African Music: A People's Art

African Music: A People's Art

by Francis Bebey

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Engaging and enlightening, this guide explores African music's forms, musicians, instruments, and place in the life of the people. A discography classified by country, theme, group, and instrument is also included.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613746615
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 08/01/1999
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 24 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Francis Bebey was a Cameroonian artist, a musician who released more than 20 albums over his career, and the author of Agatha Moudio's Son.

Read an Excerpt

African Music

A People's Art

By Francis Bebey, Josephine Bennett

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 1969 HORIZONS DE FRANCE,
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61374-661-5


Expression of Life

Authentic African music — the traditional music of the black peoples of Africa — is little known abroad. The non-African listener generally finds the music strange, difficult, and unattractive; therefore, he concludes that it is not of interest. This is by no means the case. However, the study of African music demands time and patience. Familiarity with its environment certainly helps and the student is invariably rewarded by finding this music extremely attractive.

Over the past thirty years, films, photographs, and records have brought certain aspects of African music, its musicians, and its cultural context to the attention of Western audiences. Unfortunately, however, the aim of most film producers and record companies is commercial success and thus they have tended to emphasize the exotic and the unexpected at the expense of the real substance. By so doing, they have rendered a serious disservice to African cultures generally and to music in particular. The initial curiosity of a Western audience can be followed all too easily by contempt for a way of life that is so unlike their own and by an inability to appreciate the music that seem to them to be so much dissonance and noise.

Westerners today, however, are beginning to pay more attention to these African cultures. In Europe, America, and Africa itself there have been numerous conferences over the past twenty years devoted to the cultural life of the peoples of black Africa. Particular evidence of this growing interest was shown at the First World Festival of Negro Arts held in Dakar, Senegal in April of 1966. Although the cinema has barely begun to produce films of authentic African life, record companies are at last issuing excellent recordings of authentic African music and television is giving more attention to the artistic and cultural world of Africa. Undoubtedly, there are ways of getting to know this new world, even without the luxury of a visit.

But there are no short cuts. A real understanding of African cultures demands hours of attention, the will to look and listen carefully, to reject preconceived ideas, and to avoid hasty judgments. Then perhaps, the striking differences that trouble the non-African can be turned to good account; for the effort to understand may lead to the creation of new art forms and may influence future artistic creation.

The Westerner who wishes to understand the authentic music of Africa must be willing to reject the notion that it is "primitive" music consisting merely of rhythmic noises. This simple act of rejection will "open his ears" and allow him to discover gradually that African music in many respects resembles his own. Slowly, he can begin to pinpoint those differences which, if comprehended correctly, may enrich universal culture. African music is not the reserve of the intellectual; it is universal enough to be enjoyed by music lovers anywhere.

What form do the resemblances between the music of these two cultures assume? First and foremost, both African and Western music are an invention of man, at least as far as creation is concerned. Secondly, we find in both the same notions of instrumental or vocal music, low or high pitch, long or short, sustained or staccato notes. In both cases, music plays a similar role in life, as lullabies, battle songs, religious music, and so on. It is important in education; it is common knowledge that songs make memorizing easier and can be used to instill in people important rules of conduct or hygiene. Lastly, the musical instruments themselves provide perhaps the most important similarity between African and Western music. Generally speaking, the same categories of instruments are found in black Africa as in the West, namely stringed instruments, wind instruments, and percussion.

Despite these similarities, there are many reasons why Westerners find African music so bewildering. Broadly speaking, most Europeans would define music as "the art of combining sounds in a manner pleasing to the ear." While it is true that this conception has been questioned in recent years — most "pop" music and a great deal of so-called "serious" contemporary music could hardly be described as soothing to the ear — there is still a lingering notion that noise and music are incompatible.

Then again, many Westerners think of music as an expression of emotions. Actually, music is too abstract to be capable of rendering truly lifelike descriptions but Westerners are trained to seek certain signs. For instance, the major key is supposed to convey joy and the minor key sorrow, but there is no logical basis for this contention and the reverse could just as easily be true. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the very popular minor mode was not necessarily used to indicate sorrow. In other words, Western music implies the existence of certain preconceived ideas and, while this is in no way intended as a criticism of Western music, it is evident that this hermetic approach does not facilitate the understanding of a music based on totally different premises.

Another factor which must not be overlooked is that in the West music is considered as a pure art form. Listening to music is a pleasure to be enjoyed for its own sake. People go to concerts or buy records simply to enjoy music. Those artists who combine music with another art, such as choreography, are all too rare. Music is used as an accompaniment to films or plays, rather than forming an integral part of them. Even in opera, that true marriage of theatre and music, the latter can be divorced from the rest and enjoyed for its own sake. Music is an autonomous and independent art. It is barely an exaggeration to say that those newspapers that have separate columns devoted to "The Arts" and "Music" virtually imply that music is not an art at all!

For all these reasons and many others, Westerners are frequently at a loss to understand the music of black Africa: the concepts of Africans are so totally different. African musicians do not seek to combine sounds in a manner pleasing to the ear. Their aim is simply to express life in all of its aspects through the medium of sound. But, whereas Western music is rather an inadequate form of expression, the same can by no means be said of African music. The African musician does not merely attempt to imitate nature by means of musical instruments; he reverses the procedure by taking natural sounds and incorporating them into his music. To the uninitiated this may result in cacophony, but in fact each sound has a particular meaning, as those who have had firsthand experience of African life can testify. If it is to be meaningful African music must be studied within the context of traditional African life.

A French ethno-musicologist, Mr. Herbert Pepper, who spent eleven years among the forest-dwellers of the Congo and Gabon, has written:

"I had the impression that I learnt more about my art in the African school than in the Western school. The latter certainly taught me to appreciate the quality of the finished article, but it sometimes seemed so far removed from the everyday world that I began to wonder if it bore any relationship to it. The African school, on the other hand, has taught me that what matters is not the quality of the music itself, but its ability to render emotions and desires as naturally as possible."

This "African school" which Mr. Pepper discovered in adult life is the birthright of every African child. It is a school in the broadest sense, not merely a musical education, but a comprehensive preparation for that strange adventure upon which he is about to embark — life.

A lullaby, for instance, has a dual purpose — to comfort a baby and also to teach him why he should not cry:

Ye ye ya ye-Do not cry
Think of our friends who are childless
Hush, do not cry
Think of those who have no children
Think of my married brother
Who has no children yet
And then look at me
I have a mother too
But I don't cry
Think of our friends who are childless
Think of my brother
Who married a Bacanda girl
What an idea, to marry a Bacanda
And they are still without children
Don't cry, my darling
Think of your unhappy father ...

This simple lullaby, like almost all African music, conveys a number of ideas simultaneously. Outwardly, it is intended to soothe the baby and lull him to sleep, but at the same time, it expresses his mother's gratitude toward Nature — or God — for having given her a child, a privilege denied to so many other women.

At this early stage in life, it is evident that the child is merely a listener, but as he begins to grow up, he very soon takes an active role in music. The average African child reveals a natural aptitude for music at a very early age. He is already making his own musical instruments at three or four; an empty tin becomes a rattle, an old window-frame and a piece of animal hide make a drum (which musicologists call a "frame-drum"). Whether or not he has the makings of a musician, his talents as a singer soon become apparent; music is an indispensable element in children's games. Youngsters of four or five love to imitate the songs and dances of their elders and, even at this age, their priorities are quickly established; any child who is more interested in eating than singing is a subject of derision. It is also clear that talent has nothing to do with age, for the rhythms that these tiny tots hammer out on their makeshift instruments are a portent of their capabilities in later life.

Thus, music is clearly an integral part of the life of every African individual from the moment of his birth. The musical games played by children are never gratuitous; they are a form of musical training which prepares them to participate in all areas of adult activity — fishing, hunting, farming, grinding maize, attending weddings, funerals, dances, and by necessity, even fleeing from wild animals. This explains why every conceivable sound has its place in traditional African music, whether in its natural form as it is produced by the object or animal in question, or reproduced by an instrument that imitates them as faithfully as possible.

It was no doubt this extremely concrete aspect of African music that prompted Leopold Sédar Senghor to remark that recent Western experiments with "musique concrète" are but a belated attempt to catch up with a musical form that has been practiced in Africa for many hundreds of years. A particularly striking example of this is the bullroarer. The music (perhaps noise would be a more appropriate term) of this elementary little instrument has a deep significance totally belied by the simplicity of its appearance.

The bull-roarer consists of a rectangular piece of bamboo or wood (occasionally metal) about a foot long with a piece of string attached to one end. The other end of the string is held in the hand and the instrument is swung in a circle, so that it revolves vertically on its own axis. The faster it spins, the louder is the noise that is produced. To a Westerner, it may sound rather like a car engine starting up, but to West African children, it represents the roaring of a panther.

The panther is greatly feared and the adults are generally not pleased to be reminded of it by the children who are playing with their bull-roarers and adults sometimes tell them to "stop calling the panther like that." The appearance of a panther in an equatorial village is the signal for a general stampede, which is particularly disagreeable for the menfolk who temporarily cease to be all-powerful and thus lose their traditional superiority over the women and children. In certain West African tribes, such as the Dogon of Mali, the sound of the bull-roarer signals the end of the funeral rite that terminates a period of mourning. On such occasions, the masks make their appearance. The ceremony begins at nightfall when an initiate rotates the bull-roarer to warn the women and children that they must disappear, for they are not permitted to see the masks. The musician continues to play the bull-roarer all night, leading the procession of masks around the deserted village. The Dogon believe the bull-roarer to be the voice of their ancestor, the first man who encountered death; it also symbolizes the revelation of speech to mankind.

This curious little instrument provides a great deal of invaluable information about the importance of the symbol in African life. It is also interesting to note that in different contexts and regions the bull-roarer invariably symbolizes power of one kind or another: the power of the males, jealously protected against the panther; the power of the ancestor whose death has been transmitted down from generation to generation; the power of speech whose revelation has given man supremacy over all the other creatures on earth. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this ritual is the attitude of the male; when the panther — the real panther — roars, everyone hides, leaving the panther to prowl outside the huts in solitary splendour. When the bull-roarer is heard, on the other hand, the women and children disappear and it is only then that the men who wear the masks begin their nocturnal parade through the village. In other words, the male seizes this opportunity to display the power which, in other circumstances, the panther could dispute. Here we have another symbol.

But although musical games have an extremely important educational function, they present only a fraction of adult life; a life that begins in earnest when the adolescent is admitted into adult society at the time of his initiation. Music plays a paramount role in this initiation; it is as vital to the ceremonies as are the children themselves. And having been a constant factor throughout the child's life, there is no logical reason why music should recede into the background at the time of initiation. It is not merely used as an accompaniment to the ceremonies, but has its own well-defined role to play. A particularly striking example of this role is to be found among the Adiukru of the Ivory Coast. During the graduation ceremonies from one age-class to another, tomtoms assume the attributes of real human beings; they speak to the young men who answer them. Then, the young people talk to the tom-toms who "listen" and reply. A real conversation takes place between the musical instruments and the men who made them, a dialogue between music and its creator — man. This intimate union between man and art is rare outside of Africa. It amounts to a total communion that is shared by the whole community. It may help to explain why some languages in black Africa have no precise noun to define music. The Duala of Cameroon have adopted the word musiki (pronounced moossiki) from the French musique. They have their own words to define specific forms, such as elongi (song) or ngoso (chant), but these can by no means be considered generic terms. The art of music is so inherent in man that it is superfluous to have a particular name for it.

The initiation cermony of the Adiukru (Ivory Coast) referred to above is known as lohu. Its purpose is to admit a number of adolescents into adult society. During a certain period of time before the ceremony, the boys have to wear women's clothing and allow their hair to grow long. At the end of the lohu their hair is cut and their normal clothing restored. As soon as they are again dressed as men they careen wildly around the village and then form an orderly procession to take part in the conversation with the drums. The ceremony concludes with singing and dancing.

Because the drum is, in certain circumstances, equated with a man (and a rather exceptional man, at that, whose powerful voice is capable of sending messages far and wide), women must consequently treat it with the same respect that they show towards their menfolk. No woman would dream of beating her husband in public (even though she may occasionally do so in private!), nor may she beat the drum in the village square. In some African societies, women are not even permitted to touch a drum under any circumstance. In other societies, particularly those that have adopted the Islamic faith, certain types of drums may be played by women, for example, the water-drum or the bendere calabash drum found in Upper Volta. However, the evolution of the Christian Church in black Africa during the last twenty years and the "africanization" of the Catholic mass and Protestant choir have given rise to sights that some Africans find profoundly shocking; for example, women playing tom-toms or xylophones in church. The introduction into church services of instruments that had for generations been considered unworthy of such holy places has, not surprisingly, met with some disapproval. This is just one aspect of the African revolution that began toward the end of the Second World War and culminated spectacularly in the end of colonial rule. This socio-philosophical aspect of the black world, which is no less important than the political and economic aspects, provides the context in which African music must be considered. Moreover, any attempt to follow the meaning and evolution of African music will, surprising as it may seem, shed a great deal of light on the evolution of African society in general and will help to clarify the apparent ambiguity of that society's own individual brand of logic.


Excerpted from African Music by Francis Bebey, Josephine Bennett. Copyright © 1969 HORIZONS DE FRANCE,. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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