Fred Onovwerosuoke, August 1998. All rights reserved.

AFRICAN MUSIC: FAQS AND MYTHS
Lessons learned from the African Tour

Since returning from our tour, we have received mails from our readers, and visitors to our website. Some have welcomed us back from Africa, and extended their best wishes for our future endeavors; others have asked what it was like to perform songs in African languages in Africa; while many inquired what life was like in Ghana. A great deal of these mails also presented some very profound questions and discussions about the direction of African music today, and what benefits it portends for Africans and Diaspora Africans. In this issue, we have sampled these questions and will like to share some of them, along with our responses, with you.

Introduction

Music encountered in many parts of Africa can broadly be grouped into traditional, folk, ethnic, contemporary and all their variants in today’s African popular music. The term traditional music is often ambiguous. Folk music basically refers to music distinctive among a group of people. The term ethnic music, as it relates to Africa, is more or less a large paint-brush to describe music from all of Africa.

What is choral music like in Africa today?

Vocal music in Africa includes ritual chants, plain songs, 2-part and multi-part singing. Harmonies are either simplistic or complex, and ‘organized dissonance’ is relished. Songs remain heavily percussive - perhaps, a characteristic of African music that has remained indisputable in the Western world.

What groups did you work with?

We worked with several choral groups, dance and drum ensembles, and their directors, in Ghana. On one extreme were purists who religiously try to maintain the original ways of their progenitors, replicating purportedly ‘untainted’ performances of ancient rituals. On the other were directors who totally Gospel-ized, Handel-ized or contemporized choral compositions. The story is the same for dance companies and drum ensembles. Between the two extremes are many directors whose artistic allegiances vacillate between the native and the foreign.

Why are Africans changing their music?

One universal constant that every growing society must deal with is change - it is inevitable! Progressives abound in every socio-economic aspects of African life, including the arts. Some directors are readily amenable to changes - changes that are usually results of their community’s contact or interaction with foreign cultures. Happily, though, many of these progressives are able to identify, analyze and interpret the foreign influences picked up by their people, and often, are able to incorporate some of them into new works.

It is true that art forms in many African cities - Dakar, Accra, Johannesburg, Lagos, Nairobi, Cairo, etc.- show traits of foreign influences - good and bad. These are traits precipitant of a constant bombardment of Western cultures and lifestyles beamed via satellite and transmitters to radio and television sets which abound in the cities.

Are European influences polluting African music?

All change is not injurious to African peoples and cultures. Ultimately, change is inevitable. It is in fact welcome, so long as a people can use change to uplift themselves economically and socially. Positive change, in my opinion, is that change which elevates a people’s way of life without sacrificing the distinctive qualities that identify them as a people. A corollary viewpoint is that change is negative, if by adopting change a people lose themselves or become assimilated by foreign cultures that totally denigrate their own.

The effects of change as emphasized by Western and neo-European academia, media and other self-effacing guardians of so-called modern thought, have been unfairly skewed toward unidirectional Euro-Arabic influences on the music of Africa. Not many writers have given much thought to the enormous African influences on other (every other) world culture.

Like other art forms, some aspects of African art and music ought to be amenable to changing environments. It should evolve, unfettered, in measures congruent to societal changes and dictates, provided that such changes are not at the expense of total self assimilation. In proportionate measure to the imbibing of other people’s cultures, African people and artists should equally assert themselves and emphasize African influences and values on other mainstream cultures worldwide. This will help to balance the mix. [...continued on Page 2]

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