African music is strictly linked to the cultural, economic, social, and magical-religious aspects of society in the continent, and one must listen to it carefully to capture the wide range of symbolic meanings.
African musical instruments are a means to communicate with the human and the divine. In some cases, they have the power to evoke spiritual entities for healing purposes, in others, they are the voice of divinity itself or that of an ancestor. Many African instruments are linked to a myth or a legend, and many others are attributed with symbolic meanings or magical powers. When we think of African music, the drum is the first image that comes to mind. There are several types of drums of different sizes and shapes in Africa. Their uses and functions are also different. Many drums are in the shape of a cylinder, they can be single-skin or double-skin drums. In Africa, one can find talking drums, drums of wood, friction drums and water drums.
Drums may be symbols of power. For instance, the kings in Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda owned drums that more than having a musical function, were mainly symbols of power, and in fact they were used to send the population messages concerning special events such as a crowning ceremony.
Another type of drum can reproduce human sounds. Many Bantu languages are tonal. This means that they are languages in which saying words with different tones will change the meaning of the words. There are drums that can reproduce these different tones and these are called ‘talking drums’. The talking drum plays a special role, in terms of using the drum as a way to communicate, people used to find it easier and faster to send messages to another village via the drum than personally delivering them.
The Wolof call the talking drum tama; the Hausa, kalengu; the Yoruba, dundun; and the Akan, donno. This kind of drum has two drumheads connected by leather tension cords, which allow the player to modulate the pitch of the drum by squeezing the cords between his arm and body. The talking drum is an instrument that can mimic the tone, rhythm, intonation and stress of human speech, and even today many musicians play it to accompany the narration of stories, myths and legends.
Drums are also an instrument ideally suited to the creation of the rhythmic architecture of African music which is polyrhythmic and polymetric, two characteristics regarded as consequences of the religious vision of some African peoples, particularly of those who practice voodoo. In voodoo rituals, in fact, the invocation of various loas, the divinities that possess the participants in the rite, is done with magic formulas of percussion. Each loa is invoked with a different formula which means that different rhythms are played in a collective ritual.
The Senufo, an ethnic group living in the Ivory Coast, plays water drums, which are constructed from one or more half gourds that are floated, with their open sides facing down, in a larger half gourd filled with a quantity of water. This kind of drum is usually played with two sticks. The sound of the drum can be modified by changing the water level.
Words are very important in the African culture, they are the life-force power and the guardians of the collective memory. In West Africa, griots are those who preserve, interpret and sing the history of their peoples. In Central Africa, the mbom-mvet – mvet musicians – play a similar social role.
By accompanying their songs on the kora or the balafon, griots sing the epic history of Africa, the myths of the several peoples, or the praise of the heroes and celebrities of the past. The griots’ social role as historians, chief repositories of the history of a region, troubadours, is much appreciated. Their performances are paid generously and, a long time ago, they were even feared since they were believed to have magical powers.
For this reason, in the past, deceased griots were not buried in the community’s sanctioned cemetery plots but instead were left in the hollowed-out interiors of a tree so as not to contaminate the land with their magic. Massa Makan Diabaté, (1938-1988), who was considered a master griot, used to compare griots to the kora, the griots’ typical instrument.
“A griot’s performance”, he said, “is like the 21 strings of the kora – the seven first ones evoke the past, the following seven ones the present and the last seven strings, the future; likewise griots who are witnesses to the past, who sing the present and who disclose the future”. The craftsman who makes a kora also ‘teaches the instrument to speak’, by adapting its intonation to the different African tonal languages. Thus, the Senegalese kora ‘speaks’ Wolof and the kora from Mali ‘speaks’ Bambara.
The sanza, also known as mbira, ikembe, erikembe, as well as the balafon is another African musical instrument that has strong symbolic value. The sanza, which some call the thumb piano, is an instrument that consists of metal or bamboo tines attached to a piece of wood, which are plucked with the thumbs.
The sound of the sanza is delicate, subtle, suggestive, and it vaguely evokes the fall of raindrops on a stone. This peculiarity has inspired the creation of a myth which explains its origin among the Shona people of Zimbawe. According to this myth the sanza or mbira was invented by the ancestors of this group to reproduce the sound of the rain in order to ask God to interrupt a period of drought, which could endanger the lives of the community.
As a consequence of this legend, still today the sound of the mbira is believed to have the powers to evoke the presence of the Shona people’s ancestors. The sanza inspired several other legends regarding the creation of mankind. According to one of these, in the beginning of time there was absolutely nothing and God was bored. He confided this problem to His imagination which suggested that He build a sanza and start to play it. So God did and His boredom disappeared.
The first sound that came out from the sanza created the sun; the second, the moon; when God played the third note, a town appeared. He then created an entire country and a continent. And thus, he created the entire world. But one day he hit a wrong note on the sanza and a weird being appeared, a man. After that, men, women and children of all colours populated the Earth.