Two African musical themes and their musical, social and cultural relations.

One of the predominant themes in African music is the close relationship between music and language. For instance,

“African tone languages, with their inter-syllabic relational pitch structure, manifest a musical aspect that in turn constrains melodic contour. Second, the popular and popularizing phenomenon of talking drums, the idea that drums (and other speech surrogates) “speak” and are understood in the way that one understands spoken language–this phenomenon has at its core a configuration involving music and language. And third, the words that enable song, the poet’s emergent music that is eventually colonized by the composer’s music–these song words raise a host of interesting questions about how language is articulated in song, to what extent song displays autonomous structure, and ways in which meaning is transferred from text to music and vice versa.” (Agawu, 2001)

But such an analysis is bound to lead to some difficult questions such as – Is music a form of language? What is the significance of this interrelationship?, etc. These questions will be answered in the following passages. Such aspects as “in-time performance”, reportorial and generic distinctions will also be scrutinized.

The most substantive evidence for the relation between African music and language is to be found in the song lyrics. Let us take the example of Daniel Avorgbedor’s popular song “It’s a Great Song”. The song belongs to a unique African genre referred to as “war of insults and music”. Rival groups from different villages engage in a contest of wits and insult each other. Factuality is not as important as their artistic merit. Even if the verses contain falsehoods and unwarranted maledictions, they are overlooked. For a western student of music and culture, such a practice may seem odd or even base. But it is important to understand the role such a musical expression plays in the African cultural context. First of all, much innovation is required in composition to bring about the desired effect. The particular insults relating to irregular teeth, body topography, family ancestry, people’s personal sex lives, etc, may appear unseemly for someone not accustomed to such renditions. To truly appreciate such a style of music, one has to pay attention to the wide variety of literary devices used by the composers (who are also called Anlo-Ewe poets) (Agawu, 2001).

Another musical style that manifests the same theme is the Tanure Ojaide. Also referred to as Udje Dance Song the lyrics exhibit satirical wit. The Urhobo tribes of Nigeria are the masters of this style and their cultural idiosyncrasies are reflected through this medium. For the Urhobo, a stringent adherence to their traditional societal pattern is paramount. Hence, many songs in this genre are written as a response to any threat to that tradition. The songs thus help reinforce orthodoxy and ridicule novelty, which is treated as ludicrous. The satiric tinge to the text adds entertainment value. Subjects that are commonly satirized include “idleness, cowardice, ugliness (including physical deformities), madness, greed, and miserliness. In addition, sex-related offenses are made fun of: impotence, sterility, adultery, and prostitution, incest, having sex in the bush, and being oversexed.” The influence of colonialism on the African continent has percolated down to their musical forms as well. Udje songs are no exception to this phenomenon. Such an infiltration adds a new dimension to this musical genre (Eyoh, 2001).

The thematic similarity is seen also in Fela Nikulapo Kuti music form. This form is one of the newest entrants to African cultural life. The special qualities of this variety are the biographical nature of its lyrics which also inform listeners about African history and the problems confronting the contemporary society. In this way, this form has become a useful political device for politicians and reformers alike. This musical form is also a good example of the role that language plays in African music. Some analysts point out that some of the best African literary experience is to be found among its songs.

Continuing on our thematic exploration of the link between music and language in Africa brings us to a more exotic genre in the form of Drum Speaking. The drum beat is the predominant medium of communication. It is interesting to note that usage of a musical instrument as a medium of depicting emotion and meaning is not a purely western phenomenon. In this genre, the drums do the talking. The proponents of this form emphasize the spiritual character of the music. The Drum Speaking genre is also used as a background for African tribal dance. (Agawu, 2001)

In this context, the music style of J.P.clark-Bekederemo offers some freshness. His songs too follow the theme of giving importance to the lyrical aspect. In fact, Clark-Bekederemo has taken its application to a newer level. For example, his popular hit “Return of the Fishermen” contains lines that resemble written poetry. The other salient feature of this style is its adherence to a central rhythm. One can also find traces of

African Oral Poetry in the verses that comprise a song. In this way, this particular style is as traditionally rooted as it is novel (Ojaide, 2001).

At this juncture it is interesting to discuss a recent development in the African musical scene – the entry of English language texts. Perhaps, the idea of African music written for an English speaking audience may sound incongruent. But the success of this new genre goes on to prove that music speaks a universal language. At times, some of these compositions in the form of an opera or symphonic orchestra can sound second grade. Though the style is borrowed from Europe, its effectiveness as a channel of social discourse is a proven fact. For example, much before these improvisations were to become prevalent, the Christian community in Africa had been writing and singing religious hymns modeled on the European style. Given the political history of African continent, the infiltration of European and Christian music goes on to show that although language is an important component of a song, music also has the potential to transcend geographical and cultural barriers (Ojaide, 2001).

Another common theme that runs through much of African music is its potential use as an instrument of progress and social change. While European classical music has always been an elitist recreation, much African music is directed toward the masses. African music stands for a “realm of experience that is beyond mere exchange, yet this incipient narrative remains a deceitful sleight of hand operated behind the back of every-hopeful listener who is ever ready to believe its promise of a transcendence of a cynical post-modernity”. The disadvantage of such a trend lies in the fact that it refuses to depict the darker realities of the African society. For example, the everyday violence in the alleys of urban shanty towns is hardly referred in the song texts. It also forces the deprived lot of society to conform to the dictates of those wielding power. Hence, the picture depicted to the audience is of an idealized utopian society that is detached from the compelling realities. In this way, the music becomes an instrument of coercion that is used to inculcate the desired ideology in the masses. Hence, the power offered by music has so far been usurped by the reactionaries in maintaining a favorable political situation. Yet, African music has great potential to reverse such a trend. All it requires is wide-spread awareness and a collective awakening in people’s political consciousness.

Following the same thematic pattern, music has been the backbone of African nationalism, which is “a dramatic example of the dialectic of modernization and enlightenment that is the history of the African Independences and Decolonization” (Nesbitt, 2001). A prime example of this is Fodeba Keita’s Ballets Africains that was to play an important role in the national movement in Guinea during the 1950’s. ( Eyoh, 2001)

Going further back in time, we learn that classical music of Africa has had influence on the society. A prime example in this category is the Mande music of the early twentieth century that has been at the forefront of movements for social change. The growth of the Mande music was spurred on by the increasing friction between capital and labor within Africa. It is in this historical context that the Sundiata Epic was composed, not by individual effort, but by a whole generation of working class artists dedicated to the cause of equality and justice. Given the paternalistic, male-dominated and hierarchical nature of traditional societies in Africa, Mande music tried to bring about a radical change to this traditional arrangement. How this genre eventually lost its edge is explicated in the following passage:

“Mande music, a fundamentally political and historical music if ever there was one, was itself transformed by these changes in Guinean society. Monad-like, it maintained the image of its aesthetic interiority while simultaneously reflecting, in highly mediated form, the furtive movement of Guinean society towards an increasingly rationalized, bureaucratic society organized around an abstract exchange-model of human relations. With the creation of the Ballets Africains and their subsequent nationalization following independence in 1958, the historical transformation of Guinean society migrated within musical production itself, and the ambiguous dialectic of Guinean modernization played itself out on the world’s stages as Mande music became increasingly an administered, bureaucratic state production.” (Nesbitt, 2001)

In general, African music was subject to “bureaucratization and rationalization”, which took away some of its sting. Hence from its origins as the most liberal form of artistic expression and a torchbearer for African progress, the present state of music in Africa is a much deteriorated one. Also, since the technical and artistic aspects of any performance art cannot be separated, the rationalization of these musical forms is bound to affect its subsequent evolution. For example, “rationalization of Mande music is itself dialectical, no mere loss of an imaginary traditional wholeness in the face of encroaching Westernization” (Nesbitt, 2001). Many genres in African music exhibit this dialectic in all its complexity.

What we see in case after case is the initial promise and later diversion of many forms of African music as mediums of progress and enlightenment. During its early days, it promised a society where its subjects are treated equally. But very soon, this promise met with the challenge of larger and more powerful political interests and was overwhelmed. Though African music was caught between these opposing forces, it still manages to transcend this contradiction. And that, in the final analysis, is how this refreshing genre need be viewed. To its credit, the post-colonial phase of African history had seen a reversal in this trend, which must come as good news for all music lovers.

There is much in common between the two themes we have seen. They go on to prove that music has the power to transcend language barriers and political censorship. In the first case, many genres of African music have demonstrated time and again that irrespective of the origin of any particular musical tradition, they can still appeal to diverse and world-wide audiences. This achievement is as much a result of the inherent qualities of music as it is to the innovative style of the performers. Some analysts even place this fact from a very long historical perspective, for Africa was the cradle of human civilization. Moving on to the second theme, the forces wielding political power can be overwhelming anywhere. It is to the merit of African culture that its music had retained some semblance of a democratizing medium. The recent African history is a scar on human history as a whole. The people had endured famines, military dictatorships, abject poverty and epidemics. Time and again, the communal tension gives way in the form of mass genocide. Amid all this chaos, music might be the last thing on people’s mind. The critics of African music should make their judgments from this point of view. The conclusions will then show how resilient the African movement for social change and how intelligent the artists at the forefront of this movement.


Agawu, Kofi. (Summer 2001), “Introduction.(music and language)(Editorial).” Research in African Literatures 32.2 : 3.

Eyoh, Luke. (Summer 2001), “African Musical Rhythm and Poetic Imagination: A Phono Stylistic Interpretation of Clark-Bekederemo’s “Return of the Fishermen”.(John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo).” Research in African Literatures 32.2 : 105.

Nesbitt, Nick., (Summer 2001), “African Music, Ideology and Utopia.(Critical Essay).” Research in African Literatures 32.2 (Summer 2001): 175.

Ojaide, Tanure., (Summer 2001), “Poetry, Performance, and Art: Udje Dance Songs of Nigeria’s Urhobo People.” Research in African Literatures 32.2 : 44.