In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section North Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Popular Musics of the Twentieth Century
  • Women as Professional Performers

Music North Africa
Kristy Barbacane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0104


Also known as the Maghrib, the geographical region of North Africa traditionally describes the present-day nations of Morocco (including the region of western Sahara), Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. The term Maghrib originates from the Arabic gharb (“west”) and maghrib (“sunset”) in opposition to the Arabic sharq or mashriq (“east” or “sunrise”), typically called the Levant or land east of Libya. Even though Egypt is geographically part of the African continent, it is most often sociopolitically included in the Middle East (see the Oxford Bibliographies article on West Asia). Throughout history, North Africa has been a region of diverse cultures, ethnicities, and religions. These affiliations have often crossed national and geographic boundaries. The recorded history of the region stretches back to the Phoenician sea traders, Carthaginians, and Greeks crisscrossing the Mediterranean in the 1st millennium BCE. The region fell under Roman control from c. 200 BCE to 300 CE after which it came under Visigoth and Byzantine governance from c. 300 CE to 650 CE. In the 7th century, Arab-Islamic conquests took over the region and various regimes maintained control until the 16th century when the Ottoman Turks took over Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia until the 19th century. Morocco continued to be ruled by successive Arab-Berber Muslim dynasties until the 19th century. Starting in the 11th century, and especially after the fall of Grenada in 1492, Muslims who had controlled parts of the Iberian Peninsula from the 8th century, a region known as al-Andalus, were forced to leave. Most migrated to North Africa, bringing with them their so-called Andalusi music traditions. During the 19th and 20th centuries, regions of North Africa became French colonies (Algeria) or protectorates (Tunisia and Morocco) or under Italian colonial rule (Libya). Throughout the 20th century, national independence movements established the present-day nation-states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. There is a growing field of music scholarship dedicated to the study of North African music history, performance practice, traditional, and popular music genres and organology. Most historical accounts of North African music focus on the 20th century onward. Earlier histories of music remain understudied. However, authors have written on music in pre-Islamic and early Islamic history throughout North Africa. Studies of North African music and performance are often organized by genre, nationality, or more localized regions and/or ethnolinguistic groups. More recently, scholars have focused on studies of North African diaspora communities in Europe, Israel, and Canada. Scholars also discuss the role of media and technology, theories of globalization, issues of gender and cross-cultural music projects that integrate aspects of North African traditions.

General Overviews

These works provide general histories and categorizations of genres of musical traditions in North Africa. Al-Mahdī 1986 gives a history of Arab classical music and al-Mahdī 1990, and al-Mahdī 1993 offer discussion of music modes, scales, and instruments. Elsner 1991 looks at the formation of new musical traditions in North Africa, focusing on Egypt and Algeria. Likewise, Langlois 1996, Langlois 2005, and Langlois 2009 give brief, English-language overviews of music genres and the impact of media and technology in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, connecting these musical traditions with issues of morality, nationalism, and language politics. Guettat 1980 gives one of the only French language overviews discussing the music history and genres of the region, focusing on the early history and its connection to the Andalusian tradition.

  • al-Mahdī, Sāliḥ. Al-Mūsīqā al-‘Arabiyyah: Tārīkhuhā wa ’Adabuhā. Tunis: al-Dār al-Tūnisiyyah lil-Nashr, 1986.

    Gives an overview of the history and development of Arab classical music from the earliest mentions of music in Islamic history until the 20th century. The author organizes the early histories of Arabic music by individual performers and then divides the “modern movements” (al-ḥarakah al-mu‘aṣirah) geographically. Includes significant sections on North African musical history as well as the historical development of various classical instruments and song texts.

  • al-Mahdī, Sāliḥ. ’Īqā‘āt al-Mūsīqā al-‘Arabiyyah wa ’Ashkāluhā. Tunis: al-Mu’asasah al-Waṭaniyyah lil-Tarjamah wa al-Taḥqīq wa al-Dirāsāt, 1990.

    An in-depth study of the classical Arabic rhythmic modes, with a focus on the 1932 Cairo music conference. Discusses medieval writers on Arab music al-Farabi, al-Kindi, and Ibn Sina (Avicenna), as well as the changes that took place in these modes following the Cairo conference in the various Arab countries. Includes indices with Arab song examples in Western notation and lyrics.

  • al-Mahdī, Sāliḥ. Al-Mūsīqā al-‘Arabiyyah: Maqāmāt wa Dirāsāt. Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī, 1993.

    Examines the various classical scales in Arab music, giving their medieval origins in both the Middle East and North Africa. Includes song texts for the various scales. More than half of the book is dedicated to musical studies of the various scales, using Western notation, designed for pedagogy and performance.

  • Elsner, Jürgen. “Formation of New Music Traditions in the Arab Countries of North Africa.” Studies in Ethnomusicology 1 (1991): 32–45.

    Reviews various music traditions in North Africa. Elsner examines how religious practices such as Ramadan and mass media developments such as radio and television have impacted music. Special attention is given to the traditions and transformations of music in Egypt and Algeria.

  • Guettat, Mahmoud. La Musique classique du Maghreb. Paris: Sindbad, 1980.

    Guettat traces classical music of the Maghrib beginning in the Jahiliyya or pre-Islamic period. The book includes descriptions of poetry, music genres, instruments, performers, and music and society. After addressing pre-Islamic music and poetry, the author focuses on music during the introduction of Islam beginning in the 9th century, Andalusian traditions and the influence of Ziryab, and genres such as muwashshaḥ, zajal, and nūbāt.

  • Langlois, Tony. “Music and Contending Identities in the Maghreb.” In Nationalism, Minorities and Diasporas. Edited by Kirsten E. Schulze, Martin Stokes, and Colm Campbell, 203–216. London: Tauris Academic Studies, 1996.

    Langlois discusses issues surrounding music and identity in Morocco and Algeria. His essay includes discussions of music at the local, regional, and national levels. Differences in language, religion, culture, and disputes over borders complicate notions of national identity. Also included in his chapter are social and moral issues surrounding music, the creation of musical heritage through reifying Andalusian music, and brief discussions of genres such as gharnāṭī and raï.

  • Langlois, Tony. “Outside-In: Music, New Media and Tradition in North Africa.” In The Mediterranean in Music: Critical Perspectives, Common Concerns, Cultural Differences. Edited by David Cooper and Kevin Dawe, 97–114. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005.

    Langlois considers the consumption of media and musics in Morocco and Algeria. He discusses the space and place of music within traditional views of morality and gender in the home and community. The author argues music can both transgress and support ideas of morality and gender and that the consumption of music and media creates greater awareness of internal cultural diversity.

  • Langlois, Tony. “Music and Politics in North Africa.” In Music and the Play of Power in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Edited by Laudan Nooshin, 207–228. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009.

    This chapter examines gharnāṭī, Gnāwah music and raï in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Langlois illustrates how music in North Africa is interconnected with concepts of nation, religion, and language and discusses the impact of global or “transcultural” factors on the discourse about and transmission and consumption of music.

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