Africa is a continent with culturally rich and demographically diverse music – centuries of tradition behind it. It might not be apparent to the casual listener, but African music has a widespread influence on current genres of music that we know and love: historically brought over to the New World through the slave trade, black African music combined with the musical traditions of European settlers in America gave birth to new genres of music, namely jazz, gospel and blues; these genres later became the foundation of contemporary pop music as we know it.
Music holds major significance in traditional African culture: it is an important part in traditional ceremonies, and song and dance performances are also performed to pay respects to ancestral spirits and the dead, as well as to ward off bad omens. It is largely driven by percussion instruments, and focuses more on rhythm rather than melody. Vocals-wise, traditional African music largely employs polyphony – a textured layering of many voices. Choral ensembles are often present, particularly in the music of the Zulu people in the south of Africa.
On the contemporary side, African pop music has had a symbiotic exchange with the rest of the world: as mentioned, African music and artists have influenced genres outside of Africa, and elements of other genres have been borrowed and adapted by African musicians in their music.
It is worth noting how much hip-hop, as a musical genre, fits into the context of Africa. Coming out of North America in the 80s and 90s amidst a global wave of Americanization, it has assimilated quite well into African culture, staying true to its African-American roots and original purpose of providing an outlet for sociopolitical commentary. In particular, hip-hop music coming from South Africa seems to be the most politically-charged: the former national policy of Apartheid is often made the subject, as well as current issues after the country’s rebirth as the Rainbow Nation. Occasionally, it must be taken with a little irony, like the following by Die Antwoord:
All in all, nothing else comes close to being emblematic of the boundless energy, sanguine camaraderie and vibrant culture of Africa as its music – if you need to get that vibe going, put something from Africa on.
By Zamir Zainal