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

...continued from last issue of the Voice

Instruments and Style
Similar musical instruments are found throughout most of black Africa. However, the flora and culture found in any particular region influences the dominance of certain categories of instruments. Drums are for instance more popular in the forest regions of West Africa than in the tree-less savanna areas of southern Africa. Musical instruments often show a close link between sculpture and music.

There is a great deal of homogeneity in the music of this vast continent but it is also clear that there are differences between regions and tribes. The African cultures south of the Sahara have evidently carried on a lively exchange of music with the inhabitants of the northern part of the continent. There is also a large area of borderline cultures that are related to both societies.

Much music is based on speech and the bond between language and music is so intimate that it is actually possible to tune an instrument so that the music it produces is linguistically comprehensible. Because music is a total expression of life, shared by all the senses, different cultures and lifestyles have significant influences on the music.

In East Africa, the cultures are complex and revolve around cattle. The Khoi-San area of southern Africa has a simple culture dependent mainly on the nomadic gathering of food. The north-western African coast substantially lacks cattle and is characterised by an elaborate political organisation which, before the imposition of European rule, gave rise to powerful kingdoms. The west coast of Africa between the Khoi-San area and the north-western part has a combination of the east African and north-west African traits. A number of Pygmy tribes are still living in relative isolation in the jungle. The northern part of the continent is largely under the influence of Islamite musical culture. Music within each of these areas is more or less homogeneous, differing from the neighbouring area.

The main characteristics of the west coast are the metronome sense and the accompanying concept of "hot rhythm", the simultaneous use of several meters, and the responsorial form of singing with overlap between leader and chorus. The central African area is distinguished by its great variety of instruments and musical styles and by the emphasis, in polyphony, on the interval of the third. East Africa has, for centuries, been somewhat under Islamite influence, though by no means to as great an extent as the northern half of Africa. Vertical fifths are more prominent here, and rhythmic structure is not so complex, nor are percussion instruments so prominent. The Khoi-San music area is evidently similar in style to East Africa, but has simpler forms and instruments. It contains a good deal of music performed with the hocket technique, as does the Pygmy sub-area of central Africa, which is also characterised by the presence of a vocal technique similar to yodelling. - CB


African Music: A Historical Perspective
by Christo van Rensburg

Set your minds to Africa.
Africa is the centre of the world.
Check your world map and see...

(Song lyrics by the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti)

Black Africa’s early history was never written down, but has been passed from generation to generation by word of mouth instead. In West Africa for instance, the griots - members of the musician caste - related the ongoing story of their people through the medium of music. It is impossible however to know exactly what had shaped Africa’s early history. Archaeology and genealogy (including DNA research) give us some clues, as do the histories of other peoples and nations with which Africa had contact with in the past. It is clear that many cultural exchanges took place between the people of Africa, and between Africans and non-Africans, and that Africans’ music was affected and enriched by these exchanges, as was that of the peoples who had contact with Africans. Other factors influenced African music over time. Some of these are wars, invasions, migrations, new religions, climate changes, population, ecological and economic pressures.

From a geographical and a cultural perspective, the Sahara Desert has always been an important dividing line in Africa. This huge, barren desert, running from the Sudan in the north east of the continent to Mauritania in the north west, has essentially divided the continent as long as people have been around, between black Africa in the south and the now Arab north.

Thanks to the geneticists, we can now quantify the differences between human populations. It turns out that all the non-African races of mankind - Europeans and Middle Easterners, Chinese and Japanese, Indians and Indonesians, Polynesians, Amerindians and Australian Aborigines - have very similar genetic constitutions. This is because (according to a theory currently widely accepted) they are all descended from the very small number of Homo Sapiens who broke out from sub-Saharan Africa around 100,000 BC and moved northwards to populate the rest of the world. (Some historians claim that the Stonehenge in Britain was built by dark-skinned people from Africa). Present day sub-Saharan Africans have retained a rich genetic inheritance and different groups are as different from each other as they are from extra-African humankind.

Anthropologists recognise four distinct sub-Saharan populations: Negroes (whose original home-land was the forest of West Africa), Nilo-Saharans (the middle third of the Nile valley of Sudan and the area immediately round it), Pygmies (the rain forest of the Zaire basin), and the San (the rest of sub-Saharan Africa). By 8000 BC Africa north of the Sahara was almost totally inhabited by people descended from the 'out of Africa' contin-gent. The groups they belonged to included the Semites of Arabia (referred to as Afro-Asiatic), and the African (Hamitic) groups which consisted of the Berbers (in the Maghreb of Central North Africa), the Coptic contingent (around Egypt) and the Cushitic contingent (in the Horn of Africa around Ethiopia). Kingdoms and empires came and went. Africa north of the Sahara formed part of the spheres of influence of several successive external empires from as early as 660 BC, when the Assyrians ran the Nubians out of Egypt. Many invaders followed the Assyrians, including the Carthage, the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, the Ptolemies - and that was only before AD 1.

By AD 1, the Bantu and Zande speaking peoples started moving south from West-Africa, slowly displacing the Pygmies and the San, and leaving behind the Niger-Congo language speakers.Within 500 years much of Africa south of the Sahara was occupied by Bantu speaking people. By this time boatloads of Muslim Indonesians had landed in the huge island of Malagasy off the east coast of Africa, Christianity was well established in parts of east Africa, and parts of North Africa had been invaded by German tribes. Islam had been introduced in North Africa by AD 650 by the Arabs and trade between Africa north of the Sahara and Africa south of the Sahara started about a century later. Commodities such as salt, gold and slaves were traded, but the different cultures definitely exchanged musical instruments and musical styles along with

goods. It is known that the first group of African people to convert to Islam did so before AD 1050 in the region now known as Senegal. Islam with its more rigid structures and teachings had a sgnificant effect on the cultures of its adopters. Of course parts of Europe were also invaded by the Muslim Moors. Western European Christianity had a much shorter history in Africa than Islam, and consequently had less impact on African music overall.

By AD 1100 the Arabs had established trading posts all along the East African coast and some tribes on the Somali coast had converted to Islam. This trade helped the first empire in Southern Africa to develop. Within 200 years the Zimbabwean Bantu empire was trading with the Arabs and indirectly even with the Chinese. The Swahili language in East Africa was a result of this contact between the Arabs and the Bantu. In the mean time a further southward migration of Bantu tribes.was caused by the southward movement of Nilo-Saharan tribes, reacting to pressure from the north. Continued Arab trade and religious encroachments meant that by AD 1400 Islam was established among all peoples of the Sahel - the area immediately south of the Sahara - from Senegal to Somalia, except for Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) which remained a Christian enclave.

Soon after AD 1400 the Spanish conquered islands off the coast of North Africa and the Portuguese seized parts of Morocco and established enclaves in Mauritania in North Africa. The era of European colonialism had started. Within a century or so, there were several Portuguese enclaves on the west coast of Africa between the Congo and Angola, and they had established their supremacy on the eastern coastal strip from Kenya to Mozambique, occupying the old Arab trading posts. The Ottoman Turks soon followed and occupied much of North Africa. In the mean time the Bantu movement southwards had been completed with the San and Khoi (a people of mixed San and Bantu ancestry) now occupying only the south-western tip of Africa.

More Europeans followed the Spanish and Portuguese: the Dutch, the Danish, the French, the English. They were not content with dealing in yellow gold - black gold was more profitable. By 1700 as many as 50,000 slaves were being shipped across the Atlantic every year, ten times as many as a century earlier. As we’ll see later, this slave trade had a significant impact on music of the western world. The Portuguese were now well in control of South-East Africa and a Dutch colony had been established on the south-western tip of Africa. The Boers (descendants of Dutch, French and German settlers) soon began to move inland, a process which led to a rapid decline in the numbers of the local Khoi. A new mixed Boer-Khoi community appeared at the Cape. The Dutch also introduced slaves from Indonesia (who brought Islam with them), Madagascar (Malagasy), and other parts of Africa. This further contributed to the cultural mix at the Cape. Soon there were some skirmishes between the Boers and the Bantu as the Cape colony expanded. In the meantime, the other Nilo-Saharan tribes such as the Tutsi and Masai also moved further south into Bantu speaking territory, causing further Bantu migrations southwards, so that the population pressure was generally increasing dramatically in Africa south of the Sahara. Still European colonialism flourished.

By 1800 the British had established a colony in the Cape and the French one in Egypt (soon to be regained by the Turks). By 1840 the Portuguese were established in Angola, the French in Senegal and Algeria and the British in Ghana. In the meantime, the influence of Islam continued to spread further south into black Africa soon reaching Nigeria. Population pressure was also mounting in the black half of South Africa, as the Zulu mfecane (time of troubles) caused much political violence there. The Zulus became a potent political and military force under Shaka, gaining control of much of south-eastern Africa between the Portuguese and British territories. The result was violent contact between fleeing tribes and the British and Portuguese. Around the same time the Boers started trekking northwards, away from the British, helping to spur the northward migration of southern Bantu tribes into Botswana, Malawi and Zimbabwe. The size of the European populations in South Africa and Algeria now became very large in comparison with those in other colonies. This was a time of much upheaval in Africa.

The European 'scramble for Africa' began in all earnest during the 1880s initiated by the French and British. The Germans, Belgians, Italians, Spanish and Portuguese followed their examples. By 1900 most of sub-Saharan Africa was occupied by European colonial powers and at the outbreak of the First World War so was North Africa. By 1925 most of Africa 'belonged' to either France or Britain, but the British power showed signs of waning by 1950. Egypt was grudgingly granted independence from Britain (1947), and the Boers managed to win control of South Africa in elections (1948). France gave up control of Algeria with its large settler community soon after (in 1962), following a major war there. The process of decolonisation gathered speed, and soon most of Africa except the south was independent.

The year 1994 marked the final end of the colonial era in Africa. The whole of Africa, including South Africa, was now independent (excluding a few Spanish enclaves in Morocco and the continued French, Portuguese and Spanish occupations of several island groups off the coast of Africa). African countries were now well established, though the legacy of colonialism and exploitation combined with population and ecological and economic pressures are causing ongoing frictions, migrations across borders, etc, with ongoing cultural effects.

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:

|Front Page|Page 1|Page 2|Page 3|Page 4|