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How has African music changed over time?

African musicAfrican music
African musicAfrican music

How has African music changed over time?

It could be said that music is at the very heart of African culture. Each of the countries on this vast continent has their own sounds, many of which have undergone changes over time due to technology and emerging musical artists. The history of African music is one as rich as the songs of its people.

The early years

In the 1800s, music was one of the many African art styles that were exposed to the various travellers, missionaries and minstrels that visited the continent. Composers such as John Knox Bokwe began composing hymns inspired by traditional Xhosa harmonic patterns, which was evidence that missionaries had influenced him.

The introduction of Western musical instruments meant that rural songs were adapted, which influenced the development of hybrid styles of music making in developing urban centres. At the same time, the movement of African people into the mines meant that different regional styles of music met and singers and musicians began to collaborate.

The mid-1800s saw travelling groups of American minstrels visiting the continent, starting with ‘blackface’ performers and eventually including African-American troupes. The spiritual songs these African-American groups sung inspired the local African people to form similar choirs, and so the subculture of African choir battles was formed. This subculture remains popular to this day with fierce competitivity among contenders.

The nightly curfews that were put into place in the early 20th century saw the creation of a music style known as Marambi. This style was developed in answer to the widespread urbanisation of black South Africans into the country’s mining areas. The lively sound of Marambi was used to draw people into the late night bars, and later this style transformed into the early mbaqanga, the most distinctive form of South African jazz.


The impact of international artists on African hip-hop

One genre that stands out across the African continent is that of hip-hop. The boom of this particular genre in Africa was influenced by popular American artists such as Tupac. The anger, frustration, joy and spirit found in American hip hop resonated with young African musicians and inspired them to take hold of this African-American genre and make it their own.

The tales of poverty, crime and corruption were not only those of Tupac but also stories that African youths experienced on a daily basis. The African hip-hop scene has changed from being an Americanised genre to one that is unique to the African continent. Kwaito can be found in South Africa, GH Rap is the Ghanaian offering and Rap Nigerien the Niger style. Tanzanian rappers prefer to perform in Swahili over English, making each song unique.

Hip-hop in Africa has moved from being a purely African-American genre to one that has been Africanised from country to country. It has been embraced by not only the youth but older musicians too, who are now involved in producing and distributing albums across the world. Hip-hop allows these musicians to give a voice to their country and the issues faced by the people.


The evolution of South African jazz

South African jazz dates back to the African-American musical influence during and after the American Civil War. The first introduction was informal, when a warship came to the port of Cape Town with African-American slaves on board dressed as minstrels. The second formal introduction was when the African-American minstrel troupe of Orpheus Myron McAdoo presented a series of concerts in Cape Town in 1890.

This minstrel troupe brought with them a brand of music which was much closer to the nature of the indigenous people living in South Africa at the time. McAdoo’s music was reminiscent of the blues, which has its roots in Africa and was essentially bringing African music home. The troupe travelled to the Eastern Cape and met the Xhosa people, who felt a kinship in the spiritual sounds of McAdoo’s music.

When the African-American travellers reached Kwa-Zulu Natal and were met with the rich harmonies of the Zulu choirs. After hearing McAdoo’s choral sounds, the Zulu people began the Isicathamiya movement, an a capella form of singing. In 1917 when jazz was first introduced to the country, this a cappella style was integrated into the Africanised style of jazz.

Because African musicians were simply copying the American jazz style by ear, the sound became slightly warped due to some inaccurate imitations. However, it still travelled and the Dixieland style of jazz became wildly popular across the country. The sound changed and become more relevant to the people performing and listening, with artists putting their own spin on the genre. This resulted in the jazz we know and love today.


Final thoughts

African music has always been an art form that is close to the heart of the different cultures on the continent. While it has been influenced by international trends and artists, it has always maintained a unique sound. This allows the musicians to create a sound that captures the soul of their country while also addressing the issues faced by their country. As with any art form, it’s continually in flux, with new artists and styles emerging regularly.

African music