The quest for the meaning of various aspects of African music has taken center stage for many Africanists from the humanities and social sciences.(1) To attain this objective in the field of ethnomusicology, new trends of inquiry focus on the impact of the contextual interplay of myriad physical and conceptual cultural elements in the process of musical creativity.(2) Seen from this perspective, one objective of these trends is to reveal the meaning of a musical practice by detecting the extent to which the respective cultural fabric is reflected in the total process of musical creativity pertaining to a given community (wa Mukuna 1993, 154). In his book Musical Practice and Creativity: An African Traditional Perspective (1991), for example, Meki Nzewi provides an excellent case study of reflectivity by casting the creative musical process of the Igbo in Nigeria against the philosophy of Mbari art. He asserts:
Its [Mbari art] objective is in its fulfillment not in its utility. Its
essence is the celebration of its momentousness: a socio-spiritual
regeneration and sustainment. Its philosophy is that death or demise is the
essence of growth. The lesson of Mbari is that an achievement is its own
end: the thrill and dynamism to achieve burns out with achieving, and,
thereby, gives scope for the growth of a fresh incentive for another
achievement: a philosophy from which the practice of
performance-composition in music also derives. (12)
Nzewi implies that the improvisational creative process in instrumental music, like the Mbari art, is an attainment in itself. It exists as a process of fulfillment during the creation and ceases to exist after its completion. This parallelism is corroborated with examples from various music cultures in Africa. Nevertheless, distinctions are to be made between categories of musical compositions to reveal that those performance-compositions belonging to categories of social and religious contexts, for which the efficacy of their ritual requests rigorous fidelity in music and dance reproduction, follow a different set of norms. In this context, a musical composition or dance exists in perpetuity and does not necessarily become "a past referential framework for a new creative experience every subsequent performance occasion," as Nzewi would like us to believe (1991, 12).
Despite the enormous literature devoted to the explanation of the nature of African music, its meaning and governing principles continue to challenge casual scholars--who prefer to simplify them by casting or assessing them outside their cultural context--and those who refuse to accept that the creative process of African music is governed by a set of principles different from those of Europe. Whereas Nzewi's argument holds true for instrumental music, it presents difficulties when tested against vocal music. In this essay, I assert that the total concept of the creative process in the vocal music of Africa is contained in the different levels of its languages and that the demise of African languages in the New World rendered musical elements vulnerable to modification or replacement by others with different principles of organization. In other words, the creative process in African music is culturally defined, inspired by a variety of cultural manifestations and practices peculiar to an ethnic group. To comprehend this concept, it is pertinent to delve into a linguistic analysis.
The examination of the nature of vocal music in Africa reveals that languages play a paramount role in its organization. Language, a vehicle par excellence for the conveyance of the African philosophy of existence, "I belong, therefore I am," is crucial to the understanding of the creative process of vocal music. Its tonal inflections are not only vital in the process of melodic construction and heterophonic implication; they are also influential in the selection of certain musical instruments used by an ethnic group. …