African Tribal Music


African Tribal Music Essay, Research Paper

In our Western culture, we have always been entertained and pleased by the sound of music. Whether listening to the radio or going to a live concert, the music itself is usually considered a form of art or past time for the listener and the performer. While some can connect, relate to, or even “feel” the power of the music, not many westerners can comprehend “living” the music. In African tribal culture, the people have done just that since ancient times. They have spent each day using the music along with their work, daily routines, ceremonies, rituals, and gatherings. To them, the sound that is produced from their instruments and voice is more than a product of creativity of a group of musicians, it is a gift from the Gods which has high symbolic meaning and serves a purpose. In our modern, hi-tech, wireless society, the significance of music is something we have long forgotten, or may have never understood at all, and is certainly something that is taken for granted. As this essay will show you, the connection with and use of music by the African tribal people, in comparison to its purpose in Western culture, has much more valuable spiritual significance.

Let us start with a general overview of the whole original tribal aspect of African music. The word “tribal” “refers to the language spoken, sometimes to political entities, and sometimes to other kinds of groupings of the African people and their boundaries” (Britannica Online). The general idea of a tribe is an attempt to impose identity from the outside, so in a sense, “tribe” could mean “ethnic identity”. So basically, a tribe can be a small group of people who live and travel together and have certain customs and rituals unlike any other group, a certain language spoken in a specific area of Africa, or even a huge empire comprised of very different kinds of people. Tribal music was found in two general areas of Africa, the Maghrib area, north of the Sahara desert, and the southern sub-Saharan area. The musical influences of the tribes really intertwined because of the constant migration and interactions between the people of the different tribes. Due to the fact that there were so many different tribes in Africa, some that are still unknown till this day, each musical style is almost impossible to classify. Ethnomusicologists, who research music origins around the world in comparison to their cultures, use four ways of classifying African tribal musical styles. Geography is a variable since there are people in different areas that create different types of music. Technology applies because style in some areas really differs based on the materials of the instruments or ability to make the instruments and create the music. Individuality is important because each musician is different, but it’s hard, even for experts, to be familiar with and make distinctions between all the different pieces that so many musicians of many tribes can create. And last of all is “institution, in that the creation of works of art takes place under the influence of the social and cultural institutions characteristic of any given location” (Britannica Online). These are very general concepts, but they give an idea of categorizing the music of the tribes.

There are many generalizations about the African music-culture that can be made showing the significance of tribal music. Unlike the West, where most music is pretty much considered “art for art’s sake”, the tribal music of the African people serves a social function. “African music often happens in social situations where people’s primary goals are not artistic. Instead, music is for ceremonies (life cycle rituals, festivals), work (subsistence, childcare, domestic chores, wage labor), or play (games, parties, lovemaking). Music-making contributes to an event’s success by focusing attention, communicating information, encouraging social solidarity, and transforming consciousness” (Titon 74). Since the music is set in a social context, it’s associated and applied right along with life, not set into the background like it’s customary in Western society. A great example of music being used along with life is Jim Koettings’ 1970’s recording of “Postal Workers Canceling Stamps” at the University of Ghana in Africa. The whole process the workers are using to make the music is a simple repetition of slapping letters, inking markers, and stamping, along with a clicking of scissors. It’s so unique, as though an average day job is getting completed at the same time an improvisational jam session is being played. It is customs like these that seem so foreign and strange to the Western culture, but there is great purpose to this music making. As work music, “this performance undoubtedly lifted the workers’ spirits and enabled them to coordinate their efforts. The music probably helped the workers change their attitude toward the job. Music often helps workers control the mood of the work place” (Jackson 1972). African music such as this includes a lot of participation, but the training to learn it isn’t “professional”, like paying money to take lessons for a certain instrument in Western culture. It’s more like a “society-wide process of enculturation?the process of learning one’s culture gradually during childhood”(Titon 76) that teaches the people how to respond to it so naturally. The reason that it’s so hard for the Western culture to comprehend the beliefs and values of Africans toward their music is a natural “intercultural misunderstanding”. What Americans and Africans see as “music” is entirely different. “Africans conceive of music as a necessary and normal part of life. Neither exalted nor denigrated as Art, music fuses with other life processes. Traditional songs and musical instruments are not commodities separable from the flux of life” (Titon 76). It is although the instruments used by the Africans are considered to be like people, and treated with major respect in the process of creating the sound that comes from them. In America, we have what is known as a concert-music-culture, as we tend to think of music as a performance art, because that’s how it was originally presented in the West with operas and classical orchestras. Most Americans don’t even seem to recognize that being a musician is a serious profession in comparison to the hi-tech computer jobs and such out there right now. What a non-African listener assumes is an item of music may be the voice of an ancestor to an African. When Jim Koetting recorded the postal workers in Ghana, he said, “It sounds like music and, of course, it is; but the men performing do not quite think of it that way. The men are working, not putting on a musical show; people pass by the work place paying little attention to the ‘music’”(Koetting 1992:98).

In American culture, we aren’t raised with these beliefs, so we put music away into the form of a hobby or entertainment at most. It’s so interesting comparing the cultures, because it’s like two completely different universes. Till this day, tribes remain in Africa playing the same music as their ancestors did, only it’s not always music to them. On the other hand, in America, it seems as though we take music for granted. We barely pay attention to the muffled radio sounds of easy listening as we drive to work, and stay an MTV hit-song society. It’s as though music has no true significance to us, and maybe if it did, our lives could benefit in such a great way. I mean, a lot of people here are fans of music, or even are attached to certain songs due to emotional or sentimental value, but there are too many “distractions” and elements in our culture that prevent us from making the music a part of our lives. “For many Africans, music is a living thing ensouled by the spiritual energy that travels through it” (Amoaku 1985:37). And what is it to us Westerners, a CD collection at most? Also, in America, some people put so much effort and faith into religion and spirituality, but without arts, especially music, it doesn’t seem as though spirituality can truly be meaningful. The African culture has really found something that the Western culture shakes off so easily as primitive, but they are so much stronger and united as a people because of it. This is because to the African tribes, “the vital function of African music is to mold separate individuals into a group” (Stone 7).

In conclusion, as a musician, I am absolutely intrigued by the way the music so naturally sets in to the life of the African tribes, and I almost wish that it could be similar in my life. I use music in every way possible to guide me through life, but the way I have been raised to think, I still consider ‘music’ itself a form of art. However, it’s not something I lock away as a hobby. I recognize its significance, and have benefited so much from writing and performing music that is completely from the heart. To me, it doesn’t matter whether the music is catchy or has a commercially marketable groove, it only matters if it means something to me and makes real feelings come out. In that way, I believe that my thinking is somewhat similar to that of the people in the African tribes. We shouldn’t change our entire society in order to have music benefit us spiritually, but to me, I stand by the belief that we should acknowledge it as more than art, but as a gift that can inspire, motivate, move, or even heal us as a people.


Britannica Online. Search for “ethnomusicology – Africa” or “African music”. Internet:, accessed November 19th, 2000

Amoaku, W. Komla “Toward a Definition of Traditional African Music: A Look at the Ewe of Ghana.” In Irene Jackson, ed., More than Drumming, 31-40. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Koetting, James “Africa/Ghana.” In Worlds of Music. 2nd ed. New York: Schirmer Books. 1992

Stone, Ruth M. African Music in a Constellation of Arts. “The Garland Handbook of African Music.” (Journal) 7-12 p. 2000.

Titon, Jeff Todd. Worlds of Music. 3rd ed. Chapter on Music of Africa by David Locke. Schirmer Books, 1996.

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