In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section East and West Africa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Rhythm
  • The Oral Epic
  • Music and Ritual Healing
  • Competition, Social Criticism, and Censorship
  • Women and Gender in African Music

Music East and West Africa
Daniel Avorgbedor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0175


There are no fixed geophysical boundaries that separate east, west, central, and southern African regions into completely autonomous cultural or musical regions. There are certain historical experiences and demographic characteristics (such as migration patterns, trade relations, and race admixture) that are unique to each region. Although scholars in the past have attempted to distinguish, for example, East from the West through linguistics, domestic arts, socioeconomics, biophysiology, race (e.g., Negroid, Hamito-Semitic/Afro-Asiatic, Cattle-Area), and musical criteria, there are precolonial core practices and values that endure and that transcend factors of space, time, gender, and ethnicity. Rose Brandel’s The Music of Central Africa: An Ethnomusicological Study: Former French Equatorial Africa, the Former Belgian Congo, Ruanda-Urundi, Uganda, Tanganyika (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1961) remains a significant research work that combines objective methods, ethnohistorical data, and secondary musical sources to highlight ways in which the geographies, cultures, and musical traditions of West, and East Africa regions are united and, at the same time, are complicated in the traditions of the Central African Republic, irrespective of the shortfalls of this publication. Countries highlighted for East Africa include Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, the Sudan, and Malawi. Those of West African include Mali, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Musical traditions of East and West Africa fall within several rough categories, such as popular, “gospel,” pseudo-professional contemporary ensemble, and ritual. In addition, there are genres such as masked dance, oral epic, panegyrics, and folktale performances in which the arts and kinesics are highly integrative. Country-specific studies continue to proliferate, but the two textbooks Barz 2004 (East Africa) and Stone 2004 (West Africa) and the essays collected in Nannyonga-Tamusuza and Solomon 2012 (East Africa) (all cited under General Overviews) represent recent efforts toward definitive regional surveys, apart from specialized entries in encyclopedias or handbooks. The genres, styles, and musical traits covered are among the most prominent features of past and modern musical traditions, including emergent forms such as the various appropriations and localizations of hip-hop and “gospel,” discourses of gender, rhythm, tuning and timbre, and the legacies of various indigenous religious traditions and social competitions in which music occupies a significant space.

General Overviews

There are hardly any monographs that are exclusively devoted to general surveys of the musical traditions of East or West Africa; these regions are usually subsumed in texts that survey large segments of Africa, or the entire continent—the exceptions being undergraduate textbooks such as Barz 2004 and Stone 2004. Diversity in regional and ethnic responses to foreign religions and cultures are illustrated in Anderson 1971 and Euba 1971, although some of the conclusions are outdated by those of recent scholarship (e.g., Ismail Junaidu, “Linguistic Analysis of Hausa Meter,” Research in African Literatures 19.3[1988]: 350–364; Yomi Daramola, “Islamic and Islamized Musical Cultures among the Yoruba: The Concept and the Concord,” African Musicology Online 1.2[2007]: 46–58). Nannyonga-Tamusuza and Solomon 2012 fills in some of the gaps found in East African regional studies by focusing on contemporary traditions with significant perspectives (i.e., thematically and analytically) on local approaches to and implications of digital technology, intersections of the sacred and secular in Islam and Christianity, music in war and peace initiatives, etc. This recent addition to the East African literature thus updates the African music literature in the context of modern ethnomusicological discourses. While Askew 2002 is largely representative of modern indigenous and postcolonial performance cultures in East and West Africa, her focus on appropriation and innovation within deep-rooted traditions (e.g., satire, competition, and political agency) directs readers’ attention to important areas that are often overlooked in the African music scholarship. Despite its datedness, Ames 1973 endures as a classic, focusing on a comparative framework that highlights diversity in West African musical practices. DjeDje 2008 represents one of the most expansive, solid interdisciplinary and longitudinal ethnographic pieces, addressing controversial issues such as origins of instruments, roles of women, ethnic identities, and individual biographies in musical productions in West Africa.

  • Ames, David W. “Igbo and Hausa Musicians: A Comparative Examination.” Ethnomusicology 17.2 (1973): 250–278.

    DOI: 10.2307/849884

    Musical ethnography that demonstrates the importance of recognizing diversity in musical practices in Africa by focusing on two different West African ethnic groups: rural and urban. Author identifies significant differences in social organization and historical experiences, which qualify levels of professionalism, type, and function of music and musical instruments. An example of how “comparative musicology” can be redefined and applied in post-1970s contexts.

  • Anderson, Lois Ann. “The Interrelation of African and Arab Musics: Some Preliminary Considerations.” In Essays and History on Music in Africa. Edited by Klaus Wachsmann, 143–169. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

    Arab-influenced musics from Africa have different pitch vocabularies than those from Saudi Arabia, for example. Conclusions are based on extensive, comparative field tests in which Koranic recitation samples by Muganda Muslims are played back to Arabs who correctly identified the piece with a non-Arab performer. Author concludes that melismatic treatment by African Muslims show Islamic-Arab influences, but suggests further research into any influence of pre-Islamic music on Arab classical music. An early important study on the impact of Islam and Arab culture, and on music in East and West African musical traditions. (See Euba 1971 for West African examples.)

  • Askew, Kelly. Performing the Nation: Swahili Music and Cultural Politics in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

    Music and politics are closely interrelated, both in spheres and agents of political action in past and modern Swahili histories. Musics of foreign origins have been domesticated to serve important political and general symbolic purposes, and to foster the maintenance of social networks, as seen in established and innovative music and dance practices such as ngoma and dansi. These two music-dance forms show that urban and rural, and dichotomies such as “modern” and “traditional,” are not separate sociocultural units. This study clarifies the ways in which past and present interact, as people respond musically to new postcolonial issues and needs.

  • Barz, Gregory. Music in East Africa: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Together with Stone 2004, sets a standard in writing undergraduate textbooks on African music. Tightly structured and well illustrated with numerous musical examples; author draws on case studies of individual musicians and genres across several East African societies and times. The text integrates sociocultural, biographical, and musical details, thus creating significant opportunities for students to understand and appreciate the musical examples and local concepts in specific contexts. The musical details are structured to enhance students’ meaningful involvements with a non-Western music culture—an important departure from previous world music texts, which give little attention to musical details.

  • DjeDje, Jacqueline Cogdell. Fiddling in West Africa: Touching the Spirit in Fulbe, Hausa and Dagbamba Cultures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

    A detailed longitudinal and multisited musico-historiographical and ethnographical study within a general comparative framework focusing on the bowed stringed-instrument goge (gonje, also guga). Individual biographies are balanced by analyses of form, style, repertoire, and general performance conventions and contexts. Considerations of women’s roles that are often overlooked, changes and intracultural influences, and extended argumentations of the origins and diffusion of the instrument (e.g., author upholds possible North African origins, but emphasizes West African identity). Significant addition to research and scholarship on West African musical traditions.

  • Euba, Akin. “Islamic Culture among the Yoruba: A Preliminary Survey.” In Essays and History on Music in Africa. Edited by Klaus Wachsmann, 171–181. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

    An important West African complement to Anderson 1971. While Yoruba Muslims privilege indigenous Yoruba music in social life, they emphasize Arab or Arab-influenced music during Islamic ritual, worship, and festivities. Author notes that more Muslims practice traditional Yoruba music than Christians, and that Islamic doctrines on music have some influence, but Yoruba Muslims generally value music in various social and religious contexts. Specific, innovative, “neo-traditional” musical styles influenced by the Muslim culture include àpàlà, sákárà, and wákà.

  • Nannyonga-Tamusuza, Sylvia, and Thomas Solomon, eds. Ethnomusicology in East Africa: Perspectives from Uganda and Beyond. Kampala, Uganda: Fountain, 2012.

    Essays provide new and yet-challenging perspectives on repatriation and its implication for deeper understanding of musical change; it also clarifies emerging paradigms in ethnomusicology such as “sustainable model for ethnomusicology” and music video in mediating war, conflict, and peace initiatives. Most of the essays, types of analysis, and topics complement and extend those associated with the West Africa region, such as the interaction of the secular and sacred in Christian and in Islamic traditions.

  • Stone, Ruth M. Music in West Africa: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Together with Barz 2004, this West African music survey sets a standard in writings for undergraduate textbooks on African music. The general philosophy and format follow those described for Barz 2004, that is, balanced attention to musical and contextual details, supplementary materials, and review exercises. In Stone, case studies, genres, and concepts are further explained and enriched by situating them in the context of the related arts; excellent analytical approaches to rhythm are further enriched by timbral analysis, an oft-neglected and yet important feature in African musical traditions.

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