Deloitte Ignite 2012: Introduction to African music
Max Reinhardt explores the cross-currents of the music of Africa and its diaspora.
3 September 2012 at 3.44pm | Comment on this article
The African continent is home to over one billion people, more than 50 countries and over 1,000 local languages. This immense diversity makes it difficult to generalize about the continent and its music. So what follows is just an enthusiastic toe-dip into the waters based on nearly three wild and happy decades of playing African music on dance floors and on the radio.
Over the course of the last century, the music of Africa and its diaspora, in all its varied forms, has undoubtedly become the most successful and influential form of popular music on the planet. With the rise of US minimalists, such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and European composers like Györgi Ligeti – all of whom have been influenced by African music – its impact on contemporary classical music has grown ever stronger. African music is so much part of our musical DNA that first-time listeners to music from the continent are going to feel a frisson of recognition, a sense they’re coming home.
The organic, circular patterns of African music can be heard in contemporary dance music, be it house, dub step, rap or grime. And the roots of rap music can be traced back to African musical traditions: the widespread practice of telling stories over rhythms, and bass lines that mimic speech and singing patterns.
Three centuries of systematic enslavement and enforced removal of the peoples of West Africa spread their culture and music throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. The blues, field songs and the harmonies of spirituals all testify to the influence of Africans who were stolen from their motherland. The people whose distant memories embraced the fluent playing of Manding string instruments like ngonis (lute-like instruments) and koras adapted to the guitar and violin, and invented the banjo, with its membraneous soundboard.
Watch Mamadou Diabaté play a traditional Malian melody on the kora:
Drums were forbidden to slaves on plantations in the United States. But in Latin America and the Caribbean, the clave rhythm from Ghana and Nyabingi-like rhythms from East Africa underpinned a musical evolution that led to son, merengue and salsa on the one hand, and reggae, cumbia and reggeo on the other.
Watch a drumming circle from Ghana:
By the early years of the 20th century, evolving musical forms such as blues, jazz, beguines, tango and samba started to journey back to Africa. They travelled via migrant musicians and sailors. As the century progressed, they also spread via records, radio, touring musical stars, television, film and the internet. The diaspora continues to bring it all back home to Africa, where music mutates and bounces back to the world.
African music: key facts
- In 1997, more than a million people attended the funeral in Lagos of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, the iconic composer, multi-instrumentalist, creator of Afrobeat, rebel and human rights activist.
- Youssou N’Dour, described by Rolling Stone in 2004 as ‘perhaps the most famous singer alive in Senegal and much of Africa’ was appointed tourism and culture minister in the cabinet of new prime minister Abdoul Mbaye in April 2012. Could Adele yet become Home Secretary in the UK?
- South African singer Miriam Makeba (aka Mama Africa) sang ‘Mbube’ (otherwise known as ‘Wimoweh’ or ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’) at John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday party, immediately before Marilyn Monroe sang ‘Happy Birthday Mr President’.
- To this day, one of the most popular tunes to use for a chant on football terraces up and down the UK is Tom Hark, a Kwela (pennywhistle jazz) tune from South Africa.
- The biggest selling British act in the United States in 2011 was Nigerian-born Sade Adu OBE.
Max Reinhardt presents Late Junction on BBC Radio 3 – an eclectic mix of world music, both ancient and contemporary.