African Music is the music of Africans who live south of the Sahara (music north of the Sahara is usually classified as Arab). It is a rich musical tradition has developed in Africa, a vast region of more than 50 nations, each with its own history and mixture of cultures and languages.
II. Musical Style
Although diverse, African music has certain distinctive traits. One is the use of repetition as an organizing principle. For example, in the mbira music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, a repeated pattern is established by the interaction of various parts, and the musician develops an improvisation out of this core pattern. Another common characteristic is polyphony (the simultaneous combination of several distinct musical parts). African music also has a conversational quality, in which different voices, instrumental parts, or even the parts of a single player are brought into lively exchange. One of the most common types of music making is call-and-response singing, in which a chorus repeats a fixed refrain in alternation with a lead singer, who has more freedom to improvise.
There are many different modes of expression in African music. In West Africa, drum ensembles consisting of three to five musicians who play interlocking patterns are common. In the ensemble, each drummer uses a special method of striking the drum head to produce varying pitches and timbres—distinctive sounds also known as tone colors—to distinguish the drum from all the others. Such ensembles often include rattles and an iron bell, which is struck with a stick to produce a repeated pattern called a timeline. This pattern penetrates the dense texture of the ensemble and helps the drummers to play their patterns at the correct time. See also Musical Rhythm: Non-Western Systems.
In the akadinda xylophone music of the Ganda, two groups of three players each face one another across one xylophone. The first group plays a repeated pattern in octaves, and the second group fills in the missing beats with an interlocking pattern. The resulting tempo may approach 600 beats per minute. In eastern, central, and southern Africa, groups of musicians play sets of stopped flutes or trumpets, each person contributing a single note in strict rotations with the others. The alternation of the parts creates a rich polyphonic texture. This kind of ensemble technique, sometimes called hocketting, was described by European observers as early as the 15th century. Hocketting also plays an important role in the music of the San people of the Kalahari Desert and the pygmies of the central African rain forests.
Among the southern African peoples, polyphony is most highly developed in vocal music. In traditional Zulu choral music, individual voices enter at different points in a continuous cycle, overlapping in a complex and constantly shifting texture. The same technique may be used in solo vocal performances, during which a singer will jump from one entrance point to another to create a polyphonic texture. A wide variety of vocal qualities are used in African music, and it is common for sound-producing objects, such as jingles, rattles, and membranes made of spiderweb, to be attached to instruments to produce a "sizzling" effect.
A wide variety of instruments are used in African music. Drums are among the more popular instruments and are made in a variety of shapes and sizes. Materials such as wood, gourds, and clay are used to construct drum bodies. Drum membranes are made from the skins of reptiles, cows, goats, and other animals. Important types of drums include drum-chimes, in which a set of drums tuned to a scale is mounted in a frame and played by a team of drummers; friction drums, in which sound is produced by rubbing the membrane; and the West African hourglass-shaped tension drum, which is sometimes called a talking drum because it can be used to imitate the tonal contours of spoken language.
Other important percussion instruments in African music include clap-sticks, bells, rattles, slit gongs, struck gourds and clay pots, stamping tubes, and xylophones. The lamellaphone, an instrument unique to Africa, consists of a series of metal or bamboo strips mounted on a board or box. The instrument is held in the hands or on the player's lap, and the free ends of the strips are plucked with thumbs or forefingers. Lamellaphones are used throughout Africa and are also referred to as mbira, kalimba, or likembe.
African stringed instruments include the musical bow, lute, lyre, harp, and zither. Professional musicians among the Mandinka (also known as Mandingo or Malinké) people of Gambia play the kora, a 21-string harp-lute. The xalam, a plucked lute, is a close relative of the African American banjo. It is used in Senegal by Wolof praise singers, whose songs revere important people. The musical bow, which consists of a string stretched between two ends of a flexible stave, plays a particularly important role in the traditional music of southern African peoples, such as the San, Xhosa, and Zulu.
The flute, whistle, oboe, and trumpet are among the African wind instruments. Transverse and end-blown flutes made from bamboo, reeds, wood, clay, bones, and other materials are used throughout the sub-Saharan region. Trumpets, often associated with royalty, are made from animal horns or wood and are also widely used. Clarinets from the savanna region of West Africa are made from guinea corn or sorghum stems, with a reed cut from the surface of the stem at one end. Double-reed instruments, such as the Hausa algaita, originated from the shawms of North Africa.
IV. African Music in Society
Professional musicians played a crucial role as historians in the kingdoms that developed from the 10th century to the 20th century in various parts of Africa. Among the Mande people of western Africa, professional bards, or griots, still recount the histories of powerful lineages and offer counsel to contemporary rulers. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, an incompetent or evil king often first heard the public's command to abdicate from his "talking drummers." When Ugandan government troops invaded the palace of the kabaka (king) of Buganda in the 1970s, they made sure that the royal musical instruments were destroyed first. In his memoirs, the kabaka described the royal drums as the "heart" of his kingdom.
Music continues to play an important role in African societies. It is a medium for the transmission of knowledge and values and for celebrating important communal and personal events. Music is often combined with speech, dance, and the visual arts to create multimedia performances. Even in societies with well-developed traditions of professional musicianship, the ability of all individuals to participate in a musical event by adding a voice to the chorus or by adding an appropriate clap pattern is assumed to be part of normal cultural competence.
Important stages of an African person's life are often marked with music. There are lullabies, children's game songs, and music for adolescent initiation rites, weddings, title-taking ceremonies, funerals, and ceremonies for the ancestors. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, the mother of twins must perform a special repertoire of songs, and in Ghana there are songs for teasing bedwetters and for celebrating the loss of a child's first tooth.
In many African religions, sound is thought to be one of the primary means by which deities and humans impose order on the universe. In West Africa, drummers play a crucial role in possession-trance ceremonies, in which the gods enter or "ride" the bodies of devotees. A competent drummer must know scores of specific rhythms for particular gods and be responsible throughout the performance for regulating the flow of supernatural power in ritual contexts. In Zimbabwe, Shona mbira musicians create an environment that encourages the ancestral-spirit possession that is considered a necessary part of healing.
Music is also used to organize work activities. Kpelle men in Liberia use a form of vocal hocketting to coordinate their machete blows while clearing dense brush for rice fields. In pygmy societies of the central rain forest, singing and vocal cries are used to coordinate the movements of hunters through the brush. In southern Africa, herders use flutes and other instruments to help control the movement of cattle.
V. Popular Music
African popular music is a blend of African, European, African American, and Middle Eastern musical traditions. In most parts of Africa, popular music was pioneered by workers drawn into expanding colonial economies during the early 20th century. The subsequent development of popular-music styles has been strongly influenced by the electronic mass media. The international popularity of African music increased in the 1980s, in part because of the participation of African musicians on albums by popular music stars such as Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and David Byrne.
The most influential style of popular music within Africa is Congolese guitar band music, also known as soukous. Influenced by Afro-Cuban music, this style developed in the towns of central Africa and is now played by groups in such cities as Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, formerly Zaire); Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo; and Paris, France. Proponents of soukous include Franco and O.K. Jazz, Rochereau, Mbilia Bel, Papa Wemba, and Loketo.
In the late 19th century, a style called highlife began to develop in Ghana. There are two types of highlife groups: dance bands, in which musicians play an Africanized version of Western ballroom-dance music, complete with trumpets and saxophones; and guitar bands, which usually include several electric guitars and a set of percussion instruments. In Nigeria, the Afro-Beat style of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, formerly a highlife musician, is strongly influenced by the African American music of jazz. Yoruba musicians developed a variant of guitar-band highlife called juju, which uses traditional proverbs and praise poetry and features the talking drum. Popular stars of juju music include King Sunny Adé and Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey. In Zimbabwe, Thomas Mapfumo and guitarist Joshua Sithole helped to develop a style called jiti, transferring Shona mbira patterns to the electric guitar. This style played an important role in the songs of resistance disseminated during the struggle for independence (1957-1980) against the white-controlled Rhodesian government.
The tradition of professional griots in the savanna region of West Africa is carried on by musicians such as Youssou N'Dour of Senegal and Salif Keita of Mali. These musicians make use of traditional instruments such as the xylophone and the kora (a harp-lute) in addition to using electric guitars and synthesizers. Their vocal styles often reflect the influence of Islam on the music of the savanna region.
South Africa is home to some of the best-known styles of African popular music. Mbaqanga, which was developed in the segregated black townships created under apartheid, is the most popular form of dance music. Contemporary mbaqanga groups, such as the Soul Brothers and Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, employ a lead singer and chorus, electric guitar and bass, drum set, and some combination of saxophone, accordion, and organ. The Zulu male choral style isicathamiya ("a stalking approach"), performed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, draws upon traditional wedding songs, African American choral styles, and Wesleyan church hymns.
African dance is as varied in style and function as African music. Dancing is associated with both sacred and secular events, and it plays a crucial role in education, work, entertainment, politics, and ritual. Common African dance patterns include team dances using formalized patterns, such as straight lines or circular formations; group dances that allow individuals to emerge and display their skills; and solo dances, often performed by a powerful individual or professional entertainer. Bodily postures vary from the upright stance widely associated with political and ritual authority to the earth-oriented movements common in many West African societies, in which the performer bends the knees and inclines the torso forward from the hips. The variety of African dance can be illustrated by comparing Yoruba dancers of Nigeria, who often perform intricate foot movements close to the ground, to Zulu military dancers of South Africa, who maintain an upright posture and perform high stamping movements. Like African music, African dance has been affected by social change. Popular-music genres are usually associated with specific dances that combine aspects of African, European, Latin American, and African American styles.