The study of African Music History is derived from archaeological findings, oral historical accounts, rock paintings and petroglyphs, and field notes from travelers from the Middle East and Europe. As the continent is the cradle of human beings, music evolved and traveled the globe to influence music everywhere.
Ancient cultures from what is known as the “green Sahara” created vast amounts of written history in the form of rock paintings. These are among the earliest sources of African music. The most primitive rock painting was discovered by a French explorer in 1956 in the Tassili-n-Ajjer plateau of Algeria. It depicts music and dance and is astonishing for its similarity of costume and style of movement to what is still practiced today. The rock painting in question dates from 6,000 to 4,000 bc.
The study of African musical instruments is somewhat limited by the natural materials used to create them. Those made from vegetables like horns and drums of gourd did not survive in the earthen deposits of sub-Sahara, however those made from stone or clay did endure for discovery.
From these discoveries, scientists conclude the pressure drum called dundun, and one used throughout the Savannah region, was likely formed in the 15th century. Also created during that century were the double iron clapperless bells, pellet bells and tubular bells with clappers.
By the 17th and 18th centuries, lamellaphones, with iron keys, grew in influence throughout the Zambezi valley and into Angolan society. As use of the instruments spread they became smaller and portable. These became known as travel instruments.
The small lamellaphone became popular in the Congo where it was named the likembe, still in use today in Zande, Ngbandi and Gbaya.
It is fascinating to realize Latin America has a wealth of knowledge about African Music History, as slaves carried their oral histories with them to their reluctant new homes.
Nearly all African music instruments in the United States can be categorized in three ways: string, wind and percussion. Let’s begin with the string instruments.
Another name for string instruments is chordophone. These create sound from vibrating strings made of metal or gut, and within the family of strings there are three sub-categories:
Harps- which mount their strings in a right angle to the soundboard.
Citres or Zithers- instruments which don’t have a neck and use the body for the string-mount. A common zither or citres in the U.S. is a piano or harpsichord.
Lutes – a device with strings supported on a neck and with a resonance chamber. Americans know this type from guitars and violins.
There are a variety of ways to produce sound from a string instrument. Musicians can pluck the strings with their fingers or with a plucking device like a pick or even a feather. Some instruments are played with the assistance of a bow of horse-hair or similar synthetic material. By moving the bow across the strings, the strings vibrate and create sound. Lastly, struck string instruments involve hammer sticks to make sound by hitting keyboards attached to strings.
Another category of African instruments in the U.S. are the winds. Among these are flutes, reed pipes, lip vibrated instruments and free reeds.
Another word for wind instruments is aerophone, both the pipe aerophone like flutes and trumpets, and the free aerophone such as the mouth organ and accordion. The pipe aerophones create sound by resonating air blown into or over an opening. The free version controls the pitch by lengthening or shortening the length of the reed.
In some countries reed instruments are made from metal such as the harmonica or the accordion, however the African music instruments in the United States typically use wood and other materials that come from the land.
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Aside from the Kenyan flutes, Kenya has perhaps one of the most diverse assortments of popular music forms, in addition to multiple layers of folk music based on the variety over 40 regional languages. Different ethnic groups each have their own folk music traditions using many different instruments.
Like most African music, Kenyan music is not made for its own sake. Music was functional. It was used for ceremonial, religious, political, or incidental purposes. Kenyan musical instruments range from percussion to strings to wind instruments.
The Indweba is a kind of pan pie that can be made from made the umhlanga river reed. Whistles of various materials are associated with indigenous medicine, divinatory practices, casting spells, and ventriloquism among the Bantus of Kenya. The Indweba are normally made of animal bones, horns, wood, and reed and typically filled with potent ointments, powders, sometimes with snuff of various snake-poison antidotes.
Another example of a Kenyan flute is the Umtshingo. It is a seven-holed flute that can be made of uqalo bamboo, umhalanga river reed, or dried ummbila corn-stalk. Among the Bantu of south eastern Africa (particularly rural Kwazulu-Natal) the flutes were made and played by prepubescent boys when herding cattle and goats.
The name “Umtshingo” is literally translated as that which has to be discarded because there was a strict rule against whistling and blowing on flutes either indoors or within the grounds of a homestead, for fear of disturbing the family’s departed spirits, or the “sleeping ones.” On returning with their animals at the end of the day, the young people had to hide, or discard their flutes, hence the name “Umtshingo.”
The “Umtshingo-mbatho” is a flute-apron that can be worn as a garment, the flute being horizontally draped, yoke-like, behind the shoulders with grass mat-strips hanging in front and behind the body. A five-holed variation on Umtshingo, it is blown in the middle.
These are just some examples of Kenyan flutes.
Like the continent, African musical culture is as vast as the distinct musical traditions of its regions and nations.
The music of North Africa has a different history from that of Sub-Saharan African music. Like the musical genres of the Nile Valley and the Horn of Africa, its music has close ties with Middle Eastern music. East Africa and the offshore islands in the Indian Ocean have slight Arabic music influence but also by the music of India, Indonesia, and Polynesia. The region’s indigenous musical traditions, however, are primarily of the sub-Saharan Niger Congo-speaking peoples.
Similarly in the broad sub-Saharan musical tradition Southern, Central, and West Africa draw their ancillary influences from Western Europe and North America. The music and dance forms of the African diaspora, including African American music and many Caribbean and Latin American music genres like rumba and salsa and other clave-based genres, were founded to varying degrees on the music of African slaves, which have in turn influenced African popular music.
There is a close connection between music and language in many African cultures because many African languages are tonal languages. The tonal pattern of the text puts some constraints on the melodic patterns in singing. But in instrumental music, a native speaker of a language can often perceive a text or texts in music. This effect is also the basis of drum languages (talking drums).
Besides the use of the voice, a wide array of musical instruments is used. African musical instruments include a wide range of drums, slit gongs, rattles, double bells as well as melodic instruments like string instruments (musical bows, harps, the kora, and fiddles), many types of xylophones and lamellophones like the mbira, and different types of wind instruments like flutes and trumpets.
Drums used in Africa include tama talking drums, bougarabou, and djembe in West Africa, water drums in central and West Africa, and the different types of ngoma drums or engoma in Central and Southern Africa. Other percussion instruments in African musical culture include many rattles and shakers such as the kosika, rainstick, bells, and woodsticks.
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An assortment of east African music mp3 has transformed the way devotees can listen to the music from this ancient land.
Like all recorded music, African sounds are available in digital format to a global audience for a small fee.
Our dear friend Samite offers his music to fans in an MP3 downloadable format. Even as far back as 1992, his Pearl of Africa Reborn is available in digital format. There are 10 tracks on this album. The 5 minute track Munomumo requires 5.15 MB, but most of his songs need less than that, in the 3 to 4 MB range, with the soulful Kasambajiro running 3:01 and 2.76 MB.
Samite’s Stars to Share has 12 tracks for download. Some examples are Tindiba, Esawayo, Bring Back the Music, Old Man’s Wisdom, Sala Endongo, Stars to Share and Cradle with Love. These songs demonstrate beautifully Samite’s command of both ethnic and New Age genres and they make him a popular artist among a growing legion of fans.
There are CDs offering a compilation of artists too, for those who want to sample a range of East African musical styles. The Great East African Trip CD features some of the top modern and classic artists from Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. You can sample the sounds of Samba Mapangala of Kenya, Kidum from Burundi, Super Mazembe from the Congo and Priscilla and Qute Kaye from Uganda.
East African artists keep it real with their fans and they encourage interaction. Samite offers a free download mp3 on this blog. You are encouraged to try it and contact us to let us know what you think of Samite’s latest efforts.
Of course, like many other popular artists of today, there are Samite ring tunes also available for downloading to your cellphone so that those around you can hear the beautiful strains of east African music mp3 whenever you take a phone call.
Linking traditional African music with the United States, there are generous grants being offered to preserve the history and culture of traditional African songs, dances and musical instruments.
The U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation has been quietly assembling samples of African music. Most people think of the State Department efforts as a fund to save historic buildings, museums and historical sites, however some of the monies have gone toward saving the music that is in danger of being replaced by modern sounds.
A project funded by the U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation dispatched archivists throughout Africa with recording equipment. In Burundi alone, the historians returned with 230 recordings of traditional music.
In an effort to make this music accessible to future generations, the field recordings of questionable quality were enhanced with Burundian musicians who ‘’filled the gaps” with traditional instrument. The famous Burundian drums are now highlighted in 176 songs on CDs.
African youth are being exposed to new kinds of instruments and village elders are concerned the indigenous sounds will disappear. An Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation grant also went toward a research project for young Africans to explore their musical history and to learn from the elders how to make the instruments themselves. The young people recorded the music on these instruments to have an audible record.
In the process, the youth are learning entrepreneurial skills to market and sell the instruments to a new generation who would otherwise not be exposed to this cultural treasure.
Lastly, in Madagascar, the AFCP funded an attempt to preserve the unusual Malagasy dances, music and instruments. The various districts there have distinct sounds and costumes. All of it was recorded and shared in the classrooms of school children, insuring that future generations will be comfortable and knowledgeable with the sounds of their ancestors.
Like all African music, sub-Saharan African music is traditionally functional in nature. Performances can get very long and usually involve the audience participating in it.
There are many different kinds of work songs; songs accompanying childbirth, marriage, hunting, and political activities; music to ward off evil spirits and to pay respects to good spirits, the dead, and the ancestors.
None of these is performed outside its intended social context and much of it is associated with a particular dance. Some of it is sacral music or ceremonial and courtly music performed by professional musicians at royal courts.
The shared rhythmic principles of sub-Saharan music traditions constitute one main system. Similarly, the sub-Saharan African rhythmic principles have a profound homogeneity. The sub-Saharan rhythm is characterized by cross-rhythm and key patterns.
The joining of two or more rhythms is called polyrhythm. The regular and systematic superimposition of cross-beats over main beats creates a specific sub-set of polyrhythm called cross-rhythm. The technique of cross-rhythm is a simultaneous use of contrasting rhythmic patterns within the same scheme of accents or meter.
The main beat scheme cannot be separated from the secondary beat scheme. The cross-rhythm three-over-two (3:2), hemiola, is the most significant rhythm ratio found in sub-Saharan rhythm. Cross-rhythm is the basis for much of the music of the Niger-Congo peoples, the largest linguistic group in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. Cross-rhythm pervades southern Ewe music.
Key patterns epitomize the complete rhythmic matrix and are typically clapped or played on idiophones like a bell, a piece of bamboo, or wooden claves. In some ensembles, such as “iyesa” and “bata” drums, a key pattern may be played on a high-pitched drumhead.
The most commonly used key pattern in sub-Saharan Africa is the seven-stroke figure known on ethnomusicology as the standard pattern. It is expressed in both a triple-pulse (12/8 or 6/8) and duple-pulse (4/4 or 2/2) structure.
Traditions may coincide entirely, partially, or not at all with geographic, political, linguistic or cultural boundaries. African folk music traditions, including sub-Saharan African music, overlap in varying degrees with each other.
News on an Africa music blog shows Africa remains a continent with trouble spots. In Mogadishu, Somalia, music radio stations are struggling to reconcile two disparate directives.
On the one hand, the stations received an ultimatum from Islam in April, 2010 to stop playing music. On the other hand, the government warned that any station that complied with the threat would be shut down.
The conflict underscores the question of exactly who is in charge in Somalia, a near anarchical country. A brave contingent of independent journalists perseveres, even under the threat of violence.
The insurgent Islamic group Hizbul warned of “serious consequences” to any radio station that did not adhere to a deadline to halt all music, due to its “un-Islamic” nature. Some defiant station owners filled the dead air with recitation of lyrics, and sound effects of loud items like gunshots, animals whinnying, and engines revving, as they determined their next step.
The government meanwhile was taken aback by this challenge to authority and held a news conference announcing that any station that buckled to the demand by Hizbul would be ordered shut down.
The general secretary of the Mogadishu administration of the Transitional Federal Government , Abdikafi Hilowle Osman, accused the broadcasters of “working with” the radicals.
The fight over radio stations is the latest problem in an escalating conflict over Western ideology in Islamic land. The Islamic radicals seek to purge these influences and have even threatened to ban Voice of America and BBC programs.
Also recently, in a village north of Mogadishu, the country’s most powerful insurgent group Shabab, banned school bells there. It said the noise too closely resembled the sound of church bells and was therefore un-Islamic.
All internationally recognized observances such as World AIDS Day were banned as well. For a lighter side of African music news, please stay tuned to this blog.
More common than non western African music, westernized African music has similarities but not the true soul born of an ancient history.
Non western African music is also known as World Music and it owes its origins to the sub Sahara Desert.
Music and dance in Africa are closely intertwined. All important life events are celebrated with music: birth, marriage and death. And the Ruler’s Courts include music as well.
Poet Leopold Senghor, the first President of Senegal, once commented that African rhythm is “comparable to all the technical achievements” of Western civilization.
The many drums used in African music showcase the importance of percussion in African society. There are jembe drums enjoyed by the Manding people and their dancing parties. A large tabale drum indicates the signal for war. In fact, drums in the sub Saharan desert are more effective and common than a telegraph. The resonant beat is carried for miles to great distances.
The violin-drum chong is used in West Cameroon. It’s a stick bow placed into a hole in the drum membrane. Secret cults and societies beat the chong drum to scare off non members of the societies.
Music as an art form is understandably pure in Africa. The human species originated on that continent and then spread around the world. While civilizations advanced in the Middle East, the Far East and Europe, sub Saharan Africa stayed distinct and apart.
Africans evolved from hunters and gatherers to agriculture, but a lack of written history makes details of the evolution of society in Africa a challenge to study. For that reason, the music remained unblemished by outside influences. Indeed, the sounds of Africa today are close to their evolutionary roots.
There is homogenization of cultures throughout the world, but non western African music is enchantingly reminiscent of the ancient beginnings of its people.
Simply beautiful, the finger harp is an integral part of African music culture that originated in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Africa it is known as the mbira, but this double-consonant word confuses many westerners, so in America it is translated into the finger harp; the name explaining the purpose of this lovely instrument.
The finger harp is played by a single musician; however it is rarely performed as a solo. More frequently, it is played as a feature of other musicians, vocalists and dancers.
If there is one word to describe the music of Africa, it is variety, and the options exist with the same instrument. For example, the finger harp is not a uniformly designed instrument. There are 33-note versions played by performers in Zimbabwe and smaller types of 6 notes the Bushmen of Kalahari use.
And it’s not just the size that varies; the name itself changes from region to region in Africa. It is mbira in Zimbabwe, but the same instrument is called the Kalimba in Kenya, the ikembe in Rwanda and likembe in the Congo.
Other names include the sanza, sansa, gourd piano, marimba, marimbula, and thumb piano. You can see why westerners are confused by this instrument as it is difficult to keep up with the names!
The kalimba was actually introduced by an Englishman named Hugh Tracey who moved to Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, to assist in the running of a tobacco farm. Tracey created a diatonic instrument similar to the mbira in the 1960s which became popular around the world.
Translated, the Kalimba means “little music” and it’s perfect for playing harmony with both thumbs. You’ll find this instrument throughout the world, particularly the Middle East, Asia and North and South America.
Regardless of how it is called, the kalimba, or mbira or finger harp has an important place in the culture of African music.