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African Music -Part One


Dumisani Maraire, Ph. D.

The html code, hyperlinks, and linked knowledge webs associated with this chapter are not part of the original chapter cited above, and are authored by Jack Logan, Ph.D.

African music, which is nearly always coupled with some other art form, expresses the feelings and life of the entire community. The sound of feet pounding the ground becomes the rhythm of the music whose notes are in turn transformed into dance steps.

-Francis Bebey (African Musician and Scholar)

African Music and the African Diaspora

What is the African Diaspora? It is the forced and brutal dislocation of millions of Africans into foreign lands during the African Slave Trade; it is the global community of Africans and their descendants living outside the African continent that make up what is known today as the African Diaspora.

Before you begin this part, please take a picture tour from Zimbabwe in the South to Morocco in the North to get a sense of the African continent.

Additionally, see a slide movie in preparation for reading this information on African music. Music is from the CD Album, Chaminuka, Music of Zimbabwe by Dumisani Maraire, and photographs are from African Music, A People's Art, by African Musicain and Scholar, Francis Bebey.

African Music is best understood by rejecting the notion that it is "primitive" music. This "ear opening" allows a person to discover African Music on its own terms without applying Western standards and values where, in many cases, those standards and values are inappropriate. For a page of Africa-Related Music, Dance, and Cultural Resources on the Web produced by Richard Hodges and C. K. Ladzekpo, click here.

Broadly speaking, there are both similarities and differences between Western music and African music and it is in this domain of diversity that African music is best discovered. The elements of African music (rhythm, melody, harmony, musical instruments, meter, and timbre, et al.) are, broadly speaking, those of Western music. However, the unique features of each element of African music contains the essence of what makes African music unique in the World.

Although it has been the writer's experience that the West responds very positively to African music and art, it is equally true that Westerners are frequently bewildered by the subject since the objectives of the two cultures, in many cases, differ. If the definition of music is read from a dictionary in the West, the concept of music reflecting an "aesthetic of beauty" or a "sense of the beautiful" is apparent. For example, the 1969 edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines music as "1. The art of organizing tones to produce a coherent sequence of sounds intended to elicit an aesthetic response in a listener. . . 6. Any aesthetically pleasing or harmonious sound or combination of sounds. . ." Second, the objective of African music is not to make sounds which are pleasing to the ear but rather to "express life in all of its aspects through the medium of sound." If an understanding of African music is to be developed, it is this point of departure that should be taken.

Comparing African and Western education, the French ethnomusicologist Herbert Pepper, having spent eleven years with the forest-dwellers of the Congo and Gabon, wrote: "I had the impression that I learnt more about my art in the African school than in the Western school. The latter certainly taught me to appreciate the quality of the finished article, but it sometimes seemed so far removed from the everyday world that I began to wonder if it bore any relationship to it. The African school, on the other hand, has taught me that what matters is not the quality of the music itself, but its ability to render emotions and desires as naturally as possible."

The following lullaby, which might have been rendered in Pepper's "African School" demonstrates the African attitude toward music - it renders natural sounds as a part of the music and provides the listener with an African attitude toward the real world by first, providing comfort to a crying child and second, teaching a lesson as to why the child should not cry:

Ye ye ya ye - Do not cry Think of our friends who are childless Hush, do not cry Think of those who have no children Think of my married brother Who has no children yet And then look at me I have a mother too But I don't cry Think of our friends who are childless Think of my brother Who married a Bacanda girl What an idea, to marry a Bacanda And they are still without children Don't cry, my darling Think of your unhappy father

Music and Children's Games

African music is an integral part of daily life. Unlike music in the West, African music is a functional part of a child's natural development. In the West, a child might express an interest in music from an early age and promptly be enrolled in private music lessons or in one or more musical activities such as choir, band, or orchestra if the child has reached a mature enough age to take part. An African child experiences music as an integral part of life from the very moment of birth. Since there is little distinction between art and life in Black African culture, children's play often consists of activities involving music such as taking an empty tin, an old window frame and a piece of animal hide and constructing a 'frame-drum' as a musical toy.

Black African children often construct musical instruments as a part of play; however, the "play" most often has significance and in many cases demonstrates a stage in the development of the child in preparation for a time when the child will participate in all areas of adult activity - from weddings and funerals to fishing and hunting.

A very simple musical instrument which might be constructed by an African child is a bull-roarer. It is made from a rectangular piece of wood or metal approximately one foot in length. A small hole is cut in one end of the rectangle and to it is attached a piece of string. The instrument is then swung in a circle so that the stick revolves vertically and a sound is generated which is like a bull roaring or a panther growling. Indeed, upon an African child sounding this musical instrument, the parents might reply "stop calling the panther like that". The child, therefore, is not only at play "calling the panther" but is learning to take her/his place among the adult population as a hunter. The Dogon of Mali accept the sound of the bull-roarer as symbolic of the "revelation of speech to mankind."

"This curious little instrument (the bull-roarer) provides a great deal of invaluable information about the importance of the symbol in African life. It is also interesting to note that in different contexts and regions the bull-roarer invariably symbolizes power of one kind or another: the power of the males, jealously protected against the panther; the power of the ancestor whose death has been transmitted down from generation to generation; the power of speech whose revelation has given man supremacy over all the other creatures on earth. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this ritual is the attitude of the male; when the panther - the real panther - roars, everyone hides, leaving the panther to prowl outside the huts in solitary splendour. When the bull-roarer is heard, on the other hand, the women and children disappear and it is only then that the men who wear the masks begin their nocturnal parade through the village. In other words, the male seizes this opportunity to display the power which, in other circumstances, the panther could dispute. Here we have another symbol."2

The training of musicians in black Africa has not been accomplished (until very recently) in a formal, institutional manner. The African belief that a person will develop according to his/her own ability dominates musical training. Exposure to music and musical situations occurs by children observing and interacting with parents until the child develops and demonstrates or does not demonstrate a capacity for music as a specialty.

Mothers sing to their children in the cradle as they introduce their children to rhythm through rocking them to the beat of music. The mother's songs often imitate drum rhythms by singing using nonsense syllables. At a certain age, children learn by rote to imitate complex rhythms and find their ability level. "By the time a child reaches adolescence, he may have learned to play on toy instruments by imitation, or to play minor instruments in adult ensembles. One sometimes comes across sever-year-old boys playing in drum ensembles or playing rattles for a lute player singing in a chorus, or taking quite a prominent part in a public dance."

African Musical Instruments

A comprehensive survey of the musical instruments of Africa is outside the scope of this section; therefore, a general overview of the vast variety of African instruments, with mention of individual instruments for purposes of illustration, follows.

First, the classification that will be used consists of five groups (after C. Sachs): idiophones - instruments made of naturally sonorous material not needing additional tension to create sound; examples, percussion or concussion instruments; membranophones - instruments creating sound be stretching a membrane over an opening; example, drums; aerophones - instruments usually referred to by the term 'wind instruments' and most often needing the breath of the player to create sound; examples, trumpets and horns; chordophones - instruments creating sound by the action of a stretched string in vibrating motion; example, any string instrument; electrophones - instruments creating sound by the oscillation of electric circuits; example, music synthesizers.


Idiophones are the most abundant instruments to be found anywhere in Africa.

Idiophones (self-sounding instruments) are instruments that may be sounded without the aid of a vibrating string, a stretched, vibrating membrane or a vibrating reed. Idiophones may be played as rhythm instruments or may be used as melodic instruments depending upon the type of idiophone.

Rattles are principally rhythm instruments and are shaken to create sound. Of the many rattles found in Africa, two categories may be observed: (1) those rattles that are played by the hands and (2) those that are worn on the body and shaken by the movements of the player's body.

Those rattles that are played by the hands include the gourd variety which may be either container in nature (objects such as pieces of bone, bamboo shoots or metal placed inside a gourd) or may be surrounded by nets of objects such as sea shells or beads.

Friction idiophones, such as pieces of notched bamboo, are played by scraping another stick across the bamboo. Other idiophones such as bracelets of metal or a notched stick being passed through a dried fruit shell also exist and are used to create rhythmic sound.

Stamped sticks and stamped tubes also form another category of idiophones (in this case concussion idiophones). These sticks and tubes are held in the player's hand and performed by being held at an angle and striking the ground or a slab of stone at an angle. On occasion three tubes are played at the same time each of which is playing a different rhythm. The adenkum (a long gourd with one end cut open to allow for resonance) is a stamped idiophone usually played in the vertical position by hitting the ground.

All of the above idiophones are rhythm instruments and play no melodic function. They may, however, be tuned to a complex of pitches or even to a specific pitch in some cases; for example, the adenkum. However, no attempt is made to use these instruments melodically by creating a graduated scale of pitches.

There are two basic types of tuned idiophones: (1) the mbira or sansa ("hand piano") and the xylophone.

The mbira is made by arranging a graduated series of strips (wood or metal) on a flat sounding board and placed inside a resonating gourd or box. A unique quality is added to the instrument by the addition of rattling pieces of metal or possibly a chain of sea shells or other small articles to create noise. This aesthetic differs considerably from the melodic instruments of the West which are constructed to avoid noise and thereby create pure tones. Mbiras may consist of from one to three manuals and range from five to twenty keys per manual. The Gogo of Tanzania construct mbiras with four to forty-five keys and appear to allow for sympathetic vibration among the keys of the middle row. Listen to Dumisani Mariare sing and play the mbira, accompanied by the hosho, a gourd-rattle.

As with all Black African melodic instruments, the tuning is anything but uniform. African musicians purposely avoid uniformity in the construction of instruments. Whereas in the West, musical instruments are viewed as extensions of the body, African musical instruments are often viewed in much the same manner as another person might be viewed, and; therefore, as no two people are alike, so too are no two African musical instruments alike - more about this follows in the section on aerophones.

Hugh Tracey's measurements4 indicate that tunings of mbiras fall into three main patterns: (1) pentatonic (five-tone), (2) hexatonic (six-tone) or heptatonic (seven-tone).

There are three main forms of tuned xylophones found in Africa: (1) wooden slabs arranged in a graduated scale are mounted over a resonance box (a pit, a clay pot or an open trough may be used). Iboland in Nigeria and the Zaramo of Tanzania make xylophones of this type; (2) In the Kissi country in Guinea and in the Ivory Coast, xylophones are made by laying keys over two pieces of banana stems; (3) Gourd resonators are used to resonate keys placed above the open gourd and mounted in a wooden frame. These gourd resonating xylophones are found in west, central and east Africa.

The xylophones with curved keyboards from Upper Volta have calabash resonators which amplify the sound of the curved wood blocks. Xylophone recordings which range from solo recordings to large xylophone orchestras exist in many regions of Black Africa. The xylophone is found performing with a variety of other instruments such as the beautiful Bagandu music (Central African Republic) consisting of a xylophone and Sanza duet.

Xylophones may be played by themselves or in combination with other xylophones or with other combinations of instruments. It is common among the Vatapa (Shona) of Zimbabwe to hear large ensembles involving as many as ten to fifteen players performing in large xylophone ensembles consisting of xylophones ranging in size from small (those that are strapped over the back and carried) to large (those that are large enough to have the player stand on a riser to reach).


The highest expression of percussive instruments in African music is in the music for membranophones (drums). Many drums (usually the largest) are carved out of a solid log. Often the head of an animal is carved on the end of this log and viewed by the African as a living being.

As with all other musical instruments in Africa, the specific design of the drum (hourglass drums, log drums, earthenware drums, friction drums, hand drums, et al) is usually suggestive of the region from which the drum originates. "The Ugandan drum, for example, is peculiar to eastern Africa. Outside of Uganda, versions of it are found in Ethiopia, as well as in Kenya and Burundi. Similarly, other varieties of small hand drums are found in different parts of eastern Africa. In Ethiopia, the atamo is held in the hand and played with the fingers or palm of the free hand, or held under the armpit and played with both hands. In Uganda, a version of this drum (called ntimbo) is similarly held under the arm. . . Among the Nyisansu of Tanzania, it is held in one hand and beaten with the free hand or with a leather thong. Likewise, drums that look very much alike are played in the savannah belt of west Africa."5

Many African societies arrange drums in "families". A family of drums (father, mother, son, daughter) from Ghana may consist of four different sizes of drums all of which have been constructed from similar material. For the casual observer outside of Africa, drums are the most important instruments in Africa; and indeed, Africans feel that drums are the most representative African instruments.

In Africa drums are not only considered musical instruments. In many societies drums "speak" actual languages. "The Yoruba of Dahomey and Nigeria, for example, use a small, two-headed hour-glass drum. The instrument is held under the armpit and is struck with a hammer-shaped stick. Variations in the tension of the skins are obtained by exerting pressure with the forearm on the longitudinal thongs that connect the skins; this gives different sonorities which can reproduce all the tones of speech. This hour-glass drum (Tama to the Wolof, Kalengu to the Hausa) sends actual spoken messages; that is, the musician regulates the pressure with his forearm so as to reproduce notes that correspond to the register of the word that he is transmitting. This method of playing spoken phrases on a drum is particularly appropriate in the case of tonal languages, such as Yoruba or certain Bantu languages. Thanks to the varying pressure of the forearm, it is possible to reproduce all the nuances of the spoken language - including slurred notes and onomatopoeias."

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