- LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0171
- LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0171
This article surveys written and audiovisual scholarship on “traditional” or “folk” (or, for older works, “native,” “tribal,” or “ethnic”) music in Africa. While few scholars deny the existence of something called “African traditional music,” the meanings of all three words in this phrase are contested. Just what constitutes “Africa” for any given researcher of African music varies depending on whether she or he subscribes to a strict geographical definition or prefers some sort of “culture area” concept (see General Overviews). As for “music”: this Western concept does not always apply in African contexts. When it does, it typically exists alongside other ways of categorizing sonic-expressive culture that, from a Western perspective, blur the distinctions among “music,” “dance,” and “poetry” (some works on these “other” expressive forms are included in this article, but only ones that have resonated within the broader framework of African music studies). Finally, “tradition” is a fraught concept within African studies, due to its adoption by colonial and apartheid powers in the creation of a “native” or “tribal” category of Africans who were assumed to be less than “civilized.” While some scholars of African music have questioned the validity of the concept, few have seen fit to jettison it completely (see the Category of Tradition). On the contrary, scholars of African music have sustained the emphasis on traditional expression, even as interest in urban popular forms has grown in the early 21st century. There is good reason for this. Tradition in African contexts is rarely, if ever, simply a conservative impulse; rather, it is a vital process that takes shape within, and thereby serves to shape, domains of ritual practice and moral reasoning as well as aesthetic expression. Traditional music in Africa thus offers unique opportunities to explore modes of thought and expression of African and Afro-diasporic communities in particular times, places, and social conditions. Much of the work surveyed here falls within the disciplinary purviews of ethnomusicology, sociocultural anthropology, and what is often termed “African musicology” (the study of music from an indigenous African perspective). But other disciplines are represented as well. This article is organized in part by region because scholars of African traditional music have generally placed their research in conversation with that of scholars working in the same general area of the continent. But there is also a section on African traditional music Beyond the African Continent, and three sections covering transregional issues, including the Category of Tradition itself.
Bebey 1975 and Nketia 1974 each provide insightful overviews of traditional music in sub-Saharan Africa in the space of a compact monograph. Kebede 1995 is more concise, though it covers more of the continent. As an overview, Manda Tchebwa 2012 is the polar opposite of Kebede 1995, delving deeply into particular areas over four volumes. Kubik 2010 is a compilation of previously published papers but speaks to African traditional music in general terms. Only one encyclopedia entry is included here (Kubik and Frishkopf 2008). There are many more. Gerhard Kubik, alone, has published a number of encyclopedia entries on African music in general, including one for Grove Music Online (see Oxford Music Online, cited under Reference Works). For a multimedia overview, Courlander and Merriam 1957 has yet to be surpassed. Though all works here claim to cover music or traditional music of “Africa,” all but Kebede 1995 and Stone 2008 (the latter cited under Reference Works) ignore North Africa completely or almost completely. This speaks to a divide within African music studies. Whereas some scholars of African music take it as axiomatic that Arab-speaking North Africans “belong to a Euro-Asian rather than African culture world” (Kubik 2010, Vol. 1, p. 9), others work according to “the assumption that travel across the desert [over many centuries] has carried musical practices with it” (Stone 2008, p. xv). The former view was dominant throughout the 20th century, but the latter appears to be gaining traction in the 21st century.
Bebey, Francis. African Music: A People’s Art. Translated by Josephine Bennett. New York: Lawrence Hill, 1975.
Originally published in French in 1969. Remains an influential statement on the formal elements, social contexts, and aesthetics of traditional music in sub-Saharan Africa. Less technical than Nketia’s Music of Africa (Nketia 1974), and rich in photographs and illustrations. Published as an e-book in 1999 (Chicago: Chicago Review Press).
Courlander, Harold, and Alan P. Merriam, prods. Africa South of the Sahara. Annotated by Alan P. Merriam. Audio recording and liner notes. Smithsonian Folkways FW04503. New York: Folkways Records, 1957.
A compilation of field recordings from multiple recordists, with extensive liner notes by Merriam. Explicitly framed as a multimedia refutation of the misconception that Africans are “savages.” Available online from Smithsonian Folkways as a digital download, CD, or cassette.
Kebede, Ashenafi. Roots of Black Music: The Vocal, Instrumental, and Dance Heritage of Africa and Black America. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1995.
A concise overview of the sounds and sociocultural contexts of African musical traditions, including those of North Africa and African America. Useful for undergraduate surveys, though perhaps a bit too concise at times.
Kubik, Gerhard. Theory of African Music. 2 vols. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Volume 1 first published in 1994 (Wilhelmshaven, Germany: F. Noetzel). Focuses on musical structures, taking a cognitive approach. Case studies cover a large portion of sub-Saharan Africa (mostly central Africa and East Africa). Not a primer, but an important volume for Africanist ethnomusicology.
Kubik, Gerhard, and Michael Frishkopf. “Music.” In New Encyclopedia of Africa. Vol. 3, Ibadan–Mzilikazi. Edited by John Middleton and Joseph Calder Miller, 630–648. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s, 2008.
Subentries for “Structures” and “Islamic” (the latter by Frishkopf), as well as a general overview. Kubik’s overview offers information on what is known about the history of music in (sub-Saharan) Africa and how it is known. His “Structures” entry emphasizes cognition.
Manda Tchebwa, Antoine. L’Afrique en musiques. 4 vols. Racines du Présent. Paris: Éditions L’Harmattan, 2012.
Four volumes, which together offer an impressive balance of depth and scope. Covers sacred musics, griot traditions, musical instruments, and urbanization. In French.
Nketia, J. H. Kwabena. The Music of Africa. New York: Norton, 1974.
Intended for students and musically literate general readers. Offers an overview of the formal elements, social contexts, and aesthetics of traditional music in sub-Saharan Africa. Rich in musical transcription and fine-grained analysis.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
- Achebe, Chinua
- Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi
- African Socialism
- Africans in the Atlantic World
- Aid and Economic Development
- Arabic Language and Literature
- Archaeology and the Study of Africa
- Archaeology of Central Africa
- Archaeology of Eastern Africa
- Archaeology of Southern Africa
- Art, Art History, and the Study of Africa
- Arts of Central Africa
- Arts of Western Africa
- Asante and the Akan and Mossi States
- Bantu Expansion
- Benin (Dahomey)
- Botswana (Bechuanaland)
- Brink, André
- British Colonial Rule in Sub-Saharan Africa
- Burkina Faso (Upper Volta)
- Cape Verde
- Central African Republic
- Children and Childhood
- China in Africa
- Christianity, African
- Coetzee, J.M.
- Colonial Rule, Belgian
- Colonial Rule, French
- Colonial Rule, German
- Colonial Rule, Italian
- Colonial Rule, Portuguese
- Communism, Marxist-Leninism, and Socialism in Africa
- Comoro Islands
- Congo, Republic of (Congo Brazzaville)
- Congo River Basin States
- Conservation and Wildlife
- Crime and the Law in Colonial Africa
- Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire)
- Development of Early Farming and Pastoralism
- Diaspora, Kongo Atlantic
- Disease and African Society
- Early States And State Formation In Africa
- Early States of the Western Sudan
- Economy, Informal
- Education and the Study of Africa
- Egypt, Ancient
- Environmental History
- Equatorial Guinea
- Ethnicity and Politics
- Europe and Africa, Medieval
- Family Planning
- Farah, Nuruddin
- Food and Food Production
- Fugard, Athol
- Genocide in Rwanda
- Geography and the Study of Africa
- Gikuyu (Kikuyu) People of Kenya
- Gordimer, Nadine
- Great Lakes States of Eastern Africa, The
- Hausa Language and Literature
- Health, Medicine, and the Study of Africa
- Historiography and Methods of African History
- History and the Study of Africa
- Ijo/Niger Delta
- Image of Africa, The
- Indian Ocean and Middle Eastern Slave Trades
- Indian Ocean Trade
- Invention of Tradition
- Iron Working and the Iron Age in Africa
- Islam in Africa
- Islamic Politics
- Kongo and the Coastal States of West Central Africa
- Language and the Study of Africa
- Literature and the Study of Africa
- Lord's Resistance Army
- Maasai and Maa-Speaking Peoples of East Africa, The
- Mau Mau
- Media and Journalism
- Military History
- Modern African Literature in European Languages
- Music, Dance, and the Study of Africa
- Music, Traditional
- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
- North Africa from 600 to 1800
- North Africa to 600
- Northeastern African States, c. 1000 BCE-1800 CE
- Obama and Kenya
- Oman, the Gulf, and East Africa
- Oral and Written Traditions, African
- Police and Policing
- Political Science and the Study of Africa
- Political Systems, Precolonial
- Popular Culture and the Study of Africa
- Popular Music
- Population and Demography
- Postcolonial Sub-Saharan African Politics
- Seychelles, The
- Slave Trade, Atlantic
- Slavery in Africa
- São Tomé and Príncipe
- Social and Cultural Anthropology and the Study of Africa
- South Africa Post c. 1850
- Southern Africa to c. 1850
- States of the Zimbabwe Plateau and Zambezi Valley
- Sudan and South Sudan
- Swahili City States of the East African Coast
- Swahili Language and Literature
- Tanzania (Tanganyika and Zanzibar)
- Traditional Religion, African
- Trans-Saharan Trade
- Urbanism and Urbanization
- Wars and Warlords
- Western Sahara
- Women and African History
- Women and Colonialism
- Women and Politics
- Women and Slavery
- Women, Gender and the Study of Africa
- Women in 19th-Century West Africa
- Yoruba Language and Literature
- Yoruba States, Benin, and Dahomey