Traditional Music of Africa

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Africa is a large continent with severe natural features that divide the continent into smaller regions. Musical ideas and traditions developed and evolved within these regions, largely independent from the rest of the continent.

Personally, I think African music is amazing because you can hear its influence all around the world. Through the slave trade and voluntary migration resulting from political unrest, great waves of Africans have re-settled across the world, particularly into parts of Europe, South Asia, islands in the Indian Ocean, and the Americas. As a result, African music has had a huge impact on the development of music worldwide.

Below you’ll find musical genres organized by region with an accompanying playlist. Listen in the order they are presented here or as part of my recommended Three Year Geography Program that covers the entire world, region by region, over three years.

Remember, this playlist is just a sampling. There are many great artists, songs, and genres and I cannot include them all. To dig deeper into a particular musical genre, visit the World Music section of your local library’s CD collection. Before showing your students, be sure to read my disclaimer here.

You can also listen to these songs on the Music of Africa Playlist on my YouTube Channel.

Use my World Music listening pages to guide students in active listening while enjoying this playlist.

Regions

North Africa

North African music is isolated from the rest of the continent due to the wide band of the Sahara Desert. As a result, its sound most resembles music in the Middle East and has taken inspiration from Arab, Persian, and Turkish traditions. Also, the role of Islam cannot be ignored in the shaping of north African music and its connection to the Middle East.

Geography Review

In this study, all countries north of the Sahara are in this region (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Western Sahara), as well as some countries traditionally considered west African (Niger, Mali, Cape Verde), but are culturally more connected to those in northern Africa.

Berber, throughout North Africa

The Berber music tradition is considered one of the oldest in the world. It spans all of the Sahara and features various regional characteristics. Today, Berber music is played ceremonially or as popular dance music.

Sahrawi, Western Sahara and Mauritania

The Sahrawi people live in the western region of North Africa, namely the disputed Western Sahara and Mauritania. The artist, Mariem Hassan, was born into a nomadic family in Western Sahara and her music is held as an anthem for the struggles of her people. She sings in Arabic and occassionally in Spanish (Western Sahara was a Spanish colony). Her music is an example of “Desert Blues”, a mix of traditional North African music and modern jazz.

To learn more about Mariem Hassan, read her recent obituary by The Guardian

Nuubaat, Algeria

Nuubaat music is part classical string orchestra, part North African folk music. This Algerian genre is a fascinating study of geography. It is traced back to 15th century Andalusia. Originally, the Moors brought their Arab music into Spain where it merged with the classical style. Centuries later, many were exiled into North Africa and the music’s Arab roots became more pronounced.

Malouf, Tunisia

Like Nuubaat, Malouf originated in Andalusia, but developed in Tunisia instead of Algeria. This video provides a further introduction.

Morna, Cape Verde

Morna is included because it makes an interesting geography study. It comes from Cape Verde, an island country once colonized by Portugal. It is melancholy in style, carries strong European influences, and is usually sung in Portuguese. The lyrics often relate to the people’s struggles living as a colonized country. This song, “Ingrata”, is about the longing for a daughter who emigrated away from Cape Verde in search for a better life.

West Africa

Geographic Overview

West Africa is surrounded by severe natural features – Atlantic Ocean, Sahara Desert, and the Central African rain forests. Countries include Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leon, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, and Cape Verde. This small region has a rich and often dizzying variety of climates, languages, and ethnic groups.

Malinke, throughout West Africa

The Malinke people share a cultural heritage and live throughout West Africa. There 1.5 million members of this group. As a group, they practice Islam and live in both urban and rural areas. The music emphasizes percussion and is important in all areas of life.

Below is a video featuring Malinke dance during the kick-off to the fishing season.

Article about Malinke music.

Central Africa

Geographic Overview

Central Africa has vast forests with primitive infrastructure which allows many of its traditions to flourish. I have focused my music examples to the Baka people living in the forested regions of Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, and Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Baka, Cameroon and Congo

The Baka people live in the deep rain forests of Central Africa. This music emphasizes many different vocal parts (often sung at the same time) and has a lot of repetition and improvisation.

Below features the Baka women’s tradition of yodeling.

East Africa

Geographic Overview

East Africa extends all the way from the Horn of Africa, across the equator and down the Indian Ocean coastline. It has the biggest animals and the biggest mountains, Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya.

Kenyan Traditional Music

The people and music of Kenya is very diverse with over 40 regional languages. Below is a video that offers a quick glance at many different Kenyan traditions.

Taarab, Tanzania

What happens when you mix African, Middle Eastern and Indian music together? You get Taarab. Taarab resulted from the sizable migration and slavery between east Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia. This is seen not only in the melody, but the instruments used as well. A popular singer, Bi Kidude, is featured in both videos.

Southern Africa

Geographic Overview

The musical genres in this section are connected to people groups, like the Zulu, Xhosa, and San, which span across a half dozen countries. Since country borders were drawn without consideration to people group settlements it is difficult to isolate a particular genre to a particular country. For your studies, however, I made an effort to assign specific place names.

Mbira, Zimbabwe

Mbira is a musical genre named for its primary instrument, the mbira. This small instrument is made of narrow metal tines which are plucked with the musician’s thumbs. It’s associated with ceremonial music in Zimbabwe. It’s played in groups and on a cycle, without a particular beginning or end to the song.

For more information, visit from Mbira.org.

The mbira (thumb harp, or thumb piano) can be placed inside a guard called a deze, to amplify the delicate sound.

You can dig deeper into the Mbira tradition, by researching Chimurenga music. Chimurenga (the Shona word for “struggle” or “fight”) is the modern equivalent of traditional Mbira where the electric guitar replaces and mimics the mbira sound. Its songs are about the country’s on-going struggle out of colonization.

The San (Bushmen), Botswana

San music is characterized by many, sometimes contradictory, voices (human or instrumental) layering on top of one another. San instruments include the single stringed zither, the mbira, and drum.

Xhosa, South Africa

The Xhosa are the second largest cultural group in South Africa, after the Zulu-speaking nation. Traditionally, Xhosa music is choral in nature and uses hand clapping as accompaniment. Drums are used but to a lesser extent compared to other African traditions.

Isicathamiya, South Africa

In the early 20th century, thousands of Zulu men left their homelands and moved into the cities for work. Soon, Zulu neighborhoods developed. They brought with them a strong tradition of music making, but no instruments, so they used only voices instead. Here, Isicathamiya was born as a type of male-only, a Capella choral singing. It takes a call-and-response form and is performed by ensembles ranging in size from 4 to more than 20 singers.

I hope you enjoy the music in this playlist. Be sure to visit my Music of North and South America playlist and subscribe to get emails as more become available.