Long before the Europeans brought music to the masses, the people of Africa were involved in the art of expression through song and dance. Their complex and rich beautiful music served many purposes and was influenced by the more than 1,000 indigenous languages on the continent and eventually the colonization languages of English, French, and Portuguese. These people of old were hunters and gatherers or farmers living in permanent settlements. Some of these grew cash crops like coffee, cocoa, and tobacco but they all had one thing in common: music. For the many African peoples, music was a release, a call, designed for a collective purpose and communicated a story or message. The inhabitants of this large and diverse continent had a lasting impact on other countries around the world. As they traveled to regions such as Brazil, the Caribbean, Europe and the United States, whether captive or free, they brought with them their tribal songs and stories, told in poetry and dance, and shared their religious and mythical beliefs and experiences.
The music of African tribes and peoples knew no class boundaries. It was the music of the people designed to bring everyone together for a collective purpose. To understand the African music one must know some of the central ideas of the African people. They are a story-telling people and the most famous story is the Woi Epic of the Kpelle ethnic group. The Woi Epic is important because it is a series of short stories about the superhuman hero Woi. The required listening was interesting as the speaker told the never ending story with interlocking episodes about the wife who gets paid by sleeping with me. The Woi Epic is in many ways a communal form of music because the story teller and the audience participate much like the call and response songs. As well as story-tellers the African tribesmen were people who worshiped and praised the gods and it was evident in the ceremonies where praise singers participated, especially special events such as funerals, weddings, etc.
In the over 3,000 different tribes of Africa, the common thread and important social structure is Kinship. Kinship played an invaluable role during the colonization process and the decades of slave entrapment, transportation, and relocation. It provided a sense of belonging and security and gave the slaves the strength to endure hardships never before imagined. Combined with their tradition of song, Africans transported to the new lands integrated music into their everyday lives just as they had done for generations before. Singing allowed them to rise above the hunger, brutality, loss, and ultimately pass along their traditions to the next generation so their stories would not be lost. We hear of slaves who sang songs like “bringing in the sheaves” to describe their daily threshing and picking work on plantations, although the underlying message was the uplifting religious story of Christ coming again to harvest his people to the afterlife. This type of allusion singing was widely used.
Many of the Africans who boarded slave trade ships ended up in the Hispanic Caribbean where they lived and worked the cane fields of the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Here they incorporated local musical style with their own African songs and music and the merengue was born in the Dominican Republic, the Son, Rumba, and Santeria were born in Cuba, and the Bomba and Plena were born in Puerto Rico. The Merengue is an African/Spanish hybrid that retains African style and qualities and incorporates Spanish accordion, language, and melodies. The Son is a Creolized 19th century fusion of African and other styles. The Rumba is Neo African and is a seductive couples dance with African rhythm retained. The Santeria is also neo African style with drums, bells, Spanish language and contains the cyclical element and the call and response of the African tradition. The Bomba is an African style with Puerto Rican style infused. There are a lot of drums that improvise and the call and response and cyclical methods of African music are utilized. It was the most popular in Puerto Rico and sang of the 11820s slave uprising which marginalized the African peoples. The Plena is another hybrid style that is creolized and is a commercialized version of folklore where it speaks for the common people.
The slave trade brought Africa to the Caribbean and the United States and their music was political and included the work song aspect as mentioned above. Political songs addressed how the people felt. The Steel pan from Trinidad was an Afro-Trinidadian style that utilized a lot of instruments. Carnival/calypso is one of the most well- known types of music to come from the Caribbean. It is a hybridized music of Trinidad that contains verbal dueling in commercialized carnival music. From Calypso emerged the Latin Jazz from New Orleans that has African aesthetics with European music, a complex rhythm and simple harmony, and the Salsa from New York City with its roots in the Son music of Cuba.
Ancestral traditions and the ancestral belief in spirits was fundamental to the people of Africa as was evidenced in their music and in the carry-over music woven into that of the Caribbean and Brazil. Brazil received 40% of the slaves which lead to a lot of African influence. Popular music from Brazil was the Samba with a rich syncopated rhythm that invites people to dance and the Tropicalia which only lasted for two years. Tropicalia was an attempt to express rebellion but gave rose to the Bossa Nova and the MPB movements which include Portuguese influence of strings, standard verse and the Portuguese language along with layered rhythm, heavy percussion and syncopation from the African music.
While most of Africa worshiped the gods of earth, there was influence of Islam and Christianity in the more urban areas, which ultimately affected the type of music and song from the area and these religions became infused into old tribal and ancestral traditions. Africa also had syncretic religions and this is evident in the spirit religion called voodoo intensely practiced in the Caribbean nations. The music of African tribes was devoid of western harmony but carried a strong rhythm and beat and invited the body to move freely and without inhibition. This music style lent well to the Voodoo rituals and celebrations where the song and body called out the spirits.
Common threads within the music of various African tribes include the adherence to cyclical time. The people did not live by the clock. Time was relative and this freedom to take the time to express and communicate their message through such methods as call and response; ostinato; improvisation; and telling the myth. Commonalities across all nations of Africa are the methods of: cyclical time, call and response, ostinato, improvision, myths, collective participation, and drums. The music of this continent and its people was vibrant, steeped in tradition, highly rhythmic. As Europeans came and others began to settle the continent, the music began to take on a different tone of blended Christian hymns into spiritual work songs. The heavy use of drums remained consistent and added to the rhythm as musicians incorporated the timbre and tone of the drums to the words, rhythms and sounds of the voice, with the sway and swing of the body in dance.
Other factors influenced the African stamp on music. Nationalism is a common theme running through the music then and now. When so many different cultures come together problems arise. Music can help overcome the difficulties and bring a nation together to facilitate cultural uniqueness and a collective identity. An example is Jamaican Bob Marley and his Reggae music. Marley is synonymous with Jamaica. Brazil is known for its artistic cannibalism where the arts and artists feed off each other to bring identity to the Brazilian music movement.
African music was not limited to Africa and the countries that received slaves. The music spread around the world but was dismissed until somebody found it intriguing and exquisite. Music represents one’s race and culture and is not universally valued. As slavery spread, the music of African tribes blended with that of the host nations and cultures. From this came jazz, salsa, rumba, reggae, samba, rap, and hip-hop. Consider the music of today, it might be difficult to ascertain how rap evolved from the early African music, a reminder that early music communicated a message and didn’t necessarily following any rhyme but had rhythm and a beat as the words expressed the singer’s story. Isn’t that the definition of rap?
Music is versatile. It is a common tool for spreading ideas and messages. With the growth of technology and social media, more westerners have access to African music and more Africans can listen to western music. When one group can utilize facets of the other’s music and incorporate it to create a new musical genre everybody benefits from the new sound. Several aspects of African music have been retained through the centuries. Music that resonates with African influence includes syncopation, rhythm layering, call and response attitude, a focus on percussion, ingenuity, a connection with dance, and form. Jazz tells a story but more recently the hip-hop and rap movements truly bring Africa to the forefront of the western music scene. Energetic use of body, tone, inflection, and words express the stories of the rappers and hip-hop artists, a testament to African influence. The claim that African music is cyclic and focuses on events is evident in the nature of its influence on western music, which in turn influenced African music and now has returned to bring a hybrid back to the west. African music has come full cycle.