Little Known African Music History

The study of African Music History is derived from archaeological findings, oral historical accounts, rock paintings and petroglyphs, and field notes from travelers from the Middle East and Europe.  As the continent is the cradle of human beings, music evolved and traveled the globe to influence music everywhere.

Ancient cultures from what is known as the “green Sahara” created vast amounts of written history in the form of rock paintings.

These are among the earliest sources of African music.  The most primitive rock painting was discovered by a French explorer in 1956 in the Tassili-n-Ajjer plateau of Algeria.  It depicts music and dance and is astonishing for its similarity of costume and style of movement to what is still practiced today.  The rock painting in question dates from 6,000 to 4,000 bc.

The study of African musical instruments is somewhat limited by the natural materials used to create them.  

Those made from vegetables like horns and drums of gourd did not survive in the earthen deposits of sub-Saharan, however those made from stone or clay did endure for discovery.

From these discoveries, scientists conclude the pressure drum called dundun, and one used throughout the Savannah region, was likely formed in the 15th century.  Also created during that century were the double iron clapperless bells, pellet bells and tubular bells with clappers.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, lamellophones, with iron keys, grew in influence throughout the Zambezi valley and into Angolan society.  As use of the instruments spread they became smaller and portable.  These became known as travel instruments.

The small lamellophone became popular in the Congo where it was named the likembe, still in use today in Zande, Ngbandi and Gbaya.

It is fascinating to realize Latin America has a wealth of knowledge about African Music History, as slaves carried their oral histories with them to their reluctant new homes.

African Music Instruments in the United States

Nearly all African music instruments in the United States can be categorized in three ways: string, wind and percussion.  Let’s begin with the string instruments.

Another name for string instruments is chordophone.  These create sound from vibrating strings made of metal or gut, and within the family of strings there are three sub-categories:

Harps– which mount their strings in a right angle to the soundboard.

Citrus or Zithers- instruments which don’t have a neck and use the body for the string-mount.  A common zither or citrus in the U.S. is a piano or harpsichord.

Lutes – a device with strings supported on a neck and with a resonance chamber.  Americans know this type from guitars and violins.

There are a variety of ways to produce sound from a string instrument.  Musicians can pluck the strings with their fingers or with a plucking device like a pick or even a feather.  Some instruments are played with the assistance of a bow of horsehair or similar synthetic material.  By moving the bow across the strings, the strings vibrate and create sound.  Lastly, struck string instruments involve hammer sticks to make sound by hitting keyboards attached to strings.

Another category of African instruments in the U.S. are the winds.  Among these are flutes, reed pipes, lip vibrated instruments and free reeds.

Another word for wind instruments is aerophone, both the pipe aerophone like flutes and trumpets, and the free aerophone such as the mouth organ and accordion.  The pipe aerophones create sound by resonating air blown into or over an opening.  The free version controls the pitch by lengthening or shortening the length of the reed.

In some countries reed instruments are made from metal such as the harmonica or the accordion, however the African music instruments in the United States typically use wood and other materials that come from the land.


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