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music, African

the musical sounds and practices of all indigenous peoples of Africa, including the Berber in the Sahara and the San (Bushmen) and Khoikhoin (Hottentot) in Southern Africa. The music of European settler communities and that of Arab North Africa are not included in the present discussion. For the music of Islamic Africa, see arts, Islamic: Music.


It is widely acknowledged that African music has undergone frequent and decisive changes throughout the centuries. What is termed traditional music today is probably very different from African music in former times. Nor has African music in the past been rigidly linked to specific ethnic groups. The individual musician, his style and creativity, have always played an important role.

The material sources for the study of African music history include archaeological and other objects, pictorial sources (rock paintings, petroglyphs, book illustrations, drawings, paintings), oral historical sources, written sources (travelers' accounts, field notes, inscriptions in Arabic and in African and European languages), musical notations, sound recordings, photographs and motion pictures, and videotape.

In ancient times the musical cultures of sub-Saharan Africa extended into North Africa. Between circa 8000 and 3000 BC, climatic changes in the Sahara, with a marked wet trend, extended the flora and fauna of the savanna into the southern Sahara and its central highlands. During this period, human occupation of the Sahara greatly increased, and, along rivers and small lakes, Neolithic, or New Stone Age, cultures with a so-called aquatic lifestyle extended from the western Sahara into the Nile River valley. The aquatic cultures began to break up gradually between 5000 and 3000 BC, once the peak of the wet period had passed. The wet climate became more and more restricted to shrunken lakes and rivers and, to a greater extent, to the region of the upper Nile. Today remnants survive perhaps in the Lake Chad area and in the Nile swamps.

Rock painting of a dance performance, Tassili-n-Ajjer, Algeria, attributed to the Saharan period of …
Jean-Dominique Lajoux

The cultures of the “Green Sahara” left behind a vast gallery of iconographic documents in the form of rock paintings, among which are some of the earliest internal sources on African music. One is a vivid dance scene discovered in 1956 by the French ethnologist Henri Lhote in the Tassili-n-Ajjer plateau of Algeria. Attributed on stylistic grounds to the Saharan period of the Neolithic hunters (c. 6000–4000 BC), this painting is probably one of the oldest extant testimonies to music and dance in Africa. The body adornment and movement style are reminiscent of dance styles still found in many African societies.

Some of the earliest sources on African music are archaeological. Although musical instruments made of vegetable materials have not survived in the deposits of sub-Saharan climatic zones, archaeological source material on Nigerian music has been supplied by the representations of musical instruments on stone or terra-cotta from Ife, Yorubaland. These representations show considerable agreement with traditional accounts of their origins. From the 10th to the 14th century AD, igbìn drums (a set of footed cylindrical drums) seem to have been used. The dùndún pressure drum, now associated with Yoruba culture and known in a broad belt across the savanna region, may have been introduced around the 15th century, since it appears in plaques made during that period in the kingdom of Benin. The Yoruba dùndún drums are now used as “talking drums” in accompaniment to oriki (praise name) poetry (see Oral traditions). The double iron clapperless bell seems to have preceded the talking drum. Pellet bells and tubular bells with clappers were known by the 15th century.

Other archaeological finds relating to music include iron bells excavated in the Katanga (Shaba) region of Congo (Kinshasa) and at several sites in Zimbabwe. Benin bronze plaques represent a further, almost inexhaustible source for music history, since musical instruments—such as horns, bells, drums, and even bow lutes—are often depicted on them in ceremonial contexts.

Among the most important written sources (though superficial analytically) are accounts from the 14th-century Arab travelers Ibn Battutah and Ibn Khaldun and from the European navigators and explorers Vasco da Gama, Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, João dos Santos, François Froger, and Peter Kolbe. Early attempts at notating African music were made by T.E. Bowdich (1819) for Ghana, Karl Mauch (1872) for Zimbabwe, and Brito Capelo and Roberto Ivens (1882) for inner Angola.

Major and minor migrations of African peoples brought musical styles and instruments to new areas. The single and double iron bells, which probably originated in Kwa-speaking West Africa, spread to western Central Africa with Iron Age Bantu-speaking peoples and from there to Zimbabwe and the Zambezi River valley. Earlier migrating groups moving eastward from eastern Nigeria and central Cameroon to the East African lakes did not know the iron bells or the time-line patterns associated with them. Consequently, both traits were absent in East African music until the recent introduction of the time-line patterns of Congolese electric guitar-based music. With the intensifying ivory and slave trades during the 19th century, the zeze (or sese) flatbar zither, a stringed instrument long known along the East African coast, spread into the interior to Zambia, the eastern half of Congo (Kinshasa), and Malawi.

Beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries, lamellaphones with iron keys, a prominent feature of ancient Zimbabwe and neighbouring kingdoms and chieftainships, spread from the Zambezi valley northward to the kingdoms of Kazembe and Lunda and to the Katangan and Angolan cultures. In the course of migration, some models became smaller, because they were used as travel instruments; others were modified and gave rise to the numerous types present in western Central Africa during the first half of the 20th century. (For a further description of the lamellaphone, see Idiophones.)

A small box-resonated lamellaphone, called the likembe in Congo, traveled in the other direction, from the west to the east, northeast, and southeast. It was invented in the lower Congo region probably not earlier than the mid-19th century, and thereafter it spread upriver with Lingala-speaking porters and colonial servants to the northern Bantu borderland. The Zande, Ngbandi, and Gbaya, who speak Adamawa-Ubangi languages, adopted the likembe.

Stylistic traits of likembe music linking it to its region of origin were only gradually modified in the new areas to suit local styles. At the beginning of the 20th century the likembe distribution area extended farther to the northeast into Uganda, where the Nilotic Alur, Acholi, and Lango adopted it. It was later introduced to southern Uganda by northern Ugandan workers; there the Bantu-speaking Soga and Gwere adopted it and began to construct models entirely from metal, even with a metal resonator. The likembe also spread southward from the lower Congo, penetrating Angola from the Kasai region of Congo and being adopted as recently as the 1950s by the Khoisan-speaking !Kung of Kwando Kubango province in southeastern Angola.

As a result of migrations and the exchange of musical fashions both within Africa and with foreign cultures, specific traits of African music often show a puzzling distribution. Extremely distant areas in Africa may have similar, even identical, traits, while adjacent areas may have quite different styles. The multipart singing style in triads within an equiheptatonic tone system of the Baule of Côte d'Ivoire is so close, if not identical, to the part singing style of Ngangela, Chokwe, and Luvale peoples in eastern Angola that the similarity is immediately recognized by informants from both cultures. Why this is so is a riddle. The two areas are separated by several countries with different approaches to multipart singing. Another historical riddle is the presence of practically identical xylophone playing styles and instruments among Makonde and Makua-speaking peoples of northern Mozambique and among certain peoples of Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia, notably the Baule and the Kru. The jomolo of the Baule and the log xylophones of northern Mozambique—for example, the dimbila of the Makonde or the mangwilo of the Shirima—are virtually identical instruments.

Diffusionist theories of various kinds have been offered to resolve such riddles. The English ethnomusicologist A.M. Jones proposed that Indonesian settlers in certain areas of East, Central, and West Africa during the early centuries AD could have introduced xylophones and certain tonal-harmonic systems (equipentatonic, equiheptatonic, and pelog scales) into Africa. Ethnohistorians, on the other hand, have tended to accentuate the importance of coastal navigation (implying the traveling of hired or forced African labour on European ships) as an agent of cultural contact between such areas as Mozambique, Angola and Congo, and the West African coast.

Existing historical sources on African music and dance are more abundant than might be expected. Sometimes historical data can be obtained indirectly from contemporary observation outside Africa, especially in Latin America. It was a rule rather than an exception that people brought as slaves from Africa to the New World often came from the hinterland of the African coastal areas. Between the European slave traders established on the coast and the hinterland areas were buffer zones inhabited by African “merchant tribes,” such as the Ovimbundu of Angola, who are still remembered by eastern Angolan peoples as vimbali, or collaborators of the Portuguese. In the 18th and 19th centuries the inland areas of Angola were not directly accessible to Europeans. But the music and dance of these areas became accessible indirectly, as European observers saw African captives playing musical instruments in New World countries. In Brazil the music of the Candomblé religion, for example, can be directly linked to 18th- and 19th-century forms of orisha worship among the Yoruba. In a similar manner, Umbanda religious ceremonies are an extension of traditional healing sessions still practiced in Angola, and vodun religious music among the Fon of Benin has extensions in the voodoo of Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean. African instruments have also been modified and sometimes further developed in the New World; examples are the Central African friction drum and the lamellaphone (in the Cuban marimbula).

African music as it is known today was also shaped by changes in the ecology of the continent, which drove people into other lands, thus producing changes in their art. With the drying of the Sahara, for example, populations tended to shift southward. When settled populations accepted the intruders, they often adopted musical styles from them. Thus, the choral singing style of the Masai had a fundamental influence on vocal music of the Gogo of central Tanzania, as is audible in their nindo and msunyunho chants.

It is only relatively recently that scholarly attention has focused on the various urban popular styles, reflecting a blend of local and foreign ingredients, that have emerged during the last 50 years or so. The best known of these are West African “highlife,” Congolese dance music, tarabu of East Africa, and South African styles. With the widespread adoption of Christianity in Africa since the 19th century, many new varieties of African church music have risen and continue to evolve. For example, with altered words, hymns—as well as secular songs—are quite often adapted as protest songs in order to rally opposition to political oppression.

Gerhard Kubik
Donald Keith Robotham

Musical instruments

Outsiders have often overlooked the enormous variety of musical instruments in Africa in the mistaken belief that Africans play only drums. Yet even Hanno the Carthaginian, who recorded a brief visit to the west coast of Africa in the 5th century BC during a naval expedition, noted wind instruments as well as percussion. Of an island within the gulf of “Hesperon Keras,” he wrote:

By day we saw nothing but woods, but by night we saw many fires burning, and heard the sound of flutes and cymbals, and the beating of drums, and an immense shouting. Fear therefore seized on us, and the soothsayers bid us quit the island.

Ensembles fitting this description may be found over a wide area of West Africa today, serving as accompaniment to dancing and merrymaking or as an essential ingredient of ceremonial or cultic activities.

Besides the percussion and wind instruments noted by Hanno, there are also stringed instruments of many kinds, ranging from the simple mouth bow to more complex varieties of zithers, harps, lutes, and lyres. While the aggregate of instrumental resources distributed over the continent is vast, each society tends to specialize in a limited assortment, and there is a wide variety from region to region. In some areas interesting new hybrid varieties emerged in the 20th century in response to outside influence, notably the endingidi spike fiddle of Uganda, malipenga gourd kazoos of Tanzania and Malawi, and chordophones such as the ramkie and segankuru of South Africa.

Musical instruments in African societies serve a variety of roles. Some instruments may be confined to religious or cultic rituals or to social occasions. Among some peoples there may also be restrictions as to the age, sex, or social status of the player. Among the Xhosa, for example, only girls play the imported Jew's harp, a modern replacement for the traditional mouth bow, which was formerly their prerogative.

Besides recreational applications, or as accompaniment for dancing, instruments may serve many other roles. In Lesotho it is claimed that cattle graze more contentedly when entertained by the sound of the lesiba mouth bow. Among the Shona in Zimbabwe, a local form of lamellaphone known as likembe dza vadzimu serves in rituals of ancestor worship, while in the kingdom of Buganda the royal drums formerly held higher status than the king. In West and central Africa, pressure drums may serve for the transmission of messages or, together with trumpets, for the declamation of praises, by mimicking the tonal and rhythmic patterns of speech. All sub-Saharan languages (except Swahili) are “tone languages,” in the sense that the meaning of words depends on the tone or pitch in which they are said. Consequently, instrumental music—or even natural sounds such as birdsong—often imitates or suggests meaningful phrases of the spoken language. Sometimes this is intentional and sometimes it is merely fortuitous, but in either case it escapes the notice of uninformed outsiders.

Certain instruments are used solely for song accompaniment. Here the interplay between voice and instrument is often intricate and delicately balanced. Zulu solo songs, in earlier times, were often self-accompanied on the ugubhu gourd bow. In such bow songs, while the instrumental melody was influenced by the tone requirements of the song's lyrics, the tuning of the bow determined the vocal scale to which the singer conformed. Today, when Zulus use the modern Western guitar, precisely the same antiphonal relationship and mutual interdependence between voice and instrument is maintained.

Of the principal instruments found in sub-Saharan Africa, the following is a brief sampling.


In this class the substance of the instrument itself, owing to its solidity and elasticity, yields sound without requiring strings or stretched membranes. Some are sounded by striking, others by shaking, scraping, plucking, or friction. Idiophones are numerous and widely distributed throughout the continent. On musical grounds they may be divided into instruments used mainly for rhythm and several varieties tuned and used melodically.

Rhythmic idiophones

Among the vast array of nonmelodic, rhythmic idiophones, the most common and widespread are probably rattles, sounded by shaking. One type, the sistrum, which has small metal disks loosely suspended on rods, is important in the Ethiopian church and is also used in Guinea. More widespread are hollow rattles, consisting of a gourd enveloped in a net of shells or beads or of a container such as a calabash with seeds or pebbles inside. Besides hand-held varieties, there are many other kinds of rattles, often strung on cords, which may be attached to the limbs or other parts of the body and shaken while dancing or playing another instrument, or which may be fastened onto another instrument, such as the lamellaphone, to serve as a supplementary jingling device. In Zimbabwe, bottle tops, instead of the traditional snail shells, serve this purpose on the likembe dza vadzimu of the Shona.

Struck and concussion-sounded idiophones are found everywhere. These include stone clappers and multiple rock gongs (in Nigeria); wooden clappers and percussion beams; and implements such as hoe blades, weapons, and shields (in fact, all kinds of domestic items serve as temporary idiophones when required). Further examples are metal or wooden bells, either with internal pellets or clappers or externally struck; inverted half calabashes; bottles; and clay pots, partially water-filled, which in West Africa are struck with fanlike beaters. Stamping sticks are also used in West and central Africa, as are stamping tubes made from bamboo or from long, open-ended gourds. In Ghana and Nigeria the latter are used for accompanying certain women's songs. Scraped and friction idiophones are quite widely distributed, the most common form being a notched stick or piece of bamboo that is scraped by another stick.

Slit drums

Falling between rhythmic and melodic instruments, the largest and most distinctive member of the African struck-idiophone family is the slit drum, made from a hollowed log. By careful thinning of the flanks at certain places, the instrument may be tuned so as to yield as many as four distinct pitches. Besides their use for transmitting messages, West and central African slit drums are often played in combination with membrane drums and other instruments.


Two markedly different species of xylophone are distinguishable in Africa: one has free, unattached keys, and the other has fixed keys. With free-key xylophones, found in parts of West and East Africa, loose slabs may be laid across the player's outstretched legs or supported on logs or straw bundles, sometimes above a resonating pit. In Uganda and Congo (Kinshasa), from two to six players may perform together on the same instrument.

Fixed-key xylophones are more elaborate. Mounted below each key, there is usually an individually tuned calabash resonator, often with a mirliton (a vibrating membrane) attached to add a buzzing quality to the sound. A mid-14th-century account mentions a calabash-resonated xylophone in the West African kingdom of Mali, and similar instruments were reported on the east coast in the 16th century. Xylophone ensembles are common in some areas, notably among the Chopi of Mozambique, where timbila orchestras of up to 40 xylophones, of six different sizes, have been reported.


These “thumb pianos” are plucked idiophones unique to Africa and widely distributed throughout the continent. In construction they consist basically of a set of tuned metal or bamboo tongues of varying length fitted to a board, box, or calabash resonator, their free ends being twanged by the player's thumbs and fingers. Supplementary rattling or buzzing devices are often added, and board-mounted varieties are often played inside a half calabash or bowl to enhance the resonance. They serve mainly for song accompaniment. Some common names for regional varieties of the instrument are likembe, mbira, and timbrh.


All African drums except the slit drum fall within this class, sharing the basic feature of having a stretched animal skin as their sounding medium. The mirliton, or small “singing membrane,” is often added to the bodies of drums and xylophone resonators as a supplementary buzzing device. It is an essential component of the malipenga gourd kazoos used in Tanzania and Malawi to simulate military band music.

Africa has a wide variety of drums, which may serve in a number of different roles, some of them not primarily musical. Their manufacture is often steeped in ritual and symbolism, and their use may be restricted to specific contexts. In many societies, only men may play them; in others, certain drums are used only by women (as among the Venda, Sotho, and Tswana of southern Africa). Playing techniques differ widely: some drums are beaten with the bare hands, others with straight or curved sticks. Friction drums are also occasionally found, such as the ingungu used in Zulu girls' nubility rites. Except in the extreme south, drums of contrasting pitch and timbre are frequently played in ensembles, with or without other instruments, to accompany dancing. Though the role of drums is usually rhythmic, the entenga drum chime in Uganda, comprising a set of tuned drums, plays vocally derived melodies.

The body of a drum may be either bowl-shaped, tubular, or shallow-framed. Bowl-shaped drums include those made from gourds and pots as well as the small and large kettledrums found in and around Uganda. Tubular and frame drums may have either one skin or two, which are either pegged, pinned, glued, or laced onto the body. Tubular drums come in many sizes and shapes, such as cylindrical, conical, barrel-shaped, goblet-shaped, footed, and hourglass-shaped. The atumpan talking drums of the Asante are barrel-shaped with a narrow, cylindrical, open foot at the base. East African hourglass drums are single-skinned. In West Africa double-skinned hourglass drums are held under one arm, their pitch rapidly and continually changed by as much as an octave by squeezing the lacing that joins the two heads. In some areas wax may be applied to the centre of the drum skin, and a mirliton, shells, or jingles may be attached to the body to modify the tone.


This class, comprising instruments that produce sound from strings stretched between fixed points, is well represented in Africa. There is an abundance of specimens in the form of zithers, lutes, and harps.

Musical bows

These consist of a string stretched between the two ends of a flexible stave. There are three types: bows with a separate resonator; bows with attached resonators; and mouth bows, which use the player's mouth for resonance. Though it is conjectural whether all varieties evolved from the shooting bow, the San of the Kalahari often convert their hunting bows to musical use. Sometimes it is held against the mouth, yielding a range of mouth-resonated harmonics, as with the Jew's harp, or it is pressed against a hollow container. Apart from adapted shooting bows, more specialized types of musical bows are widespread. Most are sounded by plucking or striking the string, but the Xhosa umrubhe is bowed with a friction stick, the xizambi of the Tsonga has serrations along the stave that are scraped with a rattle stick, and the Sotho lesiba (like the gora of the Khoikhoin) is sounded by exhaling and inhaling across a piece of quill connecting the string to the stave. Bows with more than one string are rare, but the tingle apho of the Kara people in southern Ethiopia has three.

Besides mouth-resonated bows, the gourd bow, which has an attached gourd resonator, is commonly used in southern, central, and East Africa for self-accompanied solo singing. The string is struck with a thin stick or grass stem. The Zulu ugubhu is a typical example. Harmonic tones are selectively resonated by moving the mouth of the gourd closer to or farther from the player's chest. The fundamental pitch of the string can be altered by finger stopping; with other types, like the Swazi makhweyane, a noose or brace divides the string so as to yield two different “open” notes, and resonated harmonics are selected in the same way.

While all the above types of musical bow are simple forms of the zither, the so-called ground bow or earth bow of equatorial Africa, which has one end planted in the ground, qualifies as a ground harp.


Characterized by strings that lie parallel to the neck, the lute is found in Africa in several varieties. The multiple-necked bow lute, or pluriarc, of central and southwestern Africa is the oldest. This has a separate flexible neck for each string and resembles a set of musical bows fixed at one end to a sounding box. West African plucked lutes such as the konting, khalam, and the nkoni (which was noted by Ibn Battutah in 1353) may have originated in ancient Egypt. The khalam is claimed to be the ancestor of the banjo. Another long-necked lute is the ramkie of South Africa.


The bowed-lute family is represented by three types of one-string fiddle, as exemplified by the rebeclike goje of Nigeria and the spike fiddles masenqo of Ethiopia and endingidi of Uganda—the last being a 20th-century invention.

Harp lutes

The sophisticated kora of the Malinke people of West Africa is classified as a harp lute. Its strings lie in two parallel ranks, rising on either side of a vertical bridge, which has a notch for each string. The long neck passes through a large, hemispherical gourd resonator covered with a leather sounding table.


These have been termed yoke lutes, the strings running from a yoke supported by two side arms. Their distribution in Africa is confined to the northeast. In Ethiopia two types occur: the large beganna, with 8 to 10 strings and a box-shaped body (corresponding to the ancient Greek kithara); and the smaller six-string krar, with a bowl-shaped body (resembling the Greek lyra). The latter type, with from four to eight strings and varying in size, is also used in The Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya. The litungu is a typical specimen.


Ugandan musician playing the ennanga arched harp.
Gerhard Kubik

These are confined to a belt, north of the Equator, running from Uganda to Mauritania. All African harps (like those of ancient Egypt) are classed as open harps, as they have a neck and a resonator with a string holder but lack a supporting pillar to complete the triangle. In most cases some form of buzzing device is incorporated. Examples are the ennanga (Uganda; see photograph), ardin (Mauritania), kinde (Lake Chad region), and ngombi (Gabon).


The archaic bull-roarer (a board attached by rope to a stick and whirled about in the air) survives in various localities, notably in southern Africa among the San and neighbouring peoples. Of the wind instruments proper, the three main divisions—flutes, reed pipes, and trumpets—are all well represented, though the second of these is more restricted in distribution than the others.


At the southernmost tip of the continent the navigator Vasco da Gama in 1497 encountered a band of Khoi people (Khoikhoin) “playing upon four or five flutes of reed.” Ensembles of single-note stopped flutes playing on the hocket principle, with each flute blowing its note in rotation, have been reported from various regions, ranging from southern Africa through eastern Congo (Kinshasa), Uganda, and The Sudan to southern Ethiopia. Panpipe ensembles are less common, but notable examples have been witnessed in central Africa, and particularly among the Nyungwe of Mozambique. There are many other types of open and stopped flutes—cylindrical and conical; transverse and end-blown; made from bamboo, reed, roots, stems, wood, clay, bone, and horn. Globular flutes made from small spherical gourds or from hard-shelled fruits such as Oncoba spinosa are found in southern Africa, Congo, Mozambique, Uganda, Guinea, and elsewhere. End-blown notched flutes, with a U- or V-shaped embouchure, either with or without finger holes, are widely distributed across the continent. The long Zulu umtshingo has an obliquely cut embouchure; there are no finger holes, but a double range of overblown harmonics is produced by alternately stopping and unstopping the lower end with a finger. Such instruments and many others throughout the continent are played singly, but in many areas flutes are played in pairs or in combination with other instruments.

Reed pipes

Transverse clarinets are used throughout the West African savanna region, from Guinea to Cameroon. These are single-reed pipes made from hollow guinea corn or sorghum stems, the reed being a flap partially cut from the stem near one end. Single and double clarinets are found in The Sudan among the Dinka people. Conical double-reed instruments of the oboe or shawm type have spread around the northeastern and northwestern fringes of Africa wherever Islam has taken root. Despite local variations, they are basically related to the Arab zurna, having a disk (or pirouette) below the reed that supports the player's lips.


Lip-vibrated aerophones made from a variety of materials are widespread in Africa. Apart from musical uses, some serve for signaling. In West Africa, side-blown ivory or horn instruments may transmit verbal praises of chiefs and rulers. Among the Hausa, the long metal kakaki and wooden farai, both end-blown, fulfill this role in combination with drums. In East and central Africa, the instruments are often made from gourds, wood, hide, horn, or a combination of these materials. In Buganda, trumpet sets were part of the royal regalia. Throughout Africa, more than one or two notes are seldom produced from a single trumpet, but trumpet ensembles are common, playing in hocket fashion.

Donald Keith Robotham

Musical structure

In Africa it is unrealistic to separate music from dance or from bodily movement. In Europe the body tends to be used as a single block, while in African and Afro-American dance it seems to be “polycentric”—that is, split into several independent body areas or “centres.” Likewise, the playing of African musical instruments involves a whole combination of body movements. This is one reason African music is less amenable to notation than Western music; for analytical purposes, sound filming (rather than just sound recording) is essential.

In Africa music making is very often collective, involving organized collaboration in which performers contribute not identical, but complementary, constituents. Besides polyrhythmic and polymetric procedures, melodic phrases are frequently offset against one another, with different starting and ending points, either in an antiphonal “call-and-response” relationship or in an overlapping relationship that yields polyphony. In addition, melodic phrasing and instrumental accompaniment may be deliberately out of step—a displacement technique described in 1952 by American anthropologist Richard Waterman as “offbeat phrasing of melodic accents.” Complementary participation is also evident in drumming and in flute or trumpet ensembles where each player in turn sounds a different, single note. The Ghanaian musicologist J.H. Kwabena Nketia pointed out the function of this African form of hocket technique in “achieving overall effects of continuity, [and] for building up interlocking, and sometimes complex structures, out of relatively simple elements.”


In a great many African music and dance cultures, movement organization rigidly follows certain principles of timing that cannot be equated with Western metrical systems. African systems of timing are generally based on at least four fundamental concepts:

  1. There is an overall presence of a mental background pulsation, or “metronome sense,” consisting of equally spaced pulse units continuing ad infinitum and often at great speed. These so-called elementary pulses serve as a basic orientation screen; they are two or three times faster than the beat rate, or gross pulse.
  2. Musical form is organized so that recurring patterns and themes are timed against a regular number of elementary pulses—usually 8, 12, 16, 24, or their multiples (more rarely, 9, 18, or 27). The recurring sequences are called strophes or cycles; the number of pulses they contain are referred to as their form numbers or cycle numbers.
  3. Such strophes or cycles are often divisible in more than one way, allowing simultaneous combinations of contradictory metrical units. For example, 12 pulses—12 is the most important form number in African music—can be divided by 2, 3, 4, and 6.
  4. Patterns with the same form number can be shifted out of phase, so that their starting points and main accents do not coincide, resulting in “cross rhythms.” In some cases they cross in such a way that they interlock, or fall between one another, with no two notes ever sounding together.


Interlocking techniques are a prominent feature of many instrumental styles in East and southeastern Africa. From regions in Tanzania and Mozambique come the ng'oma drumming of Gogo women and such log xylophone styles as the dimbila of the Makonde, the mangwilo of the Shirima, and the mangolongondo of the Yao people. The drumming in the ngwayi dance of northeastern Zambia, the timbrh lamellaphone music of the Vute people of central Cameroon, and many other traditions also use interlocking techniques.

A basic characteristic of interlocking is the absence of a common guide pulse to be taken as a reference point by all players. In a Western music ensemble or a jazz band all the players share a “beat,” one common metric point of departure. They may even beat their feet to mark it. While there are many traditional African musics in which such a common reference pulse does exist, in several others the musicians in a group relate their parts to individual reference pulses, which can stand in various relations to one another.

In one type of relation the pulse of one performer or group of performers falls exactly in the middle of the other's pulse. This type of interlocking occurs, for example, in the music of the amadinda and embaire xylophones of southern Uganda. A special type of notation is now used for these xylophones, consisting of numbers and periods. A number indicates that a player strikes a note; the number refers to the note in the scale, as 5, for example, the fifth note of the scale. An underlined number should be read an octave down; in other words, 5 is an octave below 5. A period indicates that no note is struck. Numbers and periods both occupy one elementary pulse.

The following is an example of interlocking as played on the amadinda. The melodies are actually played in parallel octaves; that is, each melody is played at the notated pitch and also at the pitch an octave below:

In interlocking music of this type, one musician's positive action of striking a note always coincides with a negative action, or “non-strike,” of his fellow musician, who at that moment lifts his beater. The effect is such that both series of equally spaced notes seem to interlock like the teeth of a cogwheel. Each of the two musicians, however, feels his own series of notes as “on beat.”

In the very fast mangwilo xylophone music, the interlocking technique is exploited further. In some compositions by two virtuoso players, each musician interlocks with the right hand only. The left hands play different rhythm patterns superimposed over the interlocking pattern.

Triple interlocking is another type, used, for instance, in Zambia in drum music and also in southern Uganda in the music of the akadinda xylophone. Here a group of three musicians plays a short pattern of equally spaced notes in parallel octaves. Three musicians sitting opposite them interlock with another pattern that fits two equally spaced notes between each note of the first group's pattern. In numerical notation it looks like this:

Interlocking techniques allow African instrumentalists to produce resultant patterns—overall patterns formed by all the players—that are unbelievably rapid. The resultant pattern of the above akadinda musical example is: 214435214235114135214535. This series of 24 notes, when played by expert musicians, is at a speed of approximately 600 notes per minute. But each musician, for himself, plays one-third that fast.

Time-line patterns

In certain areas there is yet another principle of timing, known as time-line patterns. These are struck motional patterns that make up a rhythmic ostinato with an asymmetrical inner structure (such as 5 + 7 or 7 + 9), against which the melodic and rhythmic phrasing of other performers is juxtaposed. They are percussive patterns, produced either by hand clapping or on some musical instrument of penetrating sound quality, such as a bell, a high-pitched drum, the rim or body of a drum, a bottle, an ax blade, a calabash, a percussion beam, concussion sticks, or a high-pitched xylophone key. Time-line patterns are a regulative element in many kinds of African music, especially dance music along the West African coast, in western central Africa, and in a broad belt along the Zambezi River valley from Zambia into Mozambique. Broadly speaking, they are found in those parts of Africa covered by the Kwa and Benue-Congo subgroups of the Niger-Congo group of languages—with the notable exception that they are not found in most areas of East Africa or in South Africa.

A time-line pattern represents the structural core of a musical piece, something like a condensed and extremely concentrated representation of the rhythmic and motional possibilities open to the musicians and dancers. Singers, drummers, and dancers in the group find their bearings by listening to the strokes of the time-line pattern, which is repeated at a steady tempo throughout the performance. The following are some of the most important time-line patterns:

  1. The 12-pulse seven-stroke pattern

    • Version a (mainly West African)

    • Version b (mainly central African)

    Distribution: mostly along the West African coast—for example, in the music of the Yoruba, Fon, and Ewe—but also in Congo (Kinshasa), Angola, and Zambia.

  2. The 12-pulse five-stroke pattern

    Distribution: central Africa, especially in Congo (Brazzaville) and Congo (Kinshasa); southern Africa, including Zambia and Malawi; West Africa—for instance, among the Baule of Côte d'Ivoire.

  3. A 16-pulse time-line pattern

    Distribution: mostly southern Congo (Kinshasa), Angola, and northwestern Zambia; an isolated occurrence in xylophone music on the Kenya coast.

The longest time-line pattern is found among the pygmy people of the upper Sangha River in the Central African Republic. It is a 24-pulse pattern of the following structure:

This pattern is struck on a percussion beam, and the dance style accompanying it emphasizes motions of the pelvis.

The asymmetrical time-line patterns of African music are, no doubt, an ancient cultural heritage along the Guinea Coast and in western central Africa. They were most likely invented by peoples who spoke ancestral forms of Niger-Congo languages. It is likely that the area of origin was the Guinea Coast. One explanation for the absence of time-line patterns in the northern half of East Africa is that they were unknown among the first wave of Bantu-language speakers moving eastward from the Cross River area in eastern Nigeria along the fringes of the equatorial forest toward the East African lakes region circa 100–400 BC. Another explanation could be the influence in East Africa of Nilotic cultures. The knowledge of time-line patterns might have been brought to western central Africa with a second migration of Benue-Congo speakers from eastern Nigeria during the Early Iron Age, a time when time-line patterns had already spread eastward across the Niger River. This second migration could have been responsible for the introduction into western central Africa of a set of cultural traits that include asymmetrical time-line patterns, the single and double bells, masked dancing, secret societies, and certain initiation ceremonies.

With the beginning of the Later Iron Age in central Africa (c. AD 1000), a second nuclear area for time-line patterns apparently developed in southern Congo (Kinshasa); both the 12- and 16-pulse patterns still play an enormous role in the musical traditions of that region. With the third Bantu dispersal, this time from southern Congo and carrying with it trade connections, the practice of time-line patterns could have reached the Zambezi valley and the Nyasa-Ruvuma culture area of Tanzania, Malawi, and Mozambique—the only areas in the eastern part of the continent where time-line patterns are prominent today.

Inherent note patterns

Closely associated with interlocking techniques but not necessarily depending on them is the composition of inherent note patterns. These are rhythmic and melodic patterns that emerge when series of notes in distinct intervals are played at high speed.

The human ear perceives not isolated particles of sound but a “gestalt.” When sequences of many notes are played rapidly, the ear cannot follow each note. As a result, the hearing tends to pick out and regroup the material, forming several melodic-rhythmic patterns that seem independent of one another. Thus, the heard image of the music differs from the pattern of notes actually played. In a series of notes that are large intervals apart, for example, the ear picks out the notes of about the same pitch level and perceives them as a group. This psychological perception of a gestalt—an inherent note pattern—is an important element in listening to and composing some kinds of African instrumental music, particularly in central and East Africa.

Inherent note patterns are not accidental or coincidental; they are recognized and consciously employed by African musicians. In southern Uganda there are even specific terms referring to them. The main function of inherent note patterns is to suggest words—text passages of a song that is outlined by instrumental accompaniment. Thus, in the music of the ennanga harp of Uganda, the inherent note patterns suggest certain phrases of the vocal part. In a performance of the traditional harp song “Olutalo olw'e Nsinsi” (“The Battle of the Nsinsi”) by the former court musician Evaristo Muyinda, one inherent pattern seemed to speak the words “Batulwanako ab'edda!” (“How They Forget Those Ancients!”) long before they were actually sung. Muyinda often introduces a new phrase of text by first accentuating the corresponding inherent rhythm on the ennanga. Once the melody is firmly established as a gestalt, it is sung. By slight accentuation or melodic variation during performance, the harpist may bring one or another of the already existing inherent patterns into prominence. This results in a musical development of the song's text.

Tone systems and multipart patterns

Tone systems and multipart patterns have a functional interrelationship in African music. In other words, the kind of multipart pattern occurring in singing or instrumental music is conditional on the type of tone system, and vice versa.

The tonal material used in African musical traditions varies considerably from region to region. Tonal organization, tuning procedures, and intervallic structure depend upon a broad range of human experience. Several factors have determined the shape of tone systems actually in use. One factor mentioned above (see Musical instruments) is language, especially with regard to the semantic and grammatical importance of speech tone. Another is the principle of equidistance, the measuring of space or time in equal steps. In addition, in some cross-perceptual associations, such as from aural to visual and vice versa, pitch may be graded in terms of magnitude or altitude. In African music different pitches are not conceptualized as “high” or “low,” as they are in English and some other Germanic languages of Europe, but as “small” and “big” or “tiny” and “fat.” Consequently, a lamellaphone of middle size, producing middle-range notes, is called endongo in Lusoga, a Bantu language spoken in an area of Uganda east of the former kingdom of Buganda. Kadongo (with the diminutive prefix ka-) is a high-tuned lamellaphone, while gadongo (with the augmentative prefix ga-) is a bass instrument. Finally, tonal structure may be influenced by the human experience of sound in nature and the discovery of acoustics.

Broadly speaking, African tone systems may be divided into the following families and subfamilies: (1) equi-tonal systems, based on the principle of equal intervals, (2) monophonic systems, based on octaves, fifths, and fourths, and (3) systems based on the experience of instrumental harmonics.

Equi-tonal systems

Two varieties are found: (1) equi-pentatonic (for example, in southern Uganda) and (2) equi-heptatonic (for example, in the lower Zambezi valley and in eastern Angola). These tone systems, with either five or seven notes per octave, differ radically from the two Western equal-interval scales, namely the chromatic scale of 12 semitones to the octave (which is equi-dodecatonic) and the whole-tone scale (which is equi-hexatonic). Each step in the whole-tone scale involves an interval of 200 cents (a cent is a measure of frequency, with each semitone in the Western scale equal to 100 cents). In equi-pentatonic systems, on the other hand, the recurrent interval is theoretically 240 cents (i.e., 2.4 semitones of the Western scale), and in equi-heptatonic systems it is 171 cents (or 1.71 semitones).

In practice, the intervals in African equi-tonal systems are only approximately equal. For example, there is evidence that the tonal basis of music in southern Uganda, although equi-pentatonic in principle, accommodates a relatively wide deviation from the ideal equidistant interval of 240 cents. The term pen-equidistant has been coined for such a system. The cause of deviation is the presence in the music of that region of certain consonance principles, based on the recognition of simple ratios of fourths and fifths. Thus, the southern Ugandan tone system seems to have two disparate roots, accommodating both the principle of equidistance and the experience of simple ratios. In particular, the natural fourth is the only interval (besides octaves) recognized as consonant; it is therefore used extensively as “harmonic filler” in the interlocking-composition method of that region. No simultaneous fourths occur, and yet the semblance of a fourth-, fifth-, and octave-based “harmony” is established by durational overlapping of the notes struck. Consequently, seconds (240 cents), in contrast to fourths (480 cents), are avoided to a great extent in interlocking composition.

Similarly, in equi-heptatonic systems the desire for harmonic sound may dictate constant adjustments of intonation away from the theoretical interval of 171 cents. One of the most impressive areas in Africa in which a pen-equidistant heptatonic scale is combined with a distinctively harmonic style based on singing in intervals of thirds plus fifths, or thirds plus fourths, is the eastern Angolan culture area. This music is heptatonic and non-modal; i.e., there is no concept of major or minor thirds as distinctive intervals. In principle all the thirds are neutral, but in practice the thirds rendered by the singers often approximate natural major thirds (386 cents), especially at points of rest. In this manner, the principles of equidistance and harmonic euphony are accommodated within one tonal-harmonic system. For the notation of such music, a seven-line stave is most appropriate, with each horizontal line representing one pitch level.

Monophonic systems

These tonal systems, based on octaves, fifths, and fourths (i.e., on the simple ratios 1:2, 2:3, and 3:4), are found in the western Sudanic belt. There are also many pentatonic systems of this kind in the Sahel zone and on the Guinea Coast (such as those of the Fon and Oyo-Yoruba peoples), where no simultaneous sounds occur except octaves.

Systems based on instrumental harmonics

These tone systems may be divided into two subfamilies: (1) that based on the selective use of harmonics from a single fundamental (for example, the system of the Gogo of central Tanzania) and (2) that based on the selective use of harmonics from two or more fundamentals (for example, the systems of the Fang in Gabon and of the !Kung in southwestern Africa, based on harmonics from two fundamentals, and the hexatonic systems of the Lala, Nsenga, Swaka, and Shona in southern and central Africa, based on more than two fundamentals). All musical cultures employing this type of tone system practice multipart singing. The regions involved are southern Africa, central and southwestern Tanzania, and much of western central Africa.

The actual shape of the system depends upon whether the tonal material derives from one fundamental or more, upon the conventionalized intervals between these fundamentals (if there is more than one), and upon which section of the natural harmonic series is selected to form the tone system. Depending upon these variables, completely different tonal-harmonic systems may be encountered. The Gogo tone system, illustrated below, is basically tetratonic (within one octave) with a pentatonic extension. It is based on selective use of the sequence of natural harmonics from partials 4 to 9, over a single fundamental.

The old tone system (now obsolete) of the Kisi people of Tanzania was hexatonic. It was based on the selective exploitation of the sequence of natural harmonics from partials 6 to 11 over a single fundamental.

Tone systems based on the use of harmonics from two fundamentals are frequently encountered in areas where the musical bow, particularly the mouth bow in its varieties, is or was an important instrument. Western central Africa and the whole of southern Africa are the most prominent distribution areas for mouth bows; they are also found in some areas of West Africa.

The tone system of the !Kung people is tetratonic. It may manifest itself, however, in three different versions with different intervals, leading, as in the first of the tunings shown below, to a semitone interval (shown as F–E). Because the melodic and harmonic results of these particular tunings are unique, they provide strong evidence of San heritage in any southern African music in which they occur. In !Kung music the natural harmonic series of each fundamental is not used beyond the fourth partial. This is why fourths, fifths, and octaves are the characteristic simultaneous sounds in !Kung polyphony.

Where, in addition to the second, third, and fourth partials, the fifth partials of each fundamental are also used, hexatonic tone systems arise. The tonal-harmonic system of the Handa-Nkhumbi group in southwestern Angola is one example, based on two fundamentals tuned about 200 cents apart. The resultant chords are thirds and fourths in characteristic positions:

This system also underlies the music of the Xhosa in South Africa. It occurs, too, in some of the music of their neighbours, the Zulu and Swazi, although these latter use a different hexatonic system, based on fundamentals tuned about 100 cents apart. This tuning, used on the Zulu ugubhu gourd bow, has three semitone intervals:

Multipart singing

Multipart singing and harmonic concepts are basic traits of many African musical traditions and have been observed by Western travelers since the earliest periods of contact. Contrary to earlier opinions, “harmony” in African music is now seen to be not a result of acculturation but rather indigenous to many parts of the continent. Polyphonic singing styles were almost certainly used by prehistoric hunters in central and southern Africa. Among the San, the discovery of the use of the hunting bow as a musical instrument, and with it the discovery of the harmonics of a stretched string, constituted a cluster of traits that were probably interdependent. Questions raised in the 19th and early 20th centuries as to whether the hunting bow or the musical bow was invented first are certainly irrelevant in the culture of southern African prehistoric hunters.

Multipart singing in African music embraces two entirely different approaches, homophonic and polyphonic, with the definition of these words adapted to African cultures.

Homophonic vocal styles

In these styles all melodic lines, though at different pitch levels, are rhythmically the same, and they begin and end together. Individual singers conceive of their voice lines—all carrying the same text—as identical in principle, only sung at different levels. Men sing “with a big voice” (i.e., in low voices), women and children “with small voices” (i.e., high voices). Their voices may stand a third, a fourth, a fifth, or an octave apart, but they are considered to sing the same tune. In practice, though, not only parallel but also oblique and contrary motion may occur. To what extent the latter is permitted depends upon the tolerance within the tonality of the particular language. For example, in eastern Angola contrary motion is normal practice. In other cultures movement is strictly parallel within the structure of the tone system concerned.

Homophonic multipart singing is found in particular concentration along the Guinea Coast. It is also found throughout western central Africa, among most peoples of Angola, Zambia, and Malawi, and in many parts of East Africa. In northern central Africa it is found among the Zande and related peoples. In southwestern parts of the Central African Republic there is three-part harmonic singing with vocal parts shifting chromatically between two roots one semitone apart. Homophonic vocal styles are often linked to a call-and-response (leader-chorus) form.

Polyphonic vocal styles

In these styles the complementary individual lines differ in their rhythm and phrasing and carry different texts or syllables. They may be of different length, and their starting and ending points do not coincide. Such styles are more restricted geographically. The vocal music of the San communities in southwestern Africa is predominantly polyphonic, as are the vocal styles of Bambuti in the Ituri Forest and the pygmy groups of the upper Sangha River area of the Congo and the Central African Republic. (The San and pygmy peoples, whose polyphonic styles and tone systems are based on different principles, have often mistakenly been lumped together in evolutionist theories.) In other parts of Africa, isolated islands of polyphonic singing occur among or between largely homophonic communities. Thus, the otherwise homophonic Gogo people employ polyphonic techniques in their saigwa and msunyunho songs, and Nyakyusa children of southwestern Tanzania use yodel and polyphony in a song type called kibota.

A distinct style of polyphonic singing is found in much of the music of the peoples of the lower Zambezi valley, in parts of Mozambique, and also in Zimbabwe, as exemplified by the Karanga-Shona threshing song shown here:

This is a diagrammatic transcription showing the relationships between the five male voice parts (here transposed one octave and five semitones higher). In actual performance the voices enter consecutively, each starting from the double bar in his particular line and then repeatedly backtracking to the beginning of the line. The entry point for voices 2 and 3 is one pulse after the commencement of the last note of voice 1. When voice 1 repeats his line, his second syllable signals the entry point for voices 4 and 5. The cycle (which is continually repeated) is 18 pulses long. The harmonic scheme comprises a sequence of bichords in fourths and fifths, characteristic of much Shona music. The roots of these bichords, E A C / E G C, are shown above the top staff. The tone system here is hexatonic.

Polyphony is also prevalent in South Africa and Swaziland. In the dance-songs of the Nguni people (including the Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, and Ndebele), two or more voice parts, commencing at different points in the cycle, often overlap extensively. At least two parts, solo and chorus, are always regarded as essential. In fact, a solo vocalist singing the entire song usually does not complete a single voice part but instead shifts from one part to another when he arrives at the entry point of each part.

The Zulu bow song transcribed below begins with the bow phrase, which simulates a chorus part. During repetitions of this ostinato, the voices (sung in this transcription by Zulu princess Constance Magogo kaDinuzulu, her son Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, and several of his young children) enter in turn, each beginning at its double bar: first, voice 1, then, in subsequent repetitions of the 16-pulse cycle, voices 2 and 3. The lines shown below the song may be rendered by additional singers or by voices 2 and 3 as occasional variants.

This song sounds very different indeed from the previous Shona example, mainly on account of its tone system, which has two semitone intervals. A pentatonic variant of the Zulu hexatonic system cited above, it is based on two instrumental roots a semitone apart. The melodic line produced on the ugubhu gourd bow employs harmonic partials 3 and 4 of the two fundamentals B and C, these harmonics being selectively resonated by moving the open end of the gourd resonator closer to or farther from the player's chest.

Despite the marked tonal dissimilarity between the Shona and Zulu songs, they clearly share an almost identical underlying formal structure, based on the principle of deliberately nonaligned, overlapping voice parts that retain the same relationship to one another through all successive repetitions of the song. The relationships of their parts can be demonstrated by concentric circles, in which clockwise rotation represents a cycle, or strophe, of the song, which is continually repeated.

All the vocal music considered above has as its basis some kind of tone system. Among the Zulu and other Nguni peoples, however, certain non-melodic forms of chanting coexist alongside melodic styles of performance—even among items that fit the same category of “dance-song”—just as some English nursery rhymes are sung while others are recited or chanted. In such cases, fixed musical pitches are absent, and a singsong form of rhythmical recitation is used instead. The close affinity of such pieces with melodic songs is confirmed by their sharing of the same circular, multipart formal structure.

There is indeed evidence from many different parts of Africa of the use of intermediate vocal styles, falling somewhere between the extremes of speech and song. In many African cultures the boundary between the two does not tally exactly with the Western, demonstrating that definitions of music and song are culture-specific.

Gerhard Kubik
Donald Keith Robotham

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