Africa, the second-largest continent, is home to some of the most beautiful and exciting traditional folk music in the world. This diverse heritage ranges from the polyrhythmic batuque tradition of the Cape Verde Islands in the west to the muheme drumming practiced by women in Tanzania; from the minimally accompanied vocals of the Tuareg peoples of the northern Sahel region to the polyphonic chants of South Africa’s Khoi and San people. And every style and voice in-between and beyond.
The main sources available to anyone who wants to study traditional African folk music encompass pictorial sources such as rock paintings and drawings; archeological finds; travelers’ notes and other written histories, as well as recorded oral histories and written musical notation. And in the 20th and 21st centuries, a still-growing wealth of analog and digital recordings preserves the original performers’ voices.
Swimming against the currents of history
One of the problems facing musicologists and listeners with an interest in any genre of traditional African music is based in the history that has shaped much of the continent. Sophisticated and highly distinctive musical traditions have developed in multiple regions, yet a lack of access to technology capable of recording and archiving them continues to be a problem, as elders skilled in these traditions leave us before their musical gifts can be preserved. Couple this with the history of brutal racism, apartheid, and slavery on the part of European colonial powers in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries that deliberately suppressed or sidelined indigenous cultural productions, and you have a recipe for oblivion.
The problem of definition
We can add the fact that music anywhere is constantly evolving at the speed of human creativity. With so many contemporary African musicians mixing traditional folk elements into contemporary music, it’s sometimes difficult to say precisely where the “traditional” ends and the “contemporary” begins.
And then there’s the question of what, exactly, is authentically African about any particular style of music, given that—like any other aspect of human creativity—it likely contains influences from other cultures beyond regional or ethnic borders. In the case of some African cultures, indigenous music can bear heavy influences from European settlers, the relative newcomers from the Islamic world, and other groups not originally African. And in many cases, any particular African musical form may not even be tied to one specific ethnic or cultural group within the continent.
In addition, much indigenous African music was created as a response to, or in protest of, the social systems that subordinated native African peoples to white colonialist governments. (Think here of the rich musical literature of mid-20th century South Africa, much of it derived from older forms but pointedly calling out the brutalities of apartheid.)
For our purposes here, we can arbitrarily say that “traditional African music” involves music of any style produced at the grassroots level by musicians who grew up within an indigenous culture and who produced vocal or instrumental work deeply rooted in that culture.
Keeping traditions alive
The quest for preservation of this heritage has come in fits and starts. Sometimes, an empathetic outsider with a passion for Africa’s music stepped in to bring technology to the task of recording and documentation. At other times, African-born musicians and musicologists steeped in local or regional traditions have found the tools they needed to keep those traditions alive for succeeding generations. In every case, humanity as a whole has benefited from this work.
Hugh Tracey, the best-known non-African in this field, was a mid-20th century Caucasian ethnomusicologist who started out as an amateur. Yet he managed to document and preserve an astonishing variety of traditional sub-Saharan musical forms that otherwise might have been lost forever. He gained his expertise simply based on his travels in the region, his ability to listen respectfully to local people, and his boundless capacity for note-taking. The International Library of African Music (ILAM) is the physical repository of his lifetime of work, while the recordings collected in The Sounds of Africa and other projects seal his reputation as one of the earliest and most dedicated recorders of African music.
A number of record labels began producing albums of African folk music collected by ethnomusicologists like Tracey as early as the 1920s and ‘30s.
As African performers and scholars have gained a greater ability to document their own history, new voices have emerged. Kofi Agawu is one of today’s preeminent Black musicologists from Africa. Born in Ghana, Agawu is the author of books that include The African Imagination in Music (Oxford University Press, 2016), already hailed as a major comprehensive work for general readers. In it, Agawu discusses traditional melodies, rhythms, and techniques while offering detailed information illustrating the depth and breadth of African sounds.
To give one example of African musicians working to preserve and highlight their heritage, consider the band Zokela, from the Central African Republic. For decades, the musicians and dancers of Zokela have focused on transmitting knowledge of their culture’s Motenguene singing and dance tradition, handed down from the indigenous forest-dwelling Pygmy people. “Motenguene” can be translated as, approximately, “caterpillar dance,” and it is one of four main traditional dances in the Central African Republic . Zokela performs using modern musical instruments, but their performances have brought a much-needed sense of pride and happiness to listeners in the Central African Republic.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s boundless creativity resulted in more than 600 works, now a permanent part of the classical canon. The composer, a native of Salzburg, Austria, was also an inveterate traveler.
His wanderings began when he was a child performer taken on tour by his overbearing father. In the last decade of his life, he frequently traveled to conduct his own compositions at their premieres. In fact, he spent a total of 10 years (close to one-third of his life) on the road, visiting some 200 cities and towns within the present-day borders of ten countries across central and western Europe.
Mozart and his Praguers
One of Mozart’s major journeys was the second time he went to Prague to debut his great opera Don Giovanni. It was late in the year 1787, and the 31-year-old composer had already visited the Bohemian city earlier that same year to conduct his Prague Symphony (No. 38) and his opera The Marriage of Figaro. During that second trip, he stood at the podium of the Estates Theatre in Prague’s Old Town to lead the new work, one of the most dramatically strong and magnificently scored operas of all time.
Mozart’s work usually found a warm reception in Prague, so he chose to favor the city with the premiere of the new piece. The reception was overwhelming, and Mozart is remembered observing, “My Praguers understand me.”
Outside the Estates Theatre today is a haunting statue of a cloaked figure with its face hidden in shadows. This work of Czech sculptor Anna Chromý (1940 - 2021), entitled “The Cloak of Conscience,” represents the ghost-statue of Il Commendatore, the character who arrives at Don Giovanni’s door with an ominous knock and hustles the unrepentant reprobate to the underworld.
A prodigy’s travels
Mozart’s crisscrossing of Europe began before he was six years old. He was already known as a prodigy who played the harpsichord and composed. His sister also showed unusual talent, and their father took the children first to the Bavarian court and then to the imperial court at Vienna. Leopold Mozart considered his son’s talent a “miracle” and was disposed to profit from it.
The year Wolfgang turned seven, the family took the children on an extended tour of the music capitals of Europe. In Germany, they visited Munich, Stuttgart, Augsburg, Mannheim, Frankfurt, and Mainz. One of Mozart’s father’s letters also documents a visit to Slovakia’s capital of Bratislava. The family also stopped in Brussels and wintered in Paris before going to London when Mozart was eight.
His time there is documented in British historian Lucy Worsley’s BBC documentary Mozart’s London Odyssey. Worsley describes the child musician’s life-changing experiences that led to the writing of his first symphony while there. His father lay in bed recovering from a near-fatal illness, and Mozart was unable to perform. So he sat down to write original music instead. Already in this first symphony’s lyricism and play of harmonies, we can hear the mature composer.
After more than a year in London, the Mozart family wound their way home through The Hague, Amsterdam, and Paris again, then passed through Lyon and Switzerland before reaching Salzburg more than three years after they had left.
During a 15-month trip to Vienna from 1767 to 1769, several of Mozart’s works flopped, but his setting of a festal mass, performed at Vienna’s Orphanage Church and the archbishop’s palace in Salzburg, led to his appointment in Salzburg as an honorary Konzertmeister.
Maturing during the Italian years
Mozart next made an extensive tour of Italy, again at his father’s behest. The now-teenaged composer set out in December 1769 and enjoyed a delightful 15 months there. His artistic ability grew along with his experiences of a new culture and language. He performed for Pope Clement XIV in Rome, who rewarded him with a knighthood.
Perhaps Mozart’s greatest feat while in Italy was his reproduction, completely from memory, of Gregorio Allegri's Miserere, which he had heard performed in the Sistine Chapel. Papal authority forbade any copying of the work on pain of excommunication, but Mozart didn’t need to copy: He carried all the music away in his head.
Mozart expanded his knowledge of counterpoint in Bologna, conducted his opera Mitridate at the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan, and passed the entrance examination at the Accademia Filarmonica in Verona. He learned to master his own talent, becoming increasingly aware of how to create sonic texture.
In 1771, Mozart went to Milan to present a joyous opera, Ascanio di Alba, to the archduke on the occasion of his marriage. Again in Milan from 1772 to early 1773, he presented the opera Lucio Silla. The work’s high drama earned it 26 performances.
During the years of travel to and from Italy, Mozart continued to flex his musical talent. He composed new symphonies in a lively Italian style, along with six string quartets. A 1773 trip to Vienna honed his skills even further, producing string quartets heavily influenced by classical master Joseph Haydn and showing Mozart’s growing understanding of the form. New symphonies also emerged, as did his first piano concerto.
Love and loss in Germany and Paris
After toiling in the provincial court at Salzburg, Mozart at age 21 left to seek work in Munich, but was refused. After spending time in Augsburg, he traveled to Mannheim, where the court of the Elector Palatine was among the most musically sophisticated of its day. Mozart spent a successful four months in the city, producing several sonatas for piano and violin. He also fell in love, but his father thwarted the romance by forbidding him to travel to Italy with the young woman’s family.
Mozart followed his father’s wishes and went to Paris in 1778, accompanied by his mother. Their six-month stay resulted in the composition of a very well-received symphony in D Major. Mozart had learned to use dramatic Parisian techniques well, as stunningly exemplified in the opening movement of this “Paris” symphony (No. 31).
But the trip was tragic personally. In Paris, his mother fell ill and died just after the premiere.
Summoned to Salzburg by his father to take a job as court organist, Mozart dilly-dallied in Munich and Mannheim on the way home. His receipt of a commission in 1780 resulted in the Italian opera Idomeneo, another turning point in his style. This work, which he premiered in Munich just after his birthday in January 1781, was richly dramatic beyond the scope of his earlier operas.
Coming into his own in Vienna
After angrily breaking from his Salzburg position, Mozart relocated to Vienna, where he debuted his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, with lyrics in German, at the Burgtheater in 1782. The work is noted for its use of “exotic” tone colors and for containing more notes than any other opera in the German repertoire. The heroine of the piece, like his soon-to-be-wife, was named Constanze.
Inspired by both Haydn’s classicism and the Baroque tradition, Mozart’s work in the 1780s was now fully mature. Still in Vienna, he became furiously productive, and often performed piano pieces and conducted his own symphonies, which now included the “Linz,” written in honor of his stay in that city. His piano concertos and string quintets became especially individualistic, romantic, and grandiose. New commissions in 1789 led to travel to Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden.
A last love letter to Prague
In 1791, Mozart was working on his last great opera, La Clemenza di Tito, for the Prague opera, in honor of the imperial coronation of Leopold II. This more classically structured work, again debuted under his baton at the Estates Theatre, renewed the love of Prague audiences for his work. That December, when “his” Praguers learned of the composer’s death at 35 after his return to Vienna, they tolled the church bells throughout their city.
Archeologists tell us that the act of making music dates back at least 35,000 to 40,000 years. That’s when most of the available evidence points to the creation of the first musical instruments.
Some scholars point to a period beginning about this time as an explosion of cultural creativity. The early human beings of the Upper Paleolithic period began producing extraordinary examples of cave paintings, jewelry, and sculptural carvings from stone and bone. Their growing sense of spiritual and ethical awareness is evident in their carrying out complex rituals such as burying their dead.
One of the oldest examples we have of an object deliberately fashioned to produce music is a flute discovered in 2004 in Germany. Thought to be about 35,000 years old, the instrument is made from two pieces of hollowed-out mammoth ivory. With these two pieces fastened together, and with three finger-holes carved into the tube, a musician could produce five distinct musical tones. The flute as an instrument evolved into ever more complex and melodious forms, as evidenced by a remarkable example made during the Neolithic period in China.
The Jiahu flutes
Chinese myths dating back thousands of years tell of the mystical connections between flutes and the long-legged birds known as cranes.
In the 1980s, archeologists working at an ancient settlement in the central plains of China discovered objects they called the Jiahu flutes, dating from about 7,000 BCE. Over time, they discovered dozens of these flutes, all carved from the wing bones of the red-crowned crane. Many were made with seven or eight holes, giving them a remarkably sophisticated range of tones similar to the eight-tone scale familiar to us today.
This find represents the oldest musical instruments found in China and one of the oldest still-playable caches of instruments in the world. Careful replicas constructed by musicians in Henan show us that the flutes’ tone sounds remarkably like the flutes manufactured today.
The Lyres of Ur
Humans made and played the lyre and other stringed instruments from the time of the earliest civilizations in the Mideast and the ancient Mediterranean world. The lyre reached its high point in ancient Greece, when it was known as a sacred instrument to Apollo, god of music, poetry, and the arts. For the Greeks, the lyre served as a symbol of wisdom, enlightenment, and moderation.
The classical lyre typically consisted of a yoked body with two upright or curved arms supported by a crossbar and a set of tuning pegs. These pegs might be fashioned of bone, ivory, or bronze. Between the crossbar and the bottom portion of the instrument were seven strings, commonly made from sheep gut, that varied in thickness. The musician would hold the lyre in their hands or lap and pluck or strum it by hand or with a plectrum. Some lyres were played with a bow, much like a violin. Others had bowl-shaped bodies, often made of tortoiseshell.
Ancient art is filled with depictions of various forms of the lyre, from Minoan clay pieces of the 15th century BCE to statues of Apollo dating from the third century CE and beyond.
Archeologists have discovered lyres in their excavations of numerous ancient cultures. Among the most famous of these finds are the Lyres of Ur, products of the ancient Sumerian civilization. In 1929 archeologist Leonard Woolley found these 4,500-year-old pieces, with their carved bulls’ heads and inlaid lapis lazuli ornamentation, in present-day Iraq. Expert consensus designates them as the oldest-known surviving stringed instruments in the world.
After extensive restorations, the three lyres were distributed to museums in Pennsylvania, London, and Iraq. The Golden Lyre of Ur, the most magnificent of the three, was reposed in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad until 2003, when rioters partially destroyed it and left pieces in various locations in the city. Much of the original jewels and gold were never recovered (although the gold bull’s head was found in the National Bank of Iraq five years later). Dedicated experts eventually reassembled the broken pieces. Andy Lowings, a British musician and civil engineer, also created a remarkable replica using Woolley’s notes and the help of colleagues around the world to source cedarwood, stones, gems, and mother-of-pearl.
Other musicians have built and played replicas of numerous other types, with recordings widely available.
A pair of wind instruments called Tutankhamun’s Trumpets, found in the Egyptian ruler’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922, is part of what the archeologist dubbed the treasure trove of “wonderful things” he saw there. One bronze and one silver, the long, slender trumpets feature decorative motifs depicting gods associated with war. They are among the oldest surviving playable musical instruments in existence. A 1939 BBC recording, accessible on YouTube today, preserved their haunting sound, easily recognizable as similar to today’s trumpets.
The instruments found a home in the Cairo Museum until 2011, when the bronze trumpet disappeared during the chaos of the political uprising. The silver trumpet was already abroad as part of a museum tour. Not long after its disappearance, the bronze instrument turned up, just as mysteriously as it had vanished, tucked into a bag filled with antiquities on the Cairo Metro.
Mapping ancient music
The European Music Archeology Project (EMAP), launched in 2013, aims to recreate several ancient instruments. Organizers of this still-ongoing $4.6 million effort set out to construct musical instruments that would resemble—and sound like—those that were developed thousands of years ago in the region.
The project’s playable instruments include a set of Numantian trumpets, ultracircular clay aerophones used in the second century BCE by the Arevaci, a group of Celtiberian peoples living in the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula. The Arevaci maintained their central settlement in the city of Numantia, Spain. From the remnants of multiple instruments, the EMAP team worked to create replicas, even down to the ornate decorative carvings on the pieces.
Other experts rebuilt functioning examples of the ancient carnyx, a horn dating from the Iron Age; the lur, a 4-foot-long war horn used in Scandinavia three millennia ago; the bullroarer, a small, thin-layered plank typically made of wood or bone and whirled in a horizontal or vertical circle to create sound waves of various pitch. Researchers have unearthed originals of the bullroarer in Paleolithic-era archeological sites throughout the world.
EMAP exhibitions have allowed people from across Europe to examine and enjoy these instruments, and the organization has even made recordings featuring accomplished contemporary musicians playing them.
In 1967, 1968, and 1976, two of the world’s greatest musicians blended their talents for three groundbreaking albums in succession, all called “West Meets East.” Ravi Shankar, a maestro of the Indian sitar (a long-necked, lute-like instrument), joined forces with American violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin to create sound that music lovers have called “hypnotic,” featuring long, lyrical conversations between their two instruments. The first of these collaborations between the musicians would go on to win a Grammy award.
A meeting of minds and music
These albums were critical and popular successes when they appeared, and many of the best-known tracks were later gathered together on “West Meets East: The Historic Shankar/Menuhin Sessions.” The favorites in this compilation include “Prabhati,” “Raga Piloo,” “Twilight Mood,” and more. “Prabhati” was composed by Shankar especially for Menuhin.
Menuhin and Shankar were instrumental in introducing the West to classical Indian compositions. Menuhin happened to meet Shankar by chance, and the two went on to develop a firm friendship, based on their mutual respect for one another’s cultures and one another’s mastery of respective arts. “West Meets East” assembled their joint performances of Indian ragas in ways that highlighted the distinctive voices of each man’s instrument and musical personality. The violin and the sitar seem to dance together as Menuhin’s instrument adds notes of sweet melancholy to the leaps and cavortings of Shankar’s sitar.
The ancient beauty of the ragas
Traditional music theory in India centers on the creative use of ragas. Theoretically, thousands of different ragas are available for performers to draw on, although only a few hundred are in regular use.
The root word of “raga” in Sanskrit means “color” or “passion.” This classical form developed not only in India, but also in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh. A raga is a type of melodic schematic in which a musician can improvise across various types of compositions. Ragas are complex forms that allow for extensive variation and the exhibition of individual artistic talents.
A raga offers a specified set of ordered pitches in a scale, with each raga being defined by not only the pitches characteristic of it, but by formulas for arranging them as well. A musician can work within these pitches to put emphasis on certain degrees of the ascending or descending scale. By doing this, and by hopping from one note to another in ways that are distinct to the raga form, the musician can establish the atmosphere he or she wishes to create.
What Shankar and Menuhin did in “West Meets East” was to take the ancient raga tradition and spin it into new music that was at the same time respectful of its heritage and open to creative new interpretations, based on the sensibilities of the two artists.
Ravi Shankar – ambassador for global understanding
Ravi Shankar was not only a performer; he was also a composer of music in the North Indian and other traditions. Born in 1920 in Varanasi into a high-caste Brahman family, he spent his youth studying music and dance and toured India and Europe with his brother’s dance group.
From the ages of 18 to 25, Shankar devoted himself to the intense study of the sitar. He later served as All-India Radio’s music director, established the National Orchestra of India, founded music schools in Mumbai and Los Angeles, and composed for films. His scores for the films in director Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (1955 - 1959) are among his best-known and most acclaimed works.
In the 1960s, Shankar performed at the Monterey Pop Festival and at Woodstock. In 1971, he teamed up with George Harrison of the Beatles to organize the first modern benefit concert, the Concert for Bangladesh, designed to aid refugees fleeing hunger, natural disasters, and persecution. The concert album won a 1973 Grammy Award.
Shankar’s later compositions reflected his long-standing familiarity with Western musical forms, which he seamlessly mingled with classical Indian motifs. His daughter Norah Jones is a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, and his daughter Anoushka Shankar has become a respected sitar player and composer in her own right.
Ravi Shankar died in 2012, at age 92, in Southern California.
Yehudi Menuhin – champion of humanity
Also a composer as well as a performer, Yehudi Menuhin was born in New York City in 1916, the child of Lithuanian Jewish parents. He grew up in San Francisco, where at age 7 he enthralled an audience of adult connoisseurs with his performance of the Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn. As a teenage performer, he toured widely, winning acclaim for his technical fluency, the depth of his emotional range, and his individual style of interpretation.
Menuhin performed and recorded with some of the world’s finest conductors. He spent World War II appearing in some 500 concerts for Allied troops, and performed with composer Benjamin Britten for the recently freed survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
In addition to his collaborations with Shankar, Menuhin also ventured into jazz and cut notable recordings with jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli.
Over the course of his career, Menuhin became known for championing lesser-known composers in his performances. Like Shankar, he was a dedicated humanitarian and music educator. He founded the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, England, in 1963, focusing on teaching musically gifted youth. In the 1960s, he appeared as a conductor with noted world orchestras, and by the 1990s was focused exclusively on conducting.
Menuhin, who had become a British citizen in 1985, remained a life-long crusader for human rights, social justice, and environmental causes. He died in 1999 in Berlin, Germany.
Every year, May is designated as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. It’s a time to celebrate the journeys and contributions of members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, and a moment for everyone to focus on learning more about the rich tapestry of Asian American cultures.
In 2020 and 2021, a sharp spike in incidents of hate crimes directed against people of Asian heritage made it more meaningful than ever to shine a light on the prejudices against Asian Americans, and on the many gifts that performers who blend Asian and American cultures have given to the United States.
Here are just three of the many gifted Asian American musical performers who have graced orchestras, bandstands, and virtual stages across decades of American history.
The Kim Sisters: Singing for Their Lives
Long before there was K-pop, there were the Kim Sisters.
In the 1960s, when “girl groups” were popular around the world, sisters Sue (Sook-ja) and Ai-ja Kim, with their cousin and adopted sister, Mia (Min-ja), landed in the United States and became almost an overnight sensation. With an enormous fan base in their native South Korea, the Kim Sisters took Las Vegas by storm, belting out pop rock lyrics in English, although they had not even learned to speak the language.
They were the first Asian group to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, with the impresario actively promoting them through regular guest appearances. Immensely appealing to American audiences, they could sing, dance, and play multiple musical instruments, and were soon selling out theaters on a par with Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
The Kim Sisters came from a family of seven children. Their father was a revered composer who was executed by Communist forces from North Korea. Their mother, a famed singer, put the three girls together as a musical act in order to earn enough money to keep the family from starvation. They performed on American military installations before they were even in their teens.
In the United States, they became “the face of Korea” as cultural goodwill ambassadors at a time when the U.S.-South Korean alliance was critical to American foreign policy. Their upbeat bubblegum-pop style and covers of standard American classics, along with what audiences of the time saw as their “exotic” origins, fueled their rise as a national phenomenon.
Ai-ja died in 1987. Mia married a Hungarian musician and moved to Hungary, where she continues to be active in the performing arts world. After a long performing career, Sue Kim built a successful real estate career in Las Vegas, where she remains, now in her 80s, a pillar of a thriving Korean American community.
Yo-Yo Ma: Comforting the World with the World’s Music
Yo-Yo Ma, born in 1955 in Paris to Chinese parents, is perhaps the world’s best-known and most beloved cellist, renowned for his ability to coax an extraordinary range of emotional tones from his instrument. His performances and many cross-genre collaborations have helped to educate the public about classical music and to open up the genre to new generations of fans.
Ma has received an unusual number of commissioned works from contemporary composers, and frequently performs in ensembles with other noted performers. Ma’s recordings span a range of classical and pop genres, and include the unaccompanied cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, the tangos of Astor Piazzolla, and the soundtrack for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His 1984 recordings of the Bach pieces earned him the first of 18 Grammy Awards.
In 1998, Ma founded the Silk Road Project, now called Silkroad, to assemble musicians from a variety of backgrounds to bridge cultural traditions. In 2011, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
In 2020, Ma continued his emphasis on using culture to bring people together by presenting “Songs of Comfort,” a series of socially distanced mini-concerts, during the COVID-19 pandemic. The videos of Ma playing solo versions of beloved classics, recorded on his phone, have given solace to millions around the world.
Mitski: A Musical Poet Laureate for a New Generation
Mitski Miyawaki performs as “Mitski.” The biracial Japanese American singer-songwriter was born in 1990 and grew up all over the world, trying to fit in as her family traveled for her father’s State Department job. She has become known worldwide for her forthright, psychologically and socially aware lyrics and distinctive style within the genre of indie rock.
Mitski recorded her first two albums while still a student at SUNY Purchase. Since then, she has garnered critical praise, including a comment from the legendary Iggy Pop that she is “probably the most advanced” of any American songwriter he knows.
Mitski’s first album for a major label was Bury Me at Makeout Creek. It centered themes of personal identity and finding an emotional home, set against a raw guitar background in place of the classical piano that had previously been her main means of musical expression. Her later albums, Puberty 2 and Be the Cowboy, continued her production of music that is, as an interviewer for The Fader wrote in 2018, “easy to lose yourself in.” That same year, NPR called her this century’s “Poet Laureate of Young Adulthood.”
Mitski’s self-reflective chords and words reflect her generation’s grappling with building their lives in a world that often doesn’t make sense. Her song “Your Best American Girl” has become particularly meaningful to a generation of youth of color and Indigenous youth, who often see themselves reflected in its lyrics. The song hints at the demise of a going-nowhere relationship even as it deconstructs the longing to be fully accepted by the majority culture, while also affirming the validation and comfort found in one’s own heritage.
Looking through the history of American music, it’s easy to see African American influences in art forms that include the traditional spiritual and gospel music, the syncopating rhythms of jazz, and numerous other sound innovations through the generations: ragtime, blues, boogie-woogie, R&B, rock and roll, hip hop, rap, and many more. It’s not too much to say that American music is African American music.
The uniquely American form of the popular stage and film musical has also given us works by or about African Americans that are extraordinary in terms of their historical value, artistic quality, or both. Here are summaries of a few of the most outstanding ones from the first half of the 20th century:
Treemonisha (1911) was ragtime composer and lyricist Scott Joplin’s third (and final) work for the stage. The story focuses on the character of Treemonisha, who was found beneath a tree as an infant and adopted as the daughter of a formerly enslaved couple. Joplin’s score blends traditional European opera with his signature ragtime rhythms.
Treemonisha also highlights the struggles of the Black culture of its time, including the desire to assimilate into white society while still feeling the pull of African American traditions. The opera was also pioneering for its time in underlining the importance of education.
Joplin was never able to stage a full production of Treemonisha. In 1972, an ensemble at Atlanta’s Morehouse College presented Treemonisha, and it received a true full premiere for the general public in 1975 at the Houston Grand Opera.
2. Shuffle Along
Shuffle Along (1921) was Broadway’s first full-fledged musical by a Black librettist (the duo of Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles), composer (Eubie Blake), and lyricist (Noble Sissle), featuring an all-Black cast. The production broke records by running for some 500 nights on Broadway, and its “I’m Just Wild About Harry” remains a well-known song today. Poet and historian James Weldon Johnson commented that the show offered a sophisticated portrayal of the love story between the African American leads.
The show was revived in 2016 in a completely fresh way. Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed offered new choreography by Savion Glover, a new wrap-around book by George C. Wolfe and Audra McDonald in the starring roles. The new work honored the value of the original’s status as a groundbreaking moment in African American cultural history and tackled its complex aspects head-on.
3. Cabin in the Sky
Cabin in the Sky (1943), featuring the legendary Lena Horne in her only starring role for MGM, was the first film produced by a major studio with an entirely African American cast. The movie also starred renowned performers like Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Directed by Vincente Minelli, it was based on the 1940 Broadway show of the same title with music by Vernon Duke, lyrics by John Latouche, and book by Lynn Root. The creators gave voice to a rare work of fantasy and imagination centered on the rich African American folkloric tradition and portrayed by an all-Black cast.
“Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” as sung by Waters, is among the most memorable and lyrically beautiful songs in Cabin in the Sky. “Taking a Chance on Love” is one of the other still-beloved songs from this classic musical.
4. Carmen Jones
Carmen Jones (1954), based on Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen and with new lyrics in colloquial American speech by Oscar Hammerstein II to Bizet’s music, gave a Technicolor folk operatic treatment to the French classic. While the composer and lyricist were not African American, the entire cast was, including iconic movie star Dorothy Dandridge as Carmen, who works in a parachute factory during World War II in an update of Bizet’s Seville cigarette factory setting.
Carmen charms soldier Joe (portrayed by the equally iconic singer Harry Belafonte), with this role also modernized from Bizet’s character of Don José. Dandridge earned the first Oscar nomination ever for an African American performer in the category of Best Actress in a Leading Role. Otto Preminger directed, with Pearl Bailey in another strong performance as factory worker Frankie.
Hammerstein’s original 1943 Broadway version of the show was notably revived off-Broadway in 2018 with Anika Noni Rose in the title role.
5. Porgy and Bess
The 1935 opera by George Gershwin, Dubose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin was based on a novel by Dubose Heyward, and was revolutionary for its time, not only for being the first Broadway production with an all-Black cast, but for the incandescent blues-meets-jazz lyricism of George Gershwin’s score. The hits from the musical, and the movie, remain among the most frequently performed in the American musical repertoire: “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’” are among the most well-remembered.
The poignant story focuses on Bess’ conflicted love for her man, the suffering but proud Porgy, whose disability has driven him to survive by panhandling among the other downtrodden residents of Charleston’s Catfish Row. Porgy’s disability likely reflects that of the author, DuBose Heyward. Bess is also involved with Sportin’ Life and with the possessive Crown. Ultimately, Bess finds sanctuary with Porgy before the two are separated by the connivance of Sportin’ Life and the whims of character and fate.
James Robinson directed a notable production of Porgy and Bess as the opening show of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019-2020 season, with acclaimed operatic performers Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the leading roles.
The year 2020 was one of economic and social upheaval, principled protest, and deep loss. But 2020 also brought new music that has uplifted the spirits of people all over the world. New masterpieces of world music, although derived from cultures that may have intriguing superficial differences, serve to remind us of the bonds that unite all of humanity.
As critics have pointed out, the term world music can be misinterpreted as simply referring to some “exotic” quality in music that comes from outside Anglophone regions. A better definition might be that world music indicates that a work is the result of creative collaboration and thoughtful artistic choices born in the intimacy of one particular place and culture but resonates with all people, everywhere.
Here is a glimpse at just a few of the world music albums that brought a greater sense of connection amid the challenges and triumphs of 2020:
Keleketla! (Ahead of Our Time) by Keleketla!
Keleketla! (Ahead of Our Time) is a South African album whose title derives from the storytelling tradition in the Sepedi language. “Keleketla” is the standard response to a storyteller’s opening question (“E Ileng Nonwane?”) at the beginning of a story. Keleketla! as an album brings the same type of craftsmanship inherent in storytelling to depict the conflicts and struggles in our changing contemporary world.
The album is the first collaboration between Keleketla! Library, a community media project based in Johannesburg, and the nonprofit organization In Place of War, based in the United Kingdom. Founded in 2008, Keleketla! Library has created a wealth of multi-artist, multimedia music and arts projects all over Johannesburg.
The album brings together an array of South African musicians with the British electronic duo Coldcut, and includes contributions from other artists such as Yugen Blakrok, Tony Allen, Shabaka Hutchings, and many more.
As an album, Keleketla! has received praise from critics for the dynamism of its beats and its rich fusion of jazz-funk, hip-hop, and electronic music. The opening song, “Future Toyi-Toyi,” offering the stomp-based rhythms of a dance performed in protest of the former system of apartheid, instantly draws listeners in. Other songs go in completely different musical directions, but the overarching themes are those of personal and societal transformation.
Lindé, Afel Bocoum
In his album Lindé, legendary Malian artist Afel Bocoum continues his explorations in the blues tradition. He is known to fans as one of the last of the great late-20th century generation of African composers and performers who blended their culture’s sound with new ones from throughout the world. And as a native of Niafunké in Mali, Bocoum comes from a region positioned to draw on the sounds and traditions of both the northern and southern parts of the country.
Lindé draws its title from the name of the wilderness lands near Bocoum’s childhood home that he loved exploring. The music seamlessly mixes in guitars and traditional instruments while making use of stunning innovative techniques and bringing in texturally enriching contributions from noted guest performers.
The album opens with a gentle percussion-and-strings piece in which the voice of the artist walks us through the landscapes that shaped his early years. Afel Bocoum’s lyrics acknowledge but look beyond Mali’s civil wars and political strife, speaking of unity and common purpose among the world’s peoples.
Famous Fados on Portuguese Guitar by Custódio Castelo
On Famous Fados, Castelo, one of the most distinguished performers of the traditional art of Portuguese fado guitar, plays classic Portuguese fados of his own arrangement.
The fado musical genre is a part of UNESCO’s list of World’s Intangible Cultural Heritage, and Castelo is one of its leading proponents. Alongside other masters such as Carlos Paredes, he has given new depth and flexibility to the traditional fado guitar, making it an instrument capable of a range of concert and solo performances. This particular collection offers us some of history’s best-known and best-loved fados.
The fado genre’s rich history dates back to the 1820s, although music historians believe that its ultimate origins go back much farther. The word fado refers to a melancholy style filled with a sense of “fate,” destiny, and moody reflectiveness amid a sense of loss. Fado songs typically feature a solo vocalist accompanied by guitar, and they are traditionally performed in coffee houses and other intimate venues.
Castelo’s reinterpretations of these classic pieces are amplified by his instrument—he uses his own specially made guitar, fashioned from an oak tree root by Oscar Cardoso, as respected an instrument-maker as Castelo is an artist. From this 12-string, tear-shaped guitar, Castelo is able to evoke all the beauty, sadness, and power of the highly expressive fado form.
Sketches of China by Xuefei Yang
Sketches of China features Yang, a well-known classical guitarist, in pieces that paint a picture of her homeland. The double album incorporates Chinese folk songs whose original motifs date back as far as the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE), as well as many contemporary pieces. Yang’s goal is to highlight the entire tapestry of Chinese music through ages, traditions, and styles.
Yang uses several of her own arrangements, notably on “Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon” and “Flower Drum,” as well as work from noted contemporary composers such as the world-renowned Tan Dun. In his “Seven Desires for Guitar,” she masters a challenging modernist piece into which Dun incorporated rhythms of traditional Spanish flamenco and the notes of the lute-like ancient Chinese instrument known as the pipa.
Yang’s range and versatility as a soloist are highlighted by a rich orchestral background as well as a minimal accompaniment. It is her artistry that sets this album apart, delivering one crystalline moment of sound after another.
The common language of music brings people of diverse backgrounds together throughout the world, while also opening new doors to appreciation for the musical sounds and styles that distinguish individual regions and cultures.
Even a quick glance at the music of Africa, the world’s second-largest continent, will reveal a diverse set of traditions and expressions. Musicologists note a constantly diversifying blossoming of genres across the continent, with each culture producing notable musicians and distinctive forms of music.
Here are summaries of only a few of the African musical genres that are today both highly influential and particularly notable. All are worth taking the time to get to know and enjoy.
Afrobeat and Afrobeats
Afrobeat fuses the sounds of Western jazz and nightclub life into the centuries-old traditions of Nigerian music. Now often heard around the world, Afrobeat often incorporates beats common to other, non-African styles, such as hip-hop. The style is typically marked by strong vocal melodies backed by bass percussion, making it one of the world’s most danceable music genres.
Afrobeat’s ultimate origins can be traced to Ghana in the 1920s. In those days, local Ghanaian musicians seasoned their songs with calypso beats and even the popular Western foxtrot. Then in the late 1960s, a musician who would earn the nickname of the “Father of Afrobeat,” Fela Kuti—strongly influenced by American artist James Brown—put his own spin on the style. By the mid-1970s, it had become widely popular in Nigeria.
Fela, who died in 1997 at only 58 years of age, remains a legend among Nigerian music-lovers in particular. He has also influenced later generations of younger musicians worldwide, including Mos Def and Erykah Badu.
Afrobeats—a linear descendent of Fela’s 1960s and ‘70s Afrobeat—features heavily in Beyoncé’s 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift. She collaborated extensively with young musicians from Nigeria, Cameroon, and other parts of Africa, showcasing their talents in a way that brought many of them to the attention of a global audience for the first time.
The Sahara Desert region is the homeland of Gnawa music, which also goes by the names of Gnawi Blues and Ethno-Pop. Its beats are anchored in the traditions of the Gnawa community, which derives from groups of sub-Saharan peoples who were enslaved and first brought to Morocco in about the 11th century CE.
Over centuries of enslavement, during which they were typically forced to serve as soldiers, the Gnawa assembled themselves as a distinct people out of several previously unconnected sub-Saharan groups. They formed their own cultural traditions in the process and gradually gained their freedom.
Gnawa music originated in religious ceremonies—blending music, dance, and poetry—that resulted from a blend of the group’s highly spiritualized version of Islam and the local traditions of West Africa. In recent years, the tone of this music became more secularized even as it has gained popularity across Moroccan society.
Knowledgeable listeners often find parallels between Gnawa musical styles and the blues in the United States. Gnawa is especially distinctive in its use of drumming, metallic castanets, and the guembri, a bass lute with three strings. Gnawa music has gained so much popularity that the Moroccan government has established an annual festival in the city of Essaouira, dedicated to the style as one of the country’s prominent cultural heritage products.
Mali has gained a worldwide reputation as a focal point for blues music. As music scholars have pointed out, the blues is a uniquely African American art form, but one with deep roots in West Africa, deriving as it does from the spirituals and work songs brought to the New World by enslaved people centuries ago.
Many recent Malian blues artists, including the late Ali Farka Touré, have grounded their style in the music of their own cultures, rather than in that of the United States. Others are influenced to one degree or another by Western pop music. African American blues, traditional Malian sounds, and world beats all continue to play off against each other throughout this genre.
Other Malian blues artists include Afel Bocoum, who mixes musical traditions from the north and south of his country with the sounds of Western and Malian instruments.
One of the world’s premier annual blues events, Festival in the Desert, has taken place outside Timbuktu since 2001, highlighting the work of Tuareg musicians, blues artists, and others. With the festival suspended indefinitely due to recent unrest in Mali, organizers hope to showcase the talents of Malian blues musicians by promoting tours elsewhere.
Also known as Ethiopian jazz, Ethio-Jazz offers a one-of-a-kind melding of Western-inflected jazz, soul, Latin stylings, and Afro-funk with the often-haunting sounds of ancient Ethiopian music. Today recognized as one of Ethiopia’s most sought-after cultural exports, Ethio-Jazz dates back to the 1950s.
As it has developed over the decades since, this sound has expanded Africa’s—and the world’s—musical vocabulary. Its melodious sounds are anchored in ages-old Ethiopian ballads often evoking a sense of love, yearning, and nostalgia.
In the 1950s, Nerses Nalbandian, whose family had settled in Ethiopia as refugees from the 1915 genocide against Armenians, laid the groundwork for the development of the genre. Nalbandian’s uncle had led Ethiopia’s National Opera, and Nalbandian himself took up the baton after his uncle’s retirement.
He composed music for the country’s National Theatre, working out ways to preserve authenticity while incorporating local musical traditions in arrangements for big bands. His solution to this problem centered on adapting Western instrumentation while acknowledging the distinctive musical scales indigenous to Ethiopia.
Bandleader and composer Mulatu Astatke—also renowned as a keyboardist and vibraphonist—is another monumental figure in the history of Ethio-Jazz. Astatke, often credited as the “Godfather” of the genre who fully brought American jazz rhythms into traditional Ethiopian forms, is largely responsible for the recent popularity of Ethio-Jazz on the world stage.
In Ken Burns’ Jazz, a documentary film series on the history of jazz music, we learn how this music form is truly “an improvisational art.” It is “America’s music,” as restless and yearning as the country itself since its beginnings and as much a multicultural melting pot.
Jazz is filled with contradictions: both self-expressive and collaborative, anchored deep in the blues of the 19th century but always changing, steeped in its own particular traditions but reborn as something different every night, on every stage. Simple and complex, dressing up or dressing down depending on the moment, losing everything but still reveling in the power of love.
Jazz also gave America its own collection of royalty: a king (Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing”), a duke (Duke Ellington), a count (Count Basie), a lady (Billie Holiday, “Lady Day”), a prince (Miles Davis, the “Prince of Darkness”), and many more. The new sound produced by these distinct personalities caused the entire world to get up and dance.
Jazz remains one of the few uniting commonalities among Americans across multiple ages, backgrounds, and points of view.
Telling the story of an American art
From the ragtime tunes played at the turn of the 20th century, through the “hot” jazz of a generation later, to the cool fusion of recent years, jazz is truly, as the documentary’s trailer says, “America’s soundtrack.”
Exploring Burns’ beloved 10-episode documentary series Jazz is one of the best ways to get acquainted with the rich and varied history, the sheer artistry, and the moving human stories of this uniquely American musical form. As the New York Times’ review of the documentary noted at its debut, it is not too far-fetched to claim that, through its ability to mingle and blend a diverse group of people and cultures over the past century and more, jazz has given us a way of “mirroring the ideals of democracy.”
Now, Burns and PBS have made full-length episodes of Jazz available for free on the PBS website, bringing the documentary within reach of home educators everywhere. Fans can also purchase the DVD or Blu-ray set or the accompanying richly illustrated book Jazz: A History of America’s Music, by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns.
A rich mixture of everything good
The first episode of Jazz, “Gumbo,” introduces us to jazz’s origins. With deep roots in the African American spirituals and work songs dating from the days of slavery, amplified by soul-stirring New Orleans blues, jazz came into its own as a distinct musical voice in the 1890s. In this chapter, we meet the Black musicians who took these elements, mixed in the vibrant local sounds of marching bands, Caribbean beats, Italian opera masterpieces, and minstrel show tunes, and set it all to the quick-time syncopation of ragtime—this was a gumbo unlike anything American had seen.
They named a decade after it
Episode 2, “The Gift,” tells the story of the 1920s Jazz Age as jazz spreads far beyond New Orleans. Paul Whiteman develops a symphonic style of jazz, slower and sweeter, with a new appeal to “mainstream” white listeners. Louis Armstrong comes out of the streets of New Orleans to Chicago and assembles a powerhouse band of both Black and white musicians whose swing style electrifies a new generation, as Duke Ellington sets up his ensembles in New York’s Harlem and introduces his smooth blue style.
Episode 3, “Our Language,” takes us through the rest of the Jazz Age when voices of solo singers like Bessie Smith take the spotlight, and as jazz proves to be the ticket out of limited circumstances for clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, both sons of Jewish immigrants, while Duke Ellington begins his storied tenure at the Cotton Club.
Swing tunes and roadhouse stomp
In “The True Welcome,” Episode 4, we learn how jazz proves one of the few joys left to a nation sunk in the depths of the Great Depression. Swing music and dance take center stage in Episode 5, “Swing: Pure Pleasure.”
Episode 6 shows us “The Velocity of Celebration,” as the 1930s move into the ‘40s, bringing with it a new sound: the pounding, stomping, blues-laden sound that starts in Black American juke joints and roundhouses, soon wildly popular as played by Lester Young and Count Basie. Benny Goodman delivers a legendary performance at Carnegie Hall, Billie Holiday makes the grim lyricism of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” her signature, and a young unknown singer named Ella Fitzgerald steps in front of a mike for the first time. Plus, Duke Ellington takes a triumphant tour of Europe as the events unfold that will soon ignite World War II.
The soundtrack of modern American life
Episode 7, “Dedicated to Chaos,” demonstrates the powerful role of jazz in lifting the morale of the troops overseas as it embodies the spirit of individual freedom and democracy in every irreverent, improvisational note. Arranger Billy Strayhorn joins Duke Ellington’s band, lifting its performances into a new level of sublimity. And Charlie Parker on saxophone and Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet join virtuoso forces on the now-iconic “Koko,” which opens the floodgates of bebop style.
In “Risk,” Episode 8, jazz changes as the world does. The Cold War brings undreamt-of peace and prosperity in the shadow of nuclear annihilation, as well as a new dissonance, broken rhythm, and sense of tension to America’s favorite musical form. In Episode 9, “The Adventure,” we see how widespread access to the trappings of popular culture and television, along with the other amenities of a comfortable suburban existence, overlay a growing sense of crisis in the music as well as in everyday life.
And in “A Masterpiece by Midnight,” the series concludes in the 1960s and early ‘70s, with jazz quickly losing ground to rock-and-roll. We lose legends John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, while numerous surviving jazz greats struggle to make ends meet. Miles Davis takes his gifts as trumpeter and composer in a new direction, creating fusion, a blend of jazz and rock, and a flurry of blended styles emerge.
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, whose commentary and reminiscences as senior creative consultant expanded and enriched Burns’ series, said in a 2001 interview that jazz is a reflection of the totality of the Black American experience in its ability to improvise, to take a theme and shape and change it, and to expand boundaries and create new possibilities in ways that no one had ever thought of before.
The precise origins of jazz as a distinct musical art form remain a matter of contention among experts and fans, and researchers learn new information about its development seemingly every day. The first documented jazz recording is one central point of entry that can help us understand its history.
That recording was made on February 26, 1917, at the Victor Talking Machine Company’s offices in New York City. That was the day the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (whose name originally used the spelling “jass”) quintet recorded the tune “Livery Stable Blues.” While the Chicago-based ensemble’s “Tiger Rag” would prove far more influential, “Livery Stable Blues” is acknowledged as the first. Among today’s listeners, the song may sound silly, with the instruments imitating barnyard animal sounds, and the recording quality is not the best. (Interested fans can hear the full recording in numerous venues online, including an uploaded Smithsonian magazine article celebrating the recording’s centenary.)
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) brand included shiny black dinner jackets over white, buttoned-collar shirts. ODJB was a publicity-seeking group, whose public cavortings received widespread media coverage. At the time they cut “Livery Stable Blues,” the group was performing to large and adoring crowds in New York at Reisenweber’s Café near Columbus Circle, not far from the current site of Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Musicologists know that this all-white band had shamelessly borrowed both style and substance from music they’d heard played by African American bands back home in New Orleans. The recording of “Livery Stable Blues” went on to become one of the first-ever hit singles, with estimates of copies sold ranging from between about 250,000 to 1 million.
From spirituals to a cosmopolitan blend of sound
The origins of jazz lie squarely in the African American experience. Its notes outline the story of Black life in America, with all the pain, sorrow, triumphs, and joy that the community has experienced since long before the founding of the country. For example, the genre’s blue notes offer a modernized take on the sounds of slave spirituals and work songs. Its fast-paced syncopation and swinging exuberance went on to drive the boogie-woogie beats of the many tenement “rent parties” popular among growing Black populations in New York and other big cities from the 1920s until after World War II.
Most scholars date the birth of jazz as an identifiable style to the honky-tonks, barrelhouses, and saloons of Storyville, the New Orleans red light district that flourished from 1897 to 1917. Tuxedo Dance Hall and other venues gave budding composers and performers the opportunity to hone their skills and improvisational ability in front of largely mixed-race audiences. The whole of the district was filled with opportunities for work for Black musicians and composers, and the likes of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Joe “King” Oliver all got their starts there.
The original New Orleans jazz sound drew from the city’s rich history and ethnic mix. Originally a French, then a Spanish colony, the city was already steeped in a distinctive musical culture by the time it was incorporated into the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It continued to retain its cosmopolitan outlook and its love of music, dance, and spectacle.
The city’s large population of Creole people of color—with a heritage in both African and European roots—was a particularly distinguishing factor. People from a variety of backgrounds lived close together in New Orleans’ narrow streets and squares, resulting in a true blending of cultures and musical sounds.
Brass bands, ragtime, and the journey north
Beginning in about 1890, brass bands were also a big part of the music scene in New Orleans. In those days, before the city had put up the type of “Jim Crow” color barriers, these bands were often integrated. So, while the roots of jazz lie squarely in the African American tradition, its growth was nourished by numerous multicultural influences. The musical traditions developed through African American funerals and mutual aid society parades met the sounds of ragtime and dance bands and the city’s many ethnic communities’ Mardi Gras walking clubs, all establishing a uniquely New Orleans quality.
Morton, Oliver, Armstrong, and their contemporaries built distinctive personal styles, and all three were among the many Black innovators who went north to Chicago to perform in the days after World War I. It was they who formed a recognizable nexus at the core of building the sound we know today as classic jazz.