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The Powerful Influence of African Culture on Modern Music

By Mark Lincoln Published on Dec 3rd, 2010
The curious beauty of African music is that it uplifts even as it tells a sad tale. You may be poor, you may have only a ramshackle house, you may have lost your job, but that song gives you hope...” Nelson Mandela

Since no one single person can truly pinpoint the precise moment that the very first music was played, or sung or even pondered on a cloudless and sunny afternoon, and since it is highly likely that the first music was most certainly accidental and appealed so much to the “instrumentalist” that he or she simply repeated the action that they initially made in the futile hope that the same pleasant sound might be replicated, it is incumbent upon this particular writer to pick a starting point where the humble beginnings of music likely originated from.

Archaeologists tell us that the oldest human bones have been unearthed on the continent of Africa, and so it follows then that the first music must also have emanated from the expressive and rhythmic limbs and dark countenances of the African peoples. Obviously we must make a leap of faith here in terms of extrapolating from known information about ancient cultures, and certainly new data is constantly being presented that may or may not support current theories of human origins. But, for the sake of argument we'll make the assumption that human beings began their sojourn into the world on the continent known as Africa.

African music is as diverse as the topography of the land itself and is said to be comprised of literally thousands of different styles of music. But many “experts” of regional music tend to separate African music into two distinct groups: North African Music which is strongly Arabic and Islamic in nature, and Black African music or that which is centralized in the West, Central and Sub Saharan regions of Africa. Indeed, as with all varieties of music there are cross-overs and numerous syntheses of the two areas, but for the sake of brevity and simplicity we'll keep the two categories separate and distinct. Keep in mind as well that although our discussion will focus on modern day African music and instruments that are to be found in the regions contained therein, and the manner in which that music has affected Western music, we will not be investigating the actual ancient instruments that are the forefathers of their modern relatives. In other words, our discussion will deal with modern manifestations of ancient instruments and the evolution of those instruments into those found in households around the world.

North African Musi

As stated, this type of music finds its origins in the Northern regions of Africa and is not considered true African music by many aficionados, but rather influenced by Arabic and Islamic tradition. Consequently, much of the music is monophonic (having a single often simple melody) and melodic in structure. This variety of music is frequently performed by soloists with little or no accompaniment, and often on stringed instruments of Arabic origin. There are five categories of instruments often found in North African music:

A. Ancient Egyptian Instruments - Including the Arghul, a single reed woodwind instrument, the Kanun, a Turkish stringed instrument loosely resembling the modern day harpsichord, and the Pandura a three-stringed lute instrument originating from ancient Greece. Again, these instruments are the modern forms of their ancient relatives.

B. Moroccan Instruments - Including the Sintir, a three-stringed instrument introduced into North African music by the Gnawa tribe and resembling the strange and perverse marriage between a bass and a banjo and tuned to C-C-G, where the second C-string is an octave higher than its neighbor. The instrument is played in a percussive manner and is described as "slap-and-pop. Sintir players strike downward on the strings with their index-finger nail, thumping the camel skin head as a kind of percussive accompaniment” and in rhythmic time intended to bring about a trance (we'll talk more about the importance of trance later in the article) state in its listeners. This type of play could be compared to the tapping style seen in some remarkable modern players such as the late great Michael Hedges, Andy Mckee and Kaki King. Other instruments in this category include the Qraqeb, an instrument resembling the modern castanet and often played in accompaniment to the Tbri, a barrel drum with two heads.

C. Sahrawi Instruments - (meaning “from the Sahara”) Including the Xalam which is believed to be an ancient ancestor of the modern day banjo and is made up of a wooden body with anywhere from 1 to 8 strings made from fishing line. Cowhide straps hold the strings in place and allow them to be adjusted and tuned. The instrument is held by its player in the same manner as the guitar, with the “neck” of the Xalam held in the left hand and the body held in the right. Interestingly enough, it has also been amplified in modern day musical settings giving it broader applications.

D. Sudanese Instruments - Including the Wazzah which is a variety of horn, the Riq which is similar in form to the modern day Tambourine, as well as utilizing the voice as a primary instrument. In fact, Haqiba (pronounced Ha-gee bah) is considered a highly coveted form of vocal art that is practiced widely in the Sudan and relies heavily on vocal parts and less on instruments themselves. Vocal parts are arranged in a fashion that might be compared to chanting and the lead singer induces a trance-like state in the listeners. Trance states seem to be common goal amongst numerous varieties of African music and song, giving the music a hypnotic, even meditative character.

The concept of Melisma can also come into play here and can be defined as the process whereby the singer sings multiple notes over a single line of text or syllable. Consequently, singing in this manner would be called “melismatic” rather than “syllabic” where each syllable is matched with a particular note. Singing melismatically is also common in other cultures, such as those celebrating Christianity and practicing Gregorian chanting, where singing and chanting is utilized to bring the listeners, as well as their singers into a trance-like state.

E. Tuareg Instruments - Including the Bendir, classified as a frame drum (frame drums are the oldest known drums) which is also similar to the Tambourine but has no jangles, but rather a metal snare located beneath the drum surface. The drum head itself is made of gut and is played using the fingers and hand. The Anzad is another notable Tuareg instrument characterized by having only one string and being played only by women during evening ceremonies. Many Toureg cultures have also assimilated electric instruments, including guitars into their music.

The instruments listed above from the five North African categories are only a sample of those played and are certainly interchangeable between regions. Because the areas in question are so vast and are populated by many different groups of nomadic peoples, instruments from one region are likely to be found in others as well. I have simply provided some examples of instruments that are likely to be found in those regions as well as some food for thought as to where some of our modern day instruments may have evolved from.

Black African Music

Music that is considered “true” African music by many indigenous peoples to Africa. Black African music is generally to be found in the West, Central and sub-Saharan regions of Africa although evidence of its influence can be found all over Africa including more remote areas of the continent like Mozambique and Madagascar. Black African music has evolved in a very different manner than that of its Northern cousins, being more influenced by Gospel music and early Dutch inhabitants who having brought slaves with them to Africa, also brought their more Westernized ideas and ideals of music with them as well. Consequently, the music is very different from that of Northern Africa and leans towards more complex rhythmic types of compositions utilizing cross and poly rhythms.

The term cross rhythm was coined by a man named Arthur Morris Jones, a missionary and musicologist working in Zambia during the 20th century. Jones was known for his work involving the complexities of Black African Music in particular, the music of the Ewe tribe found in Western Africa. Cross rhythms, according to Jones, are rhythms in which the established pattern of accents is conflicted with by a novel rhythm not having the same meter as the original rhythm. In other words, their starting points and down beats cross or rather they do not coincide. This is an example of what is know as poly rhythm which is the process of having two or more rhythms played simultaneously not sharing the same meter. Here is a link to a site that will give you a little more insight into this phenomenon:

The idea of crossing rhythmic patterns was considered central and unique to sub Saharan music separating it from music to be found in the north of the continent and from most Western music as well. Western rhythms traditionally emphasized the primary beat but Cross Rhythms tended to emphasize the secondary beat. Jones' work on this topic helped to distinguish sub Saharan music from other African music, and from Western music although there are specific examples in the annals of classical music that defy this notion (see Beethoven's 3rd Symphony).

Historians have documented the tragic mass destruction of many of the treasured cultural practices of African peoples during the 19th century, pieces of music as well as instruments sadly bearing inclusion into this travesty. Subsequently, older fragile representatives of instruments as well as accurate depictions of instruments indigenous to the region are sometimes vague, according to some. And although instruments used in South, West and Central African cultures are similar to those in the Northern regions in some respects, many of them tend to be directed towards percussion and those creating rich tapestries of rhythmic music. Black African instruments are categorized based on the regions they are predominantly played in:

A. Southern African Instruments - Including the Imifece (Im-if-ici), this instrument is a rattle tied loosely to one's ankles and wrists. It's made from a specific moth species and after being harvested is filled with tiny pebbles and sown to a piece of animal hide. The Imifece is a percussive instrument worn during ceremonies involving drumming, song and clapping. These types of ceremonies often bring about a trance state in the participants which they believe can help them to recover lost relatives, livestock or discover important herbs. Another instrument found in the South is the Isiginci or the African equivalent of the six-string guitar. This simple instrument is composed of a tin box with a wooden neck glued on the face of it. These inexpensive instruments are widely constructed and played by young boys in many parts of colonized Africa and play a predominant role in Mission school and Black Christian wedding dances. Due to its inexpensive nature as well as the accessibility of the materials utilized, the Isiginci has made playing the guitar much more attainable for people of lower socioeconomic status. Another interesting instrument found in the south is called the Mbira. This is a traditional instrument played by the Shona people of Zimbabwe which dates back more than a thousand years. It's simple in construction and is made of a small wooden board with staggered metal keys and bits of shell or metal placed on the inside as a resonator. This instrument is simple and fun to play and can be classified as being in the lamellophone family of instruments.

B. Western African Instruments - Including the Djembe (pronounced Jem-be') which is a drum made from a single piece of wood, carved in the shape of a goblet and covered in goatskin. This type of drum is frequently used by the Mandinka people who have been using this instrument since the Mali Empire of the 12th century A.D. The Kora is another interesting Western African instrument also played by the Mandinka and similar to a lute or harp, having 21 strings all of which are played with four fingers.

C. Central African Instruments: This category has two subcategories:

i. Democratic Republic of Congo Instruments - Including the Kisanji which is similar in form to the S. African Mbira. The Kisanji is usually tuned to the Pentatonic scale and is often played utilizing poly rhythms and as an accompaniment to vocal passages. Another instrument from this region is known as the Slit Drum. This variety of percussive instrument is hollow with slits cut into it usually in the shape of an “H” which produces wooden tongues in varying lengths and thicknesses. This variation in characteristics produces different tones when struck by a mallet.

ii. Ugandan Instruments - Including the Adangu which is a 9-stringed arched harp which is played both as a solo instrument or as part of an ensemble. The Adangu is found in Sub Saharan regions but predominantly in portions of Uganda, and is played in multiple settings including night clubs, or even as a palliative measure as therapy for the mentally ill. Another interesting instrument is the Endingidi which is a single stringed bowed instrument known specifically in Uganda. The body is typically made of wood or horn and the string of animal gut or other available materials. Some might compare this instrument roughly to our modern-day bass. Uganda is also known for its wide array of drums including the Embuutu which is simply a large drum with a cowhide membrane and typically a low register. The Engalabi is another drum found in this region which is characterized by a long, cylindrical body with reptile skins, often of the Monitor Lizard, nailed across the top and bottom of the drum openings with wooden pins. This particular drum is always used with other drums and rattles and is inextricably linked with specific dance ceremonies found in the region. There are many other instruments as well as numerous drums in this category which merit inclusion in this category.

D. East African Instruments - This category has eight subcategories:

i. Djiboutian Instruments - Including the Tanbura which is a Bowl Lyre, characterized by having one to three strings stretched across a wooden frame made from three branches. What is interesting about this particular instrument is that it has its origins in Northern Africa but has made it's way south and East to become indigenous to Eastern Africa. As stated previously, this is fairly common in Africa where people have been compelled to move vast distances to find food, water or freedom from persecution.

ii. Eritrean Instruments - Including the Krar or Kirar which is a five or six-stringed Bowl Lyre often played as accompaniment to a meal or other pleasurable event. It can be plucked or strummed and is usually tuned to the pentatonic scale. Here is a great link of a young man playing the Krar: Another instrument in this category is the Wata which is a violin-like instrument and the Kebero which is a drum. Eritrea is well-known for its rich tradition of dance and song as well and often incorporate song into their ceremonies.

iii. Ethiopian Instruments - Including the Sistrum which is a percussive instrument thought to have originated in Iraq or Egypt. In fact the Sistrum was considered sacred in Egyptian ceremonies and was used in celebration of the Goddess Hathor the Cow Goddess. The shape of the Sistrum is said to resemble the countenance and horns of a cow in reverence to her. The instrument is usually made of brass or bronze and when shaken produces a jangling or clanking sound. Many believe this instrument to be the distant cousin of the modern tambourine. Another interesting Ethiopian instrument is the Washint or Ethiopian Flute. This simple instrument is made of wood or cane and is usually used as a solo instrument. The flute has four holes and is usually played in a melismatic fashion, not unlike the chanting made reference to earlier in the article.

iv. Kenyan Instruments - Including the Orutu which is a single-stringed fiddle native to Kenya. This instrument is mostly used by the Luo people of Western Kenya and has been made famous (relatively speaking) by a musical group known as the Kenge Kenge Orutu System. This eight-pieced ensemble combines the classic sounds of age-old African instruments with more upbeat and danceable rhythms and has played from their native region of East Africa to other areas far away including Thailand, Malaysia and Europe. Check them out!

vi. Malagasy Instruments - Including the Marovany which is a steel-stringed Boxed Zither originally finding its home in Madagascar. The Box Zither is traditionally constructed from either a rectangular or trapezoidal shaped body and the strings can either be plucked by hand, or played with hammers. Modern day Box Zithers more familiar to Western musicians are the harpsichord and the Hammer Dulcimer. Another interesting instrument to be found in this category is the Valiha which is considered a Tube Zither. This type of Zither is constructed from bamboo and strings usually constructed from used bicycle brake cables. This use of recycled materials in instruments is undoubtedly a remarkable testimony to the resilience and creativity of the African people. The instrument dates back before the birth of Christ and can be played by holding it between the legs or under one's arm and plucking the strings gently. It can be used as either a solo instrument or as accompaniment to an ensemble.

Vii. Mauritian Instruments - Including the Kayamba which is a flat percussive instrument of sorts composed of reed and filled with seed found in the region, either Jequirity or Canna seeds. The instrument is shaken with both hands eliciting a rich sound not dissimilar to the sound of maracas, and compelling to dancers and others in the ceremony. Another instrument from the Mauritian region is the Ravanne which is considered by many in the region as the most important instrument in the provision of the basic rhythm necessary for a given ceremony. The Ravanne is a large Tambourine-like instrument played by holding it in one's lap and beating upon it, or by wearing it on a strap. An interesting fact about the Ravanne is that it's made of goatskin and needs to be heated up before playing it to give it its most full and expressive sound.

Viii. Somalian Instruments - Not much is currently known about instruments indigenous to this region except the Tanbura which is a bowl-shaped lyre thought to have originated in Egypt and the Sudan. This instrument is often used in ceremonies particularly in the Zar ritual which involves possession of an individual, usually a female for malevolent purposes. Mental illness is often attributed to Zar possession in some regions located in Africa as well as some Arabic countries.

Viii. Sudanese Instruments - See above... This category overlaps with North African music which emphasizes simple instrumentation with more vocally centered formats.

Again, the instruments listed above are simply examples and are intended to give you a small taste of what the various areas incorporated into their musical practices. There are also small variations between some of the instruments which can be witnessed from region to region, or even between different producers of instruments of the same name.
Cross Cultural Manifestation

Obviously we set out upon this journey to the dark continent and back again to examine the relationship between the origins of music and the implements necessary to create it, and the modern forms more familiar to most of us. Our first thoughts naturally flow towards Jazz and Blues which have clearly evolved from African music and have found their ways into our cultures as well as our hearts. But what about other forms of music that have traveled a more convoluted path to reach the modern era? Let's take a look at some interesting variations on the musical theme that some people may not have perceived to be of African origin.

Hip Hop and Rap

Many people confuse these two different forms although there are distinct differences between them. Rapping literally means “to converse” and predates the phenomenon known as hip hopping by centuries. Consequently, rapping has been used as a chanting or speaking art form (as a rhyming lyrical form accompanying Reggae music as well) with or without an accompaniment and can be very powerful as a tool of self-expression. Depending on how you define it, Rap may very well date back to early African tribes and their practice of chanting in rhythmic fashion to induce trance states.

Hip Hop was born out of New York subculture during the 1970's and was born of four basic elements: Mcing (Emcee-ing), Djing, Breaking, and Graffitti Writing. Mcing can be compared with Rapping and many consider the two terms to be synonymous. Hip Hop was basically discovered by DJ's who exchanged portions or “samples” of rhythmic beats and “looped” them to create compositions. Rapping over the top of the rhythms soon followed along with “breaking” or colorful and highly energetic dance accompaniment. Consequently, Hip Hop is the culmination of a number of art forms from Rapping, to the subtle yet brilliant synthesis of rhythms and poly rhythms, to dance and written art forms.


House is an electronic form of music that originated in Chicago in the 1980's catering to African American and Latino clientele desiring high energy danceable music. House borrows elements liberally from Rhythm and Blues, Soul as well as Funk and disco but infuses an element of electronica into the mix. Some House music also samples pieces of bass lines from earlier Disco tunes and combines vocals or other effects in for good measure. Consequently, House is a synthesis of various components of different types of music but with the goal of creating a high energy environment for movement and dance. Regardless of the fact that House incorporates electronic elements into the mix, its origins are deeply seated in Funk and Soul and this is evident in the groove and feel of the music, especially when you're out on the dance floor.


Techno music was founded in Detroit Michigan in the early 1980's by three African American musicians and friends interested in both Funk as well as more electronic bands such as Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder. Initially techno was played in small groups and local parties but eventually found broader and broader audiences as local clubs began to cater to interested crowds of party goers and danc-a-holics. The growing popularity of DJ's and their ability to collate and synthesize select groups of songs also helped to launch the popularity of Techno to International degrees helping it along to the popularity that it enjoys today. And although Techno adheres to Western forms of composition (i.e simple 4/4 time, major scales etc) much of it is simply cleverly programmed drum samples with cool effects.


A Trance is “a somnolent state, as of deep hypnosis; a state of profound abstraction or absorption” (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield Mass., USA, 1999. pp 1252.) As mentioned earlier in the article, many African cultures perform various forms of their music in order to bring about a trance state in themselves as well as their listeners. Some might equate the process of going into a trance as a negative thing, but there is a specific branch of music designed to induce a calmer, trance-like state.

Trance is a specific genre of music that was initially born in Europe during the 1990's and can take on a number of forms. Generally speaking though, Trance is often made up of a specific melodic hook that can be either a guitar riff or a bass line or even a vocal melody. There is massive variation built into Trance and it can take on many forms, which is perhaps one of the great things about it. It is an open, uplifting, flexible, emotional sometimes subdued but often very danceable form of music that ranges from the sublime to the psychedelic. Most of it is fairly simply though in terms of rhythm and is often measured in 4/4 time making it very conducive to movement and long protracted bouts of dance.

Many see Trance as a synthesis between House and Techno, but with an edgier more poignant and emotional edge. But regardless of what the general components are or what elements of music have come together to form it, Trance music has become a world-wide phenomenon taking numerous forms including Euro Trance, Goa Trance (founded in the Goa region of India), Psychedelic Trance, Hard Trance as well as numerous other forms.

Tribal House

There are many compilations and cross-overs between different styles of music and tribal house is one of them. There is no clear cut definition of this sub-variety of music but it frequently features chanting and melodies that are not uncommon to tribal music found in African cultures. Tribal House can also feature live drummers and other musicians bringing the energy and passion of live instruments to the crowd and combining it with electronica. True Tribal House though in its purest form does not have any live musicians but rather relies on the power of digital instrumentation.


So many of our modern icons have incorporated African instrumentation, ideas and ideals into their music including Paul Simon (see Graceland), Peter Gabriel and Carlos Santana amongst many, many others. And ultimately there are almost infinite different forms of music most of which have been produced as a result of, or have been affected by African music on some level. Whether Western instruments have evolved from ancient African forms, or we have adopted knowledge in terms of rhythms and cross rhythms, various scale patterns, or simply the evolution of melody and harmony, Western music undoubtedly owes an immeasurable debt of gratitude to our African brothers and sisters for their wisdom, insight and creativity.