Music and Song

From the rural farmlands of MOZAMBIQUE to the booming dance halls of NIGERIA, music plays an essential role in the lives of Africans. Many regions have rich, deeply rooted traditions of music and song. But Africans have also incorporated in their music various outside influences—of the Arabs who arrived on the continent long ago, of the Europeans who ruled until well into the 1900s, and of the modern Western media. These influences have brought a tremendous diversity to African music. Swing, jazz, rock, reggae, techno, and other popular forms have exploded into whole new genres of African music that pour out of concert halls, nightclubs, and radio stations across the continent.


Africans include music in many aspects of their lives, from religious ceremonies to social gatherings to landmarks in the life cycle. For example, some societies hold INITIATION RITES for adolescents when they reach puberty. Boys and girls in these societies learn and perform certain songs as part of the rites. Music also plays an important role in many traditional methods of healing. Peoples across the continent—from the Hamadsha of North Africa to the !Kung of SOUTH AFRICA—use music and dance to bring on states of meditation, ecstasy, trance, or SPIRIT POSSESSION that are believed to cure illness. In Nigeria, the Hausa play a lute and rattle to summon spirits that heal the sick.

Other kinds of social music include that of the rebita clubs of Luanda, ANGOLA, which draw on an urban tradition of ballroom dancing. Many southern Africans enjoy gathering around radios and record players for dancing. In such settings, people may be divided by age, gender, or class. But not all African music is performed with a group or for an audience. People also play instruments or sing to themselves for pleasure and to relieve stress.

Words play an important role in African music. In many African societies, music is closely linked to the ORAL TRADITION of spoken or recited literature. Storytelling frequently includes songs, and some forms of music mimic the spoken word. “Talking drum” music uses drumbeats with different tones to echo the sounds of language. Many musical forms are based on the singing and storytelling, and musicians sometimes use their instruments as voices that speak a language.

African music is rarely just for instruments. Musicians and listeners alike take great interest in the lyrics. Singing styles range from solo performances to large group participation. When singing in a group, individuals may sing the same words together. However, in a style known as polyphonic, each person voices a different phrase or syllable to create a variety of vocal patterns and combinations.

In Africa, music is generally considered inseparable from words, dance, and the occasion for which it is performed. It is not linked to specific notes and rhythms within measured units of time. Instead, African musicians play music based on their own individual sense of rhythm or on rhythmic phrases they have learned. Although a drum or rattle may keep a steady rhythm, other players may not use it as a basis for the beats they play or for how they accent notes in the music.

Africa: Music and Song


Students of African music are sometimes puzzled by the striking similarities that can be heard in various parts of the continent. For example, people in Mozambique on the Indian Ocean and IVORY COAST and LIBERIA in western Africa play similar-sounding music on log xylophones. Some songs and dances in western UGANDA and TANZANIA resemble those of the HERERO people in faraway NAMIBIA. These similarities may reflect the complex crisscrossing and migration of peoples and cultures in Africa's history.

North Africa

North African music reflects the long influence of Arab culture. The region shares many songs, musical styles, and instruments with cultures of the Middle East. Yet Arab musical traditions have developed in different ways throughout the region. One example is the nawba or nuba, a traditional composition in several parts, like a symphony or suite in Western classical music. In recent years, governments and private organizations have sponsored a revival of the nawba, which has taken on different regional forms. In EGYPT and LIBYA, it has eight parts and uses the lute, zither, violin, flute, and drum. The different style of nawba that appears in ALGERIA, TUNISIA, and MOROCCO may have originated in Spain.

North Africa has also produced its own unique styles. Some popular music draws on the musical heritage of the southern parts of LibyaTunisia, and Algeria. The extremely popular rai began hundreds of years ago in the Algerian countryside. In the early 1900s, young Algerian singers—many of them women—gave rai a new twist by composing songs with political lyrics. In time rai became the music of rebellious young people, and youth now dance to it in Algerian and Moroccan clubs. Rai musicians combine traditional instruments such as clay drums with modern Western ones such as electric guitars and synthesizers. The energetic sound of Cheb Mami, Cheb Khaled, and other rai musicians is winning fans around the world.

Not all North African music emerges from Arab culture. The BERBERS of western North Africa have their own traditions. A rwai is a group of Berber artists that performs poetry and dance as well as music; an imdyazn is a group of four traveling musicians that performs in village marketplaces. Berber, Arab, and Western musical styles sometimes merge, as in Moroccan chaabi music, known for songs with a political or social message. People use songs to make political statements in many parts of North Africa. In SUDAN, the two sides in a civil conflict sing the praises of their rival leaders.

Western Africa

People throughout western Africa have developed various types of traditional music to suit different religious, political, and social events. The Songhai perform a style of religious music called follay, in which each of their divinities is honored with its own special melodies and rhythms. Songhai teenagers sing to one another during courtship, and music is played at wrestling matches as well as at dances. Among many groups, music plays a central role at funerals. For the LoDagaa of GHANA, funerals include special songs and dances, each specific to a certain part of the event. They use one style of performance for funerals of men and another for those of women.

As Islam spread from North Africa into the savanna country of western Africa, it carried Arab culture with it. The Hassaniya people of Mauritania have developed music based on instruments and singing styles similar to those of North Africa. In Nigeria, NIGER, and CHAD, the state music performed at the courts of the HAUSA and Kanuri peoples includes drums mounted on horses or camels. It is a rich expression of the North African Islamic tradition.

Elsewhere in western Africa, popular music blends local elements with influences from Europe and the Americas. Ironically, many of the European and American genres that have come to Africa—such as American ragtime and rap and Caribbean rumba and reggae—were developed by people whose African ancestors left Africa as slaves. These blended forms are very popular with the young people of urban areas.

Blended music has a long history. The drum music called goombay, which started in Jamaica, reached western Africa around 1800. There local people embraced and adapted it. During the 1800s colonial armies and Protestant missionaries introduced marching band music and new instruments such as trombones. In the 1900s musicians on the West African coast blended African drums with the guitars, banjos, and harmonicas of foreign sailors to create a group of styles known together as “palm wine music.” These genres include the maringa of SIERRA LEONE, the makossa of CAMEROON, and the blues of the ASANTE people of Ghana.

During World War II (1939–1945), nightclubs flourished in the West African cities where British and American troops were based, exposing local musicians to such foreign styles as jazz, swing, calypso, and Afro-Cuban music. After the war, musicians in Ghana mixed this lively brew into a style called highlife. Played by small swing groups, highlife spread through western Africa, and it often had a rebellious edge. People knew that one of the first and most influential highlife bands, the Tempos, favored independence.

As early as the 1950s, the newly independent nations of western Africa adopted policies that encouraged women to be artists and performers. Some women won fame on their own or with bands, while others had government support, such as the Workers Brigade bands in Ghana. Independence also brought a renewed interest in African cultural roots, and some entertainers began using traditional instruments in their performances or playing traditional music on Western-style electric instruments.

West African musicians created powerful fusions of Latin, Afro-Cuban, and indigenous dance music in forms known as Afro-rock, Afro-soul, Afro-beat, and more. They often turned their talents to political commentary. Alpha Blondy of Ivory Coast had a worldwide hit with his Afro-reggae song, “Apartheid is Nazism,” which criticized the South African policy of apartheid—racial segregation to maintain white control over the country's black population. Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, a huge star in Nigeria, was censored, harassed, and jailed by his own government.

Eastern Africa

Although the traditional music of eastern Africa has been used for many purposes, it played a central role in royal courts. Kings and chiefs of the region carried special drums to symbolize their power. The ruler of Buganda once kept several musical groups in his court, including a private harpist, a group of six flutes and four drums, and a band of trumpeters. In some kingdoms, royal musicians had special privileges, such as the right to own land, and they passed on their skills only within their own family or clan.

Since the 1930s many styles of popular music have emerged in eastern Africa to entertain audiences in urban dance halls, clubs, and bars. Almost all use the guitar as the main instrument. A Tanzanian dance group, for example, might feature three guitars, a bass, trumpets, saxophones, drums, and percussion. Although such dance music uses modern instruments, it is deeply rooted in local musical traditions.

Some of the most popular and widespread genres of dance music feature songs in SWAHILI, the main local language and one used by traders on the eastern coast. But in recent years, people have been writing songs in other local languages, especially in KENYA and Uganda. The lyrics may comment on everyday life, love, current affairs, or politics. The ruling groups of some countries have recognized that music can serve educational purposes and have used songs to communicate information to their people—though they often portray musicians as loafers or drunkards. Authorities also view many singers and songwriters as social critics and frequently censor or ban their songs.

Not all modern eastern African music comes through the urban dance hall. Some genres belong to social occasions, especially celebrations. The best-known of these is taarab, the wedding music of the Islamic Swahili-speaking people of the east coast and nearby islands. Taarab is sung poetry, and while the words often speak of love and marriage, they also deal with politics and society in general. Female taarab expressing the concerns of women has enjoyed great popularity. Taarab groups perform wherever Swahili speakers live, and their music has reached wide audiences through radio and recordings.

Southern Africa

As in other parts of Africa, southern Africa has a rich heritage of traditional music, used in religious, political, and social settings. The Sotho of LESOTHO play a unique type of music by blowing on an instrument called the lisiba, which is made of a stick, a string, and a feather. They use the music both as an accompaniment to cattle herding activities and as a means of controlling their animals. In Zambia, music takes center stage during an important ritual of the Lozi people. They celebrate the annual rising of the river with a procession to higher ground, carrying a national drum called the maoma, which may be played only by royal men. The festival includes two days of dances and drumming.

Western folk, religious, and popular music have had considerable influence in southern Africa, perhaps more so than in other parts of the continent. In addition, musicians in MALAWI, ZIMBABWE, Mozambique, and parts of Angola have been swayed by the jazz style known as soukous, which comes from CONGO (KINSHASA). Despite these outside influences, southern Africa has developed distinct local and regional styles, and elements of traditional indigenous music remain alive in the music of today.

In southern as in western Africa, colonial army bands and Christian missionaries introduced new musical instruments and styles. Church hymns had a great impact. In the early 1900s, southern African musicians absorbed foreign ragtime and vaudeville tunes and combined them with rural traditional music to create many local popular genres, often featuring guitars. Beginning in the 1930s, South Africa developed its own version of jazz. Bands blended jazz and swing with a local hymn style called marabi, which gives a distinctive flavor to South African jazz, such as the work of pianist Abdullah Ibrahim.

A style called mbaqanga, based on the guitar music of Zulu-speaking migrant laborers, dominated southern African popular music from the 1950s through the 1980s. Western rock music and African American soul appeared in the 1970s. More recently, reggae and rap have caught on. Some of the world's best-known reggae artists, such as Lucky Dube of South Africa, now come from southern Africa.

Another important trend has been the growing international interest in southern African song and music. Groups such as the South African choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo have become part of the “world beat” movement, which has introduced Western audiences to popular and traditional music from other cultures.

South Africa's musicians have rarely escaped the effects of the country's racial politics. In the 1960s a number of talented black performers fled the country. Some, such as trumpeter Hugh Masakela and singer Miriam Makeba, became international stars. Others took part in the struggle against apartheid. For example, Johnny Clegg was not only a musical star of the 1980s, but a leading activist against apartheid. His band of both white and black musicians appealed to many people as an image of what South Africa might look like without racial barriers. (See also Dance, Musical Instruments.)