Functions In African Musical Contexts Cultural Studies Essay

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Music is found in every culture both the past and the present and it varies widely between times and places. At around fifty thousand years ago, early modern human beings started spreading from Africa, the cradle of mankind to the other habitable parts of the world (Exploring Africa). Since all people of the world, even the minutest and isolated tribal groups are found to have some form of music, then scientists conclude that music may have been present even among very early ancestors of mankind. Before the dispersal of humans round the world, music existed. This therefore implies that music may have been invented in Africa and then developed to become an essential constituent aspect of the human life.

In Africa music existed and still exists in many different forms and also played many functions. Culture music like in Africa, is influenced by all other aspects of the African culture such as economic and social organization and experience, access to technology and climate. The ideas and emotions that music expresses, the conditions in which music is played and listened to and the attitude towards music composers and players all vary between periods and regions. 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 (Asante 3). Most of the African music history has been surrounded by controversy on representation of African culture and heritage by non native observers.

Music, dance and story telling are among the ancient art forms that have flourished in Africa for several centuries. The ancient African society did not separate their activities in daily life from their musical and other cultural experiences. However honest onlookers find that there is no African term congruent to the usual western understanding of 'music'. Though there are terms for more definite acts like singing, playing instruments and more broadly performing like dance and games, the isolation of musical sound from other arts proves a western concept (Exploring Africa). Music and dance are activities that characterize an African musical expression and they play a fundamental role in the lives of the people.

Comparison of different forms and functions of music in traditional Africa

Early historical account of music and dance among Africans can be found in oral literatures which assume different forms such as myths, folk tales, epics, historical accounts on rituals and praise poems. Music in Africa has served both aesthetic and utilitarian functions. The utilitarian function encompasses the use of music in the daily activities. For instance music could be used in child rearing practices, child's naming ceremonies, agricultural activities, war times, national ceremonies, religious ceremonies and even in ceremonies performed for the dead (Asante 123). In most ceremonies and performances music is usually accompanied by dancing and therefore it's hard to separate the two.

Traditionally and even in modern day the African people have a rich moral tradition that enables the passage of cultural practices from one generation to another. Scholars like stone (Hall and Gay 108) argue that music and oral literature are inextricably linked in the most African cultures and therefore can not be separated. Listening is in itself a very fundamental skill that is usually perfected by the oral traditional practices. A number of African musical songs and dances have been transmitted from one generation to the other through a word of mouth.

However some African culture researchers argue that the writing down of music, which seems to be replacing the oral transfer of music from one generation to another, has compromised the performance of African music and dance (Exploring Africa). They argue that in writing down the songs are forced to conform to the western musical idiom or to the western writing styles. This therefore presents the need for developing a modern way of writing down African music and dance as the modern traditional transcriptions appear to fail in accounting for certain melodic and rhythmic patterns which then end up changing the desired tone of a song thus making the song to sometimes fail in its function or purpose.

Music being a people's product also has some other values like encouraging, inciting, and ridiculing acts which contribute to the enrichment of the creative diversity of the art. Music also sharpens and mobilizes social consciousness in pursuit of qualitative change, subversion or preservation of existing order (Hall and Gay 1996 108). A musician in an African oral tradition is among other things an entertainer, an historian and a word master with theoretical tools to neutralize alienation. This implies that music in the traditional Africa had some other functions like entertaining and educating. Songs gave the young people advice on how to lead responsible lifestyles as well as warned them of dangers or irresponsible behaviour. This again means that different songs were meant for different groups of people.

Choral music is one of the forms that have promoted the use of tonic Solfa notation more than staff notation among black composers of African descent. Choral music which is also a popular form of traditional music has interested a number of people and made them to develop interest in African music. Many students from colleges and universities all over the world have nowadays turned to study music formally. This form of music has also made easier for Africans to relate to western art music especially the compositions of the baroque and Romantic period which have choral parts. Mendellson, Handel, Brahams and Schumann's among others are the most commonly sung works by the African singers and choirs (Exploring Africa).

Musical festivals and annual musical competitions are usually held in most of African countries in which people interact with groups from different communities (Hall and Gay 109). These festivals therefore acted as ways of promoting peace between communities in Africa. Songs in African setting are also used to make people work, praise, mature, or criticize members of the community while celebrating festivals and funerals. Songs were also used in reciting history proverbs and also in encountering gods. The most commonly used musical instrument in Africa is the human voice. Though the nomadic Africans like the Maasai of Kenya do not traditionally use the drum, it normally carries a lot of significance in the African culture.

Among Africans throughout the continent, the sound of the drum and its rhythm expresses the mood of the people, it's like the sign of life and its beat represents a community's heart beat. Just as the music has power to touch the souls of those who hear it, so is the drum to those who hear its rhythms. In an African community coming together in response to the drum beating is taken as an opportunity to give one another a sense of solidarity and belonging. According to Asante (1996), singing and drum beating in Africa is a time to connect with other community members, to be a part of that collective rhythm of the life in which young and old, rich and poor, men and women are all invited to contribute to the society (Asante 9)


Music in the African setting has sine the ancient times played a very important role in the society. Music (songs) was the best way of passing across messages among the people in the African communities. Music has also been a form of identity as communities were identified by the kind of songs and dances that they performed. Music has also been present in many different forms like folk music and choral music. their styles of performance and appropriate occasions differed from one community to the other. The current African musical practices have also been shaped by several factors like foreign religions (Exploring Africa). These musical practices have brought certain developments in the African music such as new musical instruments and also improvements on our vocal traditions.