Category Archives: Africa

Béla Fleck’s Africa Project

In early 2005 Béla Fleck traveled to Tanzania, Uganda, Gambia, and Mali to meet, jam, and record with an impressive array of musicians, bringing along a recording engineer, a film crew, and enough gear to ensure that no encounter would go unrecorded. He accompanied the player of a massive marimba in Uganda, played with kalimba masters and harpists in Tanzania, and encountered a possible banjo ancestor—the akonting—in Gambia.

In an interview, Fleck explained that his aggressive travel agenda was part of a strategy to circumvent his inner control freak. “By putting myself in a situation where I couldn’t really be completely prepared, I was forced to dig deep into things that I do that I can’t tell you where they come from. I have been pegged as a complicated guy, and so it’s funny that I feel freer not being complicated in this setting.”

This according to “Béla Fleck’s Africa Project” by Banning Eyre (Guitar player August 2009).

Today is Fleck’s 60th birthday! Above and below, excerpts from his award-winning film Throw down your heart.

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Filed under Africa, Instruments, Performers

Multiple Beninese temporalities

The Gangbé Brass Band’s Alladanou makes specific historical, linguistic, and musical references to Benin’s precolonial, colonial, and postindependence histories. These references can serve as a point of departure for exploring the song’s relationship to the royal court style adjògàn.

The Cameroonian political theorist Achille Mbembe’s concept of multiple temporalities illuminates the historical flexibility at play in Gangbé’s album Togbé, and an analytical framework for analyzing Alladanou proceeds from an interest in audience, relationality, the Fon concept of gbè (voice or sound), and resonance.

This according to “‘People of Allada, this is our return’: Indexicality, multiple temporalities, and resonance in the music of the Gangbé Brass Band of Benin” by Sarah Politz (Ethnomusicology LXII/1 [winter 2018] pp. 28–57).

Below, the song in question.

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Filed under Africa, Curiosities, Popular music

Tweede Nuwe Jaar in Cape Town

Each January, Cape Town’s sixty-plus minstrel troupes take over the city center with a sweeping wave of sound and color in the annual carnival known as Tweede Nuwe Jaar (the Second of New Year). The celebration’s origins are often linked with the December 1st emancipation processions of the mid-to-late 1800s that celebrated the abolition of slavery in 1834, and also with the annual slave holiday, the one day a year slaves could take off work.

The parading troupes, called Kaapse Klopse (Clubs of the Cape), use their bodies to collectively lay claim to Cape Town and access urban space through sonic and embodied performances, re-appropriating city space in relation to the black community’s colonial and apartheid experiences of dispossession, forced removals, and social dislocation.

Despite the increased formal recognition that the event has received in recent years as an important heritage practice, participants’ embodied claims continue to be undermined, contested, and policed. Through their affective experiences, participants memorialize places of significance and occupy the city; far from a form of escapist revelry, these sonic and embodied acts are practiced and disciplined choreographic moves that pose a challenge to Cape Town’s contemporary spatial order.

This according to “Choreographing Cape Town through goema music and dance” by Francesca Inglese (African music IX/4 [2014] pp. 123–45). Below, Kaapse Klopse in 2013.

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Filed under Africa, Black studies, Dance, Popular music

Benga and Luo traditions

Benga, a Kenyan dance music, first emerged within the Luo community during the late 1960s. The genre has provided many Kenyans with a malleable platform that connects with the traditional ethnic poetic and musical sensibilities that have been resilient in both rural and urban Luo life.

Despite criticism that it was unpolished and parochial, benga’s development shows a clear movement towards sophistication and compositional experimentation. Ultimately benga musicians succeeded in creating a style distinct from its regional counterparts using traditional Luo melodic rhythmic structures and accompaniment cycles.

This according to “Continuities and innovation in Luo song style: Creating the benga beat in Kenya 1960 to 1995” by Ian Eagleson (African music IX/4 [2014] pp. 91–122).

Above and below, Okatch Biggy, a pioneer of 1990s benga.

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Early sources for African instruments

Le triumphe de la noblissement des Gentilhommes

Among the various musical instruments depicted in early documents (bells and double bells, drums, scrapers, horns, flutes, xylophones, and bow-lute), the double bell is of particular interest because of its relatively good pictorial documentation.

In 1687 a double bell from the Congo-Angola area called longa was first mentioned in print. Even today the Ovimbundu people call the double bell alunga (sing. elunga), and give it an important role in the enthronement of the king.

Early pictorial sources and later reports indicate four types of double bell—those with stem grip, bow grip, frame grip, and lateral bar grip—and of these the stem grip double bell, found in the Congo-Angola areas as well as Rhodesia, represents the older type of double bell and probably has its origin in Benin-Yoruba. It appears that the Portuguese, who got to know the double bell as an important court instrument in the Guinea area, brought this instrument, together with other court appurtenances, to Luanda, their new base of operations after the breakdown of the Congo kingdom.

This according to “Early historical illustrations of West and Central African music” by Walter Hirschberg (African music IV/3 [1969] pp. 6–18).

Above, Le triumphe de la noblissement des Gentilhommes, published by Pieter de Marees in 1605. Below, Nigerian double bells and other instruments.

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Filed under Africa, Iconography, Instruments

Zilipendwa and nostalgia

Juwata Jazz Band

Tanzanian zilipendwa is a look-over-the-shoulder metagenre whose musical subject is a moving target dependent on the current time reference.

The term was initially reserved for east and central African dance music chestnuts popular during the 1960s and early 1970s post-Independence period, but it recently encompasses the music of the mid-1970s through late 1980s, a time generally associated with the Socialist policies of Julius Nyerere.

Fans of zilipendwa are most eloquent about its value in their lives when making humorous generational distinctions with Bongo Flava, the region’s hip hop and R&B. Zilipendwa fans are also quick to demonstrate their affinity through physical expression, dancing a style known as serebuka, translated as “blissful expressive dance”.

Recently popularized on the television show Bongo Star Search, serebuka dancers take to the floor and bounce off the walls with a coterie of enthusiastic free moves and styles (mitindo) covering fifty years of popular music history.

Nostalgia for zilipendwa is far from being a melancholic rumination over days long past; it is enacted instead for the sake of health and community well-being. Zilipendwa is a conscious act towards musicking the values of a fading era, creating temporary autonomous zones where the perceived chaos and noise of neoliberal globalization are now waiting to rush in.

This according to “‘Rhumba kiserebuka!’: Evoking embodied temporalities through Tanzanian zilipendwa” by Frank Gunderson (The world of music (new series) III/1 [2014] pp. 11–23).

Above, Juwata Jazz Band, a popular zilipendwa group; below, the U.S.-based zilipendwa artist Samba Mapangangala. (Don’t worry—the music and dancing start pretty soon, and they’re worth the wait!)

BONUS! Some schoolboys getting down to zilipendwa in the great outdoors.

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Filed under Africa, Dance, Popular music

Taarab redux

bi kidude

Taarab’s performers and audiences consider the genre to be a link to Egypt as another powerful place of coastal imagination, but it demonstrably owes more to centuries of exchange across the Indian ocean.

Despite the political agendas that engulfed Zanzibar in the mid-20th century, Swahili musical and urban sensibilities prevailed, and taarab continues to flourish. However, the older style of song text, which thrived on social commentary and improvisation, gave way in the 1950s to songs about the human condition, particularly romantic love songs.

This according to “Between mainland and sea: The taarab music of Zanzibar” by Werner Graebner, an essay included in Island musics (Oxford: Berg, 2004).

Below, Culture Musical Club performs old-style taarab with the legendary Bi Kidude (also above, ca. 1910–2013).

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From war tanks to church bells

Tanks

During their Revolution (1974–91) the Ethiopian penchant for not throwing anything away was, out of necessity, given full rein; ammunition boxes were converted to book satchels, artillery shells were made into pots and pans, and so on.

In one instance, a traditional three-piece gong ensemble associated with the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church was made from components of an abandoned Soviet-made tank; some 600 of these tanks were used in Ethiopia during the 1970s and 1980s. Struck by an acolyte using a small stone, the gongs mark the beginnings of services and other notable events.

This according to “Make army tanks for war into church bells for peace: Observations on musical change and other adaptations in Ethiopia during the 1990s” by Cynthia Tse Kimberlin, an essay included in Turn up the volume! A celebration of African music (Los Angeles: Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 1999, pp. 124–131).

Above, the bells in question; below, a comparable set of Ethiopian stone chimes (please turn your screen or head sideways).

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Ligeti and Africa

ligeti

György Ligeti freely acknowledged the influence of African music on his work—an influence that is seldom readily obvious, though it can be teased out by analysis.

After he listened to recordings of African drumming, Ligeti began exploring the use of various rhythms through multiplication of the basic pulse, a concept that resonated with the additive rhythms of the traditional music that he grew up with in Hungary.

In one of his few passages involving the use of an African-sounding instrument, the third movement of Ligeti’s piano concerto includes an Africanesque pattern played on bongos. He marked the part to be played very quietly, so rather than being foregrounded it serves almost imperceptively to reinforce patterns being played simultaneously on other instruments. Unlike most African drumming, this bongo pattern evolves over time, so that its end is quite different from its beginning.

This according to “Ligeti, Africa, and polyrhythm” by Stephen Andrew Taylor (The world of music XLV/2 [2003] pp. 83–94).

Today is Ligeti’s 90th birthday! Below, Mihkel Poll performs the movement in question.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Africa

Malipenga mashup

malipenga

Performed by Tonga men and boys in Malawi, malipenga involves competitive teams organized in a quasi-military hierarchy—titles include “sergeant”, “captain”, and “kingi” as well as “doctor” and “nurse”—dancing in rows and columns and wearing European costumes.

Rather than simply viewing it as a product of colonialism, malipenga should be understood in terms of the dynamic nature of ngoma traditions, an ongoing cultural feature that has survived the disruptions of the colonial period.

This according to “Putting colonialism into perspective: Cultural history and the case of malipenga ngoma in Malawi” by Lisa Gilman, an essay included in Mashindano! Competitive music performance in East Africa (Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota, 2000, pp. 321–345). Below, an example from Champhira.

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Filed under Africa, Dance