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.
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 has managed to offer a perspective about African culture that has not been contested. Given this emerging history, we can only provide a bird’s eye view of African music, dance, village life and the famous rhythms.
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 (we sell his karimbas in our school), 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.
Music and dance are activities that characterize an African musical expression and play an important part in the lives of the people. 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.
For our purposes, 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 rights, 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 argue that oral literature and music are intimately connected in most parts of Africa and are often impossible to separate.
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. Very often recorded in analog or digital form, these recordings give us great insight into a history we can never completely know.
Some African scholars argue that the shift to writing down African music compromises the performance of African music and dance. Others, who oppose the transcription of African songs, argue that songs tend to be forced to comply with western musical idiom or stylistic writing.
There may be 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. These methods try to account for some rhythmic and melodic patterns that fall outside the boundaries of the present music notational systems.
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.
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 notational 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. 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.
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. 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 (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).
The practice of the Griot, specialized court musicians in a number of African cultures, has helped to maintain some religious dances and music. The Malinke, Fulani, Hausa are some of 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. African performance is a tightly wrapped bundle of arts that is sometimes difficult to separate, even for analysis. 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 misperceptions came from a lack of appreciation of African musical subtleties, including language of performance.
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 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 often challenged.
All countries in Africa, with the exception of possibly Ethiopia 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. We need to acknowledge that popular music in Africa represents the interaction between foreign values and styles.
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 on 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). 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
DrumConnection 177 Massachusetts Ave. Arlington, MA 02474 ph: (001) 781-316-8068
I will update this soon.
5.0 star rating
5.0 star rating 2/9/2017
I was thrilled to find that this store doesn't just have hand drums, but is also well-stocked with hardware and parts for rock drum kits. And if they don't stock something you need, they'll order it for you or point you in the right direction.
Alan, the owner, is extremely knowledgeable and helpful if I have questions or need advice. When I came in last year wanting to restore my vintage kit, I had no idea where to start, and Alan helped me through the entire process, from cleaning, de-rusting, to finding missing parts. Whenever I have a problem with my kit or something breaks, I always go to Alan first (it's a good idea to call the store to see when he's working!) Often he'll find a way to fix it without having to purchase new parts.
Definitely recommend this gem over bigger places like Guitar Center.
5.0 star rating
Jan 22, 2017
"Hi Alan, Eddie & I LOVED Nancy's classes. We stopped going because it was dark & cold & late & it was the only time we could both make it ( I work nites ) but we plan to resume classes probably in the spring. I miss it. Rochelle"
5.0 star rating
Purchased beautiful instruments...
I recommend the workshops to all my college student studying world music in the classroom. We've also purchased beautiful instruments I use in my teaching. People marvel at their sound and touch.
5.0 star rating
So much fun...
Participating in a beginners drumming series was so much fun, and I was surprised at what they were able to teach us! We plan to go back as soon as our schedule allow a steady attendance.
5.0 star rating
Just bought my 3rd instrument from this store. Always a pleasure to do business with DrumConnection, and home to a great community of drummers.
5.0 star rating
Honest, original voice...
Way back in 2011, I wrote and published a feature story about Alan Tauber and DrumConnection. Read it at YourArlington
Nothing that has occurred since would cause me to change my mind about Alan and his business: He's an honest, original voice in a fast-changing town, offering a rhythm that is hard to beat.
5.0 star rating
Always a great experience...
Alan is always a pleasure to do business with. He is knowledgeable and very kind. The classes they have are fun and very informative. Always a great experience.
Redington Beach, FL
Alan's knowledge is vast...
I needed to replace the head on a djembe. I live on the south shore of MA, and was having a hard time finding a place to do the job. I discovered the DrumConnection through a list serve and found the best resource I could hope for. Alan's knowledge is vast, and the service was done professionally, on time, and at a reasonable price. I do not need to look any further for my hand drumming needs.
It is a privilege to know you...
You play such an important part in drumming education in this country. It is a privilege to know you...
Name withheld upon request.
(but a famous dude in percussion).
Great Local Place, Great Stuff, Nice People
Bought a present for a friend and they had just what I wanted. They helped me pick the right one. Weren't pushy. Really nice vibe. Will definitely go back when I need a drum or a present for someone.
5/16/2016 5.0 stars! Yelp!
DrumConnection is great! Excellent teachers, extremely high quality guest drummers from Africa, and female teachers and leaders.
5/15/2016 5.0 stars!
Thank you Alan, Thierno, Audrey, Issa and Moussa!
At DrumConnection, I began my beginners' class feeling lost and insecure. However, while the drum is quite challenging, I have felt more and more connected to the group thanks to the wonderful teachers, and the kindness and acceptance of other drummers.
In other words I am deeply indebted and grateful for the opportunity to expand my skills, horizons, and sense of belonging thanks to the drum. The ongoing learning experience is challenging, exhilarating and humbling. Thank you Alan, Thierno, Audrey, Issa and Moussa, and thank you to all my fellow students!
5/13/2016 5.0 stars!
Thanks so much. Tuned up my kids drum, very knowledgeable and friendly!
4/28/2016 5.0 stars!
Love DrumConnection in Arlington!
Great teachers including the Masters from West Africa; great drums (all kinds) and accessories. Director and owner, Alan, is an excellent drummer himself, friends to all and always willing to share his knowledge. Classes & Workshops at all levels challenging and tons of fun. Serious drumming going on here!
4/27/2016 5.0 stars!
Knowledgeable, and very helpful.
I watched Alan help a gentleman trying to rent an accordion. Yes, this sounds like a Seinfeld script, but it was touching seeing Alan help someone out. Additionally, the store is well supplied, and the prices are quote reasonable for being able to get your hands on what you need right now. Truly, an asset to the community!
Brian C. J.
April 9, 2016, 1:47 p.m.
Friends cannot believe how light it is and how good it sounds. Easy for me to carry. It is also very nice looking, not ornate, just beautiful wooden swirls. Thanks for all your help on this..... kdl
4/10/16 ; 5 Stars
I have spent several wonderful weekends at DrumConnection studying drumming rhythms with various master drummers (djembefolas) and I just want to thank Alan and the wonderful community of people I met at there for a wonderful, fun, inspiring and informative time. If I didn't live on Long Island, NY I would be there every week. 5 star rating from me!
Long Island, NY
2/24/2016 : 5 Stars!
DrumConnection is a wonderful place. Alan is so helpful, thoughtful and kind. The store has a great selection of drums that will help you connect to music from all over the world. Highly recommended!
Jan. 16, 2016 : 5 Stars!
Great experience, no pressure to buy or spend more than I wanted to, just the perfect assistance to help me find the right drum for me - a clear joy for drumming and very welcoming - made me feel right at home.
12/22/2015 : 5 Stars!
A great little store
I was looking for some nifty percussion accessories for my son-in-law and I really didn't want to go the the Guitar Center. What a great place! I got great advice & was able to find exactly the kind of stuff I was looking for! A perfect shopping trip & well worth the weekly trip down from Cape Ann!
Cape Ann, MA
5.0 star rating 12/6/2015 Yelp!
I took a beginner drum class here this fall. I was impressed by the business's connection to West African drumming. Thierno, a drummer from Guinea, was our teacher. If you want to learn drumming, have a weekly class with lots of laughing and meet people from around the world this place is for you.
5.0 Star Rating 12/4/15 Google+
Alan the owner is always friendly and helpful. When I was looking for a drum, he chose 4 drums he thought I might like, each unique. He helped me sort out the differences to find the combination of pluses that added up to the perfect drum for me.
Alan the teacher is a non-judgmental, supportive, and clear instructor whose decades of experience and amazing skill as a drummer combine to provide a safe and inspiring learning environment. I've studied with four other DrumConnection instructors and each is excellent in his or her own ways, and all certified by examination.
A great store and a wonderful school. I recommend it without reservations.
11/15/2015 5.0 Yelp!
The beginner drum class was extra special. Taught by Thierno Keita-what a wonderful escape each week from the work-a-day world into a world of rhythm and movement. Great for the brain and the soul. Alan Tauber, who runs the Drum Connection could not be kinder or more devoted to his art. This has been a postive turn for me and I will continue on this road with pleasure.
5.0 star rating 11/11/2015
DrumConnection is an nook of musical magic on Mass Ave in Arlington. The drumming teachers are from Africa, they sponsor workshops and trips to Africa to learn drumming. Alan the owner is very flexible and understanding with scheduling lessons. The drum selection is fantastic!! I recommend it to everyone I know. What a gem!
5.0 star rating 11/9/2015 Yelp!
Broad selection of percussion instruments from all over the world. Alan, the owner, really knows a lot about the instruments and the music they make.
5.0 star rating 11/7/2015 Yelp!
We have purchased many instruments from Alan. He knows so much about percussion instruments that we trust him with ordering sight unseen and have been pleased with our purchases. Prices are very reasonable. We drive 2 hours each way to shop at the Drum Connection and it is worth it.
5.0 star rating 11/6/2015 Yelp!
You will not find a more beautiful person than Alan to assit you with your journey of learning the drums. I have traveled with Alan to Guinea, purchased various drums, and attended numerous classes. Have not been able to find the joy I felt when I was involved with the Drum Connection. Please open a southern location!
5.0 star rating 10/5/2015 Yelp!
The drum I purchased from Alan several years ago is both beautiful and is a joy to use. The classes are fantastic -- designed for all skills levels and taught by master teachers that are knowledgeable and exciting.
They are patient and know how to break rhythms down to bite size. I have enrolled my 4 year old in the children's drum class and it is dynamic -- teaching movement and African songs. She loves it and loves her teachers."
5.0 star rating 10/19/2015 Yelp!
The Best! Thanks!
Purchased my djembe here a few years ago, just bought new skin, Alan and staff always knowledgeable and helpful.
5.0 star rating 8/29/2015 Yelp!
I am new to drumming and am having a ball. I went to a Sunday night lecture and lesson on one type of drums and followed that with 2 Sunday night drumming circles with an excellent teacher-but not at the rank beginner level. Still, I loved it and just tried to follow and keep up.
Now I am in a beginner class and I am still enjoying every minute. Alan is a kind and welcoming person. He coordinates to bring in a variety of excellent teachers and classes take place most every day of the week. He gives great advice about what to purchase and has rentals available. Come join the fun!
5.0 star rating 8/24/2015 Yelp!
This is a great little shop. Alan was able to rent me some drums for my autism caregivers retreat and was very accommodating. The drums were gorgeous, beautiful sound. Our group had a great time thanks to Drum Connection coming through at the last minute for me. Thank you!
June 25, 2015
5.0 star rating Excellent Teaching!
This is the first time I took drum lessons. I have taken piano lessons off and on for years. I really enjoy playing the drums. I had two teachers. They both had their individual style of teaching. I found that Alan is an excellent teacher. I would recommend anyone with a desire to learn drumming to check out DrumConnection. I haven't gone to their drum circle yet, but that's the next step for me. I am finishing up my first six weeks of classes, two more classes to go.
August 4, 2015
5.0 star rating 8/4/2015 Yelp!
I'm new to the djembe and drum circles in general. The drum circle I attended last week was a blast. Very relaxed and friendly, the drumming was amazing. Alan and Fanta were both very warm and welcoming. As others have noted, great energy. I'm definitely going back.
July 6, 2015
5.0 star rating Incredible Drums!
I returned to the store today to purchase my first djembe. Alan was more than helpful. He gave a mini-lesson on the spot so I would know how to evaluate the variety of drums, their tonal differences, etc. He also played several of them for me to have a better impression of what it sounds like once technique is mastered. The drum I finally settled on is incredible, love it. My wife was looking for a bodhran, and he gave demonstrations of those as well!
July 8, 2015
Way better than 5 stars!
Alan clearly loves what he is doing and it shows in the friendly, professional and deeply knowledgeable service. Way better than 5 stars.
June 10, 2015
Alan was so helpful. He came highly recommended, and lived up to it. I got a wonderful drum for my nephew - have not yet given it to him, but he is going to love it.
April 8, 2015
Five stars all the way!
Honestly, I can't say enough good things about DrumConnection. Alan and John helped me pick out the perfect drum, and when I came in tonight, Alan talked with me for at least an hour about technique, the history of the djembe coming to America, and more. The place is warm and inviting, and the people who work there are the same. I am confident I chose the best place to start my drumming journey, and I will be back for their classes! Five stars all the way!
March 7, 2015
My son is now starting drum lessons. We stopped in to purchase a drum pad and drum sticks. This is an amazing store. There is much to learn about choosing an instrument that suits you...and we were encouraged not to rush in and spend a lot of money at this stage. The store is packed with drums (mostly hand drums) and each visitor is encouraged to try out items that spark their interest. While visiting, my son tried several thumb pianos as well.
March 6, 2015
Fanta lead our group of 21 drummers thru two hours of song, dance, and drumming. Everybody was smiling at the end of the evening. What a deal for 10 bucks!
February 24, 2015
Drum Connection is a fantastic place to take African drumming lessons, meet some wonderful people and really expand your horizons by attending workshops with master drummers from West Africa. It's been a life changing experience for me. I am so blessed to part of Alan and Fanta's community.
February 13, 20115
As always Alan was right there to make sure I got exactly what I was looking for. He even sent me a photo/text to confirm that he had the correct size, shape and sound of rattle I needed. This was that perfect combination of personal service and immediate results.
February 5, 2015
Hey just wanted to write you a note to tell you how much I absolutely love the drum! It was the perfect choice for me. The slaps are just incredible and yet it gives good bass response. I brought it to work to play with the children and it was just such the perfect instrument. It’s just the right one for me and I'm really thrilled with it. Thanks so much.
January 24, 2015
Thanks Alan for your undivided attention today as I purchased the replacement head for the djembe I had previously bought at DrumConnection. Could not be more satisfied!