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.