Africa is the second largest continent in the world, and home to a tenth of the world’s population and at least a thousand different indigenous languages. Therefore, it is impossible to describe a single entity called “African music.” One need only compare the sacred music of the Gnawa musicians of Morocco with the choral traditions that arose in the townships of South Africa to see the vast range of musical practices found throughout this huge and complex region.
Especially during the last century, however, scholars have tried to find ways to talk in general ways about Africa’s rich traditions, while always acknowledging the sometimes very subtle differences between countries and ethnic groups. Beyond the recognition that African musicians maintained a vibrant and very distinct art, it has also been noted that this music — especially that of West Africa, from where the majority of slaves were taken — has played a significant role in the black cultural Diaspora, with important implications for the music of Latin America, the Caribbean (see page 59), and a variety of African American traditions (see American vernacular traditions; Jazz). Thus, understanding a few concepts that are shared by much African music helps listeners appreciate not only the continent’s music itself but a host of related traditions. Fortunately, in today’s digital age, recordings of music from virtually all corners of Africa — both traditional repertoires and styles influenced by Western popular music — are readily available.
The Sahara Desert, which takes up almost the entire northern third of the continent, is perhaps the most important dividing line that comes into play when discussing music in Africa. Countries that lie partly or entirely north of the Sahara (Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, etc.) tend to share many qualities with music of the Middle East. The rainforests and grasslands of Sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana, Cameroon, The Congo, Zambia, etc.) have produced very different traditions. In addition, distinctions are often made between Sub-Saharan musical traditions of Western, Eastern, Central, and Southern Africa.
As different as African musical traditions may sound from each other, they do tend to share both cultural and musical elements. However, one must always be cautious when trying to view these traditions through a Western musical or aesthetic lens.
- Music and dance. Linguistic scholars have been hard-pressed to find a single word that means “music” in many African languages. Music and bodily movement are usually considered part of a single whole, and sound cannot be separated from the cultural (and often religious) function of musical performances.
- In many African cultures, music and dance are considered communal activities; the Western idea of sitting silently while a performance is taking place is an anathema to these traditions. Many musical techniques that are shared by African musics — particularly the idea of “call and response,” where a soloist or group of performers will engage in short exchanges with other performers — seem to have arisen from this communal attitude toward music-making.
- Oral traditions. Nearly all African traditions have been passed down orally, and their study by Western scholars has often involved the transcription of performances into Western musical notation, which often proves woefully inadequate for the job. The influx of Christian choral music, especially in the southern regions of Africa, has resulted in music somewhat more easily notatable, and some African musicians do now use the familiar five-line system to capture their art.
- In many African traditions, rhythm — the way music moves through time — seems to be privileged over melody and harmony. Many African performances are highly polyphonic and made up of several layers of interlocking rhythmic ostinatos, which are combined to create an overall effect suitable for the religious or cultural ceremony for which the sounds are being produced.
- Instruments. The variety of instruments found throughout Africa is astounding. Perhaps most impressive is the range of percussion instruments (both idiophones and membranophones) that are often combined with distinctive uses of the human voice. In listening to performances of African music, those of us immersed in the Western musical tradition may be initially drawn to the vocal line as the most prominent feature, yet it may just be one element of a larger, complex musical texture.