Music: Music and Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa

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The most compelling reason for music making in Africa derives from religious experience, for it is generally believed that the spiritual world is responsive to music and deeply affected by it. Acting through human mediums, the gods are known to object to the singing of particular songs and to express dissatisfaction when performances are slipshod or lacking in animation. Now and then they also bring new songs or themes of songs to their worshipers. Hence worship always finds its most intense expression in music making, which can go on for hours or days during major religious festivals, for performing sacred music in this manner gives not only aesthetic satisfaction but also the assurance of continuous contact with the spiritual world. Accordingly, those who worship particular gods often describe themselves in songs as the children of those gods and may distinguish themselves from other members of the community, among other ways, by their repertoire of songs, instruments, and dances.

Ancestral spirits, as well as gods, generate repertoires of songs and instrumental forms. The scale and intensity of expressions related to ancestral spirits, however, varies considerably in relation to the perspective from which they are viewed. While some societies emphasize the spiritual and behavioral aspects of ancestors in the performance of rain rites, curative rites, initiation and other rites of passage and special rites for the dead, others focus on the philosophical aspects of the concept of the ancestor. Celebrations of life or the triumph of life over death indicated by the continuing presence of the dead is given scope in special festivals involving displays of ancestral masks and dramatic enactments accompanied by music and dance. Some centralized traditional states employ music and ritual for political ends.

Organization of Sacred Music

Because the spiritual world is believed to be sensitive to music, performances of sacred music are usually controlled. Accordingly there are occasions during which (1) little or no music is performed (such as personal ritual and worship); (2) music other than the sacred music of the gods is performed (such as events during which social rather than religious values are emphasized); (3) both sacred and nonsacred music may be performed (for example, the funeral of a priest or priest-medium or religious festivals that incorporate the singing of songs of insult sanctioned by the gods for the release of tension in society); and (4) sacred music is performed (such as fixed days of worship, festivals, and other special occasions on which dramatic enactments, including trance and spirit possession, take place). The repertoire of sacred music used on ritual occasions usually includes either songs and instrumental pieces or sound events that function as codes or signals for indicating divine presence or for inviting undivided attention.

As in many cultures of the world, African songs provide avenues for making references to the sources of religious experience and to the values that hold a community of worshipers together. Marion Kilson shows in her study of Ga songs and symbols that a homogeneous body of sacred songs may include references to the supreme being, individual lesser gods and their interrelations, creatures and objects of nature connected with the religious experience, the seasons, ritual symbols, interpersonal relations, and events in the life of the community of worshipers. Africans sing about their gods and their own social history in their sacred songs because their gods accompany them during their migrations as well as in their encounters with other societies.

Sacred song repertoires usually include items that fulfill special functions related to the details of worship or a ritual occasion. Some songs are sung for the opening and closing of worship while others accompany, precede, or follow particular rites or provide the link between different phases of a ritual occasion. Getting in and out of trance or remaining in a state of trance can be aided by particular songs, while changes in the mood of worship can be effected not only through the content of songs but also through variations in form and singing style, including the occasional use of spoken verse; changes from speechlike chants in free rhythm or recitative style to songs in strict rhythm; and differentiations between simple litany types of songs and songs that utilize more complex forms or occasionally songs in strophic form.

Group singing is invariably led by cantors, who may not necessarily be priests or priest-mediums. Special chants performed as solos that require mastery of particular vocal techniques and repertoire may be performed by specialists in the religious community. In some societies the songs of public worship are performed by a select group of singers well versed in the tradition and not by the entire congregation.

Sacred songs may be sung unaccompanied (especially when they are in free rhythm) or they may be accompanied by handclapping, bells, rattles, friction sticks, or by more complex percussion on drums or tuned idiophones (mbira and xylophones). Chordophones such as lutes, harp-lutes, and arched harps are also used in religious contexts in some societies.

In general, instruments that can play complex melodic and rhythmic patterns are treated not only as accompanying instruments but also as instruments that can stand on their own in ensembles. They may be assigned their own limited repertoire of pieces that are specific not only in their basic materials but also in style and tempo, so that they can be correlated with various songs, movement, and dance. During performances it is the instrumental ensemble that provides the required energy levels for movement expression and more especially for trance and spirit possession.

Because of the different roles performed by vocal and instrumental pieces and the dance, it is customary to combine all three in a full performance. Where this is done, all that a priest-medium who wants to perform a particular dance while in trance needs to do is start a song in the set for the particular dance. The instrumentalists will switch automatically to the rhythms he needs. The singers will similarly take up the song he started and continue with others in the same set.

A number of conventions are used to distinguish the sacred from the secular. For example, a simple ritual act of dedication or the use of external symbols of sacralization, such as marks of white clay, special drapes, pendants, or symbolic carvings, might distinguish sacred instruments from their secular counterparts. There are a few instances where the distinction is made in the form, structure, and tuning of instruments. For example, among the Lobrifor of Ghana, there is a xylophone used in sacred rituals that has fourteen bars, like other xylophones; however, only twelve bars are played, and a tetratonic tuning is used instead of the usual pentatonic. Similarly the mbira dzavadzimu, a tuned idiophone (sansa, or hand piano) of the Shona of Zimbabwe, used for playing music connected with ancestral rituals, is distinguished from those tuned idiophones played for entertainment, such as the mbira dzavandau and the karimba. It has twenty-two keys that are generally wider and thicker than those of other instruments and a keyboard with three manuals.

The organization of sound events that function as signals or codes follows similar conventions. Instead of the clapperless bells used in musical ensembles, clapper bells may be used in ritual contexts. Instead of a regular flute made of bamboo, a flute made out of the tip of an animal horn may be used. Instead of an instrument, voice masks and whistling may be used to indicate the presence of particular gods or spirits. Ankle buzzers and similar devices normally used in the context of the dance may be worn by a novice, a ritual expert, or a medium when he is in ritual contact with his god so that anyone approaching him might take a different route.

Similar functions may be performed by instruments set aside for this purpose. Thus the bull-roarer (or thunder stick) is used in some societies to represent the voice of the ancestor (for example, among the Dogon of Mali) or the voice of a god (such as Oro of the Yoruba of Nigeria). The major god of the Poro initiation society of the Senufo is represented not only by the sound of an eland's horn incorporated into an aerophone ensemble but also by the bull-roarer. Here and there one finds sacred drums that function in the same manner, drums such as the digoma of the Lovedu of the Transvaal, beaten twice a year in a ritual addressed to the ancestors; the drums of the Lozi of Zambia associated with chiefship; and the bagyendanwa drum in the Ankole region of Uganda.

Coded sounds are not always played as independent sound events. They can also be incorporated into regular pieces. For example, where the gods are worshiped collectively, the entrance and exit of each god can be indicated aurally through changes in rhythm or instrumentation or by a song functioning as a code.

Impact of Religion on Musical Life

Because music makers, artists, and crafters are also carriers of the religious beliefs of their societies, religious concepts and practices extend to artistic behavior in the public domain. A music club or association that performs recreational music may begin with libation, a song of invocation, or an instrumental prelude from the sacred repertoire in order to ensure that nothing goes wrong in the course of the performance. Some societies ban all musical performances for a few days after rites performed at the beginning of the planting season or before the annual harvest festival, while others prohibit the performance of certain musical types outside prescribed contexts. The making of instruments such as xylophones and drums begins and ends with rituals irrespective of the contexts in which they will be used. In some societies the rituals continue at various stages in the process of manufacture and on each occasion on which the finished product is used. There are also instances where musicians seek ritual protection not only for their instruments but also for themselves and their art. Belief in ancestors also sometimes plays a role in the recruitment and training of musical specialists, such as the royal musicians (ingombe ) of the Bemba of Zambia and the royal drummers and fiddlers of the Dagomba of Ghana.

Because sacred music is held in high esteem, the borrowing and adaptation of instruments or musical items of particular aesthetic or verbal interest occurs now and then in the music performed in the public domain. While in the past this was done with discretion, social change now seems to have opened the door to conscious exploitation of the aesthetic potential of sacred music, both in traditional music practice and in the new forms of African popular and art music. The reverse process, whereby traditional sacred music is influenced by secular music, does not seem to be common, although a few notable examples can be cited. The emergence of centralized states in Ghana in the pre-European period, which developed royal court music of a complex order, seems to have encouraged the incorporation of the talking drum (atumpan ), an instrument of kingly command, and the royal heavy drum (bommaa ) into the ensemble of gods regarded as state gods.

Similarly, the advent of new cults that worship in the traditional manner has led to the development of new repertoires of traditional sacred music that utilize the recitative song style of traditional hunters' associations. These songs are used partly because of their affective character and partly because the gods of the new associations are regarded as hunter gods who specialize in the neutralization of evil forces such as witchcraft and sorcery.

Introduced Religions

Although indigenous religions have continued to maintain the vigor and vitality of their beliefs and expressive forms, both Islam and Christianity are also well established in many parts of Africa in spite of the alien modes of worship they brought with them.


Because Islamic religion does not view the sensuous qualities of music with favor and therefore tends to discriminate between what is admissible in religious life and what is not, the connection between music and Islamic religious observances in Africa has been marginal, in contrast to traditional African religions in which music is integral to worship and ritual observance. Apart from the call to prayer and the Qurʾanic recitations that are at the core of Islamic worship and that have been maintained in sub-Saharan Africa, it is religious events in the life of Islamic communities that provide outlets for music. The type of music used in these contexts depends on the community, in particular whether it is an Arab or Afro-Arab community, an African community ruled by an Islamic aristocracy, or an African community with Islamic leaders and a traditional aristocracy.

In all three types of communities the Qurʾān is chanted in the original Arabic during worship and on other occasions, while nonliturgical music may be in the local language and idiom. Friday services are observed, while the Prophet's birthday and his ascent to heaven or particular episodes in his life are commemorated in the form of festivals at which music in the local idiom may be performed. The end of Ramaān, the period of daytime fasting, is marked by feasts and music, while the routine pilgrimage to Mecca also provides a pretext for music making for the pilgrims, both on the occasion of their departure and on their return.

There is a general tendency in Islamic communities for a simple musical event that satisfies the Islamic ideal to grow into a more elaborate and sometimes inadmissible form, a process that leads to its secularization as entertainment music. The Yoruba Islamic musical types apala, waka, fuji, and sakara, for example, which started as modest forms of pilgrimage music, have become part of the general entertainment repertoire. Similarly among the Dagomba of Ghana damba music and dance performed at the damba festival, which celebrates the birth of the Prophet, is now performed in other contexts by lunsi drummers. Sectarianism and syncretic tendencies have similarly encouraged the use of African musical resources at dhikr gatherings as well as modifications in liturgical practice that allow for the development of a corpus of songs based on local models.


A different picture presents itself when one turns to Christianity in Africa, for it has been less compromising than Islam as far as the use of local musical resources is concerned. Like traditional African religion, Christianity regards music as an integral rather than a marginal aspect of worship. Accordingly they share a similar approach to the organization of the content of sacred songs.

However, the values that guide the selection and use of music and musical instruments in Christian worship as well as performance organization and musical behavior are very different from those of traditional African worship. Until recently, African modes of expression and behavior seemed to the leaders of the Christian church not only unsuitable for Christian worship, but also not conducive to the restrained Christian life expected of converts. African drumming and dancing and the exuberance of African celebrations such as festivals and rituals of the life cycle were not tolerated. The problem that Christianity in Africa has had to face, therefore, is how to integrate Christian worship with indigenous cultures and preserve at the same time the basic Christian beliefs, values, and norms of behavior that characterize the religion. Although the Ethiopian church could have been used as a model of integration, it was ignored for quite a long time because it did not conform to the norms and values of the Western church.

The most obvious practical step toward indigenization of music widely adopted in the nineteenth century was the translation of hymns in European languages into African languages. It was not generally realized, however, that indigenization, in a fuller sense, would have also meant setting the translated texts of hymns to tunes that reflect African rhythmic and melodic characteristics or that follow the intonational contour and rhythm of texts, since many African languages are tone languages (that is, languages in which tones or pitches distinguish meaning or tend to be fixed for particular words, phrases, and sentences). The retention of the Western tunes invariably led to the distortion of the words, a situation that has not been fully remedied in many parts of Africa.

A few missionaries and African church leaders who became aware of this problem tried to provide other solutions. The Livingstonia Mission in Malawi, for example, encouraged local Ngoni people to adapt their traditional songs for church use, and also arranged for traditional instruments such as bells, drums, and horns to be used for calling worshipers to church. Elsewhere songs in the traditional style emerged (such as the Fanti lyrics of the Methodist Church of Ghana) that could be sung as spirituals or anthems.

The search for solutions to this problem, and to the whole question of Christianity in relation to African cultures, continued in the early decades of the twentieth century with the formation of the International Missionary Council. A more liberal attitude toward African cultures as well as to the indigenization of Christian liturgies and music emerged. This has encouraged not only African contributions to Western hymnody in African languages but also the development of new forms of syncretic church music that combine African and Western resources. Songs and anthems as well as a number of new settings of the Mass that use drums and other traditional African instruments as accompaniment have become fashionable in Roman Catholic churches. The All African Conference of Churches and local church music associations are also giving encouragement to the creation and dissemination of new African hymns.

African Independent Churches have also grappled with the problem. Beginning with hymns in translation and original compositions in the same style, leaders of these churches give scope to songs in the style of traditional African music as well as songs based on the style of marching songs and African popular music. Both African drums and Western band instruments not generally used in ecumenical churches are utilized by independent churches, since physical movement and expressions of ecstasy are encouraged.

As might be expected, there is a close relationship between trends in African church music and trends in contemporary African secular music, for many contemporary composers of art music are also composers of church music and of music for educational institutions formerly run largely by churches. Church choirs and singing bands as well as school choral groups are the main performers of African choral music in the art music tradition, while the repertoires of the few independent choral societies often include new African church music. Because of the large number of independent churches that have sprung up, composers of African popular music now include religious themes and tunes sung by such churches in their repertoire of dance music, a practice that enables their songs to be performed not only in independent churches but also in ballrooms, cafes, night clubs, and on social occasions.

See Also

African Religions, article on New Religious Movements; Bull-Roarers; Drama, article on African Religious Drama; Drums; Percussion and Noise.


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Music: Music and Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa

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