African Music in Social Context
- Notes complied by Christo van Rensburg
(Feature Article 2)

Authentic African music - the traditional music of the black peoples of Africa - is little known abroad. The non-African listener can find the music strange, difficult, and unattractive; and therefore often concludes that it is not of interest. Both African and non-African music are human inventions and individual notes contain the same elements such as pitch, duration, tone colour and intensity. Music plays a similar role in most societies, as work songs, lullabies, battle songs, religious music, and so on. Generally speaking the same categories of instruments are found in Africa as in Europe, namely stringed instruments, wind instruments, and percussion.

The African concept of music is totally different to the Western one though. Traditional African musicians do not seek to combine sounds in a manner pleasing to the ear. Their aim is simply to express life in all of its aspects through the medium of sound. The African musician does not merely attempt to imitate nature by music, but reverses the procedure by taking natural sounds, including spoken language, and incorporate them into the music. To the uninitiated this may result in cacophony, but in fact each sound has a particular meaning. To be meaningful, African music must be studied within the context of African life.

Music has an important role in African society. Music is an integral part of the life of every African individual from birth. At a very early stage in life the African child takes an active role in music, making musical instruments by the age of three or four. Musical games played by African children prepare them to participate in all areas of adult activity - including fishing, hunting, farming, grinding maize, attending weddings and funerals and dances.

An intimate union forms between man and art in Africa. It amounts to a total communion that is shared by the whole community. This may help explain why some languages in black Africa have no precise noun to define music. The art of music is so inherent in man that it is superfluous to have a particular name for it. The drum is so important in African society that it is sometimes equated with a man. Women must consequently treat it with the same respect that they would show towards their menfolk. In some African countries women are not even allowed to touch a drum under any circumstance, though Islam and European colonial influence have softened some of these traditions. African music is nearly always coupled with some other art such as poetry or dance and is one of the most revealing forms of expression of the black soul.

It seems logical to conclude that everyone in black Africa must be a musician by definition. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that all Africans are necessarily musicians in the full sense of the word. In some African societies music is a dynamic and driving force that animates the life of the entire community. This communal music may be quite elaborate in form. In other societies musicians form a semi-professional group. They earn their livelihood from their music for only part of the year and rely on some other activity for the remainder of the time. In numerous African societies, the right to play certain instruments or to participate in traditional ceremonies is not open to all, but is the privilege of the professional musician. Such musicians live solely by their art and belong to particular families or castes. Griot is the term used throughout West Africa to designate professional musicians. The role of the griot extends far beyond the realm of music and magic. He or she is the relater of history, philosophy and mythology, the archive of the peoples' traditions. He or she dispenses a healing therapy for the medicine man. He or she is a praise-singer, a troubadour - the counterpart of the medieval European minstrel. People fear griots, admire them but often treat them with contempt because they belong to one of the lowest castes. The fact that music is at the heart of all of the griot's activities is yet further proof of the vital part he or she plays in African life. The equivalent of the griot in equatorial Africa is the player of the mvet (harp-zither). This person is, in some ways, more fortunate than the griot because the admiration that he enjoys is not tinged with scorn, maybe because he does not normally sing the praises of the rich and powerful like the griot does.

The African musician is feeling the effects of the revolution that is currently sweeping the entire continent. Music, as it is conceived in traditional society, is not a function which enables its exponents to meet the demands of modern life. Furthermore, the competition is enormous and under these conditions music as a profession offers very little opportunity. In some societies, music is not conceived as a profession at all, a fact which is even more limiting. As things exist today, traditional music is threatened with eventual extinction and will gradually disappear unless the musician's future is assured. This is especially true for African traditional music which is of course not written down, but handed down from generation to generation.

This does not mean that the traditional African musician should be sheltered from the infiltration of foreign influences. Such infiltration can be a source of artistic enrichment contributing to the cultural cross-fertilisation described below.

[To be continued next issue]

Editor’s Note: Christo van Rensburg is a freelance writer and Africanist from Australia. References for his article can be found and accessed at his African music webpage:

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