Culture, Concept, Aesthetics: The Phenomenon of the African Musical Universe in Western Musical Culture

Article excerpt

African music has been a resilient but partially unacknowledged force in Western popular music for at least four hundred years. Each century, each decade throws up a new African or African-derived musical influence which perpetuates itself in Western popular music and becomes integrated into the cultural musical style or pattern of Western culture to such an extent that its originators are ignored, or relegated to a secondary, "primitive" role and its imitators are considered the originators. This essay attempts to cast some light on the significance, intelligibility, and symbolism of African music in order to help reduce the possibility of misinterpretation, ethnocentrism, and disfiguration.(1)

The Clash of Modes of Production and Cultures

The historical mode of production in Europe has been based upon slavery; that is, the mechanism by which wealth was accrued depended on the existence of classes. This foundation goes back to the Greek city states, where free citizens subjugated the masses, who were slaves. In Africa, slavery, as we understand its application from Greece, was non-existent: A "slave" could become a leading and influential citizen in the society, and no African legislation enforced slavery. In Greece, however, slavery was a legal condition, and any attempt to alter this mode by Solon in the sixth century B.C., for example led to vilification and attack (Aristotle 43). In Rome, this mode of production persisted until slaves numbered 2 to 3 million (Watson 2), or 35 to 40 per cent of the population. In Africa, a system of gift exchange among the king, the state, and the general population did not lead to slavery until the sixteenth century, when the arrival of the European's colonization policies led to total confiscation of the land and enforced labor to derive material benefits from the land.

The basis of all wealth is land. In Europe land was private property, while in Africa, up to this century, land was entrusted to the monarchy for use by the majority. No settler could be refused the use of land. Referring to the right of land allotment of an African prince, Diop says:

This singular personage . . ., still the master of the soil, in the ritual sense of that term[,] he is the one who allots land to newcomers. . . . He has received the land in trust; he never sells it - he would not dare to do so for religious reasons. So that private property never became a reality until the notorious European laws during the period of colonization in this century. (149-50)(2)

Moreover, the presence of both class and ethnic identity throughout European ancient, medieval, and contemporary times is an expression of a particular rabid form of racism which the system of Caucasian economic modes produced. In sum, ethnocentrism and racism were endemic in the Indo-European cradle before the existence of African slavery.

The fundamental differences between African and Caucasian modes of production reemerge when we examine the music of the two cultures. In the African context, music making was an aesthetic attempt to express the sounds in nature. These sounds - from the lion, the elephant, the bird, the wind, the river, thunder, etc. - became the principle for artistic formulation and expression. Francis Bebey states that African musicians "do not attempt to combine sounds pleasing to the ear. Their aim is simply to express life in all its aspects through the medium of sound" (3).

Jazz musicians also use this model. Compare the "singing" of an African dove (which I witnessed in Ibadan, Nigeria) in which the dove's riff is repeated endlessly; the jazz musician, as well as other African musicians globally, organize music from the fundamental concept of chordal, melodic, or rhythmic repetition. Thus, a musically illiterate Caucasian such as James Phillippo, the 18th-century cleric and landowner, could refer to African musical practices in Jamaica as "rude music," "hideous yells, discordant sounds," etc. …