Category Archives: Africa

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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Filed under Africa, Performers, Popular music

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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Filed under Africa, Popular music

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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Filed under Africa, Curiosities

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

Moroccan insult contests

Marrakech

A performance that occurred almost daily in a public square in Marrakech in the early 1980s traded on ethnic identity for fun and profit.

The performance began with an Arab duo singing in Arabic; as a crowd began to gather around them, a Berber—a member of a rival ethnic group—leaped into the circle with a song in Tashlit. After a few moments of cacaphony a shouting match began, with the Berber and one of the Arabs trading insults while the other Arab took one side and then the other, upping the ante.

“Monkey, block-headed windbag, long-fingernailed King Kong, hick, salt stealer, son of a whore!” Each string of insults was preceded by an ethnic designator, and audience members were encouraged to contribute money to the aggrieved party to demonstrate their own ethnic pride. Occasionally fisticuffs between audience members ensued.

The high point of the performance came when the monetarily losing antagonist was figuratively turned into a donkey and the winner climbed onto his back and called for his instrument; victory, however temporary, meant both being on top and singing one’s own song there.

This according to “Saints, prostitutes, and rotten sardines: The musical construction of place and ethnicity in a Moroccan insult contest” by Philip D. Schuyler, an essay included in Ethnomusicological encounters with music and musicians: Essays in honor of Robert Garfias (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011, pp. 249–259). Above and below, examples of street music in Marrakech.

Related article: 50 best literary insults

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Filed under Africa, Curiosities, Humor

Performing Islam

Launched by Intellect in 2012, Performing Islam is the first peer-reviewed interdisciplinary journal about Islam and performance and their related aesthetics. It focuses on the sociocultural, historical, and political contexts of artistic practices in the Muslim world.

The journal covers dance, ritual, theater, performing arts, visual arts and cultures, and popular entertainment in Islam-influenced societies and their diasporas. It promotes insightful research of performative expressions of Islam by performers and publics, and encompasses theoretical debates, empirical studies, postgraduate research, interviews with performers, research notes and queries, and reviews of books, conferences, festivals, events, and performances.

Below, UNESCO’s introduction to the semā ceremony of Turkey’s Mevlevi order.

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Filed under Africa, Asia, New periodicals

Tarzan redux

Of the many Hollywood films made about Africa, the Tarzan films are among the most influential in creating stereotyped notions of African peoples, geography, and social organization.

An examination of the portrayal of Africa and Africans in Cedric Gibbons’s Tarzan and his mate (1934) provides a window into how music has been used to generate these stereotypes and calls into question the degree to which these (mis)conceptions, under the same or different guises, have survived into the 21st century.

This according to “When hearts beat like native drums: Music and the sexual dimensions of the notions of savage and civilized in Tarzan and his mate, 1934” by Clara Henderson (Africa today XLVIII/4 [winter 2001] pp. 90–124).

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and the apes, the first Tarzan story, is 100 years old this year! Above, an early dust jacket for this classic; below, the original 1934 trailer for Tarzan and his mate.

BONUS: The film’s notorious river scene, for which the Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim temporarily replaced Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane.

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Filed under Africa, Curiosities, Film music