African Music



African Music

From Senegal to Mali, Ethiopia to Sudan, Congo to South Africa, Maghreb countries and Indian Ocean islands, African music is a gigantic puzzle reflecting a multicultural continent, very complex and diverse.

African Puzzle

To explain the diversity of the African music, we must firstly underline the plurality of the African languages which reveals the diversity of the African music. If we consider only sub-Saharan African countries, we can count twenty-three “important” languages. The two most important languages are Swahili and Haoussa, both being spoken by 39 million speakers. Bambara language which is the less spoken among these “important” languages, count 2.7 million speakers. More than twenty different languages are spoken in Senegal, the most spoken being Wolof, Pulaar, Sérère, Diola, Mandingue and Soninke. Languages inherited from colonization, are six: Afrikaans, English, Arabic, Spanish, French and Portuguese. The African musical puzzle is a sparkling sound kaleidoscope and African tradition occupies a prominent place, in particular through vocal polyrythmies and polyphonies which are two main features of the traditional music of Black Africa.

But it is also the reflection of an African slavery, colonization, the de-colonization, famines, massacres of Rwanda and Burundi, dictatorships in Uganda or Ethiopia, the exile of many musicians, such as Geoffrey Oryema who left Uganda for France or Cecile Kayirebwa which ran away from Rwanda to settle down in Belgium. Rural music, music of the desert, and music of big capitals co-exist altogether in Africa’s musical puzzle. We must point out that in the middle of the twentieth century, musicians of the cities, were influenced by the Western music (jazz initially then the rock’n’roll and the rhythm’ blues.) But there are notable exceptions like Ethiopia.

Because of its particular political situation, Ethiopia has been an isolated country for long period of time and therefore has a very specific music style. Salif Keita, who is direct descendant of Sundjata Keita, the founder of Mali kingdom, reveals one secret of his art: “The music Mandingue can reach everyone. It is sensitive, with melodies that will dazzle all who listen to them, and can be easily understood. It is the mix of three cultures: Arab culture, Spanish culture, and African culture. One can find flamenco even there.” This description of the Mandingue music which looks like a declaration of love gives us an idea of the immense variety of the African music.

North African music could be discussed as a topic in its own right because it englobes very ancient and different style of music. The classical music of the Maghreb goes back to the late Middle Ages and is especially known through the Arabo-Andalusian music: the Algerian style, the Moroccan style, the Tunisian style, and the Libyan style. Among popular music, and sticking to Algeria only, we find “chaabi” style mastered by Guerouabi El Hachemi, and all the movement “rai” which has considerably developed throughout the twentieth century in Algeria till today with a modern style incarnated in particular by Cheb Mami and Khaled.  A few artists are transcending the oriental style of music. It is the case of the composer Maurice El Medioni and his concept of piano “transoriental”, of Souad Massi who is influenced by blues, folk and flamenco. There is also a great movement of popular song represented by Cheikha Rimitti and Biyouna

African music seen through Western eyes: from ethnology to world music

From the very beginning, the ethnomusicologists, who are African music lovers as much as researchers, have considered Africa as one of their privileged hunting grounds. With their musicographic method, they collected in the African continent lots of music style, generally transmitted orally. Without these ethnomusicologists work, an important page in the history of African music would have been lost forever. For example, Hugh Tracey, an English contemporary of colonial time, was a passionate of African music throughout the fifties and sixties. Today, its recordings help to understand certain phenomena like movements of populations from Tanzania & Rwanda towards Congo, Mozambique & Zimbabwe towards South Africa. It was because Congo and South Africa ‘s copper mines required manpower. Those recordings also make it possible to discover specific musical instruments and to explain their enhancement, like the “kalimba”, a small instrument often called “piano with inches” and which belongs to the family of the lamellophones. We find it in the east and the south-west of Africa. “kalimba” traditional instrument will change over time since there are today electric kalimba which delivers a strident sound often used by certain electronic musicians.

Among labels of records specialized on ethnomusicology, Ocora is the one which offers more emphasis on African music. Ocora Radio-France, created in 1955 by Pierre Schaeffer, aims at developing national radios in Francophone Africa. Accordingly, Ocora collects African traditional music.  OCORA-Radio France has today a repertoire of some two hundred references recorded from all around the world. These priceless sound documents reconcile musicology and esthetics. Based in the Paris’ offices of Radio France, OCORA is still active today and publishes new albums and older recordings. Among its best sales, there is the famous “Anthology of the music of the Aka Pygmies” of Central Africa. In the middle of the Eighties, when we started to speak about “world music“, from “world” word only, everything became possible. 

In England, major music labels such as Island Records welcomed African artists such Angélique Kidjo and Baaba Maal. More recent music labels, like World Circuit and Real World in England, the first founded by Nick Gold and the second by Peter Gabriel, put African music as their major interest. Without World Circuit, artists like Ali Farka Touré, Oumou Sangaré, Toumani Diabaté, and Senegalese band Orchestra Baobab would not have been known to the general public.  Other artists like Touré Kunda and Fela, kickstarted their career in France. But at the same time as unexpected musicians from Mali or South Africa started to be known internationally, unscrupulous tout such as Deep Forest made their appearance and did not hesitate to plunder the essence of Pygmies music, using electronic flutes producing a mediocre quality music. It’s like we cannot discover African music without having to pay a tribute to the cheapest neocolonialism.

The example of the griots in West Africa is very indicative of the position of the musicians in African societies. Their history goes back to the thirteenth century, at the time of the Mandingue Empire founded by Soundiata Keita in the 13th century, and which territory covers today Mali, Guinea, the Guinea-Bissau, south of Senegal, Gambia, the Burkina Faso and part of Niger.  With its voice and a string musical instrument which will evolve over time to become the kora we know today, the griot has a well-defined social duties.  

The ”griot” is the “memory” of the society who narrates glorious past events in front of dignitaries telling legendary combat prowess of their ancestors, or other past significant accomplishments. During the Sixties, at the time when African countries were getting their independence from western colonialist countries the griot becomes less and less historian and more and more artist. He becomes a kind of modern troubadour who chronic every day’s life in villages and cities now in full growth.  Today, the griot distinct himself from ordinary people by his voice, his musical instrument which could be a kora, a drum, a flute, or other musical instrument. Griots are characterized by typical family names such as: Kouyaté, Kanté, or Diabaté

Most of African music obey the same logic. We can find the same logic in Mauritania with “Iggawin” people, in the politicized texts of Malouma, even in the folk rock’n’roll of Daby Touré.  All these artists are at the same time musicians, historians, poets and chroniclers of the daily newspaper. Additionally, African musics are often part of ritual, sacred events of life. In Africa, Music is not regarded as art, but as a part of the natural environment. American composer Steve Reich exclaimed: “The African music is a music of life, not a music of art; if somebody dies or if somebody is born, if there are a new king or a marriage, a song is composed…”

Many African singers are very committed within their environment. Nigerian artist Fela fought against the corrupted ruling power in Nigeria.  When Malian singer Rokia Traoré says “singing is a way of not letting things unchanged“, she is right…

“Music is the weapon of the future.” Fela Anikulapo Kuti