Music of West Africa
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The music of West Africa has a significant history, and its varied sounds reflect the wide range of influences from surrounding countries and historical periods.
Traditional West African music varies due to the regional separation of West Africa, yet it can be distinguished by two distinct categories: Islam music and indigenous secular music. The widespread influence of Islam on culture in West Africa dates back to at least the 9th century, facilitated by the introduction of camels to trade routes between the North of Africa and Sub-Saharan West Africa. Islam-influenced West African music commonly includes the use of stringed instruments such as the goje, while more secular traditional West African music incorporates greater use of drums such as the djembe.
More contemporary styles of music in West Africa have been influenced by American music, African jazz and gospel music. Historical activity in West Africa, such as colonial expansion by the British Empire and slave trade across the Atlantic Ocean, gave rise to kaiso, which has influenced the sounds of Calypso, a style with major popularity throughout West Africa.
Griots, also known as 'wandering musicians', have traditionally been a major part in the distribution of music throughout West Africa, as their purpose is to spread oral tradition through musical storytelling. The role of griots remains significant in preserving smaller ethnolinguistic groups' cultures.
The sounds of popular music throughout West Africa are comparable to a combination of Western, Latin American and traditional African music. Genres such as Highlife, Afro-Calypso and African Jazz reflect this fusion.
Highlife is an upbeat, multi-instrumental and jovial style of music which is sung in many regional languages including Igbo, Yoruba and Ewe. Ghanaian music scholar V. Kofi Agawu (2006) writes: “Highlife is invested with a bundle of attributes that include personal and communal pride, stateliness, self-satisfaction, and a strategic complacency.” Highlife is rarely sung in English. The original form of highlife holds its origins in Ghana, however most regions that have adopted highlife music compose their own variations on its sounds, altering the pace, instrumentation and lyrics. E.T. Mensah and E.K. Nyame were two Ghanaian musicians who pioneered the Highlife genre, gaining significant popularity and acclaim throughout their careers.
Calypso music remains popular throughout West Africa. Developed from West African kaiso, the sounds of calypso are similar to those of highlife, however the two differ slightly in lyrics and instrumentation. Lyrics in highlife are generally repeated more than those in calypso songs, despite the two genres’ subject matter remaining similar; both are commonly about romantic relationships and desire.
Rhythm is the foundation of West Africa’s traditional music, so percussion instruments play a major role in constructing its sounds. Traditional music of West Africa incorporates the use of a variety of percussive instruments, the most popular of which is the West African djembe. Known also as the ‘magic drum’ or the ‘healing drum’, the djembe is spiritually important to West African tradition as it is believed that three spirits reside within the drum. These spirits are those of the tree which provided the drum’s wooden frame, the animal which gave its skin for the drumhead and the carver or drum assembler.
The sounds of the djembe vary from low-pitched bass sounds (achieved by beating the centre of the drumhead with a flat, outstretched hand) to tone and slap sounds, which have a higher pitch, created by striking the drumhead closer to its edge with only fingertips. The greater tension of the drumhead skin towards the edge of the drum causes this higher-pitched note.
The djembe plays an important role in traditional music as it is seen as a way to communicate emotional experiences in communal situations. The emphasis on the djembe and many other drums as having the ability to ‘talk’ shows how these drums are valued for their communication purposes.
The sounds of the West African djembe are growing increasingly popular in the Western world. Guinean musician Fodéba Keïta incorporated use of the djembe throughout the 1950s worldwide tour of his dance company, Les Ballets Africains, which performed various traditional West African songs and dances. This considerably increased knowledge of the djembe and other West African instruments throughout Europe and Asia.
Some West African drummers famed for their djembe proficiency are Famadou Konaté, Mamady Keïta, Babatunde Olatunji and Abdoulaye Diakité. These people are what is known throughout Africa as master drummers.
The balafon is an instrument similar to the xylophone in Western countries. A member of the idiophone family of instruments, the balafon is used by many Griots and is commonly found in Brikama, a location of great cultural and musical depth. Guinea’s Susu and Mandinka peoples also regularly use the balafon in their traditional song and dance.
To create a sound, wooden keys on a bamboo structure are struck with percussion sticks.
A major element of experiencing West African music, both traditional and contemporary (especially gospel music), is physical expression through dance. Dances are commonly named after the musical tunes which they follow, such as Yankadi, which originated in Southwest Guinea. This is a slow dance which has an emphasis on seduction; two rows of men and women face one another, and dance with an emphasis on eye contact and ‘touching each other’s hands and heart region’. This develops into Makru, a faster-paced element of this courting dance which is danced separate from one’s partner.
In many regions in Africa, traditional dance is considered to be a part of language, a way to translate and communicate experiences. Dance is also a way by which different linguistic and cultural groups can represent and distinguish themselves. For example, the Mbalax dance is a significant cultural hallmark of Senegal, and the Bata dance is traditional to the Yoruba people of Southwest Nigeria.
Most traditional dances throughout West Africa are designated to a specific gender, requiring careful practice and coordination in order for a dancer to fully express the meaning behind a given dance. For example, the Mbalax dance holds its origins as a part of ndut rite of passage ceremonies and is thus traditionally valued as a sacred process.
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