its assimilation influenced particularly this genre, commonly known as popular music, highlife and township music.
Impey (1998) asserts that all countries in Africa, with the exception of Ethopia and Liberia, have undergone a period of foreign domination. This has brought the trappings of foreign culture, affecting the economic, political and cultural infrastructures of African society. Popular music has been used as a vehicle to communicate the struggle against many forms of domination, including the struggle for equal rights and the struggles of workers and life in shantytowns surrounding big cities. Impey (1998) argues that we need to acknowledge that popular music in Africa represents the interaction between foreign values and styles. She goes on to say that popular music is therefore a site for adaptation, assimilation, eclecticism, appropriation, and experimentation. Popular music stems from the 20th century global development that broke down the national boundaries and opened them to free market forces. We can now argue that popular music has become a global phenomenon propelled by 20th century technological developments. A number of scholars, including Lalendle, Ballantine and Copland, tend to look at the socio-cultural contributions of popular music.
African popular music market may be fraught with contradictions, but what remains uncontested is the energy and diversity of music creativity in the continent. Today, musical instruments and styles provide the basis of contemporary music. The following artists represent a growing cadre of internationally renowned African groups and musicians, which includes Youssou N Dour (Senegal), Lady Smith Black Mambazo (South Africa), Thomas Mapfumo (Zimbabwe). It is befitting to close this section with Impey (1998), who argues that pop styles have deliberately maintained an indigenous sound through the use of traditional instruments to appeal to western audiences whose need for roots reflects their own sense of communal loss. The growing demand for “authentic” African music by the world-music markets has profoundly affected the nature of the production of music, whose construction involves a complex trait in opportunity and exploitation, fantasy and imagination, style and recollection, appropriation, assimilation and dispossession.
I have discussed western influences on African music; it will be impossible to close this discussion without highlighting that Africans have a profound influence on world music today. We can trace this influence to times before the popularization of Jazz as a true hybrid of African and Western musical idioms. Trade played a major role in exposing other nations to African music. Diaries of early explorers are full of accounts that at times exhibit their biases about a culture they viewed as primitive and inferior to their own.
It is also important to note that some early writers, such as Mc Kinney and Anderson, who acknowledged that “Negroes [African Americans] brought into the country [America] their own flavor of rhythmic genius and harmonic love for color peculiar to their music.” The African influence on Jazz, Reggae, Rhythm and Blues, Hip hop, Rap and other popular forms of music that exist in America, Asia, Europe and other continents cannot be discounted. Mc Kinney and Anderson acknowledge the African contributions to indigenous American art forms when they write, ”Africans contributed to the first popular form of amusement indigenous to the American scene was the minstrel show, a distinctly native combination of a sort folk vaudeville with topical songs of a Negroid character.” It is within this context that Africa continues to play a major role in reshaping the world music. One of the major African music idioms that have influence world music is captured in Jazz. Mc Kinney and Anderson argue that Jazz is a kind of music fusing elements from such widely differing sources as European harmony, Euro-African melody, and African rhythm into a kind of improvisations style based on a fixed rhythmic foundation. Its beginnings can be traced to the Negro musicians in the French quarters of the city of New Orleans around 1890.
Website on African music on world music:
This site also discusses the music of African artists. You can listen to samples of popular African artist living in Africa and other parts of the world. Music is also available for purchase for your collection.
Dargie David (1992) Musical Practices of the Xhosa People, David Phillips, Cape Town South Africa.
Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2001)
Lalendle Luvuyo Lumkile (1988) “Music Education in South Africa in and out of school,” Iowa Music Educators Journal, vol 42, No 2., University of Iowa, Iowa city, USA.
Ndlovu Ceaser (1991) Transcription of African Music, Unpublished paper presented at the African Music conference at the University of Venda, South Africa.
Senoga-Zake George W.(1986) Folk music in Kenya, Act printing Ltd. Nairobi, Kenya.
Shiloah, Amnon (1995) Music in the World of Islam: A Socio-cultural Study, Wayne State University Press. Detroit.
Stone, Ruth (1998) Africa, The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Garland Publishing, INC. New York.
Impey Angela (1998) “Popular Music in Africa” in Stone Ruth (ed) The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, GarlandPublishing, INC. New York.