Face Music - Africa the country of the poeple
  • Africa the country of the people

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

text available in German

African music in social context is authentic - the traditional music of the African peoples is little known abroad.

The non-African listener can find the music strange, difficult, and unattractive. But African and non-African music are human inventions and individual notes that contain the same elements such as pitch, duration, tone colour, and intensity. Music plays a similar role in most societies, as work songs, lullabies, battle songs, wedding songs, dirge songs, songs of season, love songs, ritual songs, religious music, and so on. The same categories of instruments are found in Africa as well as in Europe, namely stringed instruments, wind instruments, and percussion instruments. The African concept of music, however, is different to the other one. Traditional Africans do not seek to combine sounds in order to please the ear. Their aim simply is to express life in all of its aspects through the medium of sound. Their music does not attempt to imitate nature, but rather reverses the procedure by talking in natural sounds, including spoken language, and incorporate them into the music. To the uninitiated this may be the result, as they use pentatonic scales, hexatonic scales or polyphony, but in fact each sound has a particular meaning. African music must be understood within the context of African life.

Music plays an important role in African society. Music is an integral part of the life of every African individual and starts with his/her birth. Women also play an active role in music. Games are played in order to prepare children, young men or girls to participate in all areas of life - to be a man, mother, for their work, including fishing, hunting, farming, grinding maize, attending weddings and funerals or dances.

An intimate union forms the rule of life for man, woman and art in ritual. It amounts to a total communion that is shared by the whole community. The art of playing music is so inherent that it is superfluous to have a particular name for it. The drum is so important in the African society that it is sometimes equated with a man. The drum is a means of communication, and by means of it people give messages and inform other villages. Women must consequently treat it with the same respect that they would show towards men. In some African countries women are not even allowed to touch a drum under any circumstance. African music is nearly always coupled with some other art, such as poetry, ritual or dance, and it constitutes one of the most revealing forms of expression of the African life and soul.

It seems logical to conclude that everyone in Africa must be a musician. In some African societies music is a dynamic and driving force that animates the life of the entire community. This communal music may be quite elaborate in form. They earn their livelihood from their music for only a part of the year and rely on some other activity. In numerous African societies, the right to play certain instruments or to participate in traditional ceremonies is not open to all, but it is rather the privilege of the professional musician. Such musicians live sloley by their art and belong to particular families or castes.

Griot is the term used throughout West Africa. The role of the griot extends far beyond the realm of music and magic. He or she is the raconteur of history, philosophy and mythology, the archive of the peoples' traditions. He or she dispenses a healing therapy for the medicine man. He or she is a praise-singer, a troubadour - the counterpart of the medieval European minstrel. People fear griots, admire them, but often treat them with contempt because they belong to one of the lowest castes. The griot in equatorial Africa is the player of the mvet (harp-zither). This person is, in some ways, more fortunate than the griot because the admiration that he enjoys is not tinged with scorn, maybe because he does not normally sing the praises of the rich and powerful like the griot does. Some tribe work with dance and music together, and they explain history and the social elements in a form like the theater of today.

The African musician feels the effects of the revolution that is currently sweeping the entire continent. Music, as it is conceived in traditional society, is not a function that enables its exponents to meet the demands of modern life. Furthermore, the competition is enormous and under these conditions music as a profession alike. In some societies, music is not conceived as a profession at all, a fact, which is even more limiting. As things exist today, traditional music is threatened with eventual extinction and will gradually disappear unless the musician's future is assured. This is especially true for traditional music which is of course not written down, but handed down from generation to generation.

This does not mean that the traditional musician should be sheltered from the infiltration of foreign influences. Such infiltration can rather be a source of artistic enrichment.

The Country and the People

Northern Africa and the Sahara, Egypt and eastern Africa with Ethiopia are greatly dominated by Hamitic cultures. Though not dark-skinned, they are no Black Africans. They are pastoral tribes with belligerent features, crossing the water-lacking steppes as nomads. They migrated from the North to the fertile South, and from East to West, where they ruled over the tribes of the Black Africans already having settled there. They lived in communities and had the Black Africans build their houses and huts, farm their lands and fulfill the duties and tasks related with their crafts.

The African continent starts at the Mediterranean with the Sahara, extending across the continent from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. In the West, on the same latitude as today's Tunisia, the Atlas Mountains have their beginning, stretching through Algeria up to Morocco, where the North Hamitic tribes of the Berbers and Moors live.

The Blue Nile originates in the high mountain area of today's Ethiopia. The White Nile meanders through the Sudan and even reaches the equator, where the tribes of the Sudan-Negroes and Nilotes, who belong to the old-Nigritic culture, live. They live on cattle herding and farming. In southern Sudan there are formed huge swamplands that border a high mountain area with lakes, waterfalls, volcanoes and snow-covered tops of more than five thousand metres height. Here there may be found vegetation with acacias and baobab trees, and the Rift Valley: this valley extends from the Midde East to the south of Africa. Today's East Africa is the home of the Bantu tribes of the eastern and southern savannah.

On the edge of the desert there starts the Sahel zone with its barren pasture. Adjacent we find thick green covering the red soil and announcing the beginning of a fertile tropic area. The humid savannah is characterised by bushes and gallery forests, with grass and man-made landscape and bigger settlements. The savannah has driven a wedge into the jungle, stretching along the Western Coast from Senegal up to the Congo (former Zaire). The thinner areas are the home of the Forest Africans, who have developed from hunters to settled farmers. The small pygmies, who still live as hunters and gatherers cultivating their original life style, live in the dense forests.

In the area of the southern Congo, the humid savannah leaves the jungle, spreading from Angola to the Indian Ocean and extending as dry steppe to the Cape. In central and western South Africa, there is located the huge salty steppe of the Kalahari, the home of the last Bushmen (San), who once wandered huge areas of Africa as hunters and depicted their hunting magic by means of rock drawings.

Traces of the African man date back to the earliest times of mankind. Findings of skulls and bones go back to the paleolithic age. There were also found human remains of the pithekanthorpus stage and early forms of the Homo erectus in Africa. The oldest finding is the "Orrorintugenesis" ("Millenium Man") from Kenya (primitive man, some 6 million years old). The Sahara constitutes an enormous cultural division between White and Black Africa; it has never been, however, a difficult obstacle to overcome for the caravans crossing it for centuries, wandering from one oasis to the other one, in search of watering places. The high cultures of the North African fringe, such as the Phoenicians, the Greek, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Moors, and the Berbers, as well as the Sardinian and the Etruscans, had trade relations with the Sudanic people. It were the Berbers and the Ful who established the first feudal realms in Western Sudan.

In addition to the migration from North to South, the migration from Northeast to Southwest is also of great importance. Starting in the Nile Valey (Blue Nile - Ethiopia), migration waves and influences swept across the continent for several times. The Nubian realm, Napara-Meroë with its sacrosanct kingdom formed an important trading centre, as the kingdoms in Uganda, Kaffa, Monomorapa, Barotse as well as the West African kingdoms and that of the Congo (formerly, Zaire) established very intense trading relations. Another important migration route spread through the Central Sudan to the Chadian region, and from the Chad up to the Niger and Congo regions in the West.

Religion - Ancestral Worship and Spiritualism

In the philosophy of the Black Africans (also of the Bantu), the central theme is vitality, the energy, all thinking and acting is focused on. It deals with ethics, metaphysics and the magical spirits that exert influences on life and are decisive for illnesses and the human fate. The people strive to acquire and have much power. Man is in the centre of the creation, and he/she shall make use of the powers available, decide freely between the higher and lower things, between good and evil. Abuse, evil magic, is supposed to re-establish order by means of sacrifices of reconciliation and ornithological purification. Worldview knows many dark and mysterious phenomenons, the people have to interpret and overcome by means of rites. There is distinguished between white and black magic, between the activities of the medicine man and the dark intrigues of bad magicians and witches - those demons that wreak havoc in the dark. Above all these powers, there is god, ghost and creator simultaneously, the Wise Man (medicine man oder a king - the ancestors, the progenitors, or the first mother).

Religion is embedded in the teaching system of existence. The master imparts his knowledge and his experiences in dealing with the supernatural powers to his pupil. The medicine man, very often, also acts as priest and for the well-being of the community. He may transfer power and decide through the oracle when the time is ready to act. He protects, he heals, he exorcises, and it is he who performs rituals.

  • The ancestor figure is the medium through which the African communicates and presents his most diverse requests. The progenitors or the first mother grant his appeals for fertility, children etc.
  • Illnesses are averted by the fetish figure; it grants protection and safety on a journey, during childbirth, in war and in the hunt.
  • The animal sculpture goes back to the myth of origin, a motif of the helpful, protecting animal, in which animals are presented as rescuers of tribe founders or providor of important cultural items. This form originates in the need for power and protection. Also hunting seasons play an important role for its significance.
  • The mask, here, constitutes a dynamic aspect. Whenever man is threatened by demons he cannot fight with natural means, he pleads with the good spirits for active help by means of sacrifices and invocation. A carefully planned performance of the mask dancer is necessary, with the help of a fantastic costume and an atmosphere, brought to a climax through sacrifical blood and drum rhythms, during the ritual, staged in the night, in order to safeguard the manifestation of the spirit through the mask. Spellbound by his belief, the carrier of the mask feels pervaded and transformed by its power. After some time he goes into raptures and starts to play the role of the respective spirit.
    For the Basoga (Lusoga, Soga) in Uganda it was necessary to sacrifice a human being in order to provoke the divine power.
  • Cult utensils are ceremonial utensils in the hand of the medicine men: a wand to call on the gods, rattles, drums, and bells to attract their attention; cups and bowls for the sacrificial offerings, etc.

Instruments and Style

Similar instruments are found throughout most of Black Africa. The flora and culture found in any particular region, however, influences the dominance of certain categories of instruments. Drums are, for instance, more popular in the forest regions than in the tree-less savannah areas. Musical instruments often show a close link between art, rituals, and music.

There is a great deal of homogeneity in the music of this vast continent but it is also clear that there are differences between regions and tribes. The Negroes (Black African) cultures south of the Sahara have evidently carried on a lively exchange of music with the inhabitants of the northern part of Africa. There is also a large area of borderline cultures that are related to both, the Black African (Negroes) and the North African societies (for example in Uganda).

Music is based on speech, and the bond between language and music thus is an intimate one. It is actually possible to tune an instrument so that the music it produces is linguistically comprehensible. Music is a total expression of life, shared by all senses; different cultures and lifestyles excert significant influence on the music. In East Africa, the cultures are complex and revolve around cattle, farming and everyday-life. The Khoi-San (bushman) area of southern Africa has a simple culture dependent mainly on nomadic gathering. The northwestern African coast lacks cattle and is characterised by an elaborate political organisation, which, before the imposition of European rule, gave rise to powerful kingdoms. The west coast of Africa, the Khoi-San (San - bushman) and the northwestern part, has a combination of the eastern African and northwestern African traits. Similarly, this is true for the Masaai in Kenya and Tanzania (nomads with cattleherds). A number of Pygmy tribes are still living in relative isolation in the jungle. The northern part of the continent is largely under the influence of Islamic culture. Music within each of these areas is more or less homogeneous, differing from the neighbouring area.

The main characteristics of the west coast are the metronome sense and the accompanying concept of "hot rhythm", the simultaneous use of several meters, and the responsorial form of singing with overlap between leader and chorus. The central African area is distinguished by its great variety of instruments and styles and by the emphasis, in polyphony, on the interval of the third. East Africa has, for centuries, been somewhat under Islamic influences, though by no means to as great an extent as the northern half of Africa. Vertical fifths (pentantonic scales) are more prominent here, and rhythmic structure is not so complex, nor are percussion instruments so prominent (especially in the northern part of Uganda - region of the White Nile). The Khoi-San (bushman) music area is evidently similar in style to East Africa, but has simpler forms and instruments. It contains a good deal of music performed by means of the hocket technique, as does the Pygmy sub-area of central Africa, which is also characterised by the presence of a vocal technique similar to yodelling (you will find this even in Uganda).

The Popularisation of African Music

The history and the movement of people into, out of and across Africa would indicate that many influences affected their music. In spite of slavery and colonialism - or maybe because of it – the influence of African music has spread to many corners of the world and is flourishing back. Millions of people were transported from Africa to the Caribbean or to America to work as slaves for the European. The South American slave population was more of Bantu origin (primarily from Angola and Mozambique). The Yorubas (from Nigeria) were shipped in large numbers to Cuba and Brazil. Original African music survived intact in the new world, but some distinctive instruments have been handed down, particularly the xylophone, the berimbau and the cuica (a kind of drum). In the Caribbean and in other South American countries, some African music was preserved as slaves were allowed to maintain their social identities and culture. They were more often kept as tribal units. In South America and Cuba, African social music blended with Portuguese and Spanish idioms already used there, but the music was more influenced by the North African tradition since they had occupied Spain in the eighth century (for example, the Moors in southern Spain). Many new styles of music flourished in these countries, including merengue and beguine in the Caribbean; tango, candombey, and samba more in South America (Argentina and Brazil); and rumba, muntuno, cha cha cha, bolero, and salsa were other popular styles in these South American regions. In the Caribbean many elements of European tradition influenced the music of the slaves. Spanish, British, French and even Asian music influenced in early days the calypso. Calypso was originally influenced by African work songs, and the role of these calypsions can be likened to the role of the griots in the West African society. Soca followed calypso. Even European instruments were used; the playing style often recalled African instruments such as the xylophone (bellaphone). Reggae developed through ska from soca when the West Indians absorbed American Rhythm and Blues (R&B). Dub followed the beat of rock. The mix of white music (European music) and black music (African music) brought forth new sounds.

In North America (especially in the south of today's USA), African music was virtually eliminated by slave owners. Slaves were mainly imported from the Mandingo, Wolof, Fanti, Ashanti, Yoruba and Calabari tribes of West Africa. Tribal groups were split up, and drums were originally prohibited. The banjo is based on the West African gourd guitar. African work songs appropriately survived and slowly evolved into blues. New European instruments were taken up by the blacks. Jazz, which transformed European structured music by means of African techniques of interweaving rhythm and melodies, call-and-response patterns, and vocalising with instruments, became the first all-American music form. Originally, jazz was dance music, a fusion of ragtime piano style with blues, spirituals, and the brass music of marching bands common at the beginning of the twentieth century. African-American dance music was also kept alive in the form of R&B. The R&B idioms fused with country music and ballads to become rock and roll. After jazz, rock'n'roll proved to be the most influential fusion but as it spread across the globe, it soon became 'white' music. Soul also developed out of R&B fused with gospel music. Many of the best soul musicians developed their talents in church gospel choirs. Funk and rap followed. All of these various musical forms (but especially the Cuban rumba, the American soul and jazz, the Caribbean merengue, calypso, reggae and zouk) returned to Africa later and invigorated the local African music. "Western" music was introduced to Africa. Western instruments followed, and hence African popular music was born.

In southern Africa, a European musical tradition exists in parallel to the Black African one. It is that a great part of the earlier African folk music (the native black cultures) of the Cape had its origins in Indonesia, resulting from the importation of slaves by the Dutch. Chinese and especially Indians imported their music into South Africa. The British had an impact on music, too. A lot of music was "borrowed" from Europe, especially Germany. Today, African and English popular music sounds very close to the European or American.

The popular music of the continent is therefore in most cases the product of two parents, one African, the other external. African pop styles have become centralised, clustered around the main cultural or commercial centres, so there is ,manding swing' or ,electro griot' music from West Africa (between Senegal, Guinea and the people at the River Niger), the ,Swahili sound' from East Africa (between Uganda and Tanzania), ,jive' and jazz from the south (around South Africa), Muslim music from the north (between Marocco and Egypt), makossa and ,liberation' music (the area between Cameroon and Gabon, and the area between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, respectively), and pan-African syntheses like ,highlife' and Congo-Zairean rumba or soukous which have radiated furthest from their points of origin (the area between Sierra Leone and Nigeria and the Congo (ex. Zaire) area, respectively). Of the many popular styles of music in Africa, these are really the only ones, which have spread to new audiences outside their cultural base. Many other styles - too many to mention here - are prevalent throughout the continent. It is often forgotten that prior to the European trade in African slaves, many slaves, especially from East Africa including Nubians and people from the Kenya region, were transported to the Arabian Peninsula in the Arab slave trade. The Arab penetration into Africa started some 1300 years ago. The voice, tonality and language of Islam have heavily influenced North African music, but also sub-Saharan African music in countries such as Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and even Tanzania and Madagascar. Later European invasions influenced this music again. Modern North African styles such as rai have established a keen following in Europe, and are influencing music in France especially.

The instruments of the Arab world and North Africa are believed to have been the original models for almost all Western instruments from the guitar and the violin to the trumpet and other wind instruments. Not many kinds of drums are used in Islamic music. The North African music today shows a cultural continuity, which goes back to before AD 500. Classical Arab music itself was a fusion of pre-Islamic Arab music with Persian and Turkish elements.

The music traditions of Africa will survive and grow, and the popularity of African music will spread even further around the globe. That will foster a better understanding and appreciation of Africa and its cultures amongst the extra-African cultures of the world.

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Revised by Hermelinde Steiner