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History Of African Music Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 5495 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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African American Practices and Religion

It is important to study traditional African music because it provides tremendous insight into African history. Music also allows us to better understand the diverse cultures of different African regions. Music also played an important historical role when Africans were first brought to the United States as slaves. American slave owners tried to strip away any sense of cultural identity that the slaves had. The only way they could maintained there ideanty is through song.

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A number of foreign musical traditions has influenced traditional Africa music. For instance, many nations in North Africa can draw their more recent musical lineage back to the Greeks and Romans who once governed over the area. [1] There is a substantial Middle Eastern influence on their music. Other parts of the African continent were similarly impacted by foreign music. Parts of East Africa and the offshore islands were influenced by Arabic music and Indian music in more modern times. Although Southern, Central and West Africa have had an influence on the music of North America and Western Europe. “Other African music can be attributed to specific dance forms such as the rumba and salsa, which were founded by African slaves who settled in Latin America and the Caribbean.” [2] 

The music of North Africa was strongly influenced by the music of ancient Egypt and the early Arabs. Although it is one of the least popular forms of contemporary African music, it is historically important and merits a good look at by all those interested in traditional music. North African music is famous for its monophonic form ,the predominance of melody over rhythm, a tense and nasal vocal style and non-percussive instruments including bowed rather than plucked strings.

While the music of North Africa is historically important, no music is more purely African than music that originated in Sub-Saharan regions of the continent. Though many regions were influenced by other nations, Sub-Saharan music remains quintessentially and uniquely African. Sub-Sahara Africa makes up the Sahel and the Horn of Africa in the north, the tropical savannas and the tropical rainforests of Equatorial Africa, and the arid Kalahari Basin and the “Mediterranean” south coast of Southern Africa. Sub Sahara Africa and is most notable for its Cross rhythm. “The main beat scheme cannot be separated from the secondary beat scheme. The cross-rhythm three-over-two (3:2), hemiola, is the most significant rhythm ratio found in sub-Saharan rhythm. Cross-rhythm is the basis for much of the music of the Niger-Congo peoples, the largest linguistic group in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. Cross-rhythm pervades southern Ewe music.” [3] Songs accompany the rites of passage, work and entertainment. They were also important in the life of the traditional African courts, and are still used for political comment,

Due to the fact that writing and reading came late to many parts of Africa, this music was created as a form of communication. Over time, it grew to become an interesting and exciting communal way to celebrate and mark several major milestones in a person’s life. For example, there are literally hundreds of African songs and music that celebrate marriage, childbirth or even hunting parties. It was the job of a Griots to perform the orginal tribal teachings oraly. Goriots are and were the orginal keepers of African tribule hisoty as well as royal advisors in African societys. In tradtitional African societys they would be the only way of keeping history this is because everything was through word of mouth. Griots where born into there duties there is no way to become a Griot. Griots used music poety and other artistic ways to express the storys of there ancestry. “They specialize in many types of instruments such as  the the molo, hodu, nyanyoru, Kora, balaphone which is passed on from generation to generation from father to son. The women griot sing, dance  and also play the calabass and gourd.” [4] 

While music is often played in an effort to celebrate life’s milestones and achievements, it is also played in Africa to ward off evil spirits as well as to pay homage to deceased ancestors. African music of this type is almost always accompanied by a specific dance or ceremony. These songs are often performed by professional musicians and dancers who have knowledge and experience with ceremonial music. “There are special insterrments played like idiophones ( its like a bell), a piece of bamboo, or wooden claves. In some ensembles, such as “iyesa” and “bata” drums, a key pattern may be played on a high-pitched drumhead.” [5] 

Because music from Sub-Saharan Africa focused primarily on communal singing, it was one of the earliest music to emphasize the use of harmony and structured song. These singing methods ranged from simple rhythmic structures to incredibly complex and elaborate structures based on improvisation and several variations.

Though stringed instruments, bells, flutes and even xylophones were all used in traditional African music, there is nothing more important than the basic African hand drum; In fact, there are literally dozens of drums that are played on different occasions. Some of the most popular drums that are used in a traditional African musical include the bougarabou, tama talking drums, djembe, water drums, as well as many different kinds of ngoma drums that are played throughout parts of Central and Southern Africa, just to name a few. Drums are almost always accompanied by singers or choruses who often keep time with other percussion instruments such as rattles, shakers, woodsticks, bells or by simply clapping their hands’ or stomping their feet. [6] 

The musical history of any region is important since it has the unique capability to tell societies’ stories, culture, and religious beliefs long before a language is manifested. One can learn immense amounts of information about the lives of people that lived through studying aspects of their music. Much of this information is difficult to find in other aspects of anthropology, and therefore would probably go undiscovered.

During the colonization of Africa, much of the peoples’ ancient history – ancient implying any history the tribes and cultures had prior to European colonization – was intentionally erased by the Imperialist society that came to power. Through the study of Africa’s traditional music, the world learns a great deal about those earlier cultures. By studying Africa’s music, some of these missing puzzle pieces are put back into place.

These colonial powers, stripped Africa of its primary natural resource and put it in their. For instance after colonial powers left they still maintain control of things like the diamond mines. Colonization strips Africa of its culture and heritage, because colonial powers didn’t care about African people they cared about expanding the Empires. By doing so, they split up the land and forest tribes to live in boundaries that caused problems between the different tribes thus creating civil war and other problems. most of these changes took place between 1890 and 1910, the twenty-year period that saw the conquest and occupation of virtually the whole continent of Africa by the imperial powers and the establishment of the colonial system–the following twenty-five years being essentially a period of consolidation and exploitation of the systems.

Europeans went to Africa to trade manufactured goods for slaves. Then they would transported the slaves to America known as the Middle Passage and exchanged them for raw materials. They brought the raw materials back to Europe so they could make more manufactured goods.

Europeans would higher villages to go in to the parts of Africa that they couldn’t and bring them slaves. The villagers thought that they were going to make a lot of money, and the captor would pay the parents of these people. So it looked like there their children were sending money, although that was not the case.

In the 1880s in the whole of west Africa, only the island and coastal areas where under European control. In northern African, only Algeria had by then been colonized by the French. Not an inch of eastern Africa had come under European control, while in central Africa only the coastal stretches where under Portuguese rule.

In 1880, some 80 per cent of the continent of Africa was still being ruled by her own kings, queens and clans, in empires, and political units of every size and kind.By 1914, the whole of Africa, with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, was subject to the rule of European powers. Because of the Berlin conference, Europeans were allowed to take control of Africa. This later leads to the scramble of Africa were all these countries decided to claim different parts of Africa as their own. Europeans wanted to expand their empire, and they figured Africa was the place to do it. The Europeans had things like guns, and the standardized army. They were able to take the continent by any means necessary.

After the Berlin conference Germany had forced colonialism into southwest Africa, kicking the Hereros and the Namas tribes off of their land. In 1904, the Hereros were fed up with the new ruling German government and rebelled, killing 123 German settlers. This was an embarrassment for the Germans in Africa; in their eyes it was humiliating to be beat by native people. As a result German settlers sent in Lieutenant Lother Van Trotha. Lother demanded that the Hereros leave the land and if they didn’t they would be forced out. Luther said “any Hereros found in the German borders with or without guns will be shot,” [7] he also applied this to woman and children. Out of a total population of eighty thousand, the Germans killed 65,000 Hereros. [8] The ones who did survive ended up in German concentration camps for the remainder of their days. This is an example of why the division of Africa created the turmoil that Africa is in today.

The Berlin Conference can be seen to be the stem of most of Africa’s problems today. The colonial powers imposing their rule in Africa prevented it from gaining economic independence. The damage that began after the Berlin conference was so great that it wasn’t until the 1950’s that Africa regained its independence. [9] The current instability in Africa is thus a permanent liability that resulted from the Berlin conference, in which the future of a continent was determined by greed.

The slave trade bestowed Africans to the Americas to work in the plantations. In some states in the U.S., early European settlers and slaves shared some of their musical traditions and influenced each other’s world. The banjo, now central in American folk music, is an instrument brought over to the Americas by African slaves. In other states, the music of African slaves was prohibited unless it accompanied an approved religious activity. [10] Drums were outlawed because they were seen as especially dangerous since drum sounds were connected to language and gave slaves a way to communicate that could not be controlled or understood by slave owners. To compensate for a lack of instruments, people who were enslaved depended on other forms of musical expression. Slaves would innovate their own instruments such as “Hambone,” a style of body percussion, was used as a substitute for drums, as it served a rhythmic function for music. Today this is known as STEPING and is very popular in fraternities. In order for one to play a hambone, a person uses his or her hands to hit their chest and thighs to create different slapping sounds. Using household objects as instruments also became necessary. Just as instruments were made in Africa from natural materials that were made available to people when they were free, enslaved Africans used the resources available to them in their environments. An example of this is the playing of spoons, another type of body percussion. [11] Vocal traditions also flourished among African people under slavery. Songs were used to soothe the heart and send messages of possible escape routes. Current music forms such as the Blues, Soul and Gospel grew out of the strong vocal traditions of early African Americans. [12] 

The study African music has taken on an even greater significance due to how the musical instruments and techniques managed to influence and spread to many countries throughout the world. African American music has its roots in tribal cultures throughout the vast continent, and has lent its influence not only to African American popular culture, but religion as well. [13] 

Music expression in Africa varied from one cultural group to the other, but most traditions commonly shared certain characteristics. African songs were intended to accompany religious ceremonies and dancing, to inspire hunters, to coordinate work, and to celebrate events such as the birth of a child. Music was woven into the culture, forming part of ordinary living, almost as commonplace as speech. In the Americas, enslaved Africans used music and dance for Purpose: Diffusion Resulted in: Easing pain of work, through Works songs, Worship Gospel traditions, Communication Drums and songs used to pass secrets messages and Entertainment


By studying african music you can see the infulnces Africa had all over the world. Jazz music connects European, American and African Music traditions. since People in America descended from Africans and Europeans amalgamated their musical traditions, using all instruments and musical approaches available, to create a musical style currently known as Jazz.The slave trade contribute to this cross-cultural exchange. People who were brought to the Americas from Africa as slaves brought with them their musical traditions. With the new experience of slavery and suffering, people applied their knowledge, even when instruments were banned, to maintain traditions that included a heavy reliance on rhythm, dance and songs. Maintaining these traditions helped to build new musical styles that branched out to become Gospel, Blues, Jazz, and Rock and Roll once people were freed from slavery. There is evidence that suggests that blues came directly from Africa. Blues emerged from field work songs and prison songs just after the Civil War, and these were musical forms descended from African musical styles maintained through the slave period. Contemporary popular African musical styles have been affected by diffusion of American music back to Africa. Here are three examples of this Jazz, Kwaito, Afropop, Manu Dibango, Fela Kuti, Abdullah Ibrahim, Femi Kuti, Arthur.

The ancient history of African music is muddled at best. It is undoubtedly conflated with the music of the Old Kingdom Egyptian music, when Egypt dominated and colonized the Nubians. [14] Hester comments that “surprisingly, the history of Egyptian music presents little evidence of the use of drums prior to 2000 B.C.” [15] 

Due to the prevalence of the drum in African music and due to the influence that Egyptian music seemed to have, the early lack of drums is somewhat surprising. Contrary to the belief that African music was only passed on through “oral and aural” tradition, a musical writing system did exist. One Ethiopian composer from the sixth century was canonized by the Catholic Church due to his creation of a complex musical notation system . [16] 

Hester goes on to note, however, that a temple fragment shows the top of a large drum that is unique to Old Kingdom music, which is assumed to be present due to import from Sumer. [17] This is important for a variety of reasons, one of which being the current modes of African musical instruments; a drum style similar to that used during the twelfth dynasty is still being used in today’s Congo . [18] 

In later centuries, Nubian musical influence went to Europe through the conquests of the Moors. In the fifteenth century, Europeans began raids of the African coast for slaves and goods. Two centuries later, Europeans began trade with Africans south of the Sahara desert, eventually colonizing the land. Neither group seemed to care about native music . [19] 

Hester tells us that all of African music was of a spiritual nature. He states that,

“Africans were generally not inclined to separate rhythm, spiritual dimensions, and the order of the universe into compartments. Traditional African societies acknowledged that the drum had a spirit and character that was clearly observable. The give of the voices of the Great Ancestors had been hidden inside the wood of trees so they could be access whenever men and women needed them,”. [20] 

Floyd explains that not only was there no separation between physical and spiritual dimensions, but there was also no word for “religion” in Africa. The reason for this lack of a distinct word was that:

the Africans’ religion permeated and was the basis for all aspects of life [. . .]. Since religion permeated the everyday life of African peoples, the great number of religious beliefs that existed were not systematized into dogmas, but appeared as ideas and practices that governed everyday life in the various communities. All African peoples recognized God as the One, although in a majority of cosmologies other divinities also existed [. . .] [21] 

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Another interesting aspect of African music is its accessibility by both genders. As in other parts of the world, although both men and women were allowed access to virtually all forms of musical expression, the men often reserved those perceived as most powerful for themselves. [22] However, it was more common for women to take part in music:

in the large number of less stratified, more egalitarian African societies. According to Nketia, women in these simpler societies historically formed their own permanent associations specifically to make music. [23] 

Connections to the Past

Today, African American worship is a similar experience to that of the worship of the past. It is a collective, uninhibited, and rhythmic kind of worship, reminiscent of the rituals of Africa. In the past, this kind of collective process was intended to transmit culture, educate the people, and boost morale. [24] Music, in the African culture, was taught at an early age. It is both part of acculturation and part of daily life. Many African languages are tonal, in which one word may have several meanings based on inflection. The tonal quality of the languages lends itself to the “language” of the “talking” drums found in several African nations. The process of manipulating the drum heads produces similar qualities to the inflections of the African languages . [25] 

The physical movements of what Floyd describes as the time following the “formal service” of Africans engaged in worship after being forcibly brought to this country are specific and ritualized. He describes this celebration as:

the shuffling around in a ring, the upper-body dancing of African provenance, the ever-present singing accompanied by the hand clapping and thudding, repetitious drumming (of feet in this case), and the extended length of the activity. And here enters also the spiritual, the primary music of the ring for slaves in the southern United States. [26] 

The “performance practices” of the slaves were thought to be shocking and idolatrous by those European-Americans who had brought them here. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Rather, these rituals were “culturally affirming” and justified by African beliefs . [27] Regardless, or perhaps for that very reason, these aspects were suppressed in the majority of the United States. Over time, the Christian God became substituted for the African High God and Christ became substituted for the other lesser divinities. The spiritual was developed through this Christianizing process. [28] Although primarily Catholic New Orleans was the most supportive of African traditions, it was Protestantism that lent its support to the new musical form. Floyd states that Protestantism, with its more direct access to the High God through song and praise, made possible the emergence of a new song for Africans, a new song in which they could express themselves as freely as they had in their homeland. This new song was the African-American spiritual. [29] 

Typically, however, the spiritual is studied apart from the ceremonies it was derived from. Like the slaves, who were being forced to adapt to a new style of living while trying to hold onto the past, the spiritual was a form of music that was an attempt to adapt to the new cultural expression for their beliefs, while still maintaining the beliefs of their past. In addition, these songs maintained the traditional forms of African music while still expressing the tribulations of their new lives. More than that, however, these songs were an expression of freedom from slavery. [30] 

There are two kinds of spirituals: sorrow songs and jubilees. Floyd states that:The kinship of these early spirituals to African performance practice is striking. The song “Steal Away,” for example, has short phrases that repeat, grow, and make larger melodic structures and uses multimeter, pendular thirds, and descending phrase endings. [31] 

These performance practices, though modified, can still be seen and heard in African American churches today. Rauschart (2004) discusses the experience of spiritual singing in a modern context. She describes a kind of singing that goes beyond the notes written on the paper. Rauschart writes that the choirmaster of the choir that she observed pushed his choir to do what many would not-to ignore the music before them and to interpret the words with personal feeling . [32] She explains that, “whatever the style of spiritual singing, music directors agree on one thing. A stream of lovely notes, no matter how well voiced, is not enough”. [33] And yet, the spiritual is in danger of being lost in favor for the gospel song. [34] There may be a practical reason behind this change from one musical form to another. Society is becoming increasingly urbanized, and gospel is a product of direction of that drift. Spirituals, on the other hand, are products of the largely rural past. Another potential reason behind the shift might be that gospel music is a bit more “accessible” than spirituals are. According to Rauschart, spirituals are intended to be sung “deliberately, in the fullness of time and experience”. [35] That kind of deliberate pace might seem unfamiliar, and perhaps a bit unwelcome, in our increasingly frenetic world. No matter what the reason that is behind it in any given community, however, the fact remains that spirituals are no longer the music that the majority of the African American community grows up to sing. The form remains, however, in other venues.

The modern African American musical experience is rooted in ancient times. These roots go back to ancient Egypt and their conquests of the Nubians. The language of African tribes is tonal. One word might have several meanings in different tones. The “talking” drums of several countries mimic this quality of language. Despite the reputation of being a simply aural and oral musical tradition, African tribal music actually did have a complex local style of musical notation available to it.

In Africa, no distinction is made between the spiritual and the profane worlds. Tribal music was a part of practical life, as well as ritual life. The music that was developed in this country accepted that perspective, while taking on the Christian perspective of the slaves’ new land.

In traditional Africa, music is an inherent part of life and is concurrent with the worldview of the society in which it is produced. It has social, ritual, and ceremonial functions as well as some purely recreational purposes. Traditional art forms, including music, are rooted in mythology, legends, and folklore, and are associated with gods, ancestors and heroes. Musical activities are ritualized and intended to link the visible world with the invisible. Dancing is often an important part of the ritual and spiritual aspect of music. [36] 

Percussion instruments are the most popular instrument in African societies. Rattles, friction sticks, bells, clappers, and cymbals are popular. Many groups also use the sansa and xylophones. Numerous types of drums are also used. Various wind instruments are made out of tusks, horns, conch shells, wood or gourds. Styles of vocal music vary from area to area. This is due partly to the different languages spoken in different areas. Most African languages are tonal languages which are reflected in the singing.

Traditional African music does not have a written tradition. This created many difficulties when Western Staff started to write down the music. The pitches and subtle differences in pitch contour do not interpret easily. “The Western scale rules that relate most closely to African music are tetratonic, pentatonic, hexatonic or heptatonic arrangements. Melodic patterns are affected by intonation patterns of the language.” [37] 

The rhythmic aspect of African music combines the music of various groups and areas. “Rhythm is made of patterns; similar patterns are found throughout all of Africa. Harmonization is typically created through singing in thirds, fourths and fifths, parallel to the main melody.” [38] 

“While drumming is very popular in Africa and is more important than melodic music in some societies, melodic music is important in others. The mbira is one of the most popular melodic instruments in Africa. Different cultures use the mbira in different ways. Also, the mbira exists in different forms in different cultures. Some mbira are used for entertainment and others for religious ceremonies. Often, the people who can own and play the mbira are restricted to chiefs or other important people, especially when it is being played for religious purposes.” [39] 

African music has been a major factor in the shaping of what we know today as blues and jazz. These styles have all borrowed from African rhythms and sounds, brought over the Atlantic ocean by slaves. Paul Simon, on his album “Graceland” has used African bands and music, especially Ladysmith Black Mambazo along with his own lyrics. [40] 

As the rise of rock’n’roll music is often credited as having begun with 1940s American blues, and with so many genres having branched off from rock – the myriad subgenres of heavy metal, punk rock, pop music and many more – it can be argued that African music has been at the root of a very significant portion of all recent popular or vernacular music. [41] 

African music has also had a significant impact on such well-known pieces of work as Disney’s The Lion King and The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, which blend traditional tribal music with modern culture. Songs such as Circle of Life and He Lives in You blend a combination of Swahili and English lyrics, as well as traditional African styles of music with more modern western styles. Additionally, the Disney classic incorporates numerous words in the native language of Swahili. The ever-popular “hakuna matata,” for example, is an actual Swahili phrase that does in fact mean “n


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