Category Archives: Africa

The Field Band Foundation and local values

The Field Band Foundation (FBF) is a South African national nonprofit organization that has reached more than 40,000 youth since its inception in 1997. Modeled initially on the American-style marching band, the FBF’s performance style, choreography, rehearsal techniques, and uniforms draw on local traditions and practices resulting in a uniquely South African musical phenomenon.

As local musicking, FBF rehearsals support the locally defined values of discipline and empathy. The distinctions that FBF members and leaders make between local or global processes or qualities are discernible in the military associations and echoes of local cultural expressions manifested in rehearsal management techniques, uniforms, and choreography. The localizations of musical processes and products and the meanings and values to which these link contribute to the achievement to the FBF’s goals, which the organization aims to articulate in terms of local values.

This according to “Rehearsing values: Processes of distinction in the Field Band Foundation of South Africa” by Laryssa Whittaker, an essay included in The Routledge companion to the study of local musicking (New York: Routledge, 2018, pp. 251–63).

Above and below, FBF groups in action.

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Ephraim Amu’s musical hybridity

 

The creative hybridity of Ephraim Amu’s choral composition Yɛn ara asase ni contributed to the emergence of national consciousness in Ghana.

Originally composed for a colonial holiday in 1929, this piece spread through schools, radio broadcasts, and live performances, and was heard throughout the country around the time of Ghanaian Independence. Yɛn ara asase ni ultimately disrupted colonial categories and prepared the way for an independence movement informed by Pan-Africanism and Christianity.

This according to “African musical hybridity in the colonial context: An analysis of Ephraim Amu’s Yɛn ara asase ni” by Steven Spinner Terpenning (Ethnomusicology LX/3 [fall 2016] pp. 459–83).

Today is Ephraim Amu’s 120th birthday! Below, a performance of Yɛn ara asase ni in 2016.

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

Agbadza aesthetics

 

It is not uncommon for African musicians to use the adjective sweet to characterize a positive musical experience. Ewe-speakers may characterize singing and drumming that is performed expertly as vivi (sweet)—generating strong feeling and conveying a meaningful message.

Not a quality of cloying sentimentality, “sweet music” has a presence that moves a listener, often in a profound way. Listeners feel musical beauty through the interplay of the phenomenal surface of musical sound and the theoretical underneath of musical syntax.

African musicians are aware of the expressive opportunities afforded by musical syntax, and intentionally create music within known systems. The evaluative term sweet can open a path towards the scholarly articulation of musical syntax and culturally relevant statements about aesthetic judgment in Ewe agbadza.

This according to “Sweetness in agbadza music: Expressiveness in an item of agbadza singing and drumming” by David Locke, an essay included in Discourses in African musicology: J.H. Kwabena Nketia Festschrift (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2015, pp. 98–123).

Above and below, agbadza music and dancing.

Related article: Traditional Ghanaian sampling

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Kwaito’s promise

 

In the mid-1990s South African apartheid ended, and the country’s urban black youth developed kwaito—a form of dance music (redolent of North American house) that came to represent the post-struggle generation. Kwaito developed alongside the democratization of South Africa, a powerful cultural phenomenon that paradoxically engages South Africa’s crucial social and political problems by, in fact, seeming to ignore them.

Politicians and cultural critics criticize kwaito for failing to provide any meaningful contribution to a society that desperately needs direction, but these criticisms are built on problematic assumptions about the political function of music. Artists and fans aren’t escaping their social condition through kwaito, but are using it to expand their sensory realities and generate new possibilities. Resisting the truism that music is always political, kwaito thrives on its radically ambiguous relationship with politics, power, and the state.

This according to Kwaito’s promise: Music and the aesthetics of freedom in South Africa by Gavin Steingo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Above and below, Boom Shaka, whose It’s about time (1993) is widely regarded as the first kwaito hit.

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Filed under Africa, Politics, Popular music

The Mandé buzz aesthetic

 

The widespread preference for buzzy timbres in African traditional musics has been notably borne out in the Mandé region of West Africa.

The two main types of buzzing mechanisms in Mandé music are metal buzzing rattles, which are attached to the neck or bridge of various string instruments, and mirlitons (vibrating membranes), which are placed over small holes on the resonating gourds of wooden xylophones.

Over the last seventy to eighty years, an older and rougher buzz aesthetic within Mandé music has become increasingly endangered, with buzzing largely disappearing from instruments such as the kora and the ngoni in favor of a more “clean” Western aesthetic. Considered in a wider cultural context, the incorporation of buzzing sounds within Mandé music might be connected to forms of esoteric, supernatural, and spiritual power.

This according to “The buzz aesthetic and Mandé music: Acoustic masks and the technology of enchantment” by Merlyn Driver (African music X/3 [2017] pp. 95–118).

Above and below, kora playing with nyenyemo (metal rattle attached to the bridge).

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The evolution of jùjú

 

Jùjú, a type of popular music that combines indigenous Yorùbá musical practices with Christian hymnody, was first popular in Lagos in the 1930s.

The tambourine, introduced in Lagos in 1920 by missionaries, was integrated into jùjú because of its musical and symbolic associations. The spiritual dimension of this instrument is partly responsible for the name jùjú, which is an extension of the term used by colonialists to describe the various African traditional belief practices. Other stylistic resources of jùjú include the samba of the Brazilian community of Lagos and songs and musical instruments of the Liberian Kru sailors.

In the 1940s jùjú bands began to experiment with new musical instruments such as gangan (talking drum), pennywhistle, organ, and mandolin. The projection of Yorùbá elements and the introduction of accordion and harmonica are identified with Isaiah Kehinde Dairo (above). The rapid changes in social and political structures of the 1960s and 1970s in Nigeria were reflected in further developments.

This according to “A diachronic study of change in jùjú music” by Afolabi Alaja-Browne (Popular music VIII/3 [October 1989] pp. 231–42).

Below, King Sunny Adé, one of the performers discussed in the article.

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Tanzanian rap and neosocialist moralities

 

Rap songs from Tanzania’s urban youth are especially popular due to two factors: (1) unlike the majority of countries in Africa, Tanzania has a well-established national language, Swahili, which is spoken from one end of the country to the other, and has enabled the emergence of a well-subscribed sentiment of national belonging; and (2) as of 2013, 64% of Tanzania’s population was 25 years old or younger.

Like much youth music, a constant theme for Tanzanian rap is romance and relationships, but social and political critique has also proven emblematic of the genre. With penetrating lyrics, Swahili rappers target those who engage in predatory capitalism and political corruption—elites who hoard resources to accrue ever more wealth, spending it in an ever more conspicuous style, while the majority find their lives made ever more difficult.

This according to “Neosocialist moralities versus neoliberal religiousities: Constructing musical publics in 21st century Tanzania” by Kelly M. Askew, an essay included in Mambo moto moto: Music in Tanzania today (Berlin: VWB: Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2016, pp. 61–74).

Above and below, Soggy Doggy’s Nyerere uses clips of Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, who believed that socialism was the antidote to colonial-era capitalism.

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Asante gold-dust weights

Until the second half of the mid-19th century, the Asante and related peoples of Ghana and the Ivory Coast used small brass castings made by the lost-wax process as weights for measuring their gold-dust currency.

These weights, made in large numbers by professional metal workers, came in all shapes and sizes. There were two sorts of weights: those which represent miniature objects, creatures, and activities from local life, and those in non-representational, geometrical forms.

Many of the representational weights depicted musical instruments, either on their own or being played, and activities which traditionally took place to the accompaniment of music. The great majority of these weights show only two types of instruments: ivory trumpets, and various types of drums.

This according to “Music and gold-weights in Asante” by Malcolm Donald McLeod (British museum yearbook 1980, pp. 225–42).

Above, a weight depicting a pair of atumpan drums of the Akan people; below, the atumpan in action.

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African pianism and musicology

 

The African pianism developed by the Nigerian composer Akin Euba (above) is not well-suited to the research style of traditional musicology, and the limitations of conventional musicological perspectives and analytical models for research on this cultural phenomenon are obvious.

Ethnomusicology and other disciplines such as cultural anthropology may provide approaches and viewpoints that can be adopted in musicological research on African pianism.

This according to “My understanding of African pianism/我对非洲钢琴艺术研究的一些认识” by Li Xin, an essay included in Dialogues in music: Africa meets Asia/亚非相遇: 中非音乐对话 (Richmond: MRI, 2011, pp. 59–68, 345–353).

Below, Kingsley Otoijamun performs an excerpt from Euba’s Scenes from traditional life.

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

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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