While only a century ago, music was one of the most culturally specific aspects of artistic activity, nowadays, it is perceived as a multicultural language that can be understood by everyone as it bears the influence of several different nations’ values, beliefs, and interpretations of beauty, creativity, and perfection. That was the major factor making universality in music impossible. Over centuries of growth and development people built instruments that carried the sounds of their heritage and were representative of their background.
Distinct rhythms and sounds were created over the years, gradually developing into unique traditions. Centuries of migration and interactions between countries have created an unprecedented artistic space that is no longer characterized by distinction. On the contrary, modern music is a multicultural phenomenon shaped by several traditions, approaches, interpretations, and techniques (Agawu 15).
Often cultures devised ingenious ways of creating music out of several objects. Most of the popular Western genres have strong African roots and a considerable number of styles borrowed Africans rhythms and motifs. With the introduction of electronic music production, people are now sampling sounds and creating songs through their ingenuity. But, many of the rhythms and compositions of today continue to draw inspiration from the cultures of Africa (Burkholder and Grout 53). Thus, the essay at hand aims to analyze the similarities between African Music and contemporary genres as well as highlight its significance.
Even though many people believe that the influence of European classical music is incomparable to any other tradition, Africans have also produced a considerable impact on both historical and modern musical genres. African roots can be discovered in hip-hop, rock, house, calypso, reggae, soca, zouk, rap, and a great number of other genres. Although they suffered from enslavement for centuries, African musicians managed to influence every society, with which they happened to interact (including even such countries as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Colombia, which did their best to eliminate everything connected to Africa in their culture and impose the European worldview upon the population. The influence of the black continent is still evident not only in music but also in dance accompanying the performance (Knights 37).
The style that is typically described as borrowed from Africa is jazz that emerged as a result of a combination of African rhythms with Western instruments (though its different forms developed for different reasons). One of the first forms was ragtime performed on pianos in bars, where musicians played owing to segregation. Blues was another great genre developed by former slaves and, perhaps, the most famous one.
However, it would be a mistake to claim that these were the only directions of African influence. Practically all styles of Western music trace their roots back to jazz, blues, gospel, and other African inventions. Moreover, various dance genres such as rumba, meringue, salsa, and others owe their existence to African motifs although this evident impact is not usually recognized by the borrowing country (Knights 41).
Historically, June became the month of black music. The tradition was offered by President Carter in 1979 when he appointed June to be a black music month, which was officially recognized not earlier than at the beginning of the 21st century. In particular, in June 2000, African American Music Bill (or House Resolution 509) was passed to officially recognize African contribution to the musical culture of the United States. William Franklin Goodling, in his turn, supported the idea and even stated that African American music has produced a considerable effect over all aspects of the public life and entertainment including dance, fashion, language, literature, cinematography, and advertisement, which meant that its influence was not limited to instrument or motif borrowing as it was believed earlier.
Moreover, it was admitted that African music bears not only national but also the international significance and its enormous contribution to the world’s culture should be celebrated as it managed to shape the social and political fabric of a whole number of different countries regardless of their initial attitude to it (Lewis 103).
However, June was not immediately accepted as the month of African music, even though practically all American leaders recognized and honored its position. Officially, this step was made only by President Carter in 1979. However, it was far from granting Black music at least its deserved national acceptance. Later, during the administration of Bill Clinton, the White House frequently refused of hosting a Black Music Month that it was supposed to encourage and promote as the President said that he did not sign any proclamation related to this. Such a proclamation was finally signed in 2000 (Nettl et al. 75).
Even though even the government recognized the unique role of African music in American culture, non-Africans rarely acknowledge that jazz, blues, hip-hop, rock, and other popular genres stem from traditional African motifs since it is quite typical of the Western culture to believe that African music is no more than a noise of rather an unpleasant kind, accompanied by drumming, clapping, and weird vocal. President Barack Obama tried to change this perception but was no success in this even despite renaming June into an “African American Music Appreciation Month” (Lewis 106).
Furthermore, there were many of those who misunderstood the intention and have taken the issue with renaming as a sign of neglect of the music that came from the Diaspora (although the President recognized the role of Africa and the islands of the Caribbean in the development of all modern genres of American music). He specifically emphasized in his speech that African music helped American people to break through all the hardships they had to face and managed to preserve and reflect the influences of several experiences, cultures, and values (Agawu 22).
However, regardless of his good intention to recognize black music, Obama was widely criticized by African Americans as his speech revealed that he was unaware, of what regions African have ever been present (Agawu 23).
Nowadays, we need to understand and recognize that African music also include the culture of the Diaspora scattered throughout the world and borrowing element from other cultures and peoples. Even though there are a lot of those, who are unwilling to admit that most of the music we enjoy today is deeply rooted in African traditions, this fact cannot be ignored if we want to understand how modern genres emerged and what are the most likely ways of their future development.
Influence of African Music on Modern Genres
The influence of African music on modern genres can be summed up in the following way (Burkholder and Grout 774):
- Rap and Hip-Hop: A lot of people still confuse these two considerably different forms despite all their evident dissimilarities. Rapping implies conversation with the audience and has been used by African people as a speaking form of art with or without musical accompaniment. It was believed to be a really powerful tool of self-expression as it is, even without music. Hip Hop, on the contrary, emerged only in the 1970s as a blend of African tradition with the New York subculture and encompassed four basic elements: Mcing, Breaking, Djing, and Graffiti, so it would be wrong to state that the style borrowed only musical element from African culture. Rhythmic beats traditionally used by tribes were borrowed and mixed to create unique compositions that were enriched by breaking or any other expressive dance elements.
- House: This genre manages to combine vocal with classical African rhythms even despite certain difficulties presented by rhythmic structures. It was created in Chicago in the 80s and unites elements from jazz, blues, soul, funk, and disco. Furthermore, the house also manages to integrate an electronic element into the traditional mix.
- Techno: The genre was created in the 80s by African American musicians and unites Western forms of composition with African drum samples. Moreover, the influence of funk is also quite evident in its development.
- Trance: The tradition was copied from African cultures playing music to achieve a trance state. Many trance melodies unite house and techno to create a unique blend of genres, however, there are also unique compositions that do not resort to any other types and rely entirely on tribal practices of producing a meditative state of body and mind.
- Tribal House: The genre is distinguished from others by its modernization of the borrowed motifs. It is generally built on melodies and chanting coming from African tribal music but the rhythm is changed considerably and reflects the influence of the West.
Although most of the nations believe that their musical tradition is unique, the analysis of modern genres reveals that traditions brought by Africans during different historic periods have produced a considerable impact on all the existing genres. Modern music owes a lot not only to African Americans but also to the Diaspora as a whole.
Agawu, Kofi. Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. Routledge, 2014.
Burkholder, J. Peter, and Donald Jay Grout. A History of Western Music: Ninth International Student Edition. WW Norton & Company, 2014.
Knights, Vanessa. Music, National Identity and the Politics of Location: Between the Global and the Local. Routledge, 2016.
Lewis, Tony. “Ethnomusicology, World Music and Analysis in African music.” Australasian Review of African Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2016, pp. 95-117.
Nettl, Bruno, et al. Excursions in world music (6th ed.). Routledge, 2015.