African traditional music is no longer described by the words “din”, “racket”, cacophony”. It is important that this music be accepted and appreciated on its’ own terms.
The aim of the music has never been first and foremost to be aesthetically pleasing. African music aims to express the totality of our lives as human beings – the happiness, the sadness, the anger, the disappointments, the yearning for spiritual union with a Higher Power. Dance is nearly always associated with music making.
Music pervades day to day life in Africa. Children fashion drums from empty cans, make frame drums from discarded materials such as a window frame which is then covered with a piece of animal hide or plastic.
Until recently there was no formal tuition in African music offered in institutions. The belief was that children develop at their own pace. Children observe, mimic and interact with musicians if they are interested in learning an instrument. They learn rhythm through being carried on their mother’s backs and by being rocked while lullabies are sung to them. Later they learn by constant repetition to imitate complex rhythms. Young boys can be part of an adult group playing the not so important instruments.
Percussion instruments have the most widespread use in African music. Rattles, friction sticks, bells, clappers, and cymbols are popular. Various forms of sansa (thumb piano) and xylophones are also used. Wind instruments are made out of materials such as tusks, horns, conch shells, wood or gourds. Ivory horns in West Africa seem to be closely connected to the Courts of important Chiefs and are played on ceremonial occasions.
Rattles are mainly rhythm instruments which are shaken to produce a sound. In Africa there are two groups – those that are played with the hands and those that are attached to the body and shaken by the movements of the dancer’s body. Rattles played by hand are often gourds which contain loose seeds or objects such as pieces of bone or metal. Other rattles are contained within a net to which are attached such objects as cauri shells or beads.
These idiophones which have just been mentioned are purely rhythm instruments and have no melodic function.
Tuning of instruments is not codified. Uniformity in the construction of instruments is deliberately avoided. As no two people are identical so no two instruments are exactly alike.
Drums are probably the most important musical instrument in African music. Many drums (especially the large ones) are carved out of a single piece of wood. All drums are believed to have their own unique “energy” and special rituals are associated with their use and maintenance.
Drum design is very much related to geographical region. It is possible to look at a drum and be able to immediately identify to which region it belongs. There are hourglass drums, log drums, earthenware drums, friction drums and hand drums amongst others.
Drums are often grouped into “families”. In Ghana a “family” (father, mother, son, daughter) may consist of four different sized drums all of the same material and constructed in the same way.
The Yoruba of Dahomey and Nigeria have an hourglass drum which is held in the armpit and struck with a stick. This drum is associated with the Court. It is used to sing the praises of noble visitors to the Palace.
Most people have heard of the “talking drums” used to send coded messages from one village to the next. The War Drums incited the warriors to fight bravely before a battle.
Most African languages are tonal which is reflected in the singing.
As already mentioned African music does not have a written tradition. It is very difficult to notate the music using the Western staff. The pitches and subtle intonation are not easily indicated.
However, the pioneering African American ethnomusicologist, Doris Green has created Greenotation. This is a highly innovative musical system for writing traditional African music.
For example, in order to notate the music of an African drum, it is necessary to show whether the drum is struck with a stick, half hand or full hand. It must also indicate whether the stick, hand or half hand remained in contact with the drum skin or instantly rebounded. An entirely new system was called for to annotate the rhythm and nuances of African musical instruments.
Greenotation can notate the music of bells, rattles, drums, talking drums, sticks, stamping tubes, xylophones, hand clapping and water drums. Doris Green has combined her system with Labanotation so that African music and dance can be documented together – a great step forward!
This system will be invaluable in passing on traditional music which otherwise would be lost forever with the demise of oral transmission.
Africa does, of course, have a lively and ever evolving pop scene which I cannot go into here.