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African Music
Much African music is very traditional and has been handed down from father to son.
At an African music concert the audience will join in by clapping, singing or playing an
instrument, rather than just sitting and listening to the music quietly. African music
sounds very different from European classical music.
African drums are more complex than those found in Europe. Western music is usually
played with the same rhythm throughout the piece. African music, however, is often
played with a number of rhythms at the same time. This is known as a polyrhythmic
style of music.
At the heart of African singing is the “call and response” style. In this style a group of
singers might sing a line which is repeated or answered by a soloist. African singers also
like to put a lot of emotion into their performances as if they were acting a part. They like
to shout words and male singers enjoy using their highest register known as falsetto.
African instruments
African instruments are often made from plants and animal
products such as hide and bone. African musicians are very
fond of percussion instruments and use a wide variety of
drums, clappers, scrapers, gongs and xylophones. Perhaps
the most famous African percussion instrument is the
“talking drums” (picture on right). By loosening or tightening
the cord around the body of these drums variations in pitch
can be produced which are so subtle they sound like the
human voice.
Stringed instruments such as bows, lyres, lutes, zithers and
harps are popular as well as wind instruments like whistles,
reed pipes, trumpets and horns.
Since the 1980’s there has been a growing interest in African music from amongst American
and English record buyers. Musicians such as Youssou N’Dour from Senegal and Hugh
Masekela now have an international reputation. Interest in African music received a
considerable boost when Paul Simon worked with a number of African musicians on his
1987 ‘Graceland’ album. In 1994 Youssou N’Dour achieved a
number 4 hit in the U.K. charts with “Seven Seconds”. Inevitably this was achieved by mixing
African music with more westenised sounds.
African instruments: traditional musical instruments native from africa.
Lute: african guitar.
Sanza: a small thumb piano in which lamellas are depressed and released to
produce the sound.
Balafon: xylophone with gourds as resonators.
Ivory horn: wind instrument made of an elephant tusk and used for hunting.
Armpit drum: drum made of wood and animal skin hold under the arm to play
What am I describing?
Male singers enjoy using their highest register
falsetto
drum made of wood and animal skin hold under the arm to
play
Armpit drum
Collective name for drums, clappers, scrapers, gongs and
xylophones.
percussion instruments
The most famous African percussion instrument
talking drums
a small thumb piano
Sanza
A group of singers might sing a line which is repeated or
answered by a soloist
call and response
A number of rhythms at the same time
polyrhythmic
african guitar
Lute
xylophone with gourds as resonators
Balafon
wind instrument made of an elephant tusk and used for
hunting
ivory horn
call and
response
Balafon
talking
drums
Sanza
percussion
instruments
Armpit
drum
ivory horn
falsetto
polyrhythmi
c
Lute
Answers
What am I describing?
Male singers enjoy using their highest register
falsetto
drum made of wood and animal skin hold under the arm to
play
Armpit drum
Collective name for drums, clappers, scrapers, gongs and
xylophones.
percussion instruments
The most famous African percussion instrument
talking drums
a small thumb piano
Sanza
A group of singers might sing a line which is repeated or
answered by a soloist
call and response
A number of rhythms at the same time
polyrhythmic
african guitar
Lute
xylophone with gourds as resonators
Balafon
wind instrument made of an elephant tusk and used for
hunting
ivory horn
call and
response
Balafon
talking
drums
Sanza
percussion
instruments
Armpit
drum
ivory horn
falsetto
polyrhythmi
c
Lute
In West African music all sorts of musical styles are popular. Most traditional music and
instruments that are played in public, such as drums and xylophones, are played by MEN. There
are folk stories to explain why this is so: they say that if a woman plays a certain instrument then
she will be unable to have children.
Women
Two famous women who perform W. African music are Oumou Sangare Angelique Kidjo
Oumou Sangare
Her music is based on the traditional music of Wassopulou region, where she
comes from. It is popular in the sense that many like it. The music contains the following
instruments: electric and bass guitar, Kamalengoni (5 stringed youth harp), Karinyang (iron
scaper), Calabash (rattle) and violin. Oumou talks about the way her songs relate to song and
dance.
Angelique Kidjo
She was influenced by the traditional music of Benin. This consisted of long epic
songs about African life, unaltered for generations. The other major influence was the new urban
African music developing in the South of Africa.
Baaba Maal
A popular male musician. He has an ensemble which features acoustic guitar and
concentrates on melody and he also works with an electric group Dande Lenol (The voice of the
Race) but he has said: “even with our electronic work the influence is still African.”
Family life
Families provide a focus for many community activities and because of this traditional
music, dancing and singing become an important part of family life.
After people who live in rural communities have eaten, they may sit and talk, or
sometimes they may play instruments and sing. Young children often copy music they
have heard others play. Groups of very young drummers practise, on drums made
out of old cans or something similar. It would be unusual to find someone who goes
to a music teacher for regular lessons.
Community Music
On important occasions such as religious festivals, funerals or at harvest time there is
always plenty of music and dancing which everyone joins in. Music provides a good
way for the whole community to meet together to enjoy themselves, talk to friends
and celebrate the occasion. People are proud that
they have their own versions of a piece of music which is quite distinctive – they can
be offended if you suggest it sounds similar to playing in the next village. Even when
living in the cities, people from the same village will meet together to dance and sing.
Their music becomes very important in reminding them of where they come from.
TRUE or FALSE?
All African music sounds similar
to that which can be heard being
played in the next village.
FALSE. People are proud that they have their own
versions of a piece of music which is quite distinctive
- they can be offended if you suggest it sounds
similar to playing in the next village.
Young children often copy music
they have heard others play.
TRUE
traditional music, dancing and
singing become an important
part of family life.
TRUE
Groups of very young drummers
practise, on drums made out of
old cans
TRUE
Young people go to a music
teacher for regular lessons.
FALSE. It would be unusual for people to go to a
music teacher for regular lessons.
Answers
TRUE or FALSE?
All African music sounds similar
to that which can be heard being
played in the next village.
FALSE. People are proud that they have their own
versions of a piece of music which is quite distinctive
- they can be offended if you suggest it sounds
similar to playing in the next village.
Young children often copy music
they have heard others play.
TRUE
traditional music, dancing and
singing become an important
part of family life.
TRUE
Groups of very young drummers
practise, on drums made out of
old cans
TRUE
Young people go to a music
teacher for regular lessons.
FALSE. It would be unusual for people to go to a
music teacher for regular lessons.
Rhythms
If one of the main elements of western music is harmony – chords played by
different instruments within the bass and melody lines – then a comparable element of West
African music is rhythm. Many people think that traditional drumming in West Africa has no
particular pitch. However they would be quite wrong in thinking this. Within the drum
ensembles the instruments have to be tuned to quite accurate pitches in relation to each
other.
Most West African languages are tonal, so that by using a drum that can change pitch the
drummer can imitate well known phrases that people might say. Since the sounds of the
drums can carry a long way, drums are often used for ‘talking’ between people some
distance apart. It is recorded that when Napoleon was defeated at the battle of Waterloo the
native people in West Africa knew about it before their English or French governors because
the news was drummed down the coast from North Africa.
You can find the idea of pitch + rhythm = speech used in many practical and social ways. For
example, because the sound of a whistle can be heard further away than shouting can, if
people want to attract your attention they will whistle your name, imitating the pitch and
rhythm of the words.
The connection between words and music is also used to remember and describe patterns
to be played on drums or other instruments. In many places there is a drum language which
uses nonsense syllables which imitate the sound to be produced and tell you how to produce
it. This can make it easier to remember complex rhythms.
Another aspect of much West African music is that, although it has a string pulse, this may
not be played as strongly as it would be in western music. Sometimes you will also find that
there are several different parts playing at the same time with their own pulse.
TRUE or FALSE?
Drums are often used for ‘talking’
between people some distance apart.
TRUE
Traditional drumming in West Africa has
no particular pitch
FALSE. Within the drum ensembles the
instruments have to be tuned to quite
accurate pitches in relation to each other.
One of the main elements of West
African music is harmony
FALSE. One of the main elements of
western music is harmony
By using a drum that can change pitch
the drummer can imitate well known
phrases that people might say.
TRUE
One of the main elements of western
music is rhythm
FALSE. One of the main elements of West
African Music is rhythm
Although African Music has a strong
TRUE
pulse, this may not be played as
strongly as it would be in western music.
Sometimes you will find that in African
Music, there are several different parts
playing at the same time with their own
pulse.
TRUE
Answers
TRUE or FALSE?
Drums are often used for ‘talking’
between people some distance apart.
TRUE
Traditional drumming in West Africa has
no particular pitch
FALSE. Within the drum ensembles the
instruments have to be tuned to quite
accurate pitches in relation to each other.
One of the main elements of West
African music is harmony
FALSE. One of the main elements of
western music is harmony
By using a drum that can change pitch
the drummer can imitate well known
phrases that people might say.
TRUE
One of the main elements of western
music is rhythm
FALSE. One of the main elements of West
African Music is rhythm
Although African Music has a strong
TRUE
pulse, this may not be played as
strongly as it would be in western music.
Sometimes you will find that in African
Music, there are several different parts
playing at the same time with their own
pulse.
TRUE
Pitched Instruments of African Music
Most instruments of African music have a definite pitch to the sound they produce. Instruments like
bells and drums are usually carefully tuned so they can ‘talk’ to other instruments. Such instruments
like the kora and xylophone can play more notes than others.
The Kora
♦ Played by group of male musicians called jali of the Manding people.
♦ The kora is made for a gourd that is cut in half, with an animal skin
stretched tightly across it. At the top of the gourd is a heavy stick.
The strings are attached to the top
and stretched down fitting into slots on either side of a bridge which is
supported by the skin.
♦ The kora is used mainly to accompany praise songs, which are usually
about great Manding heroes or kings.
The Xylophone
♦ Also played by the Manding people, particularly in The Gambia.
♦ These xylophones are smaller and flatter than those used in Ghana and Burkina and usually have
19 bars.
Both the Kora and the Xylophone have seven notes to the octave, but the tuning does not fit with the
Western scale. There are different tunings, which are slightly different.
The basic starting point for the kora and xylophone is the kumbengo.
This is a basic pattern, which contains all the main ideas of the music, and it can be added to and
varied according to the ability of the player. Small changes to the kumbengo are made to give the
music interest, but more extensive ornamentation and improvisation is called birimintingo, and this
usually happens when there is no vocal part. When playing a duet, usually one musician will play the
birimintingo while the less experienced person
keeps the kumbengo going. The kunbengo accompanies a style of singing called donkilo that means
‘call to dance’. The songs are usually quite short and often have two main phrases.
Pitched Instruments of African Music
Singing which the Kora accompanies, literally ‘call to dance’.
Donkilo
Extensive improvisation and ornamentation of instrumental
music.
Birimintingo
Basic pattern which contains all the main themes of a piece of Kumbengo
music.
Medium to large vegetable like a pumpkin, which has been
hollowed, out and dried and used as an amplifier.
Gourd
People who, today, live in Mali, Gunea, Gunea-Bissau,
senegal, Gambia and north west Ivory Coast.
Manding
A word used outside Africa to describe families of hereditary
musicians.
Griot
A stringed instrument made from a large gourd, with 21
strings. Jali Mandinka word for a griot.
Kora
Missing words
Donkilo
Griot
Gourd
Birimintingo
Manding
Kumbengo
Kora
Answers
Pitched Instruments of African Music
Singing which the Kora accompanies, literally ‘call to dance’.
Donkilo
Extensive improvisation and ornamentation of instrumental
music.
Birimintingo
Basic pattern which contains all the main themes of a piece of Kumbengo
music.
Medium to large vegetable like a pumpkin, which has been
hollowed, out and dried and used as an amplifier.
Gourd
People who, today, live in Mali, Gunea, Gunea-Bissau,
senegal, Gambia and north west Ivory Coast.
Manding
A word used outside Africa to describe families of hereditary
musicians.
Griot
A stringed instrument made from a large gourd, with 21
strings. Jali Mandinka word for a griot.
Kora
Missing words
Donkilo
Griot
Gourd
Birimintingo
Manding
Kumbengo
Kora