Academic journal article African Studies Review

Theoretical Explorations in African Music

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Theoretical Explorations in African Music

Article excerpt

Gerhard Kubik. Theory of African Music, Volumes I and II. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994, 2010. Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Volume I: 464 pp. Volume II: x + 368 pp. List of Musical Examples. Artists and Authors. Song Titles. Index. 2 CDs. $30.00 (each volume). Paper.

Gerhard Kubik's Theory of African Music, published in two volumes, derives largely from fieldwork conducted in the 1960s, a time when African music scholarship, like the field of ethnomusicology itself, was still in its formative stages. Broad disciplinary issues highlighted in the book include the challenge of reconciling emic and etic standpoints, the balancing of ethnographic research and musicological analysis, and the ways in which the methods of historiography can be integrated effectively into ethnomusicological research. With specific reference to African music, Kubik's volumes generate important perspectives about the challenge of interpreting African rhythmic language, how music articulates social boundaries, the cultural significance of musical storytelling, ensemble practices, and the connections between migration and musical practice.

Thematic diversity is matched by a study of multiple traditions from different parts of sub-Saharan Africa. There is indeed a sense in which reading the different chapters of the book evokes Kubik's voyage across different parts of the continent, the difficult terrains of which Kubik sometimes paints in the book. In one such narrative he describes how local people helped him to survive hazardous conditions during one particular journey from western Nigeria through Cameroon, the Central African Republic, all the way to Zaire and southern Sudan. In the first part of this review I provide a summary of the topics covered in the book. In the second section I look at some of the main issues in greater detail.

Scope and Definition

The introduction deals with a number of issues, notably, the challenge of defining African music in a way that accounts for cross-cultural commonalities as well as differences emanating from the continent's varied geographies and ethnicities, the relationship between music and language, the integral connections between music and society, and the historical processes that help to shape musical practice. Kubik signals his interest in applying the methods of historiography to the analysis of African music forms and practices, with particular reference to the impact of the migration of the NigerCongo Bantu population to central, east, and southern Africa. History is also demonstrated to be at play in the cultivation of certain musical instruments. With reference to Yoruba music, for example, he draws our attention to the religious contexts in which igbin (cylindrical skin) drums were used during the classical Yoruba era between the tenth and the fourteenth centuries. It was not until the fifteenth or sixteenth century that the dundun hourglass drum- now generally considered Yoruba's most important instrument-was used. In discussing the relationship between music and language, Kubik draws parallels between the locations of the four prevailing super-families of African languages (namely, Niger-Kordofanian, Nilo-Saharan, Afroasiatic, and Khoisan) and the continent's musical topography. For example, he distinguishes between the music of southern African Khoisan speakers, the music of the Pygmies in central Africa, and that of the mainstream Niger-Congo speakers. As expected, the introduction prepares the ground for a wideranging discussion spread over five chapters in each of the two volumes.

Chapters 1 and 2 focus on two different instrumental traditions.* The first chapter discusses xylophone music in southern Uganda, while the second examines the harp music of the Azande people of northeastern Zaire and southern Sudan, and similar groups in the Central African Republic. Kubik's discussion here, as in other parts of this book, derives from interviews with indigenous performers as well as missionaries who did some initial work on the kundi (harp music) in East Africa. …

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