Chapter 10
The River and the Path: Conversation and
Collective Expression in West African
African Musics in Context
“Africa gave birth to the first human beings and—we
may assume– to the first human song.” (Fletcher 2001:
Almost every major international popular music has
roots in African music—from mambo to hip-hop and
rock to reggae.
Significant groups and artists include: Angélique Kidjo,
Toumani Diabate, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Salif
Keita, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Thomas
Mapfumo, Hugh Masekela, Youssou N’Dour, King
Sunny Adé, and Papa Wemba.
Insights and
Isacathamiya and
Ladysmith Black
The South African vocal group Ladysmith Black
Mambazo has been the dominant force in isicathamiya
music for decades.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo collaborated with Paul
Simon in the 1980s, and were featured in the
documentary film Graceland. They helped to bring
attention to South Africa’s apartheid system, a legalized
system of racial segregation and separation.
CD ex. #3-13 features “Unomathemba,” a song from
their album Shaku Zulu.
The African Continent, Sub-Saharan
Africa, and the African Diaspora
Africa’s landmass is second in size only to the continent of Asia,
and holds about one-sixth of the world’s population. The
African diaspora resulted in millions of people of African
descent residing throughout the world.
The northern part of Africa covers the Sahara Desert and
contains Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, and other
countries. Islam is the dominant religion.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the focus of this chapter; root features of
ragtime, blues, jazz, rhythm-and-blues, soul, rock-and-roll, rap,
hip-hop, salsa, Cuban son, Puerto Rica bomba, Trinidadian steel
band, Jamaican reggae, and more may be traced to this region.
Music, Culture, and History in SubSaharan Africa
Many powerful kingdoms existed throughout Sub-Saharan
Africa’s pre-colonial history, encompassing and developing a
wide diversity of ethnicities, cultures, and musical styles.
Following the 15th century, European (and U.S.) intervention
and domination led to much destruction and transformation.
The slave trade of the 17th-19th centuries and the colonization
of the region were key factors.
Since WWII, the modern nations of Africa have experienced
great progress and success in many domains, but the vestiges
of colonial domination still linger. Warfare, public health
crises, and political instability remain major challenges.
In response to modern sociopolitical challenges and
opportunities, there has been much revival, revitalization, and
modernization of traditional forms of African music, dance, and
ceremonial practice. CD ex #2-10, “Ingculaza (AIDS),”
combines traditional African instruments and musical features
with Western-influenced popular music elements in a song that
addresses the African AIDS pandemic.
Islam and Christianity are widespread in sub-Saharan Africa,
often syncretizing with indigenous forms of African religion.
Hundreds, even thousands, of religions are practiced in subSaharan Africa, and music is a key element of religious practice
on many levels.
Communal expression often takes the form of polyvocality,
involving multipart musical “conversation” involving
instruments, clapping, dancing, or other modes of participation.
Non-Africans frequently associate African music with
drumming, although most African musics are not drum-based
and much of the music contains no drumming at all. That said,
drumming is indeed an important and sometimes central feature
of many African musical traditions.
CD ex. #3-12 is an example from Ghana, and features an
ensemble of percussionists. All play on drums except for one
individual, who plays a repeating rhythmic pattern on an iron
bell called a dawuro. This style of music is known as
Fontomfrom: An Akan
Royal Drum Ensemble
The Akan are an ethnic group who reside principally in Ghana,
a form British colony that gained independence in 1957. They
are primarily matrilineal, which means that they trace their
lineage back through the side of the mother.
Akan chiefs were traditionally the principal political leaders of
their people, though now their political roles tend to be limited
(e.g., handling land issues and domestic disputes, etc.). They
use certain types of music and instruments to symbolize their
power. For example, purchasing a royal set of drums like
Fontomfrom and sponsoring Fontomfrom performances are
chiefly traditions.
Traditionally, the chief dances at public musical events. An
assistant always stands nearby, ready to catch the chief if he
should fall. Falling to the ground is a sign of weakness or
The Fontomfrom drums may be used for drum speech,
making statements like “Nana, bre bre” (“Chief, walk
Musical Guided
Instruments and Basic Rhythmic
Patterns in Fontomfrom Music
Follow along with the transcript on pages 199-200 of the text as you
listen to the Tour for this chapter.
Audio Musical Guided Tour
Unifying Features of Music in West
Africa: Musical Africanisms
Complex polyphonic textures
Layered ostinatos with varied repetition
Conversational element
Timbral variety
Distinctive pitch systems and scales
More than Drumming: African
Musical Diversity and the Kora
Drumming is not the basis of most music in Africa. A great
deal of African music does not include any drumming at all.
CD ex. #2-4 is an example of one of many highly developed
forms of polyphonic music that are purely vocal. It is a
traditional elephant hunting song of the Central Africa
BaMbuti people.
CD ex. #2-2 features the mbira dzavadzimu, a plucked
idiophone from the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Note the
melodic complexity.
CD ex. #3-15 features the Ugandan endongo, played by
Damascus Kafumbe. Other chordophones include the
knokwane (CD ex. #2-8), a one-stringed “musical bow”.
The Kora and Its Musicultural
The kora is a 21-string spike harp chordophone. All spike
harps have a neck that pierces the resonator of the instrument
to form a post at the lower end. It has a straight neck and a
resonator made from a half-gourd, and a cowhide stretches
over the gourd.
When playing the kora, the performer holds on to handgrips
mounted on either side of the neck and plucks the strings with
the thumbs and forefingers. It is traditionally played from a
seated position, although playing while standing or walking is
Mande History and Culture
The traditional homelands of the Mande span across areas of
western Africa in a region that was formerly home to the
powerful Mande, or Mali, empire.
Traditional Mande music and culture are preserved and
continue to develop. Colonial history has left a strong mark on
Mande culture. Areas once colonized by the French, English,
and Portuguese continue to maintain these languages.
The Jeli and the Art of Jeliya
The art of kora has traditionally belonged to a hereditary class
of professional Mande musicians known as jeli. Male jeli
normally sing and play instruments, while the female jelimuso
normally specialize in singing only.
People born into jeli families have the exclusive right to
preserve classic jeliya repertoire, which focuses on praise
Traditionally, jelilu (plural of jeli) have been not only
musicians, but also historians, genealogists, and social and
political commentators. They alone had the right to sing about
sensitive Mande social and political issues historically.
Other instruments associated with the jeli include the bala, or
balafon. It is a xylophone constructed of between 17 and 21
wooden slats suspended over a wooden frame.
The koni is a plucked chordophone similar to the banjo, and is
made from a hollow piece of wood covered by an animal hide.
Photos of both of these instruments may be seen on p. 207 of
the textbook.
Seckou Keita: Kora Master, Jeli, and
Radical Royal
It is generally discouraged for non-jeli individuals to play jeli
instruments. This is especially true for Mande of royal lineage.
Mande custom states that those with the royal name Keita are
forbidden from being a jeli, but some individuals have broken
rank and defied this convention.
The Malian-born singer and world beat superstar Salif Keita is
one example. He blends traditional jeliya features,
contemporary popular sound, and political commentary in his
music. He is a controversial figure due to his decision to be a
professional musician despite his noble lineage.
“I am not shy to sing and play the kora”
Seckou Keita is another royal Keita who broke rank to be a
musician. A kora virtuoso, his composition “Founé” is
featured on CD ex. #2-7. This track has musicians singing and
performing on drums from varying regions of western Africa.
Seckou Keita was born into a “mixed-heritage” family in
southern Senegal. Half Keita and half Sissoko (the latter
traditionally a hereditary jeli musical family), his musical
prospects were unclear. His gratitude for being able to follow
his musical destiny is featured in his song “Sabu Nginma”
(Good Help). Another of his songs, which is a focal track in
the text, is “Dounuya,” which may be heard on CD ex. #3-16.
A Meeting of Musical Worlds:
“Atlanta Kaira”
“Atlanta Kaira” (CD ex. #3-17) is a neo-traditional ensemble
jeliya performance featuring two singers, two koras, a bala, a
koni, and an acoustic guitar. The guitarist is the American
blues musician Taj Mahal, whose search for his musical roots
led him to Mali, among other African nations.
The polyphonic layers present in the performance include the
singing, kora playing, the parts of the bala and koni, and
Mahal’s guitar playing. They exemplify the power of
collective expression so characteristic of West African music.
Angélique Kidjo
Kidjo was born in the nation of Benin, a small country with a
population of around six million people. The official language
of Benin is French, but the country’s major ethnic groups (e.g.,
Fon, Yoruba) maintain their individual languages. Kidjo is of
Fon descent and sings many of her songs in the Fon language.
Kidjo was raised in an artistic household and grew up listening
to James Brown and Beatles records. She established herself
as one of Benin’s only professional female singers by the age
of 20, but moved to Europe as a young woman in pursuit of
greater professional opportunities.
Once in Europe, she pursued a “crossover” career, combining
her musical roots with the diverse musics she encountered
Kidjo’s 1994 dance hit “Ayé” brought her international fame,
and her 1996 album Fifa was even more popular. Among
other artists, it featured Latin rock guitarist Carlos Santana.
Following Fifa, Kidjo released a trilogy of albums devoted to
exploring the African roots of African-derived musics of the
Today, Kidjo resides principally in New York and maintains a
busy schedule of international touring and recording.
CD ex. #3-18 features “Okan Bale.” The Western instruments
and elements reference a cosmopolitan/international style.
Despite this, the Fon lyrics and style of vocalization, as well as
the prominent presence of the kora, suggest a pan-African
identity within the song’s broader cosmopolitan identity.

Chapter 2 How Music Lives: A Musicultural Approach