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The Reach of African Music

By Carole C. Lee | HUMANITIES, November/December 1999 | Volume 20, Number 6

African music might celebrate a harvest or provide a rhythm to keep daily work apace. It might honor a chieftain or sustain the resistance of an oppressed citizenry. It might accompany mourners. Or, it might simply entertain.

"Musical forms are so much more pervasive there that when I compare their musical lives with mine, I feel pretty much on the empty side," says Doran Ross, director of the UCLA Fowler Museum.

Empty not because music is absent in American culture, but because its place is significantly less central and defining. "Music is more purely recreational here, with an important religious component," Ross explains.

"In Africa, the music is not so divorced from society as in the West," adds Jacqueline Cogdell DjeDje, professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA. "In Africa there is less music for music's sake. The music is very integral in the contexts in which it is played at least in the more traditional or ethnic-bound expressions. And those traditional expressions are still with us even as contemporary culture and music continue to grow and change throughout Africa and the rest of the world."

To offer a taste of the variety, complexity, and extensive reach of African music, three Los Angeles museums have been collaborating since 1992 to create "The Heritage of African Music." In their respective exhibitions that opened this fall, the UCLA Fowler Museum, the California African American Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts have each taken a different approach to exploring the music of Africa, its distinctive and beautiful instruments, and its worldwide influence.

"This is such an enormous topic it could not be done in one museum without being incredibly superficial," says Ross, project director. He adds that a fundamental goal of the project is to break down the stereotype that African music is little more than drumming performed in isolated towns across the continent. "There is as wide an array of instruments there as in any other part of the world, and in truth, African music has been influenced by and influential to the whole world," he says.

"This project is looking at Africa in its totality, rather than one locality," says DjeDje, who is serving as project cocurator and editor of the accompanying catalog, Turn Up the Volume! A Celebration of African Music. "The fact that the continent has seven hundred to eight hundred ethnic groups overlaid with forty-three countries, which are in turn made up of multiple ethnic groups and languages, makes African culture and music hard to grab onto."

The inter-institutional collaboration surveys thirty-two musical traditions across Africa and focuses on the role of African music as inspiration and antecedent of other musical forms. The exhibitions also consider the visual and historic aspects of African music.

In its sound-driven exhibition, "Music in the Life of Africa," the Fowler Museum highlights ensembles rather than individual musicians and features more than one-hundred-and-fifty musical instruments and related objects. The ensembles cover a range of traditions organized around five arenas of musical experiences: political life, religion, family and community, work, and recreation.

In the political section, the use of music ranges from supporting and celebrating leadership traditions to strengthening those struggling in independence movements. Among the Akan people of Ghana, Odwira serves as a lavish opportunity to honor both ancestors and the continuity of the chieftaincy. The festival, which is celebrated at varying intervals among the different groups, has been going on for at least three hundred years.

During the ceremony, the chief arrives adorned in gold and dancing in an enclosed litter carried on men's shoulders. Musicians also play massive six-foot fontonfrom drums while standing on stools or other tall objects. The fontonfroms are accompanied by four other types of drums, double bells, known as gongs, and ivory trumpets. In addition to being made from an elephant's tusks, the ivory trumpet sounds like an elephant, which ?contrary to Western elevation of the lion?is the king of the jungle to Africans. The effect is that "the chief's praises are being sung by the elephant, and when the elephant sings praise, the chief is indeed being praised," says Ross.

To draw visitors into the experience, the display includes a video of such a pageant: It shows several chiefs being carried in their litters and being honored with a large drum orchestra.

At virtually the opposite end of the political and cultural experience, the South African anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and 1980s used music to challenge authority and foster solidarity. Emphasizing the human voice and song in rallies, protest marches, and especially funerals of political activists and freedom fighters, the African National Congress saw art, including music, as an important weapon in their fight against the oppressive, segregationist policies of apartheid. Musicians, including Miriam Makeba and Mzwakhe Mbuli, used their lyrics to voice anti-apartheid sentiments; concerts were staged to increase awareness and raise money for various humanitarian causes, and influential bands were formed within the penitentiary at Robben Island to sustain and encourage solidarity among political prisoners. Music also expressed resistance and unity at an international level through an anthem shared by several African countries and the African National Congress.

To represent the use of music in protest, the exhibition includes dramatic resistance posters that had been used to advertise concerts, photographs showing the oppressive effects of apartheid, and videos of various musicians and groups who expressed their resistance in song. Summing up the place of music in the resistance movement, Archbishop Desmond Tutu asserted, "Without music, our struggle would have been a great deal longer, a great deal bloodier, and perhaps not even successful."

Well removed from the drama of celebrating chiefs or throwing off repressive regimes, music also plays a role in one of the most routine parts of life ?work, especially boring, repetitive, physically demanding work. Among the Sukama people who live south of Lake Victoria in northeast Tanzania, music and work are linked in a way that blurs the distinctions between farmers and musicians.

Since pre-colonial times, the farmers of Sukumaland have been convinced that music can ease work and make people more productive. Drums, stringed instruments, and singers back the field workers and establish musical rhythms for tilling the soil. Workers, as an ensemble, repeatedly thrust their hoes to the ground, turn the blades into the soil, lift the tools above their heads, twirl them, twirl themselves (perhaps with a fancy step or two), and repeat the routine over and over. Music accompanies the threshing and pounding of the grain as well. Sometimes words composed by the workers or the musicians accompany the music.

The Sukuma peoples acquire the skills necessary for this combination of labor and performance at an early age. As women work the farms, infants are on their backs, hearing the music and moving rhythmically with their mothers. In school, children are given small plots to care for and harvest, and early they form combination labor-movement groups emulating older children and adults. When crops are harvested, the musician-farmers take time to elaborate and perfect their synchronized labor and music routines.

To bring this remarkable ritual to life, the exhibition provides videos of the Sukuma hoeing and threshing musical performance and of children singing and pounding grain using mortar and pestle. There are also mural photographs of a threshing scene, of a farmscape with workers using hoes to ventilate the soil, and of musicians playing two Sukuma cylindrical drums and a one-string fiddle to accompany the hoers. Threshing sticks, hoes, and instruments are also displayed, and mortar and pestle are set up to allow visitors to pound grain and so experience both the labors involved and the musical potential of the instruments.

In Africa, musical instruments take on sculptural forms that are serious, sacred, humorous, elaborate, simple, or a mix of the above. Whether beaded, painted, carved, or decorated with skins, instruments send messages about the artistic styles, religious beliefs, and entertainment.practices of the people who made them.

"Some instruments are elaborate sculptures that incidentally make music while others have forms that are beautiful and graceful even though they are purely devoted to the sound," says Elizabeth Cameron of the instruments on display in the exhibition, "Music for the Eyes: The Fine Art of African Musical Instruments."

This exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts divides the instruments into four categories?winds, drums, strings, and idiophones, a catch-all that includes rattles, raps, clappers, bells, sistrums, xylophones, slit gongs, even musical pots and bottles. The focus is on the meaning of the instruments in the lives of people who made and used, or still use, them and how that meaning controls the sound and look of the instrument.

"This exhibit shows these instruments as pieces of art, but there is enough interactivity and enough sound to give a taste that these are not just beautiful pieces," says Cameron, who curated the exhibition before becoming associate curator of African art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. "Almost all are created to be heard."

Among the few instruments in the exhibition not created to be heard is the royal Kuba drum, which is created for the Kuba king. For the Kuba people, who live in the Democratic Republic of Congo, quantity and expense of decoration indicate status. The exterior of royal Kuba drum is covered with a dense layer of cowry shells the make it impossible for musicians to play the instrument without damaging the appearance.

"Essentially the royal drum has been elevated to uselessness," says Cameron. "Its function has been eliminated, but that is okay because the king does not play his own drum anyway. Others play drums for him." Cameron adds that, in the Kuba culture, as in many others, drums sequence up in importance from the village drums that virtually anyone can play, to the drums that only warriors can play, all the way up to the king's drum that no one plays.

African harps can also vary significantly in their visual and aural purposes. Rarer than drums, harps are still found throughout the continent and can range from the portable kora used by itinerant musicians in West Africa, to the lutes found in South Africa, to the human-shaped harps of the Azande and the Mangbetu peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Illustrating the influence of American and European nineteenth and early twentieth century expeditions into the Mangbetu area, artists created beautiful figured harps because members of those expeditions expressed interest in how the human form appeared in sculpture. Since that time, these shaped harps have become the norm, and, as with the drums, some of the representations of the human form are "wonderful whimsical pieces that you cannot play," says Cameron.

To celebrate the powerful influence that African-based music has had on the rest of the world, the California African American Museum has developed "Rhythms of the Soul: African Instruments in the Diaspora." This exhibition traces the lineage of a distinct African-based heritage in North America and elsewhere from the seventeenth century to the present.

"From the beginning of slavery, African musical forms entered this country," says Ross. "Almost as soon as the ships reached the shore, Africans began to influence music in the United States and throughout the world."

"People brought it here, reconstructed it, built on it, used Western instruments to create new sounds, and created new instruments. I hope people will walk away from here with an understanding that this exhibit is a tribute to one tradition that was left for all of us," says Rick Moss, program manager of history at the California African American Museum. "People need to recognize that music in America did not develop in a vacuum."

"Slaves could not bring possessions," notes Ross. "They could bring their ideas, their religions, their songs." Now, African syncopation, percussion, instrumentation, and vocal patternings are deeply embedded in American music, including gospel, blues, jazz, rock and roll, and rap.

"At heart, what African music brought to the world's music is a complexity of rhythms that make music vibrant and allows us to feel the pulse of life our own heart beats, our own ability to reach deep within and draw from creativity for artistic expression that ultimately helps us survive," says Moss.

About the Author

Carole C. Lee is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Funding Information

"Rhythms of the Soul: African Instruments in the Diaspora" runs October 16, 1999 to June 11, 2000 at the California African American Museum, "Music for the Eyes: The Fine Art of African Musical Instruments" runs from October 24, 1999 to May 14, 2000 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and "Music in the Life of Africa" runs November 7, 1999 to July 16, 2000 at the UCLA Fowler Museum.

NEH has provided $200,000 in support for the simultaneous exhibitions and the development of educational materials.