Music in Africa

Chants, instruments – drums, balafon, etc. – ; music has a very important role in the African tradition and culture. Far from folkloric caricatures and other clichés relating to ignorance of ones and the denial of others – voluntarily or not -, the sense of music in Africa is very far from all lots of people can imagine.

Instruments
Instruments

What does music represent in the African tradition?

For our ancestors, music and sound are cosmic vibrations that are linked to the notion of divine word.

Let’s remember that they used to consider the creator verb, the divine word, which is the creator word, as essential in the process of the creation of the entire universe by the Creator. This way, all that exists, that lives, all we see – nature, plants, animals – etc… in one word, the entire creation lives thanks to the divine energy that resides inside everything and this entire creation appeared thanks to the divine word. In other words, everything exists thanks to the divine creating word. This is why our ancestors used to consider that in the beginning everything was the word, it is to say that the word was the beginning of everything.

A musician during the pharaonic era
A musician during the pharaonic era

Knowing that our ancestors used to consider that in the beginning everything was the word, and that without the word nothing is possible, music is therefore the result of the action of the divine creating word within the instruments. This way, when the traditional Negro musician plays his instrument, he makes it resounding with the divine vibration, with the sound of the divine word, and this divine creating word enables him to create a set of sounds – it is to say divine resonant words – that constitutes music, an air, a sound, a chant.

Knowing that our ancestors used to consider that in the beginning of everything the word was and that without the word the creation is impossible, the fact to make music means to reproduce the divine word that emanates from the music instrument; the entire divine creation on a resonant plan – knowing that these are divine words which engendered the creation of the universe that are reproduced as music in each instrument.

Statue representing an initiated man speaking the drum’s language and delivering a message.
Statue representing an initiated man speaking the drum’s language and delivering a message.

Since for our ancestors the fact to play music means reproducing all the divine creation, the several music instruments are made according to rites and very precise codes, inspiring themselves from the divine creation in its whole diversity.

Thus, the music instruments are divers basically, made according to the divine creation – nature, animals, plants, natural elements, stars, etc. – in order to reproduce the sounds – words – of the nature and of the entire divine creation – sound of the air, sound of water, sound of wind in the wind instruments, etc…

When it is played, in order to produce a sound, the music instrument expresses itself, speaks and communicates in fact. And the words through which it expresses itself are the words we hear as sounds. It is that notion of speaking instrument that enables to understand the notions of drum messages – for example the speaking drums which messages need an initiation to be understood.

Since music is for our ancestors linked to the notion of word as we have seen above, this explains why the resonant vibration – resonant word – of the instruments must have been accompanied of sung texts, it is to say chants.

Djelis (Griots) singing
Djelis (Griots) singing

What does singing means?

Singing is the fact to reproduce the divine creation with the voice – that is the resonant word that comes out of the mouth -, voice that is a gift from the creator. This is why, in order to be in harmony – Maat – with the entire universe and the creation, the voice had necessarily to be in harmony with the divine words – sounds – that would come out of the instrument. This is the origin of the choir chants, the divers voices and divers chants were supposed to reproduce the creation as a whole.

What does dancing means?

Well dancing is the fact to vibrate in order to reproduce the divine creation with the body. As the divine creation works according to cycles regulated by the divine order harmony – Maat -, the different types of dances are supposed to reproduce the creation in its whole diversity. But as the creation exists according to a cycle, the divine order and harmony, one must not dance anyhow or even making unorganized movements. Dancing must be executed according to the divine order and harmony; it is to say with well-regulated steps, harmonious steps, organized and in the rhythm. We can find here the origin of what is today called choreography. To make a choreography for your ancestors, is making movements taking inspiration from universe’s divine movements and movements of divine things that compose it – animals, plants, stars, etc. This way, dancing can reproduce the movement of animals, or a person’s movement, or a star’s movement – Sun, etc. – or a natural phenomenon.

Venda women from South Africa, dancing Domba, an initiation choreography that imitates the movements of the snake.
Venda women from South Africa, dancing Domba, an initiation choreography that imitates the movements of the snake.

All this show us that for our ancestors, music harmonizes with the entire creation; this is what it makes when it is played, sung, etc… – harmony in the sound. Since music and everything relating to it – chants, dance, melodies – is supposed to reproduce the divine creation, music is therefore linked to the divine creation and to the one who makes the whole creation and universe live, it is to say the Creator – God – itself. Basically, music has then a sacred function, divine for our ancestors.

This is why for our ancestors music was essential and fundamental in sacred things. It is to say that for them, it was impossible to make a cult without music or chants. This is also why they have always played music and sung in all kind of ways – joy chants, chanted prayers, dancing, etc. – during their religious rites.

Pharaonic tablet in the museum of Louvre – France – on which we can see Djedkhonsuiuefankh, a harp player, who during a sacred rite; worships Ra while singing. Our ancestors used to say that what we call music today was the word that eases the heart of God – Imana/Amen/Amon.
Pharaonic tablet in the museum of Louvre – France – on which we can see Djedkhonsuiuefankh, a harp player, who during a sacred rite; worships Ra while singing. Our ancestors used to say that what we call music today was the word that eases the heart of God – Imana/Amen/Amon.

As our ancestors have civilized other peoples, this is why having music during the religious cults became a general practice, even in the religions called revealed – Judaism, Christianity, Islam. But unlike the African traditions, the plagiarizers, besides the fact to say that they sing in their temples to imitate such or such prophet, they cannot explain in the point of view of their religious teaching why it is necessary to sing during the cults.

As music has a sacred function, divine one since it is linked to the universe and the entire divine creation, to be a good musician, singer, to make good instruments, it is necessary to know the principles that rule the universe, the sacred, the nature and learn the links that unites music with the entire creation. And to know all these things, it was necessary to be initiated first. So playing an instrument, singing, composing music or dancing wasn’t given to anybody in the African traditions. This is why there were specialized groups of people for music – the griots.

Dancing scene during the pharaonic era. We can see here that our ancestors from the Valley of the Nile would call ‘the God dancers’ who are today called Pigmies. It means that our ancestors used to consider the Pigmies as specialists of the ritual dances.
Dancing scene during the pharaonic era. We can see here that our ancestors from the Valley of the Nile would call ‘the God dancers’ who are today called Pigmies. It means that our ancestors used to consider the Pigmies as specialists of the ritual dances.
Bob Marley
Bob Marley

For our ancestors, life is sacred and comes from God. Since music is considered as sacred by them, and that life is sacred as well, our ancestors made music accompany each moment of life. These conceptions have come across the time until today. This way we sing and dance in every event like parties, birthdays, weddings, funerals, wars. Each chant is adapted to its context. Music is even allowed during work, for it gives the rhythm. We can see an example when peasants work in the fields, they sing, repeating the same movements together – choreographies and rhythm of work.

During the European slave trade for example, Africans deported to America and West Indies, took with them their music, chants and dance from Africa that they adapted in this part of the world; and they were at the origin of lots music styles like Rock, Jazz, Soul, Rnb, Rap, Gospel, Zouk, Kompa, Reggae, Afro Latin music like Salsa, etc…with artists from Black ascent that have influenced the entire humanity – like Jimi Hendrix, Michael Jackson, Louis Armstrong, James Brown, Bob Marley, etc.

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By: Lisapo ya Kama © (All rights reserved. Any copying or translation of the text of this article is strictly forbbiden without the written approval of Lisapo ya Kama)

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