African Music and its role in Cultural Expression

African Music and its role in Cultural Expression

A picture from the documentary – Mali Blues

Author: Mabodu Hazeezat Opeoluwa
Growing up my mom would gather me and my siblings, sharing stories through musical songs. Amidst them, there was one certain tale that held a special place in my heart. This story from my childhood revolves around a horse, a man, and his son. As the father and son prepare for a journey, encountering a representative of humankind, the story conveys a profound lesson about the ravenous nature of human beings. The narrative unfolds as the father rides with his son, facing the consequences of societal norms and expectations and the eternal quest for contentment. The way she used music to convey stories and lessons has been extremely impactful, leaving a memorable mark that will always be remembered and cherished by me.
African popular music, like African traditional music, is vast and varied. Most contemporary genres of African popular music build on cross-pollination with Western popular music. Many genres of popular music, including blues, jazz, and rumba, derive to varying degrees from musical traditions from Africa, taken to the Americas by enslaved Africans. Given the vastness of the African continent, its music is diverse, with regions and nations having many distinct musical traditions.
African music includes the genres amapiano, jùjú, fuji, afrobeat, highlife, rumba, soukous, ndombolo, makossa, kizomba, and others. Various African writers have highlighted this aspect of the cultural life of the Africans by saying that music has rooted itself in African culture so much so that it has become part and parcel of their everyday life. Some maintain that more than any other continent in the world, An African is jovial, light-hearted, emotional, and sensitive to music. Little wonder manual work, recreational periods, suffering moments, etc. are punctuated with music. For instance, at the birth of a child, he/she is received into the community amidst dancing, rejoicing, and songs of jubilation. The same music features in driving and in moments of sorrow and joy.
For instance, in the ceremony of a genius in any sphere of human endeavors, at funerals, launchings of all sorts, initiation ceremonies, etc. even on the battlefields including the field of soccer, music dominates the life of the African. In almost all the denominational churches and even in the Catholic Church music has become an inseparable handmaid of worship. Put simply, African music is one of the cultural characteristics that make the African who he is as a distinct cultural being in the world, for it binds Africans together and gives them common characteristics.
The importance of music in African ceremonies and ancient rituals, along with the traditional instruments used, plays a crucial part in cultural practices. Many different types of instruments are used in Africa, but what needs to be stressed above all is the bond between instruments and language. Nketia, (1964 p.11) put it thus; Because oral also be conveyed through musical instruments such as bells, gongs, horns, or trumpets and Flutes. In some places such as Northwest Ghana, the xylophone may be used for a similar purpose’. Many instruments such as the ‘masenqo’ and ‘endingidi’ fiddles of Ethiopia and Ghana respectively, appear even to imitate vocal timbre; others with similar timbres are used in the alternative with the shouted eulogies of a praise singer, as in the case of the ‘algaita’ (shawm) of the hausa northern Nigeria. The voice and instrument frequently imitate each other, borrowing from and supplementing each other; thus in harp playing the singer-player may add rhythmic vocables during what is essentially an instrumental interlude.
African music is a vital part of everyday life in Africa. It is a part of religious ceremonies, festivals, and social rituals. Songs are used for the important events in a person’s life (birth, coming of age, marriage, and death). They are used for curing the sick, bringing rain, and religious dances. Many Africans believe that music serves as a link with the spirit world. Everyone plays an active part in the musical life of the community. Music is ultimately tied to the things that are most important to the welfare of the people.
Regional variation and their distinctive styles in African music: (West Africa, East Africa, and South Africa)
The music of West Africa has a significant history, and its varied sounds reflect the wide range of influences from the area’s regions and historical periods. Traditional West African music varies due to the regional separation of West Africa, yet it can be distinguished into two distinct categories: Islamic music and indigenous secular music. The widespread influence of Islam on culture in West Africa dates back to at least the 9th century, facilitated by the introduction of camels to trade routes between the North of Africa and West Africa. Islam-influenced West African music commonly includes the use of stringed instruments like the goje, while more secular traditional West African music incorporates greater use of drums such as the djembe.
Contemporary styles of music in West Africa have been influenced by American music, African jazz, and gospel music. The forced migration of Africans to the Americas as a result of the transatlantic slave trade gave rise to kaiso music, which influenced the sounds of Calypso, a style with major popularity throughout West Africa. Griots, also known as ‘wandering musicians’, have traditionally been a major part of the distribution of music throughout West Africa, as their purpose is to spread oral tradition through musical storytelling. The role of griots remains significant in preserving smaller ethnolinguistic groups’ cultures. In East Africa, the three main groups found are nomadic and pastoral people, sedentary agriculturalists, and Cushitic-speaking. Nomadic and pastoral people can be found in the southward and westward regions of the Horn of Africa. It includes the Baggara, Karamojong, Jie, Pokot, Turkana, and Maasai ethnic groups. The music found in this area is purely vocal with occasional rhythmic hand-clapping, stomping feet, and other personal adornment accompaniment. Common song themes in this region are historical traditions, war, and cattle. The melodies are also different than the other two groups in that their phrases are longer and move smoothly in a wavelike motion. The harmonies normally are ostinati that create fourths and fifths.
The sedentary agriculturalists can be found in the southward, eastward, and northward of East Africa. It includes the Nilotes and Bantu-speaking people. Instruments found amongst this group include a long list of stringed instruments. Musical bows, zithers, arched harps, lyres, and tube fiddles to name a few. The style of playing amongst Nilotes is to strum across all strings with one hand and mute strings with the other. This area has cone flutes, vessel flutes, end and side blown trumpets, several xylophones, and mbira. The sedentary agriculturalists will traditionally use trumpet ensembles to announce Kings and rulers. The trumpets have one or two pitches that are played in hocket to produce songs that convey praise and royal histories.
The last group is the Cushitic-speaking who can be found in Ethiopia and Somalia. The ethnic groups that make up the Cushitic are Amhara and Tigre. Begana is a box lyre known for the Amharic aristocracy. Lyres are popular instruments for young men in this area. The nagarit is a kettledrum that is normally played in a forty-four pair ensemble for a processional to announce the Emperor of Ethiopia. “Royal music is often perceived as having a quasi-religious function, associated with the notions of the king’s divinity.” This is very true for the Ethiopian region because Amhara people believe that their king’s lineage connects with King Solomon. Therefore the royal music and religious music often overlap.
East Africa has had a lot of contact with Indonesian, Arabic, Islamic, and European cultures throughout its long history. Historians believe that Indonesians and Africans have had many exchanges of musical traditions throughout the centuries. For instance, the marimba might be because of contact with Indonesia. The valiha, a tube zither, is played in Tanzania and has been imported to Indonesia. Arabic and Islamic cultures have played a huge role in East Africa’s musical development because Arab countries are so close to the horn. Arabic poetry and Muslim chants are normally performed as rituals throughout East Africa. Many people would not consider this as conventional music. East Africa has also adapted many instruments like the goma, ngomas, nzumari, tarompet, and Arabic tambourines. European music has been forced on East Africans since Europeans started settling there, but the twentieth century is when we see Africans freely taking European music influences and making it their own. For instance, many Christian missionaries introduced hymns and their way of harmonizing hymns. Now Africans are experimenting with hymns by adding their own harmonies. Also, the appearance of electric guitar was freely accepted into Congolese bands. They mingled traditional kwela, part-singing, and local language call-and-response with the electric guitar and European influences.
South African music portrays a complicated history of strife and endurance, as well as African and Western cultures. The importance of music and sound in South African culture, music, and dance have played a significant part in people’s communication, celebrations, and expression of their identity and feelings. A singer’s tone can change from relaxing to tighter and more constrained in a single performance. South African music combines dancing and instrument-playing elements that represent their lives and emotions. This musical genre promotes African ideals via diverse rituals set to music. Music is used to commemorate many important events, such as marriages, births, and other ceremonies.
The Influence of African Music on Global Music
Africa boasts a rich, varied landscape of musical styles that transcends borders. Some, like Nigerian fuji and Ghanaian highlife, which melded with other influences to create the popular Afrobeat genre, boast complex intersecting rhythms and percussion that can be heard in funk and jazz as well. Meanwhile, lovers of Afropop should recognize the percussion elements of Nigerian jùjú and the grooves of Congolese ndombolo in electronic and pop music across Europe, North America, and parts of Asia. Even characteristics culled from African sacred music, like the expert beating of drums, call and response vocalization, and the meticulous layering of rhythms make people instantly recognize African musical elements in styles from all over the world, from gospel to techno. African musical influence spans beyond borders and traditional African music. It’s been shaping music around the world for centuries. It began with the dispersion of millions of Africans around the world during the slave trade. It continued through the 20th and 21st centuries as people traveled to and from Africa. Now today, as the world gets smaller with the internet and more listeners get exposed to new African artists, the evolution continues. Without Africa and the African diaspora, music across the globe wouldn’t be what it is today.
Notable African Musicians as case studies:(Fela Kuti and Zenzile Miriam Makeba)
Fela Kuti (born October 15, 1938, Abeokuta, Nigeria—died August 2, 1997, Lagos) Nigerian musician and activist who launched a modern style of music called Afro-beat, which fused American blues, jazz, and funk with traditional Yoruba music. Kuti was the son of feminist and labour activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. As a youth, he took lessons in piano and percussion before studying (1959) classical music at Trinity College London. While in London, he encountered various musical styles by playing piano in jazz and rock bands. Returning to Nigeria in the mid-1960s, he reconstituted Koola Lobitos, a band with which he had played in London. The Afro-beat sound emerged from that group’s experiments Following his 1969 tour of the United States, where he was influenced by the politics of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and other militants, Kuti’s music became increasingly politicized. He exhorted social change in such songs as “Zombie,” “Monkey Banana,” “Beasts of No Nation,” and “Upside Down.” Fela (as he was popularly known) and his band, which was known variously as the Nigeria 70, Africa 70, and later the Egypt 80, performed for packed houses at the early-morning concerts that they staged at Fela’s often-raided nightclub in Lagos.
Zenzile Miriam Makeba (4 March 1932 – 9 November 2008), nicknamed Mama Africa, was a South African singer, songwriter, actress, and civil rights activist. Associated with musical genres including Afropop, jazz, and world music, she was an advocate against apartheid and white-minority government in South Africa. Born in Johannesburg to Swazi and Xhosa parents, Makeba was forced to find employment as a child after the death of her father. She had a brief and allegedly abusive first marriage at the age of 17, gave birth to her only child in 1950, and survived breast cancer. Her vocal talent had been recognized when she was a child, and she began singing professionally in the 1950s, with the Cuban Brothers, the Manhattan Brothers, and an all-woman group, the Skylarks, performing a mixture of jazz, traditional African melodies, and Western popular music. In 1959, Makeba had a brief role in the anti-apartheid film Come Back, Africa, which brought her international attention and led to her performing in Venice, London, and New York City. In London, she met the American singer Harry Belafonte, who became a mentor and colleague. She moved to New York City, where she became immediately popular, and recorded her first solo album in 1960. Her attempt to return to South Africa that year for her mother’s funeral was prevented by the country’s government.

Makeba’s career flourished in the United States, and she released several albums and songs, her most popular being “Pata Pata” (1967). Along with Belafonte, she received a Grammy Award for Best Folk Recording for their 1965 album An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba. She testified against the South African government at the United Nations and became involved in the civil rights movement. She married Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Black Panther Party, in 1968, and consequently lost support among white Americans. Her visa was revoked by the US government when she was traveling abroad, forcing her and Carmichael to relocate to Guinea. She continued to perform, mostly in African countries, including at several independence celebrations. She began to write and perform music more explicitly critical of apartheid; the 1977 song “Soweto Blues”, written by her former husband Hugh Masekela, was about the Soweto uprising. After apartheid was dismantled in 1990, Makeba returned to South Africa. She continued recording and performing, including a 1991 album with Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie, and appeared in the 1992 film Sarafina!. She was named an FAO Goodwill Ambassador in 1999, and campaigned for humanitarian causes. She died of a heart attack during a 2008 concert in Italy.

Makeba was among the first African musicians to receive worldwide recognition. She brought African music to a Western audience and popularized the world music and Afropop genres. Despite her cosmopolitan background, she was frequently viewed by Western audiences as an embodiment of Africa: she was also seen as a style icon in both South Africa and the West. Makeba made popular several songs critical of apartheid, and became a symbol of opposition to the system, particularly after her right to return was revoked. Upon her death, former South African President Nelson Mandela said that “her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us.”

African music holds enormous cultural importance, administering as a crucial aspect of identity, storytelling, and community bonding. It reflects diverse traditions, each with precise rhythms, instruments, and vocal styles, contributing to a rich tapestry of cultural expression. Additionally, African music has impacted global genres, shaping the broader terrain of modern music and fortifying the significance of cultural diversity. Let’s come together to acknowledge and maintain the rich musical origin of diverse cultures, particularly in Africa. By protecting these traditions, we ensure that future generations can admire the deep influence, storytelling, and community ties entrenched in this unique musical tapestry. It’s a communal commitment to honor and pass down these cultural gems, enabling a more interconnected and harmonious world.