Fred Onovwerosuoke, August 1998. All rights reserved.

AFRICAN MUSIC: FAQS AND MYTHS
Lessons learned from the African Tour
(continued on this page)

Are 3rds, 6ths and other diatonic intervals not European?

A prevailing misconception is that thirds, sixths, diatonic, and other modal intervals are European. Western music did not simply develop in a vacuum. A very wide array of influences (not excluding direct and indirect African forms) molded the musical forms that preceded classical music and other forms that followed. Sufficient evidence abounds to show that many early European and African folk songs shared similar traits. Richard Watermann writes in African Influence on the Music of the Americas that "…there is enough similarity between African and European music to permit music syncretism…"1 Also, Donald Grout explains in A History of Western Music, that "… Melodic doubling at third, fourth, fifth, along with heterophony is found in many cultures..."2

There is no doubting the fact that polyphony as an art form was most developed by European composers from the late 14th Century, but the use of thirds, sixths, and other intervals in polyphony was common place in Africa, Asia and other parts of the world, long before Gioseffo Zarlino3 developed the diatonic scale. In fact, the tonal nature of many African languages made it mandatory for early African composers to use parallel intervals, which often included octaves, the intervals in question, in addition to a wide variety of microtones found in African vocalizations. Besides, Pythagoras’s work with intervals proved that intervals came from nature4 - and thus any culture (African, Asian or European) has equal license.

Part of your [St. Louis African Chorus] mission reads, "…to promote African cultural heritage through music, theater, and other art forms..." Are drama, theater not European art forms?

The answer to the above question is NO! Drama and theater are not solely European art forms. They were part of the African’s daily life, not only in pre- and post-slavery and colonial times, but right from the very beginning of human existence.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes in Decolonizing the Mind that "drama has origins in human struggles with nature and with others."5 Perhaps, the irony is in the usage and ambiguity cast upon English derived words such as theater, drama, ritual, rites, etc. In a broad sense, to dramatize is to re-enact or enact events past, present, or future.

For example, in pre-colonial Africa, warriors re-enacted wars in song, mime, and dance so that those at home may re-live their experiences. The act of creation, birth, marriage, death, circumcision and sundry rites are often dramatized or recreated at many festivals for all the community to see, experience and understand. Dramatization also serves as an educational tool to pass on traditions to younger generations. Such staged performances (which in traditional settings were largely open-air, i.e. performances staged during regular community events) are often interactive, involving both audience and performers. Characters are cast - masquerades represent the unknown or unseen (e.g. God, gods, goddesses, ancestral spirits, etc.); trained singers, drummers and dancers play their assigned roles, and audiences usually play themselves.

Drama and theater have been and will remain part of Africa’s heritage. It is, however, important to point out a distinct difference between European and African drama: while, in traditional settings, the latter largely remains open-air and audience interactive, the former has ‘transformed’ into performances relegated to enclosed buildings where actors simply showcase their talents before a passive audience. Perhaps, the confusion that prompts questions like the one above lies in the fact that African and Diaspora-African dramatists have moved their work to a stage in an enclosed building - like their European counterparts! (Now whether or not this practice helps African dramatic arts to become readily acceptable to non-African audiences is a totally different discussion.)

Why African music, don’t we already have Gospel, R&B, etc.?

It is true that some Blacks in America would rather forget or ignore events of their bitter past; and some would prefer to deny their ancestry or attempt to do away with anything that reminds them of Africa. Why not? Unfavorable impressions of Africa abound in the Western media; many Blacks are now totally acculturated, and believe that in order to be accepted one has to be like Whites - eat their food, wear their clothes,… and of course, speak and sing in their language.

The African or African-derived influences that gave rise to musical forms like gospel, rhythm & blues, etc. may be ignored or discounted, but the truth of the matter is that they are and will remain what they are - African-derived music! And yes, there is no denying the fact, as Dr. Ashenafi Kebede affirms, that "the most popular and appealing music of the United States today is undoubtedly the African-derived music of black Americans..." 6

The question now should really be whether we can go a step further. In addition to all the existing forms of black music in the United States, will and can our children also learn to sing the music of their forebears. And will they begin to reach into their rich heritage and incorporate the languages and cultures of their ancestors into their daily lives?

Of what benefit is African Music to American Schools

As our elders would say, the body consists of many components, without each of which will not be whole. A fair representation of a people’s culture ought to have the intrinsic values and influences of its components. Thus, the Voice of African Music and the St. Louis African Chorus propose that education in the American school system is incomplete if what is continually emphasized is only Western or neo-European thought - thought that makes no pretense at precluding essential African consciousness. (Even the occasional and very limited post slavery and post civil-rights Afro American influences that are sparsely thrown into the educational mix do not make the system whole).

In his review in the September 26, 1997, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Michael Renner writes, "…Listening to both singers and drummers [of the St. Louis African Chorus] interact, we witnessed the origins of the call and response tradition used in jazz, blues and earlier, slave chants…" Although not readily admitted, musical arts in America today have freely borrowed from jazz, blues, spirituals, gospel and other Afro-American forms.

African art, music and dance, whether presented for mere entertainment pleasure or for educational purposes ought to include pre-slavery and pre-colonial forms, along with all the other derived forms between those times and the present. This proposition holds true particularly for vocal music. After all, choral groups in most American schools perform works from pre-Renaissance Europe to modern, and all the derived forms in-between. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing the same for African music and African-derived art forms.                                                                                              [...Continued on Page 3]

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