In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Traditional Music

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Multimedia Collections
  • African Rhythm
  • The Category of Tradition
  • Intellectual Property
  • Central Africa
  • The Horn Region
  • Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands
  • North Africa and Sudan
  • Southern Africa
  • Beyond the African Continent

African Studies Traditional Music
Andrew J. Eisenberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2015
  • 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.

General Overviews

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.

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