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Music of Africa


Moroccan classical music style is Arab-Andalusian, featuring an orchestra of traditional stringed instrument such as the rabab (a bowed two-stringed instrument), oud (Arab lute), and qanun (zither). Songs in Arabic often accompany this music. West Africa, below the expanse of the Sahara Desert, is one of the most musically fertile areas of the world, containing such musical powerhouses as Mali, Senegal, Nigeria, Ghana, and Guinea. Once the home to various Empires that grew rich from trans-Saharan trade, the region is home to some of the most sophisticated classical and court music traditions in sub-Saharan Africa.

For thousands of years, professional musicians called griots played an important role as historian in the kingdoms that developed in the Saharan region of west Africa.

In addition to the griot, music in Senegal is also characterized by the complex drumming that often accompanies dance.

East Africa also has deep musical ties to the Islamic world; from the Egyptian-influenced taraab music of the Swahili coast to the oud-driven music of the Nubian people of Northern Sudan. Additionally, Ethiopia and Eritrea have their own ancient, unique, and interrelated musical cultures that date back more than 1000 years. The khoisan (Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Swaziland, South Africa, Lesotho, and parts of Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique) is the anglicized name of two tribes, the Khoi and the San. The music of this area is simpler than the music of other African cultures, both in types and variety of instruments and stylistically. More prominent harmonically are vertical fifths and octaves alongside rhythms less complex than those of Western Africa. In fact, percussive instruments are not as prominent in the Khoisan area as they are in other areas of Africa. Remarkable, however, is the presence in the music of the "hocket" technique, where individual notes of a melody are sung by different musicians, and a technique similar to yodeling. Because of the nomadic nature of the people, the music is played throughout the day and not associated with any rituals relating to the harvest.

Music and culture

Relationship to language

Many African languages are tonal languages, leading to a close connection between music and language in many African cultures. In singing, the tonal pattern or the text puts some constraints on the melodic patterns. On the other hand, in instrumental music a native speaker of a language can often perceive a text or texts in the music. This effect also forms the basis of drum languages (talking drums).1

Relationship to dance

Nigerian dancers, with their own drums and other instruments.

The treatment of "music" and "dance" as separate art forms is a European idea. In many African languages there is no concept corresponding exactly to these terms. For example, in many Bantu languages, there is one concept that might be translated as 'song' and another that covers both the semantic fields of the European concepts of "music" and "dance." So there is one word for both music and dance (the exact meaning of the concepts may differ from culture to culture).

For example, in Kiswahili, the word "ngoma" may be translated as "drum," "dance," "dance event," "dance celebration," or "music," depending on the context. Each of these translations is incomplete. The classification of the phenomena of this area of culture into "music" and "dance" is foreign to many African cultures. Therefore, African music and African dance must be viewed in very close connection.

Popular music

The popular African music refers to the music with compositions started during the colonization and after the colonization era.

African music during colonization

The colonization era saw the emergence of a new urbanization. The cities where inhabited mostly by Africans who were working for members of the occupying country, primarily as servants, clerks, or cooks. People closer to the occupier where also ranked higher in the social ladder, and this precipitated the beginning of the decline of traditional African music.

Traditional African music lost its appeal as these new urban dwellers and the occupiers brought new musical instruments and styles that were quickly adopted by Africans. Musicians did their best to mimics songs and and musical genres from the occupier's country. One new genre of music, the Palm Wine, grew out the Krou people of Liberia and Sierra Leone. It was a genre played on the guitar by sailors while they enjoyed a glass of palm wine. As sailors, they traveled the west coast of Africa up to the coastal regions of today's DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and on the way introduced the Palm Wine genre and the guitar to these regions. With the appearance of recording studio and the radio in 1924, musicians were now able to reach a wider audience. This also allowed new musical genres to spread more easily throughout the continent. The end of World War II saw a new trend in the African musical sphere, the importation of music from Latin America, like the rumba, chachas boleros, and the mambo. Musicians easily adopted these styles of music. They were well appreciated by the occupiers and also very close to their native musical style. This started a Latin craze, especially in the French colonies and the Belgium colony of Congo.

This Latin craze helped shape and give rise to other new musical genres. Highlife, a new genre that originated in Ghana, holds E.T. Mensah as one of its hero. The highlife was a truly popular musical genre with influence that spread across the border of Ghana to other, mainly English speaking countries, like Nigeria. Highlife is characterized by jazzy horns and multiple guitars. In Congo, the melding of the palm wine style of playing the guitar with the Latin musical genre, led to the appearance of a style known popularly as the Congolese Rumba or Soukous with prominent figures like Antoine Kolossay (Papa Wendo), Joseph Kabasele Tshamala (Grand Kale), and Francois Luambo Makiadi (Franco). This style, like highlife, exerted a widespread influence in sub-Saharan colonized Africa.

African music after independence

South African band, with a typical instrumentation of percussion, including marimba.

The independence period, in the 1960s, was a vibrant period both politically and culturally for the emergence of a free and proud Africa. The hopes and many moments of disillusionment that followed were witnessed by African musicians. African modern musician have incorporated more freedom into their musical composition and begun to blend traditional music with foreign musical styles. The African style that emerged during the occupation developed and gave rise to new varieties and sub genres. Musicians reverted to the use local instruments and sang in their local languages.

Thus, the music itself made its own contribution to the liberation of the African mind. In Guinea, Salif Keita, incorporating its electric kora, adapted and blended old traditional songs and instruments with modern instruments. Fela Kuti of Nigeria, around 1970, brought highlife to a new dimension and create a new genre, the afrobeat. Afrobeat is a fusion of stylistic elements from its own musical culture, afro-American pop music, and Latin American music, with a prominent modal jazz. Some lyrics in afrobeat were very critical of the ruling juntas, making some outspoken musicians into local folk heroes.

African music in the twenty-first century

Modern African music has developed further and national musical genres have emerged throughout the continent. Global musical styles such as jazz, R&B, hip hop, rock 'n' roll, country, and reggae have all make their impact on today's African musicians. Successful musicians are usually the one who successfully blend these foreign musical style with the musical traditions of their country. Hip hop started in the 1970s, among the black youth of New York. The lyrics and delivery style of hip hop borrow heavily, like most other African American style of music, from African tradition.

A contemporary African band, combining traditional percussion instruments with contemporary brass instruments.

Since the 1980s and early 1990s, Hip hop has entered the African scene and is now being adapted by African youth throughout the continent. At first, African hip hop artists were mostly mimicking their American counterparts, which gave a bad name to hip hop as a deculturalization and Americanization of the youth of Africa. In those early days, hip hop was more a style of the youth in the upper strata of the society. The second wave of hip hop artists took the musical style closer to home, creating local flavors of the hip hop genre, and singing in their local language. This period started in the mid 1990s, and can be called the Africanization of hip hop, with distinct styles emerging from country to country. In Ghana, the highlife merged with hip hop to create "hiplife." In South Africa, hip hop lyrics have been used to express the struggles of the youth in post apartheid society.

Reggae music is well represented in Africa. The influence of reggae took firm root sometime after Bob Marley's concert in support of Zimbabwean independence in Harare in 1980. The main centers of reggae are South Africa, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria. The sound is aligned with current trends in African music and bands often experiment with the use of traditional musical instruments. Askia Modibo, a native of Mali, merged reggae with the pentatonic music of the region, the Wassoulou, on "Wass-Reggae" was released in 1995. The lyrics follow the tradition laid by Bob Marley back in Zimbabwe, very concerned with the society in which the artist is living and the problem of the world. Alpha Blondy, a native of the Ivory Coast, released an album in 1986, with the virulent title Apartheid is Nazism, asking for U.S. intervention to stop apartheid in South Africa.

The music of the independence, like highlife and rumba Congolese, have further inspired and given rise to new local musical genres that are emerging in the twenty-first century. "Ndombolo" is a fast-paced derivative of "soukous." In contrast to the Congolese Rumba which has its origin in the fusion of musical forms, Ndombolo has its origin in the dance of the same name the Ndombolo (“Gorilla dance”). The dance was started as a satyr of the late regime of Congolese president L.D. Kabilla and soon became a continental craze. It is promoted by lead singers like Awilo Longomba, Aurlus Mabele, Koffi Olomide, and groups like Extra Musica and Wenge Musica, among others.

Watoto Children's Choir from Kampala, Uganda, founded in 1994.

In the Ivory Coast, during the political riots of the 1990s, "zouglou," a new musical genre emerged with roots in the urban and the local youth culture. Zouglou originates from small groups of youth that performed during social get-togethers like football (soccer) competitions. Using traditional percussive style, zouglou is especially popular with the Bete people of the Ivory Coast, because it bears similarities to their own local style, Alloucou. Zouglou groups formed bands, borrowing some elements from Congolese popular music. Zouglou lyrics heavily emphasize humor, wordplay, and sharp social commentary. This genre, which was promoted by bands like Les Garagistes, Magic System, Soum Bill, among others, gave rise to other local styles. The now famous coupe-decalle, mapouka, and gnakpa are all derived from Zouglou and can be heard throughout Africa.

The global movement of world music is also present in Africa. This movement includes musicians who are experimenting with a wider usage of African musical composition and instrument mixed with foreign style of music. Manu Dibengo, jazz composer from Cameroon is one of the longest proponents of the fusion of African and foreign style of music. He is well known for his “Africanized” jazz composition since the 1960s. He will be renowned worldwide with its album “Soul Makossa” in 1972. Renown vocalist Cesaria Evora is from Cap Verde. She has popularized and brought to global recognition the Cape Verde traditional musical genre of Morna. In 2003, her album Voz Amor received a Grammy Awards for Best World Music Album.

Influence on American music

African music has been a major factor in the shaping of a number of American musical styles, including what we know today as blues and jazz. These styles have all borrowed from African rhythms and sounds, brought over the Atlantic ocean by slaves. Paul Simon, on his album Graceland used African bands and music along with his own lyrics.

As the rise of rock 'n' roll music is often credited as having begun with 1940s blues music, and with so many genres having branched off from rock-the myriad sub genres of heavy metal, punk rock, pop music, and many more-it can be argued that African music has been at the root of a very significant portion of all contemporary music.


  • This young man is playing the k'ra, a traditional instrument of Ethiopia. The name is very similar to the kora of West Africa.

  • African beaded calabash rattles for sale in New York.

  • Cow bells, a type of African percussion instrument.

  • These dancers, at the Swazi Cultural Village, South Africa, are wearing rattles on their ankles.

  • Singing group of the Masai Mara Tribe, Kenya.

  • A form of African harp built on a calabash.

  • A band from South Africa.

  • Closeup of a Tehardent, a three stringed African chordophone with a carved wood resonant chamber covered with goatskin.

  • An eight stringed Nyatiti Lyre from Kenya.


  1. ↑ Catherine Schmidt-Jones, Talking Drums, Connexions. Retrieved January 14, 2008.


  • Kirkegaard, Annemette, and Mai Palmberg. Playing with Identities in Contemporary Music in Africa. Uppsala: Nordic African Institute, 2002. ISBN 9789171064967.
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  • Schmidt-Jones, Catherine. "Talking Drums." Connexions. January 14, 2008. Retrieved July 11, 2008.
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