Africa: The Genesis Of Black Music

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Africa  1500 – 1860

juju (from the African Hausa language) – an object used as a fetish, a charm or an amulet in West Africa, or the supernatural power ascribed to such an object.

Africa is the second largest continent on Earth.  Africans account for over 12% of the world’s population, are distributed among 54 nations in Africa and are further differentiated into about 1,000 language and cultural groups.  Though peoples of African descent have settled on every continent, their largest population concentration outside of Africa is in North and South America, where they make up about 12% of those continents’ population.  All of human history began in Africa – the earliest mammals that can truly be called human made their first appearance on earth in Africa at least 4 million years ago. Human beings developed first in Africa and populated the rest of the world. Several of the world’s oldest and most accomplished civilizations were African, including the Egyptian Dynasties, Carthage, Ancient Ghana and the kingdom of Mali, famous for its gold and its wealthy capital of Timbuktu.

The golden kingdoms of Ghana and Mali were both located in West Africa, the area now occupied by the nations of Senegal, Guinea, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, and parts of the Congo and Zaire.  Most Africans who were forcibly brought to the New World between 1500 and 1860 were taken from this area, and were of many diverse tribes or nations, including Ashanti, Fulani, Gabon, Hausa, Ibibio, Ibo, Mandingo, Wolof and Yoruba.

Although some of our cultures on the African continent nurtured a rich tradition of written literature and history, for the most part, African societies are built upon passing down laws, customs and history through storytelling and ritual. Many African musical practices of today are remarkably similar to those of centuries ago. Early European travelers to Africa immediately noticed the inextricable integration and key role of religion, poetry, music and dance in African society — how they were not only crucial aspects of formal rituals and ceremonies but tightly interwoven with the rhythms of everyday life.  In every village you would find griots – professional musicians who exalted the fame and heroic deeds of the king or tribal leader, welcomed guests, recounted the glory of the occasion or ceremony, or simply entertained. The griots’ primary job was to entertain, but just as or more importantly, their function was to pass down the traditions and history of our people.

Most common in historic African music were percussive instruments, specifically drums, which were most frequently chosen as royal or sacred instruments and are still considered as such in modern Africa. Second in popularity to drums were stringed instruments that included lutes, banjos and fiddles, harps and zithers.

The clapping of human hands and the human voice were of critical importance as instruments as well.  Call and response, chant, conversational rhythmic recitation, punctuating shouts or sighs – the texts of songs could relate everyday gossip or glorious historical achievements of our ancestors or the tricky antics of the spider or jackal.

Music, dance and rhythm itself were forms of communication as well as a creative expression and recreation.  Griots were acknowledged as the best musicians in the village, but every African villager was a musician and dancer in this society where music was constantly being made – an all-pervasive rhythm and religious dialog between all of us — between the sun, rain, plants, animals, our people and the earth itself.

– Meredith Rutledge for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

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