The the Changed African Music Narrative….

By Jaston Binala


Does such a thing as ‘African Music’ still exist today in a world almost unrecognizable to anyone born in the 1900s?  I’d say yes; there is still African music on the continent, but it’s the mixed-up kind!

In my view, original African music is identifiable and distinguished from other music by the instruments used, by the style of dance, by the language used,  by purpose and locality where it is performed.  Any one or both of these variables can be used in the identification. As such, I can confirm remnants of  original African music still exist here in East Africa today, but this music may not live long.

East Africa is part of a changing continent, and one of things being changed is music–so that now the concept of African music has to necessarily accommodate cultures from elsewhere.

Consider this fact: If maize was originally from other continents but now West Africa’s fufu, East Africa’s ugali, Southern Africa’s sadza and nshima–the foods made from maize,  and the various forms of home-made brew made from maize are accepted as ‘African,’ then surely all the musical forms born of adaptation should be accepted as African. Then there is the so called African Fashion from industrial fabric. Should we reject this kind of fashion and return to goat skins and tree bark and leaves?  I don’t think anybody wants to do that. Fabric from textile mills will do fine.

So should we accept opera, symphony, country music and salsa as African music if played in Dar es Salaam?  Naaah! That’ll be going too far, I think!

Anyway, there is now more African music than there was in 1815.  Back then, almost all African music was related to rituals;  the music was only played during performance of the rituals as part of the ritual process: to chase demons, to evoke spirits of the dead for a trance, or the initiation into manhood of rookies at a circumcision ceremony.  I am playing two of those for you here, although this time the ritual music was played purely for entertainment, on camera.

I am playing for you two circumcision songs from Dodoma in central Tanzania, and a female ceremonial dance from the Wakamba tribe in Kenya, where only big girls participate in this dance to entertain the men watching. I am sure you are going to like this Kenyan dance . Unfortunately the video is blurred but that was the best I could get for this presentation. Of course women might like  this dance, too. The big girls dressed in bright yellow are performing the Itheke Dance.

During the circumcision dance in central Tanzania you will notice they display a certain degree of sexual nuances.  The music is performed as a graduation ceremony for little boys who’ve just come out of the ‘operation’ and their tools have just healed. To present to them a dance with sexual nuances is acceptable,  I guess, if  they will most probably be doing something of that sort in future.

One other thing you will notice in the musical traditions of the Wakamba of Kenya and that from central Tanzania is the similarity of instruments used. There is a very vigorous use of shakers in both musical cultures you’d think they were the same people—and they indeed might be. The Wagogo of central Tanzania and the Wakamba of Kenya are both Bantu Africans who circumcise their little boys.

African music was in the past performed with  a minimum of instruments including the human voice, bamboo flutes, the wooden xylophone,  shakers filled with seeds and held in the hand or worn around the legs,  drums, and single or multiple wood-fibre string instruments. The Kora from West Africa might come to mind at this point.

You are going to notice an unusual kind of shakers used  by the Wagogo of central Tanzania.  A carpet of reads  in bits and pieces stitched together and worn on the back  gives an interesting sound when bouncing on a man’s back.

Today African music also uses the Spanish guitor, the German Piano, the American Saxaphone and the French trombone.  And this must be accepted as  African music in my view.

With the help of other cultures there is now more African music than there was in 1815, but with the danger traditional dance is threatened by extinction. This was the reason the President’s Office in Kenya formed a special cultural music production task force to comb the entire nation recording traditional dances to preserve.  I am not sure there are any other African nations who know or realize this danger exists.

This patriotic decision  in Kenya is the reason you are able to see the Itheke Dance of the Wakamba people on this website today.  The President’s  office in Nairobi has served Africa well!

Remnants of traditional African music still linger here in East Africa. While this may be the case elsewhere on the continent, the only problem may therefore be the lack of realization the danger of extinction of original African music is real.

I  have given you samples from the Wakamba of Kenya and The Wagogo from Central Tanzania.  But the central and southern Africa sub-regions  and indeed the whole continent has seen so much tinting of African music with the European Culture  original forms may not live long. African music today is not what it was in  1815.  The African cultures have preserved in many places only the language and costume. The instruments are completely alien.

The new kind of African music does sound fine in its own right, thought, I should admit,  with the message  still coming out in the various local languages across the continent. It’s like we’ve lost the instruments—which means we’ve lost a certain character of the African sound–to preserve only the words and costume. In some cases even the costume is lost.

I am giving you samples here from Congo DRC, Zimbabwe, and of course my two favourite spots—South Africa and Ethiopia.

I’ll let you listen to Teddy Afro from Ethiopia singing his hit song ‘Lambadina.’ In this song, Teddy Afro compares a good lover to a lantern; the lantern which shines your way in the dark of night, so that without a lover one walks like they were blind.

Another Ethiopian singer, Ejigayeh Shibabaw popularly known as ‘Gigi’ performs the song ‘Mengedegna’ with an Asian band.  An African Song indeed…the new kind!

Franco, the renowned Congolese musician sings a song in the Lingala language with his TP OK  Jazz band; the title of the song is ‘Francois’. All the instruments are European probably from France or Belgium and the number is a hit on the African continent.  Welcome to the African music of today.

I am also letting you listen to South Africa’s  Afro Jazz star, Siphokazi Maraqana, popularly known as Siphokazi,  doing a haunting song called ‘Ebuhlanti’;  and  Mafikizolo in the song ‘Emlanjeni’ where two lovers make a promise to meet at the river.  Oliver Mutukuzi from Zimbabwe has joined a mixed-race band in one song, and they are playing  drums and saxophones to sing an African ritual song.  It looks like they are  praying to ask spirits for rain.  In another instance, the South African musician Bhekumuzi Luthuli sings a traditional Zulu song called ‘Inhliziyo Yami’ but the only thing ‘African’ in this song is  the location, and the language used.

The continent has changed; or should I say evolved. Some of the music still sounds fine though. Please enjoy my selection of ‘African Music’!  Click the bottom photo link for the rest of the songs.Video quality is poor. Audio is OK.

Teddy Afro Inside Photo