Africa: Rhythm of the Earth

by Serrano Sianturi
Translated by Ferdi Zebua

African Music is one of the richest in the world and acclaimed for its influence in other music on other parts of the world, until today. One of the difference, as well as similarity, between other music and their music is the instrument they use in past centuries. Up to today, their musical instruments are still played and based on each roots value. Description on the diversity of those musical instruments will be described below and hopefully this article can give you a clearer perspective (Ed.)

Africa as a musical continent has long been acknowledged by many people. Even so, not many realize the magnitude of Africa’s musical influence upon music throughout the world. When in fact, the influence of African music is all too often heard in music we hear every day.

To the Africans, music is a transliteration of their daily lives which ”give sound” to three elements: life; nature with the environment; and divinity (the supernatural and spiritual world). Translating these three things into music (and dance) appears to be ingrained in the blood of Africans, wherever, and in whatever condition, they may be in. Little surprise that they continue to be able to create through periods where they are herded to foreign lands and enslaved by the Europeans.

In South America, the African slaves have given the world Cumbia (Colombia), Samba, Bahia, Capoeira (Brazil), Salsa, Cha cha cha (Cuba); in Central America and the Carribeans, they have given birth to Merengue (the Dominicans), Creole (Haiti), Steel Pan (Trinidad), and Reggae (Jamaica). While in North America, they have gifted us Gospel, Blues, Jazz, and in the last three decades Rap and Hip Hop.

Homogenity of African Music

It is often said that African Music is very eclectic, each different from the other in many things. This does bear truth, but even so, within these many differences there are some characteristic similarities consisting of:

Repetitious, cohesive, overlapping, interlocked, multi-leveled, polyrhythmic, and contrast.

Another element very central within African music and dance is eroticism. In African culture, fertility and sexual prowess are very important values. Because of this, their music and dance are generally and intentionally designed as “tools” to give sexual education to their youth, specifically regarding their future roles in a polygynous social environment.

In addition to the above characteristics, the African people in general have a caste of musicians which they call Jali. In regions formerly colonized by France, this term has been “modified” into Griot, this term also often used. These Jali not only perform the role of mere music makers, but they also lead various ritualistic ceremonies, including burning the hearts of warriors heading for the battlefield.

Mapping of Africa’s Musical Territories.

In general, music in Africa can be divided into 5 regions: Mediterranean & Maghreb, The Nile River & Bay, West Africa, Central & Eastern Africa, and South Africa.

At the Mediterranean and Maghreb region there are three nations with strong musical traditions, they are: Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. In this region, the influence of Arabian culture in music is very pronounced, both in structure and in instrumentation. In addition to Arabic culture, music in this region has not let go of its source of origin, which is the music of the Berber people, the original natives before the arrival of the Arabs. Music of the Berber people are classified as village music, performed collectively by men and women in the form of music and dance, which always begin with a sung prayer. The main instruments are Bendir (hand drums) and the Flute.

This area is also believed to be one of the places where the Flamenco music and dance developed. The word Flamenco itself is said to derive from the Arabic word felag mengu which is translated to fugitive peasants.
The central theme of music in this region is love, drinks (in the context of celebration), and spiritualism or religiosity. Instruments commonly used are string instruments such as the Lute (a precursor of the gambus), Buzuq and Rebab. The uniqueness in the use of these string instruments is in their function more as rhythmic strings. Next for percussion are the Darabouka, Taarija, Tabl, and Guedra. In general, music in this region also uses vocals.

At the Nile River and Bay region lies Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. In Egypt herself the influence of pre-Islamic music can be said to have gone extinct, while in Sudan and Ethiopia their influence is still strong. In the pre-Islamic era, music was the responsibility of women. Even should there be men, they in general are transvestites. Their task is to entertain the nobles and escort the warriors in the battlefield. In addition they also entourage the Pagan people’s pilgrimage to serve their gods at Ka’bah, Mecca. Aside from being artists, they also take role as prostitutes while entertaining. It is this condition which lead Islam to then forbid music and classify it as haraam.

Islam itself has given several melodic modes called maqamat. Each maqam consists of 24 parts, not 12 unlike the chromatic melodic system observed in the West. While as for rhythm, they adopt from the walking rhythm of Camels as they walk in the desert, this form named the Rajaz rhythm.

There are 2 kinds of popular music in Egypt. The first is the Shaabi, which originates from music called Mawal which in principle is freestyle vocal improvisation with song lyrics themed on sadness or mourning. The second is Al Jil, which basically is Arab beat techno music. This contrasts with Sudan. In this land we can still easily encounter musical “ceremonies” called Zar which originates far before the arrival of Islam. This ceremony is lead by a person called a Sheika Az-zar. This music solely uses percussion; while its activities encompass the burning of incense, massage, and dance for the purposes of releasing frustration from within the self. This musical ceremony goes on from dawn till dusk, with duration from 4 to 7 days. Various percussion play in this ceremony are directed towards various spirits. In addition to Zar, Sudan also has the Darwis dance and music, based upon praise/zikir.

In Ethiopia there is also spiritual music called Amhari. This music has pentatonic scale with long instruments between several notes. This interval gives a feeling of “unfinishedness” as if waiting for the sound of an object dropped into a very deep water well. Another characteristic is their “slanted” and asymmetric rhythm.

West Africa is perhaps one region one would be hard-pressed to find rivals to in the realms of rhythm, melody, and texture. This is the region whose “offsprings” include the blues, jazz, rock’n’roll, reggae, Latin music, and to an extent even influence Rock music. Nations well known for their musical and dance arts include Burkina Faso,Ghana, Mali, Senegal, and Nigeria. This region has two large musical lineages, which are the Maninka, and Bamana. Maninka contains a moderate tempo, ornamental melody, static harmony, and vocal lines which flow lengthily. Banama, on the other hand, uses pentatonic scale, a slower tempo, and a “raw” (unadulterated) melody. Songs in this region are usually performed by men with high pitched and nasal characteristics. While lyrics generally used contain condemnations towards treason, hypocrisy, and obsession.

String and percussion instruments are used. The common string instrument used is the Kora (a combination of lute and harp with between 21 to 25 strings), the Ngoni (a horizontal gambus), and the Khalam (the ancestor of the Banjo). Meanwhile for percussion, often used are the Balafon (a xylophone made of wood and with frames of bamboo, consisting of between 18 to 21 note pieces), and various drums such as the Jembe, Tama (talking drum), and Doundoun (a two-sided drum played using a heavy mallet).

In Central and Eastern Africa, dance music is the main menu, and because of this it sounds more like popular music. The origin of this dance music is the Soukousmusic which in essence is folk dance music. At Zaire, the main instrument used is a string instrument called Nyatiti, while in Zanzibar they more often use percussion instruments Dumbak, Tabla and Rika (rebana) in addition to the Oud (an early form of the gambus). This in contrast to Madagascar; music in this nation often use theValiha (a zither, or a member of the lute family) which is shaped cylindrical and has 21 strings surrounding it vertically. In addition they also often use the flute and a 3-stringed fiddle.

South Africa is considered one of the birthplaces of music in Africa. History has recorded the musical activities of the hunting tribe called the San (which means bushmen) from as far as 4000 years ago. Instruments they use include rattles, simple drummed instruments, flutes, and their hunting bows. 2000 years later, this musical activity is continued by the Khoi tribe, who made them more complex. Vasco Da Gama in his notes mentions that he was greeted by a 5 person reed flute ensemble.

Structure in South African music is connected to 2 or more melodic phrases repeated over and over without any time limit. This gives a hypnotic effect to both the performers and the listeners. These phrases are not played/sung in unison (harmonic unity) but instead are done spontaneously without any firm time pattern but also in response to one after another. His gives birth to simultaneous polyphony. This is the structure which forms the base to the “call and response” adopted by Gospel, Doo Wop, and Soul music in the USA.

This article was presented in the 3rd Session of Listen to The World Series on December 17, 2009.

Serrano Sianturi is the Founder and Chairman of Sacred Bridge Foundation.