While most African societies have spiritual and cultural associations with drum music, the sound of contemporary Africa is not a deluge of throbbing beats. As Graeme Ewens explains, you’ll more likely hear Spanish vocals in Congo dance music, Arabic lyrics and instrumentation in Zanzibar, West African calypsos and jazz piano in South Africa.
Africa contributes the bulk of what is marketed as ‘World Music’. But African music is far from homogeneous. The continent has huge differences in geography, culture, religion and foreign relations; more than 2,000 languages are spoken, and music often has specific functions. While traditional music is generally confined by ethnic or language boundaries, social dance music has been the only cross-cultural format, tapping a universal element of the African spirit. Neither depends on, nor lends itself to, transcription. Each is a type of system music, improvised with strictly defined parameters.
There is, however, a growing strand of classical or art music being created across the continent. Cultural interchange between Africa and fourteenth-century European church music, nineteenth-century Western composers and twentieth-century jazz men has provided historical connections for contemporary composers such as the Nigerian Akin Euba and collaborations like that between I Fagiolini and the SDASA Chorale. Western composers from Holst to Steve Reich have made withdrawals from the African cultural bank, while groups such as the Soweto String Quartet have reciprocated by transposing traditional music to Western instrumentation.
African music has been a collective art, involving various levels of participation, from the dance ‘conversations’ of Ghana’s Akan people to the polyphonic vocalising of the Pygmies which has delighted ambient music lovers. The closest to a virtuoso soloist has been the griot (oral historian and praise singer) whose highly stylised interpretation of myth and history is often accompanied by spectacular instrumental skills. The most accessible (on disc) are from the Sahel region of West Africa, where instruments such as kora, ngoni and balafon combine melody and rhythm into a transitional format that also embraces electronic instruments and techniques. Thanks both to European interest and a flow of movement between African countries, quality recordings from Senegal, Mali and Guinea are now readily available.
There are so many style clusters in Africa that the casual listener could easily fail to recognise the provenance of some of the continent’s most popular musics. Clues lie in the topology and vegetation which define the instruments used in traditional or folklore music, the language which sets the tone, and the legacy of past colonisers. These influences have produced such apparent anomalies as Spanish vocals in Congo dance music, Arabic lyrics and instrumentation in Zanzibar, West African calypsos and jazz piano in South Africa. The influence of Christian hymnody is also evident in many countries.
While rhythm is an essential accompaniment to most aspects of rural life, and while most African societies have spiritual/cultural associations with drum music, the sound of contemporary Africa is not a deluge of throbbing membranophones. In fact, the one instrument which has stamped itself indelibly across the continent since the 1950s is the electric guitar. This was taken up by musicians from Senegal to South Africa but the central African style has prevailed. Much contemporary dance music owes a debt to Cuban rumba, which was heard across the continent on a series of 78 rpm discs during the 1950s. Along with the Caribbean calypso, rumba contributed to West African high life, while in the Congo ‘Afro Cuban’ music was re-appropriated as ‘Congolese’ (later Zairean) rumba.
After 40 years, the Congolese dominance of the pan-African spectrum is waning and the whole scene is redefining itself. With the freedom to select influences rather than have them imposed, many Africans are generating new forms of music for global audiences, unconfined by local and national constraints.
Classic CD magazine, 1998