Music of Africa

Map of AfricaLooking back in music history to the continent of Africa during the 17th and 18th centuries, musicologists have determined many musical modes of communication from various African tribes and languages. For example, many historical references cite music’s inclusion in daily activities such as the pitch-based language of Africa’s Yoruba and Akan, as well as the Bantu’s traditional complex vocal singing of exuberant shouts and intervallic vocal leaps.  History, familial relationships, and specific tribal lessons were often taught through this strong oral tradition of song.[1]

Along with vocal-based traditions, tribal societies incorporated body clapping and rhythmic instruments as extensions to their activity of communication.  Group rhythm-making, such as hand-clapping, percussive instruments and drums, provided means for broader communication, tribal cohesiveness in varying social positions, and complex rhythms creation. Specific rhythms were found to mimic vocal communication and added consequential meanings when played. Louder extensions of communication were heard in the heavy rhythms of the West African drums as messages were relayed across larger geographical areas. In traditional African society, music was a lifestyle – part of daily interactions and communication.

African SafariUnique tribal surroundings birthed varying communication devices and methods. Geographically inspired instruments, such as the stringed instruments of the largely forested areas of the northern Senegambia differed from the drum-oriented instruments of the forested, southern Senegambia locale. Stringed instruments with one to twenty strings placed on gourds or wooden instruments (i.e. kora), akin to the lute and harp, as well as precursors to the guitar and banjo were utilized.  Often, the sounds of an instrument were combined with additional elements to create unique layered sound timbres; drum heads have been found with tin attachments,[2] while ceremonial masks incorporated membranes that buzz with vocal utterances.[3] Drums that could “talk” (i.e. talking drums), water jars that were incorporated into music (i.e. udu), and idiophones, like the mbira and kalimba provide a wide variety of musical sounds.  Throughout such instrumental discoveries, it can be implied that the concept of an individualized communication method is a continuous thread throughout the African tradition.

[1] Robert Palmer, Deep Blues (New York: Viking Press, 1981), 34.

[2] Robert Palmer, Deep Blues (New York: Viking Press, 1981), 30.

[3] Ibid., 35.

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