African Studies Traditional Music
by
Andrew J. Eisenberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0171

Introduction

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.

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    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).

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  • 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.

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    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.

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  • Kebede, Ashenafi. Roots of Black Music: The Vocal, Instrumental, and Dance Heritage of Africa and Black America. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1995.

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    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.

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  • Kubik, Gerhard. Theory of African Music. 2 vols. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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  • Manda Tchebwa, Antoine. L’Afrique en musiques. 4 vols. Racines du Présent. Paris: Éditions L’Harmattan, 2012.

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    Four volumes, which together offer an impressive balance of depth and scope. Covers sacred musics, griot traditions, musical instruments, and urbanization. In French.

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  • Nketia, J. H. Kwabena. The Music of Africa. New York: Norton, 1974.

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    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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Reference Works

The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 1: Africa (Stone 1998) is unparalleled as a source of information on African musical cultures and scholarship on African musical cultures. It offers overviews for each region (including North Africa) as well as a range of case studies. More information on some African musical cultures may, however, be available in the Grove Music Online, or in one of the other sources included in the Oxford Music Online. The best organological reference works for African music may be two German volumes based on the holdings of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin (Meyer 1997, Wegner 1984). Dietz and Olatunji 1965 offers a useful overview of all classes of musical instruments on the African continent. Unfortunately, it has been so long out of print that its excellent audio examples are supplied on an obsolete medium. Collected works of two eminent Africanist ethnomusicologists are also included here (Merriam 1982, Nketia 2005).

  • Dietz, Betty Warner, and Michael Babatunde Olatunji. Musical Instruments of Africa: Their Nature, Use, and Place in the Life of a Deeply Musical People. New York: John Day, 1965.

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    A contextualized and illustrated compendium of indigenous musical instruments of sub-Saharan Africa, organized according to the Hornbostel-Sachs system (plus a section on “Body Percussion”). Intended for students of all ages. Packaged with a 7-inch record of audio examples recorded by anthropologist Colin M. Turnbull. Useful photographs. Limited availability.

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  • Merriam, Alan P. African Music in Perspective. Critical Studies on Black Life and Culture 6. New York and London: Garland, 1982.

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    Posthumous collection of Merriam’s essays and articles on African music. Includes his oft-cited “African Music” (1959), which describes the clustering of musical styles in Africa according to Melville Herskovits’s seven “culture areas.”

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  • Meyer, Andreas. Afrikanische Trommeln: West- und Zentralafrika. Berlin: Museum für Völkerkunde, 1997.

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    Surveys the traditional drums of West and central Africa, on the basis of the holdings of Berlin’s Museum für Völkerkunde. Divides the region into nine areas and examines “supraregional developments” of the 19th and 20th centuries. Hundreds of illustrations, maps, and photographs, plus a catalogue of the museum collection and musical examples on CD. In German.

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  • Nketia, J. H. Kwabena. Ethnomusicology and African Music: Collected Papers. Vol. 1, Modes of Inquiry and Interpretation. Accra, Ghana: Afram, 2005.

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    The first volume in a planned series. Ghanaian scholar Nketia is widely considered a foremost authority on traditional music in Africa, and certainly the most published African scholar on the topic. Contains conference papers and other unpublished and rare works. Includes chapters on ethnomusicological theory and method as they relate to African music.

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  • Oxford Music Online.

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    A searchable reference library, incorporating multiple Grove and Oxford dictionaries and encyclopedias (Grove Music Online being the key source). A number of entries on African and African American music, all with useful bibliographies. Often a good place to begin research on a specific topic related to African traditional music.

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  • Stone, Ruth M., ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 1: Africa. New York: Garland, 1998.

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    Overviews and case studies for each region of Africa, along with general introductory material and chapters on “issues and processes.” Packaged with a CD containing dozens of audio examples. Indispensible.

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  • Stone, Ruth M., ed. The Garland Handbook of African Music. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2008.

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    Originally an abridged version of The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 1: Africa (Stone 1998). The second edition contains some new material, including an important chapter on intellectual property by Alex Perullo (see Perullo 2008, cited under Intellectual Property). Packaged with a CD with dozens of audio examples.

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  • Wegner, Ulrich. Afrikanische Saiteninstrumente. Veröffentlichungen des Museums für Völkerkunde Berlin 41. Berlin: Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Museum für Völkerkunde, 1984.

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    Surveys the traditional string instruments of Africa, on the basis of the holdings of Berlin’s Museum für Völkerkunde. Due attention to the distribution of instruments across the Sahara and into Asia. Hundreds of illustrations, maps, and photographs, plus a catalogue of the museum collection and musical examples on cassette. In German.

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Bibliographies

Though dated, John Gray’s comprehensive African Music (Gray 1991) remains a valuable resource due to its ease of use and the fact that most works published post-1991 are easily searchable online. Lems-Dworkin 1991 complements Gray 1991, with a greater focus on theses and dissertations, and some lively annotations. For decades prior to the publication of Gray 1991 and Lems-Dworkin 1991, students looking for a reasonably comprehensive bibliography of scholarship on African music had the choice of using Gaskin 1965 or a combination of Varley 1936, Merriam 1951, and Thieme 1964. Gaskin 1965 has about a thousand more citations than Varley 1936, Merriam 1951, and Thieme 1964 put together, but it is not as well annotated or organized. Unfortunately, none of the bibliographies listed here offer much coverage of North Africa.

  • Gaskin, Lionel John Palmer, comp. A Select Bibliography of Music in Africa. Compiled at the International African Institute under the direction of Klaus P. Wachsmann. Africa Bibliography Series B. London: International Africa Institute, 1965.

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    Over three thousand citations organized in six sections, including “African Music Geographically Arranged,” “Musical Instruments,” and “Dance.” Indexed by author, region, and ethnicity. Few annotations.

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  • Gray, John. African Music: A Bibliographical Guide to the Traditional, Popular, Art, and Liturgical Musics of Sub-Saharan Africa. African Special Bibliographic Series 14. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1991.

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    The most recent and most comprehensive bibliography of African music. Covers only south of the Sahara. Over five thousand sources, divided into four chapters: “Traditional,” “Popular,” “Art,” and “Church.” Indexed by ethnic group, subject, artist, and author.

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  • Lems-Dworkin, Carol. African Music: A Pan-African Annotated Bibliography. London: Hans Zell, 1991.

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    Organized alphabetically by author. Includes many theses and dissertations, which are absent from earlier bibliographies. Many useful annotations.

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  • Merriam, Alan P. “An Annotated Bibliography of African and African-Derived Music since 1936.” Africa 21.4 (1951): 319–329.

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    An extension of Varley’s pioneering bibliography (Varley 1936), with much attention to the literature on “African-derived” musics in the Americas that had exploded in the intervening years. Contains 172 entries, with brief annotations for most.

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  • Thieme, Darius L., comp. African Music: A Briefly Annotated Bibliography. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1964.

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    Mostly works published between 1950 and 1963, covering sub-Saharan Africa only. Organized geographically. Published as recently as 1978 (Westport, CT: Greenwood).

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  • Varley, Douglas Harold, comp. African Native Music, an Annotated Bibliography. Royal Empire Society Bibliographies 8. London: Royal Empire Society, 1936.

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    For the most part organized geographically. Covers the Horn region, but not North Africa. Includes a section on “African Survivals in the New World.” The introduction is a valuable historical document itself. Reprinted as recently as 1983, but older libraries are as likely to have the original.

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Journals

The list of peer-reviewed journals that have published important articles on African traditional music is long and diverse; however, the three journals African Music Journal, Ethnomusicology, and Yearbook for Traditional Music stand out as venues for original research and key debates in this field. All are print journals established in the mid-20th century. Though its purview extends beyond music, Journal of African Cultural Studies also deserves mention. It frequently publishes innovative scholarship on African music, a fair amount of which is the work of African scholars.

Multimedia Collections

This section contains multimedia collections that present sounds and moving images related to traditional musics of many areas of the African continent. The best source for audio recordings of African traditional music is the Smithsonian Folkways website, which offers not only Smithsonian Folkways recordings but also a great deal of material from the International Library of African Music’s original Sound of Africa series (Tracey 1958–). Smithsonian Folkways releases, in particular, include highly informative liner notes, which in many cases present original research. All are available as free downloads on the website. UNESCO’s An Anthology of African Music (Collaer 1961–2003) complements Tracey 1958–, with fourteen volumes documenting musical cultures mostly outside the areas covered by the latter. The Africa-related collections that are available for streaming on the Sounds website of the British Library Sound Archive all hold potential value for a student of African traditional music. Extensive video collections related to African traditional music are surprisingly difficult to come by, though a great deal of the continent’s musical traditions have been well documented on video. Yamamoto 2005 is a good choice for classroom use.

African Rhythm

There have been numerous discussions and debates over the concept of “African rhythm,” beginning in the 1920s and building in intensity in the 1950s. Agawu 1995, Merriam 1962, and Waterman 1991 offer efficient roadmaps through this literature, along with critical perspectives. Kofi Agawu levels a critique from a postcolonial perspective. Whatever one thinks about “African rhythm” as a concept, sophisticated research has been going on in its name for decades. Locke 1982, Locke 2011, and Polak and London 2014 represent some of the best of this work.

  • Agawu, Kofi. “The Invention of ‘African Rhythm.’” In Special Issue: Musical Anthropologies and Music Histories. Journal of the American Musicological Society 48.3 (1995): 380–395.

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    Critiques the historical emphasis on rhythm in African music studies, on the grounds that it is born out of an “ideology of difference.” Suggests that African rhythm be rethought in light of the fact that the Western concept of rhythm doesn’t find an exact equivalent in many African languages.

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  • Locke, David. “Principles of Offbeat Timing and Cross-Rhythm in Southern Eve Dance Drumming.” Ethnomusicology 26.2 (1982): 217–246.

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    On the basis of years of training as a performer of Ewe drumming, “presents a series of concepts about rhythm that help explain the complexities of offbeat timing and cross-rhythm in southern Eve dance drumming” (p. 217).

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  • Locke, David. “The Metric Matrix: Simultaneous Multidimensionality in African Music.” Analytical Approaches to World Music 1.1 (2011): 48–72.

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    An explication of Locke’s concept of “simultaneous multidimensionality,” or continual defamiliarization through rhythmic manipulation, which he proposes as a key aspect of African musical aesthetics.

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  • Merriam, Alan P. “The African Idiom in Music.” Journal of American Folklore 75.296 (1962): 120–130.

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    Within a broader discussion of what constitutes “African music,” offers a concise overview of debates over African rhythm from 1927 through the 1950s.

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  • Polak, Rainer, and Justin London. “Timing and Meter in Mande Drumming from Mali.” Music Theory Online 20.1 (2014).

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    Analyzing examples of Bambara and Khasonka drumming styles from Mali, argues that general theories of “metric well formedness” should seek to account for integrated non-isochronous elements. Contains embedded multimedia examples.

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  • Waterman, Christopher A. “The Uneven Development of Africanist Ethnomusicology: Three Issues and a Critique.” In Comparative Musicology and the Anthropology of Music: Essays on the History of Ethnomusicology. Edited by Bruno Nettl and Philip V. Bohlman, 169–186. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

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    Compares Eric Mortiz von Hornbostel’s “motor accent” theory of African rhythm with Richard Waterman’s concept of “metronome sense,” describing them both as “psycho-motor” theories influenced by 19th-century German psychological theory.

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The Category of Tradition

This section contains works that clarify or interrogate the category of tradition as it relates to music in Africa. In the postcolonial era, scholars of African music have struggled with the “inherent contradictions, doubtful empirical status, and ideological entanglements” of the term “tradition” (Coplan 1991, p. 36). In an important programmatic statement for the study of popular culture in Africa, anthropologist Karin Barber argues that the traditional, like the popular, “is not a bounded category but a field whose edges are indeterminate but whose center is clearly recognizable” (Barber 1987 p. 19). A number of ethnomusicologists (especially in Askew 2003, Reed 2008, and Waterman 1990) have lent support to Barber’s formulation in empirically grounded analyses of the category of tradition in specific African locales.

  • Askew, Kelly Michelle. “As Plato Duly Warned: Music, Politics, and Social Change in Coastal East Africa.” Anthropological Quarterly 76.4 (2003): 609–637.

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    Reveals connections between Swahili genres of ngoma (“traditional dance”) and dansi (“urban jazz”), thereby calling into question the traditional/modern distinction in the coastal Swahili context.

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  • Barber, Karin. “Popular Arts in Africa.” African Studies Review 30.3 (1987): 1–78.

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    A highly influential programmatic article. Argues that the categories of “traditional,” “popular,” and “elite” are essential for understanding the arts in Africa but should not be understood as rigidly bounded.

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  • Barber, Karin, and Christopher Waterman. “Traversing the Global and the Local: Fújì Music and Praise Poetry in the Production of Contemporary Yoruba Popular Culture.” Paper presented at the Fourth Decennial Conference of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth, held in July 1993 at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. In Worlds Apart: Modernity through the Prism of the Local. Edited by Daniel Miller, 240–262. New York: Routledge, 1995.

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    Discusses the intimate relationship between popular music and tradition in the Nigerian Yoruba context, with reference to fújì music. Fújì is shown as grounded in traditional expressive forms that are continually referred to and drawn on.

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  • Blacking, John. “Challenging the Myth of ‘Ethnic’ Music: First Performances of a New Song in an African Oral Tradition, 1961.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 21 (1989): 17–24.

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    Demonstrates that African traditional music may be composed by individuals. Enjoins researchers not to assume ethnicity as the essential context of traditional music in Africa.

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  • Coplan, David B. “Ethnomusicology and the Meaning of Tradition.” In Ethnomusicology and Modern Music History. Edited by Stephen Blum, Philip V. Bohlman, and Daniel M. Neuman, 35–48. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

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    Argues for the necessity of a tradition concept for ethnomusicology and related disciplines, despite the term’s “internal contradictions” and complicity in the colonial and apartheid projects (p. 36). Defines tradition as “the historically emergent framework of culturally grounded perception” (p. 40).

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  • Klein, Tobias Robert. Moderne Traditionen: Studien zur Postkolonialen Musikgeschichte Ghanas. Interdisziplinäre Studien zur Musik 5. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2008.

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    A theoretically sophisticated study of discourses of tradition and modernity in postcolonial Ghana. Explores the idea of tradition in Ghanaian cultural troupes, seperewa (harp-lute) music, and hiplife. In German.

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  • Reed, Daniel B. “‘The Tradition’ and Identity in a Diversifying Context.” In The Garland Handbook of African Music. 2d ed. Edited by Ruth M. Stone, 216–236. New York: Routledge, 2008.

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    Considers a genre of Dan traditional masking (Ge) performance that emphasizes innovation and borrowing from popular forms. Argues that traditional expression in the Dan context can be a space of creative juxtaposition.

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  • Waterman, Christopher A. Jùjú: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

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    A pathbreaking work for the study of African popular music. Demonstrates that syncretic popular music in Nigeria incorporates traditional elements, blurring the distinction between the traditional and the popular.

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Intellectual Property

The relationship between traditional musical culture and intellectual property law in Africa has not received a great deal of attention from scholars. The inclusion of Perullo 2008 in Ruth Stone’s revised edition of the Garland Handbook of African Music signals a recognition by at least one major voice in African music studies that this is an area that deserves attention. Collins 1993 and Perullo 2008 are the best starting points for this topic. Beeko 2011 stands as an excellent example of how the problem may be approached by culturally informed legal scholars.

  • Beeko, E. Kwadwo Odame. “The Dual-Relationship Concept of Right-Ownership in Akan Musical Tradition: A Solution for the Individual and Communal Right-Ownership Conflicts in Music Production.” International Journal of Cultural Property 18.3 (2011): 337–364.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0940739111000191Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Describes a traditional Akan system of music ownership that potentially bridges the divide between individual and communal intellectual property rights in Ghana.

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  • Collins, John. “The Problem of Oral Copyright: The Case of Ghana.” In Music and Copyright. Edited by Simon Frith, 146–158. Edinburgh Law and Society. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993.

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    Discusses the difficulties of administering Eurocentric copyright law in the context of oral culture from a musical perspective. Informed by his personal involvement in the Ghanaian music industry, Collins offers both general and specific commentary.

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  • Perullo, Alex. “Conceptions of Song: Ownership, Rights, and African Copyright Law.” In The Garland Handbook of African Music. 2d ed. Edited by Ruth M. Stone, 44–53. New York: Routledge, 2008.

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    Discusses the ambiguities inherent in owning music as “intellectual property,” particularly in African contexts, and offers a general take on the treatment of traditional music in African copyright law.

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Central Africa

Scholarship on traditional music in central Africa has focused largely on Zande-speaking communities and the so-called “pygmy” communities that dwell mostly in the rainforests. The literature comprises a fascinating mix of formal analysis (Arom 1991, Fernando 2011, Fürniss 2006, Kubik 2010) and humanistic ethnography (Kisliuk 1998, Turnbull 1961). Turnbull 1961 is the most famous work, having achieved a wide readership outside as well as within the academy. Arom 1991 is less well known beyond academia but has found a significant readership among Western music theorists and composers as well as ethnomusicologists. The wealth of pygmy music available on recording speaks to the degree to which it has fascinated Western listeners (see Feld 1996, cited under Beyond the African Continent). Turnbull 2005 is probably the most influential recording of pygmy music, but one can find others by Colin Turnbull as well as by Simha Arom and Luis Sarno.

  • Arom, Simha. African Polyphony and Polyrhythm: Musical Structure and Methodology. Translated by Martin Thom, Barbara Tuckett, and Raymond Boyd. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511518317Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in French in 1985 (Paris: SELAF). Analyzes musical structures employed by the Zande, Banda-Dakpa, Banda-Linda, Sabanga, Gbaya, Ngbaka, and Aka (Pygmies), by using innovative methods of recording and collaborative transcription. Argues for the interrelation of polyphony and polyrhythm in the central African context. Copious transcriptions but no audio examples.

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  • Fernando, Nathalie. Polyphonies du Nord-Cameroun. Société d’Etudes Linguistiques et Anthropologiques de France 441. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2011.

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    A comparative study of musical polyphony in six northern Cameroonian communities, taking into account vocal as well as instrumental practice. Seeks to better understand the cognitive dimension of cultural difference by examining musical practices shared among multiple communities. An included DVD-ROM juxtaposes musical examples with transcriptions.

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  • Fürniss, Susanne. “Aka Polyphony: Music, Theory, Back and Forth.” In Analytical Studies in World Music. Edited by Michael Tenzer, 163–204. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    A study of the system of polyphony employed by the Aka of central Africa, on the basis of data collected by Simha Arom through his “analytical recording” techniques. Argues that the Aka achieve great complexity in musical performance by conceiving of a relatively simple “substratum.” Adapted from an article published earlier in French.

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  • Kisliuk, Michelle Robin. Seize the Dance! BaAka Musical Life and the Ethnography of Performance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    A reflexive ethnography of performance among the Aka Pygmies in the Central African Republic. Aims at a “socioaesthetics” through narrative description. Includes 2 CDs of field recordings.

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  • Kubik, Gerhard. Theory of African Music. Vol. 1. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

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    About half the chapters focus on central Africa, focusing on Zande harp playing, homophonic singing across the region (and in East Africa), and ethno-aesthetics in eastern Angolan music.

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  • Tucker, A. N. Tribal Music and Dancing in the Southern Sudan (Africa) at Social and Ceremonial Gatherings: A Descriptive Account of the Music, Rhythm, etc., from Personal Observation. London: W. Reeves, 1933.

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    Descriptions and musical transcriptions. Includes dances of the Zande, a group residing mostly in central Africa.

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  • Turnbull, Colin M. The Forest People: A Study of the Pygmies of the Congo. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961.

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    Classic ethnography and bestseller concerning the Mbuti Pygmies. An intimate portrayal of everyday life and ritual, including the molimo and elima dances.

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  • Turnbull, Colin M., recordist and annotator. Music of the Rain Forest Pygmies. CD and liner notes. LYRCD-7157. New York: Lyrichord, 2005.

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    Excerpts of performances by Mbuti, Lese, Bera, and Nyari communities, recorded in 1961 in the field. Available from the Lyrichord website.

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East Africa

The literature on traditional music in East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the new nation of South Sudan) is extensive. A major focus has been the performance genres and events known as ngoma, and their roles in the constitution of social relations (see Ngoma and Society). The bulk of this research focuses on Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. But since the ngoma complex extends into the southern reaches of the continent, those interested in this phenomenon should also take into account research conducted in southeastern and southern African locations (e.g., Friedson 1996 and Meintjes 2004, both cited under Ngoma and Society). An important touchstone for the literature on ngoma is Ranger 1975 (cited under Social History), which also serves as a model for the study of music and social history in East Africa. Three other major themes that have emerged in the study of traditional music in East Africa are each strongly associated with a particular subregion: Dinka Song Texts (South Sudan), Indian Ocean Connections (the Swahili coast), and Buganda Court Music (eastern Uganda). The general works cited here are of two types. Barz 2004 and Kubik, et al. 1982 provide general introductions to the musical cultures of the region and some of the conceptual issues arising from their study. Both Senoga-Zake 2000 and Tucker 1933 document “folk” musical cultures of a particular part of the region.

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

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    A primer on East African music, broadly ethnographic in approach. Oriented toward undergraduates. Focuses heavily on musics conceived as “traditional.” Case studies cover Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda, but with a geographical bias toward areas abutting Lake Victoria. Includes a CD with dozens of useful audio examples.

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  • Kubik, Gerhard, Jim de Vere Allen, Margot Dias, Ashenafi Kebede, Artur Simon, and John Wembah-Rash. Musikgeschichte in Bildern. Vol. 1.10, Musikethnologie: Ostafrika. Edited by Werner Bachmann. Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1982.

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    A rigorous survey. The highlight of this work is the trove of 170 photographs of musical instruments and music making, but there are also very useful chapters on the transformations of musical traditions in the region. In German.

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  • Senoga-Zake, George W. Folk Music of Kenya. Rev. ed. Nairobi, Kenya: Uzima, 2000.

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    An overview of “indigenous folk” music traditions of many of Kenya’s recognized ethnic groups, with detailed information on musical instruments. First published in 1986.

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  • Tucker, A. N. Tribal Music and Dancing in the Southern Sudan (Africa) at Social and Ceremonial Gatherings: A Descriptive Account of the Music, Rhythm, etc., from Personal Observation. London: W. Reeves, 1933.

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    Descriptions and musical transcriptions. Includes dances of Shilluk, Nuer, Dinka, Jur, Bari, Latuko, Acholi, and Zande.

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Dinka Song Texts

Collections of songs can serve as archives of historical memory, for scholars as well as tradition bearers. The literature on traditional music in the region that now comprises South Sudan is thin but includes some of the finest examples of song transcription and explication (notably Deng 1973 and Deng 1976). After researching the musical traditions of his native Dinka community, song collector Francis Mading Deng went on to become an expert in conflict resolution and South Sudan’s first ambassador the UN. It has been left to others, like the author of Impey 2014, to explore the connections between Dinka songs and the military conflicts that have scarred the area that is now South Sudan since the mid-20th century.

Indian Ocean Connections

The littoral of East Africa, known as the “Swahili coast,” has a long history of connection with the social world of the western Indian Ocean. The resonance of these connections for traditional music has been most directly explored in the case of the island of Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania that was the seat of power for the Omani suzerains of the Swahili coast before and during the British colonial era (Graebner 2003, Topp Fargion 2002). Another Indian Ocean connection to East Africa was of keen interest to comparative musicologists working in a broadly diffusionist mode during the first half of the 20th century: the cultural impact of prehistoric human migrations from Indonesia. Blench 1982 provides a useful review and critique of this work.

  • Blench, Roger. “Evidence for the Indonesian Origins of Certain Elements of African Culture: A Review, with Special Reference to the Arguments of A. M. Jones.” African Music 6.2 (1982): 81–93.

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    A cogent introduction to, and critique of, musicological studies of prehistoric contact between peoples from present-day Indonesia and Africa. At once sympathetic to the questions posed by scholars such as A. M. Jones and strongly critical of the methods they have employed.

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  • Graebner, Werner, comp. and annotator. Zanzibar: Soul and Rhythm / De l’âme à la danse. 2 CD-ROMs and booklet. Mörlenbach, Germany: Jahazi Media, 2003.

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    Audio tracks, video footage, and explanatory notes related to various Zanzibari music genres, including beni ngoma, kidumbak, sumsumia (related to Arab simsimiyya lyre music), and taarab. Notes in English and French.

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  • Topp Fargion, Janet. “The Music of Zenj: Arab-African Crossovers in the Music of Zanzibar.” Journal des Africanistes 72.2 (2002): 203–212.

    DOI: 10.3406/jafr.2002.1315Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An ethnomusicological study of “culture contact” on Zanzibar and along the rest of the “Swahili coast.” Explores the influence of rhythms and instruments of the Indian Ocean “dhow countries” and the Arabic mawwal vocal performance genre.

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Ngoma and Society

The word ngoma and close variants are found in Bantu languages across East Africa and surrounding regions—even as far afield as South Africa (Meintjes 2004). In East Africa, it refers at once to “drum,” “dance,” “music,” and the ritual events in which all these elements—plus, more often than not, the added element of competition (Gunderson and Barz 2000)—are brought together. A diverse collection of scholars, including anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and historians, have described competitive ngoma events in East and southern Africa as crucibles of social relations, thereby positioning the phenomenon at the center of an interdisciplinary conversation on the social in Africa (Gunderson and Barz 2000, Meintjes 2004, Nannyonga-Tamusuza 2005, Ranger 1975). Gunderson and Barz 2000 is the best entry point into this conversation. T. O. Ranger supplies a forward for the volume, and his Dance and Society in Eastern Africa (Ranger 1975) is an important touchstone for the editors and authors. Ngoma can also refer to spirit healing practices in which drumming and dancing are employed. This sort of ngoma, which anthropologist Victor Turner famously termed a “cult of affliction,” is the subject of an ethnomusicological study (Friedson 1996) in an area adjacent to (or one may consider it to be within) East Africa.

  • Campbell, Carol A., and Carol M. Eastman. “Ngoma: Swahili Adult Song Performance in Context.” Ethnomusicology 28.3 (1984): 467–493.

    DOI: 10.2307/851235Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A “descriptive analysis” of coastal Swahili ngoma genres vugo, chakacha, goma, mdurenge, and msondo. Most are competitive; each is gendered in its own way. Conclusion speaks to gender roles in Swahili society. Includes transcriptions in staff notation and TUBS (Time Unit Box System).

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  • Friedson, Steven M. Dancing Prophets: Musical Experience in Tumbuka Healing. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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    A phenomenological ethnography of music and healing practices among the Tumbuka of northern Malawi. Focusing on the Vimbuza ritual, reveals drumming and dancing as integral to the experience of spirit healing among the Tumbuka.

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  • Gunderson, Frank D., and Gregory F. Barz, eds. Mashindano! Competitive Music Performance in East Africa. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: Mkuki na Nyota, 2000.

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    An empirically rich volume on competitive ngoma and its intersections with religion, witchcraft, and a host of popular musical forms (dance music, taarab, rap, etc.). Nearly twenty chapters by an international and multidisciplinary group of contributors. An indispensible work on ngoma and East African musical culture generally.

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  • Meintjes, Louise. “Shoot the Sergeant, Shatter the Mountain: The Production of Masculinity in Zulu Ngoma Song and Dance in Post-apartheid South Africa.” Ethnomusicology Forum 13.2 (2004): 173–201.

    DOI: 10.1080/1741191042000286185Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Not about East Africa, but deserves to be considered alongside discussions of ngoma and social relations in East Africa. Examines the production of ideas of masculine authority among participants of Zulu men’s ngoma in poverty-stricken KwaZulu Natal.

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  • Nannyonga-Tamusuza, Sylvia A. Baakisimba: Gender in the Music and Dance of the Baganda People of Uganda. Current Research in Ethnomusicology. New York: Routledge, 2005.

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    Explores the constitution of Baganda gender roles and identities in baakisimba, defined as “a set of drums [called ngoma], a music genre, and dance type accompanied by this music . . .” (p. 1). Addresses, among other things, the role of competition in redefining the genre and refiguring gender relations.

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  • Ranger, T. O. Dance and Society in Eastern Africa, 1890–1970: The Beni Ngoma. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

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    An important touchstone for researchers working on ngoma in East Africa, penned by one of the foremost Africanist historians of the 20th century. Describes the beni ngoma (military brass band–inspired competitive performance events) as a “creative response” to colonial rule.

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Social History

Historian T.O. Ranger’s classic Dance and Society in Eastern Africa (Ranger 1975) established music as an object of sociohistorical research in East Africa. Since its publication, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists have extended the musical study of social history in the region, through ethnographies that connect musical culture to histories of identity formation, social organization, and social stratification (Askew 2002, Kafumbe 2011, Kidula 2013). Gunderson 2010, an annotated collection of song texts, is intended primarily as a resource for historians, though it also stands as a work of musical ethnography.

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

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    An influential ethnography of musical performance and the national imaginary in Tanzania. Focuses on the musical genres of ngoma, dansi, and taarab, framing each as at once “traditional” and “popular.” Though not framed as a work of history, presents new evidence and analyses of Tanzania’s entwined musical and political histories.

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  • Gunderson, Frank D. Sukuma Labor Songs from Western Tanzania: We Never Sleep, We Dream of Farming. African Sources for African History 11. Boston: Brill Academic, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004184688.i-536Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Contains hundreds of Sukuma and Sukuma/Swahili song texts, all with English translations. While intended for historians, the meticulously detailed and ethnographically rich volume introduction and chapter introductions make it also a fine study of Sukuma sonic-expressive culture.

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  • Kafumbe, Damascus. “The Kawuugulu Royal Drums: Musical Regalia, History, and Social Organization among the Baganda People of Uganda.” PhD diss., Florida State University, 2011.

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    A historical ethnomusicology of the Kawuugulu royal drums of the Ganda, based on data from ethnographic fieldwork as well as archival and published sources. Argues that these instruments “and their use articulate and foster Ganda principles of social organization in and through symbolic reenactments of history” (p. 1).

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  • Kidula, Jean Ngoya. Music in Kenyan Christianity: Logooli Religious Song. Ethnomusicology Multimedia. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

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    An ethnographic and historical study of African Christianity, focusing on the ways Christian music making has shaped the Logooli community of western Kenya. Empirically rich, based on decades of research and personal experience. A major contribution to the ethnomusicology of Christianity. Associated audiovisual material available via the Internet.

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  • Ranger, T. O. Dance and Society in Eastern Africa, 1890–1970: The Beni Ngoma. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

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    Classic historiographical study of social life in colonial East Africa, by one of the foremost Africanist historians of the 20th century. Describes the beni ngoma (military brass band–inspired competitive performance events) as a “creative response” to colonial rule.

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Buganda Court Music

The remarkable musical traditions of the Buganda Kingdom in Uganda have been of interest to Africanist ethnomusicologists for decades. Research has focused largely on their xylophone and tuned-drum ensembles, with specific attention to musical structures and performance practice, and historical (and prehistoric) origins of the instruments and their tuning systems. A number of ethnomusicologists conducted research on Buganda court music before the kingdom was suppressed in 1966 (Anderson 1967, Anderson 1977, Cooke and Wachsmann 2003, Kubik 2010, Wachsmann 1965). Research then continued during the three decades during which the kingdom was banned, with the help of committed tradition bearers such as Albert Ssempeke, who worked closely with more than one of the ethnomusicologists cited here (Ssempeke 1975). Kafumbe 2011 represents a fresh approach to Buganda court music, driven by social-historical concerns (see Social History).

The Horn Region

There has been relatively little research done on traditional music within the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia). Ethiopia has received the most attention, with a few overviews available (Powne 1968 being the most thorough), and at least one tradition (the liturgical music of Ethiopian Jews) has been treated to an in-depth study (Shelemay 1989). Kebede 1977, an excellent article on the krar bowl lyre, also stands as a particular introduction to Ethiopian and Eritrean musical culture. Meanwhile, Giannattasio 1988 provides a useful, albeit skeletal, introduction to musical traditions of Somalia.

  • Giannattasio, Francesco. “The Study of Somali Music: Present State.” Paper presented at the Third International Congress of Somali Studies conference, held in 1986 in Rome. In Proceedings of the Third International Congress of Somali Studies. Edited by Annarita Puglielli, 158–167. Rome: Pensiero Scientifico Editore, 1988.

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    A broad overview of “Somali musical culture,” covering genres and stylistic features.

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  • Kebede, Ashenafi. “The Bowl-Lyre of Northeast Africa: Krar; The Devil’s Instrument.” Ethnomusicology 21.3 (1977): 379–395.

    DOI: 10.2307/850725Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Describes the krar, a bowl-lyre played by semiprofessional village musicians in Ethiopia and Eritrea, in terms of its construction, repertoire, and cultural context.

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  • Powne, Michael. Ethiopian Music, an Introduction: A Survey of Ecclesiastical and Secular Ethiopian Music and Instruments. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

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    An informative overview of Ethiopian music, covering musical instruments, secular music (with the exception of the most popular forms, which the author dismisses as “debased or westernized” [p. v]), and ecclesiastical music. Based on primary and secondary research.

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  • Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. Music, Ritual, and Falasha History. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1989.

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    A landmark study of the Ethiopian Jewish community (called Falasha or Beta Israel), focusing on liturgical practices. Based on fieldwork conducted in 1973, before the state of Israel began to evacuate the community en masse. Includes a large number of Beta Israel liturgical texts in (Romanized) Ge’ez, with English translations and musical transcriptions.

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Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands

The scholarly literature on traditional music of the Madagascar and the other Indian Ocean islands (Comoros, Seychelles, Mauritius, and Réunion) is thin. Emoff 2002 stands out as the most detailed and theoretically sophisticated work on traditional music in the region. The chapters in Live and Hamon 2004 reveal great potential for future research.

  • Emoff, Ron. Recollecting from the Past: Musical Practice and Spirit Possession on the East Coast of Madagascar. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

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    A reflexive and empirically rich ethnography of Malagasy tromba spirit possession practices and related music genres, focusing on ethno-aesthetics and the relationships between musical expression, historical memory, and subjectivity.

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  • Live, Yu-Sion, and Jean-François Hamon, eds. Diversité et spécificités des musiques traditionnelles de l’Océan Indien. Kabaro: Revue Internationale des Sciences de l’Homme et des Sociètès 2.2–3. Paris: Éditions l’Harmattan, 2004.

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    Chapters exploring the musical traditions of the Comoros Islands, Madagascar, Mauritius, Réunion, and Seychelles, and their links to other Indian Ocean musical traditions.

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North Africa and Sudan

The term “tradition” is deployed in multiple ways in scholarship on music and culture in the parts of Africa where the Arabic language is dominant (North Africa and Sudan). Practitioners and scholars typically describe musical genres associated both with Sufi and trance practices in these regions as “traditional” (Jankowsky 2010, Kapchan 2007, Marcus 2007, Simon 1998). But the phrase “traditional music” also emerges as a translation for the Arabic al-turath, which connotes an “old repertoire” that embodies Arab “heritage” (Davis 2004, El-Shawan 1984). If one includes all the work published on “traditional Arab music” in Cairo, the literature on traditional music in North Africa begins to look quite expansive. No attempt has been made to give a full sense of that literature here, recognizing that readers with interests in this area will look first to sources on music of the Middle East. Nevertheless, El-Shawan 1984 and Marcus 2007 provide two entry points.

  • Davis, Ruth Frances. Maʻlūf: Reflections on the Arab Andalusian Music of Tunisia. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2004.

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    Documents the aesthetic and sociohistorical contexts of the maʻluf tradition that was originally brought to North Africa by Muslim and Jewish refugees in the wake of the Christian reconquest of Spain in the 13th century.

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  • El-Shawan, Salwa. “Traditional Arab Music Ensembles in Egypt since 1967: ‘The Continuity of Tradition within a Contemporary Framework’?” Ethnomusicology 28.2 (1984): 271–288.

    DOI: 10.2307/850761Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Describes the revival of “traditional Arab music” in Cairo, achieved in part by national cultural policy. “Traditional music” is used as a translation for al-turath, which connotes an “old repertoire” that embodies Arab “heritage.”

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  • Jankowsky, Richard C. Stambeli: Music, Trance, and Alterity in Tunisia. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226392202.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Ethnographic study of stambeli, a healing trance music associated with the descendants of slaves from sub-Saharan Africa. Explores the history of the tradition and its meanings in modern Tunisian society.

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  • Kapchan, Deborah. Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace. Music/Culture. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007.

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    A theoretically eclectic, reflexive ethnography of Gnawa trance practices in Morocco and beyond. Gnawa possession trance practices are analyzed by using theories and methodologies of ethnopoetics, semiotics, and the anthropology of the senses.

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  • Marcus, Scott L. Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. Global Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    A primer on the music of modern Egypt. Introduces Arab music theory as well as a number of traditional/folk and popular forms, including madh Sufi chant and mizmar (shawm) ensembles. Includes CD with audio examples.

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  • Simon, Artur. “Music in Sudan.” In The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music. Vol. 1, Africa. Edited by Ruth M. Stone, 549–572. New York: Garland, 1998.

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    An extremely useful overview. With respect to (northern) Sudan, addresses music and Islam, and Zar and Tambura healing trance practices.

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Southern Africa

The study of traditional music in southern Africa has a long history. British settlement of the region brought researchers such as Percival Kirby and Hugh Tracey to the region, where they sought to document African music through first-hand experience at a time when the Western study of African music was still largely an “armchair” discipline involving little fieldwork. Tracey, who was a teenaged farmer in Rhodesia when he first began recording African traditional music, founded the International Library of African Music and African Music Journal (cited under Journals) in 1954. He was also responsible for the Sound of Africa series of recordings (Tracey 1958–, cited under Multimedia Collections). His Chopi Musicians (Tracey 1948) remains the authoritative work on the remarkable xylophone orchestras of southern Mozambique. Kirby’s organological work, first published more than a decade earlier than Chopi Musicians, also remains an authoritative resource (Kirby 1965), despite being grounded in a discredited evolutionary paradigm. The most celebrated work here, however, is Blacking 1973, which is a seminal work for ethnomusicology. It takes on the broadest possible questions for the field—In what ways are human beings musical beings? What is the relationship between music and culture?—firmly grounded in an ethnography of Venda music. Berliner 1993 is also widely read by ethnomusicologists of all stripes, held up as a model of musical ethnography. Since the late 20th century, an important area of investigation for ethnographers of traditional music in South Africa has been the experience of migrant labor. Coplan 1994, Erlmann 1996, and Meintjes 2004 all explore musical expression, subjectivity, and social identification among male laborers.

  • Berliner, Paul. The Soul of Mbira: Music and Traditions of the Shona People of Zimbabwe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

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    First published in 1978 (Berkeley: University of California Press). A landmark study of an African musical instrument tradition, based on years of intensive fieldwork. Explores every aspect of the Shona lamellophone called mbira, including its construction, performance practice, and spiritual properties.

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  • Blacking, John. How Musical Is Man? John Danz Lectures. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973.

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    A collection of four lectures delivered in 1971, tackling the problem of human musicality from a broadly structural-functionalist perspective. Often read in undergraduate and graduate courses in ethnomusicology for its passionate discussion of music as “humanly organized sound,” but this also provides a wealth of information on traditional music in Vendaland.

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  • Coplan, David B. In the Time of Cannibals: The Word Music of South Africa’s Basotho Migrants. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

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    A multilayered ethnography of Basotho laborers, centering on the lifela genre of sung poetry. Seeks to demonstrate how social consciousness is constituted in performance.

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  • Erlmann, Veit. Nightsong: Performance, Power, and Practice in South Africa. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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    An ethnographic study of performance practice in isicathamiya choral music of Zulu migrant laborers during apartheid. Examines how performers construct notions of Zulu rural tradition and identity.

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  • Kirby, Percival R. The Musical Instruments of the Native Races of South Africa. 2d ed. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1965.

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    First published in 1934 (London: Oxford University Press). Describes the cultural contexts of South African musical instruments and how they are constructed.

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  • Kubik, Gerhard. Música tradicional e aculturada dos !Kung de Angola. Estudos de Antropologia Cultural 4. Lisbon, Portugal: Junta de Investigacões do Ultrama, 1970.

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    Possibly the only rigorous study of the music of a Khoisan community. Describes fundamental structural aspects of !Kung music and discusses !Kung attitudes toward the musical traditions of neighboring Bantu-speaking Africans. In Portuguese.

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  • Meintjes, Louise. “Shoot the Sergeant, Shatter the Mountain: The Production of Masculinity in Zulu Ngoma Song and Dance in Post-apartheid South Africa.” Ethnomusicology Forum 13.2 (2004): 173–201.

    DOI: 10.1080/1741191042000286185Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Developing a phenomenological perspective on Zulu men’s ngoma in poverty-stricken KwaZulu Natal, examines the production of ideas of masculine authority among participants. Detailed ethnographic description of three ngoma “substyles” that originated among Zulu migrant laborers.

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  • Tracey, Hugh. Chopi Musicians: Their Music, Poetry, and Instruments. London: Oxford University Press, 1948.

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    A study of timbila xylophone orchestras in present-day southern Mozambique, focusing on the construction of the instrument and the composition of the music. Reprinted as recently as 1970.

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West Africa

The term West Africa denotes the area where the African continent juts out to the west, from the bottom of the Sahara Desert in the north to the Gulf of Guinea in the south. The scholarly literature on traditional music in this region is vast, albeit uneven (some communities, such as the Ewe in Ghana, have received far more attention than others). This section organizes the literature according to five of its most recognizable themes: Drum Ensembles, Ethno-aesthetics, the Mande World, Musical Instruments, Ritual and Aesthetics, and Yorùbá Music and Modernity. The general works listed before the subheadings are of two different varieties. Kubik, et al. 1989 offers a sweeping survey of the region, while Stone 2005 works out from the specific case of Kpelle music in Liberia.

  • Kubik, Gerhard, Danhin Amagbenyõ, Wolfgang Bender, et al. Musikgeschichte in Bildern. Vol. 1.11, Musikethnologie: Westafrika. Edited by Werner Bachmann. Leipzig: VEB Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1989.

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    A rigorous survey, organized according to nine culture/music areas within West Africa. Many compelling photographs. In German.

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  • Stone, Ruth M. Music in West Africa: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. Global Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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    Generalizes out from the specific case of Kpelle music in Liberia to discuss aspects of musical culture found throughout West (and sometimes all of sub-Saharan) Africa. Includes a CD with examples from field recordings. Valuable for an undergraduate survey course.

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Drum Ensembles

This section contains studies of West African drum ensembles. Nearly all concern Ghanaian traditions, which have received most attention in the literature. The exceptions are Euba 1990 and a chapter of Jones 1959, which compares Ghanaian and central African drumming in order to argue for the “homogeneity” of African music. Chernoff 1979 and Jones 1959 describe the Ghanaian traditions they cover as representative of all “African” music. As instructors of African music survey courses in the United States typically tell their students, not all music in West Africa is drumming and not all African drumming is from the western part of the continent. Nevertheless, the drumming traditions described in these works are remarkable for their sonic sophistication and social significance. Along with the general reverence for the drum in sub-Saharan African cultures, these traditions have inspired theories of African Rhythm. Chernoff 1979, for example, places rhythm at the center of all African musical culture (and to some degree all African culture in general), on the basis of his observations of particular Ghanaian drumming traditions. Agawu 1995 and Merriam 1962 (both cited under African Rhythm) and Burns 2009 all call into question this (over)emphasis on drumming and rhythm in African music studies (Kofi Agawu with specific reference to Chernoff 1979 and Jones 1959).

  • Burns, James M. Female Voices from an Ewe Dance-Drumming Community in Ghana: Our Music Has Become a Divine Spirit. SOAS Musicology. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009.

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    An ethnography of a female dance-drumming club in rural Ghana. Seeking to counterbalance the emphasis on rhythm in studies of Ghanaian drumming, focuses on language and poetics. An accompanying DVD documentary adds important visual and sonic dimensions to the ethnography.

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  • Chernoff, John Miller. African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

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    A classic ethnography of African music, widely cited. Broadly phenomenological in methodology, deriving data from intuitions drawn from participation. Argues that ensemble drumming in Africa (specifically Ghana) expresses an “aesthetic sensibility” that is also an ethical sensibility.

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  • Euba, Akin. Yoruba Drumming: The Dùndún Tradition. Bayreuth African Studies 21–22. Bayreuth, Germany: E. Breitinger, Bayreuth University, 1990.

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    Based on a 1974 doctoral dissertation. Examines social and cultural contexts as well as musical structures and performance practice. Discusses melodic and harmonic elements of dùndún ensemble drumming, along with the surrogate speech dimension.

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  • Jones, A. M. Studies in African Music. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

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    Description and analysis of Ewe (Ghanaian) drumming, on the basis of work with a master drummer and comparison with a central African tradition. Some treatment of tonality and syncretism (“neo-folk” genres). Argues for the “homogeneity of African music.” Volume 2 consists of transcriptions that are prescriptive (“scores”) as well as descriptive.

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  • Koetting, James. “Analysis and Notation of West African Drum Ensemble Music.” Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology 1.3 (1970): 115–146.

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    This article is best known within the field of ethnomusicology for popularizing the Time Unit Box System (TUBS) as a method for transcribing percussion ensemble music. Essential reading for anyone undertaking or engaging with musico-analytical studies of West African drumming.

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  • Nketia, J. H. Kwabena. Drumming in Akan Communities of Ghana. London: Thomas Nelson, 1963.

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    Descriptions of drumming techniques and rhythms, the role of drumming in everyday life, and the work of the drummer.

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Ethno-aesthetics

Works in this section all seek to elucidate the underlying aesthetic concepts of a musical culture. Most proceed ethnographically (Chernoff 1979, Keil 1979, Nzewi 1991, Zemp 1971); two take the form of an annotated glossary (Ames and King 1971, Monts 1990).

  • Ames, David W., and Anthony V. King. Glossary of Hausa Music and Its Social Contexts. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

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    A reference work on Hausa musical instruments, performers, patrons, occasions, and aesthetic concepts, written to accord with Hausa native categories. An innovative format that has proved influential in anthropology and ethnomusicology.

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  • Chernoff, John Miller. African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

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    A classic ethnography of African music, widely cited. Argues that ensemble drumming in Africa (specifically Ghana) expresses an “aesthetic sensibility” that is also an ethical sensibility, such that musicality and sociability are always conceptually linked.

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  • Keil, Charles. Tiv Song: The Sociology of Art in a Classless Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

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    A study of traditional song among the Tiv people, on the basis of fieldwork in Nigeria that was interrupted by the Biafran War. Emphasis is on indigenous conceptions of song.

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  • Monts, Lester Parker. An Annotated Glossary of Vai Musical Language and Its Social Contexts. Ethnomusicologie 3. Paris: Peeters, 1990.

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    This work, based on the model of Ames and King 1971, seeks to describe Vai musical culture in its own terms.

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  • Nzewi, Meki. Musical Practice and Creativity: An African Traditional Perspective. Bayreuth, Germany: IWALEWA-Haus, University of Bayreuth, 1991.

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    A study of traditional music among the Igbo of Nigeria, focusing on indigenous aesthetic concepts and classificatory schemes, and performance practice methodologies. Connections between Igbo musical concepts/practices and other cultural domains are explored.

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  • Zemp, Hugo. Musique Dan: La musique dans la pensée et la vie sociale d’une société africaine. Cahiers de l’Homme: Ethnologie, Géographie, Linguistique, n.s. 11. Paris: Mouton, 1971.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110800210Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A study of musical terminology and aesthetic concepts of the Dan of Ivory Coast and Liberia, with attention also to instruments and the social contexts of music making. In French. Reprinted in 2006.

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The Mande World

The lasting cultural impact of the Mali Empire (c. 1230–c. 1600) in West Africa may be nowhere more evident than in the important role of the griot (m.) and griotte (f.), or jali/jeli (m.) and jalimuso/jelimuso (f.) (praise-singing musicians, verbal artists, and oral historians) in Mande society. Ethnomusicologists have explored the musical arts of the Mande griot, called jaliya or jeliya, in exquisite detail. Charry 2000, Durán 2013, and Knight 1973 represent some of the best of this work. Charry 2000 (chapter 2) and Durán 2003 cover the “hunter’s music” of the traditional Mande nobility.

  • Charry, Eric. Mande Music: Traditional and Modern Music of the Maninka and Mandinka of Western Africa. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

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    A thoroughly researched, comprehensive study of Mande musical culture. Careful attention to historical context. Indispensible.

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  • Durán, Lucy. “Women, Music, and the ‘Mystique’ of Hunters in Mali.” In The African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective. Edited by Ingrid Monson, 137–185. Critical and Cultural Musicology. New York: Routledge, 2003.

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    Examines the “re-creation” of Mande hunter’s music in the form of the women’s genre Wassoulou. Also discusses the role of women in jeliya.

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  • Durán, Lucy, dir. Growing into Music. DVD and streaming video. London: SOAS, University of London, 2013.

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    A pair of documentary films on the hereditary aspect of Mande jeliya (Part 1 titled Mali 1: Da kali; The Pledge to the Art of the Griot, and Part 2 titled Mali 2: Do farala a kan; Something Has Been Added). Reveals the tensions inherent in growing up as a jeli in early-21st-century Mali.

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  • Knight, Roderic. “Mandinka Jaliya: Professional Music of the Gambia.” PhD diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1973.

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    A comprehensive study of musical form and performance practice.

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Musical Instruments

The study of traditional musical instruments in West Africa remains a dynamic area, as evidenced by the early-21st-century publications included in this section. DjeDje 2008, a richly contextualized account of West African fiddle traditions, contains many insights into musical transmission. Kaminski 2012 advances research on surrogate speech, tackling Asante ivory trumpet music by using novel transcription techniques. Zemp 2002 mixes well-worn techniques of ethnomusicological documentation with techniques of contemporary ethnographic film to situate an iconic West African musical instrument in everyday life.

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

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    Historical, ethnographic, and musicological descriptions of one-string fiddle performance among the Fulbe in Senegambia, the Hausa in Nigeria, and the Dagbamba in Ghana.

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  • Kaminski, Joseph S. Asante Ntahera Trumpets in Ghana: Culture, Tradition, and Sound Barrage. SOAS Musicology. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012.

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    Extends previous work by J. H. Kwabena Nketia and others on Ghanaian ivory trumpets and surrogate speech. Many useful illustrations, transcriptions, and audio examples (the last on CD).

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  • Zemp, Hugo. The Wood and the Calabash. DVD. Masters of the Balafon. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources, 2002.

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    Detailed documentation (47 minutes long) of the construction and tuning of the balafon among the Senufo of the Ivory Coast, interspersed with scenes of everyday life. Minimal on-screen text and conversational dialogue are used in lieu of overdubbed narration.

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Ritual and Aesthetics

The works in this section contribute to the study of ritual in Africa and beyond, by revealing and exploring the aesthetic dimensions of particular rituals and ritual complexes in West Africa. Friedson 2010 and Rouget 1996 draw the most explicit connection between ritual and aesthetics—the former through the notion of “aesthetic force” (Friedson 2010, p. 8), the latter through an insistence on ritual as a “work of art” (œuvre d’art). Reed 2003 places musical sound at the center of Dan masked performance, emphasizing its power to affect spiritual beings as well as humans.

  • Friedson, Steven M. Remains of Ritual: Northern Gods in a Southern Land. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

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    A descriptive, reflexive ethnography that seeks to account for the “aesthetic force” (p. 8) of ritual in the Ewe context.

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  • Reed, Daniel B. Dan Ge Performance: Masks and Music in Contemporary Côte d’Ivoire. African Expressive Cultures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.

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    An engaging ethnography of masked performance (Ge) among the Dan of Ivory Coast, with attention to musical sound. Takes a “postmodern” approach, luxuriating in narrative description and direct quotes from interlocutors. Describes musical sound as an “instrumental force” in Ge performance (p. 143), citing its power to attract spirits and inspire humans to dance.

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  • Rouget, Gilbert. Un roi africain et sa musique de cour: Chants et danses du palais à Porto-Novo sous le règne de Gbèfa (1948–1976). Paris: CNRS Editions, 1996.

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    Based on years of research, an ethnographic study of a secretive, and now defunct, African ritual complex: the songs and dances of the wives of King Gbèfa of Porto Novo, Benin. Treats ritual as a “work of art” centered on music. Includes illustrations, photographs, and two CDs with musical examples.

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Yorùbá Music and Modernity

With the publication of Klein 2007 and Omojola 2012, the study of Yorùbá music has taken on a new thematic focus: the relationship between the Yorùbá musical culture and modernity.

  • Klein, Debra L. Yorùbá Bàtá Goes Global: Artists, Culture Brokers, and Fans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

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    An ethnography of Yorùbá Bàtá drumming and dancing in global circulation. Grounded in case studies of practitioners and “culture brokers.” Reveals the power imbalances that obtain, even in the face of utopian intentions, between practitioners and other culture brokers in Nigeria and beyond.

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  • Omojola, Bode. Yorùbá Music in the Twentieth Century: Identity, Agency, and Performance Practice. Eastman/Rochester Studies in Ethnomusicology 2. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2012.

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    Examines the relationship between Yorùbá music and sociopolitical developments in Nigeria over the course of the 20th century, using a wealth of data plus assimilated knowledge from decades of research and personal experience. Employs historiographical, ethnographic, and musicological methods. Argues that global influences in Yorùbá music reference local concerns.

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Beyond the African Continent

Over centuries of forced and voluntary migration, Africans have transported musical traditions to other continents. The study of African traditional music thus necessarily takes into account the African diaspora. North American ethnomusicology, in particular, has always treated African music as intimately related to African diasporic music (hence the transnational focus of Merriam 1951, cited under Bibliographies). This may be attributed in large part to the influence of anthropologist Melville Herskovits, who conducted research into the survival of African culture in the Americas (e.g., Herskovits and Herskovits 1947). Herskovits’s students included Africanist ethnomusicologists Alan Merriam and Richard Waterman, the latter of whom supplied the musical transcriptions for Herskovits and Herskovits 1947. The presence of African musical culture in the Indian Ocean world has received far less attention from scholars than that of African musical culture in the “black Atlantic,” but Jayasuriya 2008 reveals the possibilities for research in that area. Since the late 20th century, African musical traditions have become transnational in another respect, entering into forms of circulation enabled by media technologies and global capitalism (Feld 1996, Kapchan 2007, Klein 2007, Schuyler 2000).

  • Feld, Steven. “Pygmy Pop: A Genealogy of Schizophonic Mimesis.” Yearbook for Traditional Music 28 (1996): 1–35.

    DOI: 10.2307/767805Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Traces the borrowing of pygmy sounds (in the forms of samples and musical figures) in Western popular music and jazz recordings, opening a set of ethical and legal questions about the appropriation of African traditional music by musicians in the Global North.

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  • Herskovits, Melville J., and Frances S. Herskovits. Trinidad Village. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1947.

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    An ethnographic study of the “retention” and “reinterpretation” of African culture among black Trinidadian villagers. The most striking and compelling empirical evidence is in the descriptions of musical religious practices that are clearly of African extraction. Audio examples are available (Hill 1998). Reprinted most recently in 1976 (New York: Octagon).

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  • Hill, Donald R., comp. and annotator. The 1939 Trinidad Field Recordings of Melville and Frances Herskovits. Vol. 1, Peter Was a Fisherman. CD with liner notes. American Song. Cambridge, MA: Rounder, 1998.

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    Audio examples to accompany Herskovits and Herskovits 1947, with very useful contextual notes.

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  • Jayasuriya, Shihan de Silva. “Indian Oceanic Crossings: Music of the Afro-Asian Diaspora.” African Diaspora 1.1–2 (2008): 135–154.

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    With specific reference to Herskovits’s project, considers the retention and transmission of African music in the Indian Ocean world.

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  • Kapchan, Deborah. Traveling Spirit Masters: Moroccan Gnawa Trance and Music in the Global Marketplace. Music/Culture. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007.

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    A lyrical, reflexive ethnography of Gnawa culture in global circulation. Explores how a “culture of possession” is enacted and “possessed” by the Gnawa and their European and African American collaborators. Addresses Gnawa intersections with the world music market, African American music, and Celtic music.

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  • Klein, Debra L. Yorùbá Bàtá Goes Global: Artists, Culture Brokers, and Fans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

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    An ethnographic account of the entry of Yorùbá Bàtá drumming and dancing into global circulation as “world music.” Achieves an empirically grounded critique of the world music industry and its relationship to Africa, by revealing the power imbalances that obtain even in the face of utopian intentions.

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  • Roberts, John Storm. Black Music of Two Worlds: African, Caribbean, Latin, and African-American Traditions. 2d ed. New York: Schirmer, 1998.

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    A useful survey of Afro-diasporic musical genres, with attention to historical contexts; widely used in undergraduate courses.

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  • Schuyler, Philip. “Joujouka/Jajouka/Zahjoukah: Moroccan Music and Euro-American Imagination.” In Mass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond. Edited by Walter Armbrust, 146–160. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

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    Recounts how the Master Musicians of Jajouka became a “worldwide world-music phenomenon,” drawing in part on fieldwork in Morocco.

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