Music is a central part of the lifestyle in most traditional African cultures. Beginning with ancient African civilizations, music was considered sacred. The sacredness of music remains a key concept in traditional African societies today. The African's concept of music is unlike that of Western societies, and therefore those unfamiliar with the African concept of music often misunderstand it. Specifically, in creating music, Africans do not strive to put sounds together so that the end result is a pleasant sound. The African musician is not trying to reproduce sounds in nature through musical instruments. Instead, the African musician takes nature's sounds and integrates those sounds into the music. The goal is to express life through sound. Each sound has a meaning fully understood only by those familiar with African life.
The use of music for its supernatural powers is the chief function of music in traditional African societies. In a general sense, music for the African allows humans to connect with the invisible deities that control their lives and destinies. Many Africans believe that music contains magical powers that produce specified results, and sound is a key vehicle through which deities and humans communicate with each other. Musicians must understand and play certain rhythms for certain gods. In addition to inviting the gods, music is believed to direct the flow of these supernatural powers.
For example, in West Africa, drumming facilitates ceremonies during which participants are possessed by the gods. In Akan society, a bell attached to a sacred blackened stool is used to call the spirit of the ancestors. Similarly, in Zimbabwe, for the Shona performers, music is a process or power that promotes spirit possession and ultimate healing. Throughout Madagascar, music is used to inform ancestral spirits that they are needed, and it then facilitates tromba spirit possession, where the body is essentially a vessel for the spirit and music mix.
For many Africans, music, as the conduit for communication between humans and ancestral spirits, has substantial healing qualities. For example, the Shambaa people of the Usambara Mountains in northeastern Tanzania refer to nguvu as a force of health, Wellness, and power that is obtained through ugbanga, which is considered a song, a prayer, a spirit, a way of life—of healing. It is through music and ritual that ughanga is called into being. In northern Malawi, the Tumbuka-speaking people believe that music, such as the sound of the drum beat, the clap of the hands, and the clank of metal objects, is the link that allows patient, healer, and spirit to connect, and it is this connection that plays a significant part in bringing about healing.
The people of Africa use a variety of musical instruments, including drums, harps, harp-lutes, lutes, lyres, and zithers. Often these instruments are considered much more than mere objects; rather, they are endowed with human and superhuman characteristics. These instruments may have names or be given special sacrificial food, and they are believed to supply a certain power. The musician and the instrument develop a kinship, almost humanlike.
For example, the Yoruba of Nigeria, when making a drum, first engage in a ceremony to pacify the spirit within the tree that is to be used to make the drum. The Yoruba also believe that a good drum must be made from a tree near a village of people so that the drum is familiar with human voices. Otherwise, the Yoruba believe, the wood is unacquainted with human voices, and therefore will not make an adequate drum. Each drum also has an altar carved on it where the drummer and the deity of drumming connect spiritually. For the Yoruba, regular communion with the patron deity of drumming is essential to effective drumming. The sacredness of musical instruments is also demonstrated by the important function these instruments play in traditional African political systems. In a number of societies, like the Ankole of Uganda and the Lovedu of the Transvaal in South Africa, a sacred drum is a mythical symbol of office.
Not only is the musical instrument important, but, according to the Yoruba, words also have magical power and are used to achieve specified results. The specific sentence structure is not as important as the magic in the sounds of the words.
Although African music takes on many forms, it does have common characteristics. Repetition, polyphony, and call-and-response are three such characteristics. The Mbira music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, for example, is a repeated pattern. African music also is participatory and involves both spectators and leaders in a dynamic exchange. One of the most common characteristics of African music, typical in music of the African diaspora as well, is the call-and-response, a method whereby a group repeats a refrain in response to a leader's prompting.



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Further Reading

  • Avorgbedor, D. (Ed.). (2003). The Interrelatedness of Music, Religion, and Ritual in African Performance Practice. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Meilen Press.
  • Bebey, F. (1975). African Music: A People's Art. Chicago: Lawrence Hill.
  • Chernoff, J. (1979). African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.