Lesson 1: African Genres of Music

There are so many kinds of African music! African music is dancing, drumming, the pulsating rhythms of the earth. African music is celebration, exultation and a profound, visceral way to communicate. Rhythm is king in Africa; so don’t be shy–grab your djembe, doumbek, dun dun or riq, clap your hands, stop your feet . . . let’s go!!

There are hundreds if not thousands of distinct kinds of African music, and there are more genres being born literally as we speak. African music is extremely local, tied closely to the land and the ancient rhythms of the people who originated each form, but at the same time there is constant cross-cultural communication, both within geographic regions on the continent and also with African-inspired music like blues, jazz and funk, from the West.

For more than two thousand years East Africa has been the hub of an active trade route that connected Southern Africa to Western and Northern African, as well as to Asian nations such as India, Persia/Iran and those on the Arabian peninsula. Music in Sudan, Tanzania and the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti), surges with Arabic influence, while the music of inland East African countries like Uganda and Kenya have more in common with that of Africa’s West.

The music of North Africa is inextricably bound to Arabic melodies and rhythms, and has been for the nearly 1500 years since Islam became the region’s dominant religion. North African music is passionate yet consciously mysterious, with its bold poetic lyrics exploring themes like religious devotion and the harsh reality of daily life. North African musicians also bring their passion into their politics, like the Tunisian and Egyptian hip-hop artists that recently used their music to challenge oppressive regimes that long dominated the region.>

Music in West Africa ranges from the heartfelt wail of Malian blues to the joyous, bounding dance and drumming sounds of Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and beyond. The multifaceted rhythms of West Africa are not only at the core of its many energizing musical genres, but also traveled to America in the hulls of slave ships, giving the music of the Caribbean and Latin America a jolt of syncopation.

While Central Africa has faced hard times as of late, the music there has remained a source of pride and joy. Congolese rumba and soukous may not be able to change the politics of the region, but they certainly can give us hope that in times of trouble, we still can dance.

In Southern Africa, music has long been a statement of joy, faith and survival. From luscious choral harmonies to hip-jiggling township jive, Southern Africa’s many forms of music played an essential role the region’s anti-colonial, anti-Apartheid and anti-autocratic struggles. They did this not as a form of self-loathing, but as a way to affirm the pride of the people and their resounding commitment to life.

We can start here with a tour of some of our favority kinds of African music:

— Gnawa: Moroccan devotional “trance”

— Rai: North African political/poetic dance

— Ethiopian Jazz: Jazzy-funky Ethiopian East-West fusion

— Taarab: Dramatic Tanzanian orchestral

— Malian Blues: True blues roots

— Highlife: Buoyant West African dance

— Juju: Nigerian party music

— Afrobeat: Powerful Nigerian political funk

— Soukous: Congolese Afro-Cuban dance

— Chimurenga: Zimbabwean political mbira

— Jit: Harare beat

— Isicathamiya: South African choral a capella

— Mbaqanga: South African township jive

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