African Music


African Music, the music of black Africans living south of the Sahara, as distinct from the Arab music of North Africa. A rich musical tradition has developed in this vast region of more than 40 nations, each with its own history and unique mixture of cultures and languages.


Although diverse, African music has several traits that are specific to its musical style. One such feature is the use of repetition as an organizing principle. For example, in the mbira music of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, a repeated pattern is established by the interaction of the hands and the player develops improvisations out of this core pattern. Another important common characteristic is polyphony—music that simultaneously combines several distinct parts. African music also has a “conversational” quality, in which different voices, instrumental parts, or even the hands of single players, are brought into the lively exchange. One of the most common types of music-making is call-and-response singing, in which a chorus repeats a fixed refrain in alternation with a lead singer, who has more freedom to improvise.

There are also many different modes of expression in African music. In West Africa, drum ensembles consisting of three to five musicians who play interlocking patterns are common. In the ensemble, each drummer uses a distinctive method of striking the head in order to produce pitches and timbres (tone colours) that distinguish his drum from the others. Such ensembles often include rattles, and an iron bell struck with a stick to produce a repeated pattern (sometimes called a timeline) that penetrates the dense texture of the ensemble and helps the drummers to remain synchronized with each other.

In the akadinda xylophone music of the Baganda people in Uganda, two groups of three players face each other across one xylophone. The first group plays a repeated pattern in octaves, and the second group fills in the missing beats with an interlocking pattern. The resulting tempo may approach 600 notes per minute. And in east, central, and southern Africa, groups of musicians play sets of stopped flutes or trumpets, each person contributing a single note in strict rotations with the others. The alternation of the parts creates a rich polyphonic texture. This kind of ensemble technique, known as hocket, was also a feature of the early music of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Hocketing plays an important role in the music of the San people of the Kalahari and the pygmies of the central African rainforests.

Among the southern African peoples, polyphony is most highly developed in vocal music. In traditional Zulu choral music, individual voices enter at different points in a continuous cycle, overlapping with one another in a complex and constantly shifting texture. The same technique may be used in solo vocal performances, where a singer will jump from one entrance point to another in order to sketch in the total polyphonic texture. A wide variety of vocal qualities is used in African music, and it is common for sound-producing objects such as jingles, rattles, and membranes to be attached to instruments (such as the mbira) in order to produce a “sizzling” effect.


A wide variety of instruments are used in African music. Drums, one of the more popular instruments, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Materials such as wood, gourds, and clay are used to construct drum bodies. Drum membranes are made from the skins of reptiles, cows, goats, or other animals. Important types of drums include sets of drums tuned to a scale and mounted on a frame to be played by a team of drummers; friction drums, in which sound is produced by rubbing the membrane; and the West African hourglass-shaped tension drum, which is sometimes called a talking drum because it can be used to imitate the pitch contours of speech.

Although stereotypes of African music typically stress the importance of drums, there are many other types of percussion instruments, including clap-sticks, bells, rattles, slit gongs, struck gourds and clay pots, stamping tubes, and xylophones. The lamellaphone, which is an instrument unique to Africa, consists of a series of metal or bamboo strips mounted on a board or box. The instrument is held in the hands or on the player’s lap, and the free ends of the strips are plucked with thumbs or forefingers. Lamellaphones are widely distributed throughout Africa and are also referred to as mbira, kalimba, or likembe.

Stringed instruments popular in Africa include musical bows, lutes, lyres, harps, and zithers. Professional musicians among the Mandinka people of The Gambia play the kora, a 21-string harp-lute, which includes both plucked and sympathetically resonating strings. The xalam, a plucked lute, is a close relative of the African-American banjo and is a popular instrument in Senegal. The musical bow, which consists of a string stretched between two ends of a flexible stave, plays a particularly important role in the traditional music of southern African peoples such as the San, Xhosa, and Zulu.

Flutes, whistles, oboes, and trumpets are among the African wind instruments. Transverse and end-blown flutes made from bamboo, reeds, wood, clay, bones and other materials are distributed throughout the sub-Saharan region. Trumpets, often associated with royalty, are made from animal horns or wood, and are also found over a wide area. Clarinets from the savannah region of West Africa are made from guinea-corn or sorghum stems, with a reed cut from the surface of the stem at one end. Double-reed instruments, such as the Hausa algaita, are derived from North Africa.


Professional musicians, griots, played a crucial role as historians in the kingdoms that developed between the 10th and 20th centuries in various parts of Africa. Among the Mande people of western Africa, professional bards still recount the histories of powerful lineages and offer counsel to contemporary rulers. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, an incompetent or evil king often first heard the people’s command to abdicate from his “talking drummers”. When Ugandan government troops invaded the palace of the Kabaka (king) of Buganda, they made sure that the royal musical instruments were destroyed first. In his memoirs, the Kabaka described the royal drums as the “heart” of his kingdom.

Music continues to play an important role in African societies. It is a medium for the transmission of knowledge and values, and for celebrating important communal and personal events. Music is often combined with speech, dance, and the visual arts to create multimedia performances. Even in societies with well-developed traditions of professional musicianship, the ability of all individuals to participate in a musical event by adding a voice to the chorus or an appropriate clap pattern is assumed to be part of normal cultural competence.

Important stages of a person’s life are often marked with music. There are lullabies, children’s game songs, and music for adolescent initiation rites, weddings, title-taking ceremonies, funerals, and ceremonies for the ancestors. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, the mother of twins must perform a special repertoire of songs, and in Ghana, there are songs for teasing bedwetters and for celebrating the loss of a child’s first tooth.


In many African religions, sound is thought to be one of the primary means by which deities and humans impose order on the universe. In West Africa, drummers play a crucial role in possession-trance ceremonies, in which the gods enter or “ride” the bodies of devotees. A competent drummer must know scores of specific rhythms for particular gods, and be responsible for regulating the flow of supernatural power in ritual contexts. In Zimbabwe, Shona mbira musicians create a sonic environment which encourages the ancestral spirit-possession that is a necessary part of healing.

Music is also used to organize work activities. Kpelle men in Liberia use a form of vocal hocketing to coordinate their machete blows while clearing dense brush for rice fields. In pygmy societies of the central rainforest, singing and vocal cries are used to coordinate the movements of hunters through the brush. And in southern Africa, herd boys use flutes and other instruments to control the movement of cattle.


African popular music is a blending of aspects from African, European, American, and Middle Eastern musical traditions. In most parts of Africa, popular music was pioneered by workers drawn into the expanding colonial economies of the early 20th century. The development of popular styles has often been strongly influenced by the electronic mass media. The international popularity of African music increased in the 1980s, in part because of the participation of African musicians on albums by pop stars Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and David Byrne.

The most influential style of popular music within Africa is Congolese guitar-band music, also known as soukous. Influenced by Afro-Cuban music, this style developed in the towns of central Africa, and is now played by groups in Kinshasa, Brazzaville, and Paris. Proponents of soukous include Franco and l’Orchestre O.K. Jazz, Rochereau, Mbilia Bel, Papa Wemba, and Loketa.

In the late 19th century, a style called highlife began to develop in Ghana. There are two types of highlife groups—dance bands, in which musicians developed an Africanized version of Western ballroom dance music complete with trumpets and saxophones, and guitar bands, which usually include several electric guitars and a set of percussion instruments. In Nigeria, the afro-beat style of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, formerly a highlife musician, is strongly influenced by African-American popular music and jazz. Yoruba musicians developed a variant of guitar band highlife called juju, which uses traditional proverbs and praise poetry and features the talking drum. Some of the most popular stars of juju music are King Sunny Ade and Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey. In Zimbabwe, Thomas Mapfumo and guitarist Joshua Sithole helped to develop a style called jiti, transferring Shona mbira patterns on to the electric guitar. This style played an important role in disseminating songs of resistance during the war of independence against the white-controlled Rhodesian government.

The tradition of professional griots in the savannah region of West Africa is carried on by musicians such as Youssou N’dour of Senegal and Salif Keita of Mali. These musicians, who often record in Paris, make use of traditional instruments such as the xylophone and kora in addition to using electric guitars and synthesizers. Their vocal styles often reflect the influence of Islamic music on the music of the savannah region.

South Africa is home to some of the best-known styles of African popular music. Mbaqanga, which was developed in the segregated black townships created during the apartheid era, is the most popular form of dance music. Contemporary mbaqanga groups, such as the Soul Brothers, and Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, include a lead singer and chorus, electric guitar and bass, drum kit, and some combination of saxophone, accordion, or organ. The Zulu male choral style isicathamiya (“a stalking approach”), performed by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, draws upon traditional wedding songs, African-American choral styles, and Wesleyan church hymns.

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