A Brief Background and History of African Music

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  • Topic: Africa, African Union, Jazz
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  • Published : December 24, 2012
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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 (Stone, 1998, p.2). 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 managed to offer a perspective about African culture that has not been contested. Given this history, we can only provide a bird’s eye view of African music. 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, 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. (p.7)

Music and dance are activities that characterize an African musical expression and play an important part in the lives of the people (Senogan-Zake, 1986). 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 (Stone, 1998, p7).

In this module, 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 such as Malmusi, 1990; Rycroft,1962, Stone,1982 argue that oral literature and music are intimately connected in most parts of Africa and are often impossible to separate (Shelemany in Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicans, 2001). Listening has been an important skill that has been...
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