History of African Rhythms

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.


Oral traditions

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.


Religious Beliefs

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.