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another. The young men allowed their hair to grow and dressed as women until the
end of the rite of passage, when their hair was cut and they were allowed to dress in
men’s clothes. The new members then proceeded to careen wildly around the village
until the ceremony ended (with music and dancing).
Music also serves a functional purpose in legal, political, and historical capacities.
In some areas it played a prominent role in the maintenance of law and order in earlier
times. Traditionally, a plaintiff would often sing his or her case and was judged in
terms of the quality of his performance, without referring to guilt or innocence. The
most important ideas were to maintain order or, perhaps, to reprimand the wrongdoer
without branding him a criminal (particularly for a first offense). Being judged a poor
singer could usually be sufficient punishment, and, since the hearing was public, the
ridicule was immediate and the offender knew to watch his or her step in the future. Far
more important than punishment was prevention in traditional African society, and
music was used (particularly in royal courts) as a way of perpetuating the traditional
guidelines and ways of the ancestors by singing of those ways. Minstrels wandering
the countryside still sing the news of the day and sing of the things pleasing to the
ancestors (the good life that all people are expected to lead).54
As with most traditional, preliterate societies, the music was socially controlled.
Traditional musical activities occurred in private and recreational spheres. The traditional roles were often rigidly prescribed regarding the general framework, responsibilities, and performance of the music. Spontaneous instrumental and vocal songs,
on the other hand, continue to enjoy great freedom of expression.
The primary function of music in Africa is communication. It enables participants
to “speak with God.” In such communication, words are inadequate and without
power. When combined with performance and various instruments, music contains
the power to convey feelings or emotions rather than naked words.55 In traditional
African society, with its emphasis on community experience and involvement, music
has remained essential to institutional life.
Music traditions may be observed in every community within the African continent.
In most cases, these traditions are both long-standing and complex. Anthropologists
and linguists have been able to map the important culture and language areas,
although there is much overlapping: the Bantu language, for example, is spoken
in both the pastoral and agricultural areas of the region. A similar delineation of
musical style, however, has not proven quite as practical thus far. Though earlier
observations revealed the predominance of polyphony in parallel fourths and fifths
in eastern and southern regions and parallel thirds in central and western regions,
Traditional African Music • 39