Discover more from African History Extra
a brief note on the history of Music in Africa
plus an overview of Ethiopian musical traditions
The continent of Africa is home to some of the oldest and most diverse range of musical traditions, instruments and performances in world history
Evidence of music in Africa appears long before the emergence of complex societies and states. The stone age paintings of tassili n'Ajjer in southern Algeria, which was occupied during the green-Sahara period, include depictions of figures dancing and playing musical instruments that are dated to around 6,000-4,000 BC. In Eastern Africa, the earliest evidence of music appears in the rock art paintings from Kondoa in Tanzania dated to around 4,000-1,000BC, which include depictions of figures playing musical instruments.
By the time the first states emerged in the Nile Valley, the northern Horn of Africa, and the West African Sahel, Music had become a salient feature of political and social in Africa. A combination of archeological evidence, oral traditions, and written sources attest to the broad range of instruments, dances and performances of music across much of the African continent, demonstrating the connection between music and other aspects of daily life.
Representations of musicians and musical instruments abound in many African artworks, from the wall paintings of Ancient Kush and medieval Nubia, to the illustrated manuscripts of Ethiopia, to the sculptural art of the west African kingdoms of Ife and Benin. Processions of musicians and dancers populate the painted scenes on the temple walls in Kush and the monasteries of medieval Nubia, representations of musical instruments appear frequently in the vast corpus of sculptural art produced by the artists of Benin and ife, while manuscripts written by Ethiopian scribes include illustrations of biblical figures playing local musical instruments.
Painting depicting a dance scene, Kom H monastery, ca. 12th-14th century, Old Dongola, Sudan.
18th century Illustration showing Mandinka dancers at a festival in Dramanet, Kingdom of Galam (upper Senegal River)
Written documents of poetry and songs in African societies date back to the earliest internal and external accounts about the continent since antiquity. From the musical manuscripts of Ethiopia to the written poetry of the Swahili coast and Islamic west Africa, these internal accounts document how music was conceived and transmitted by Africans in various contexts. External accounts written by classical writers such as Hanno, medieval Arab travelers like Ibn Battuta and later European explorers, leave little doubt about the centrality of Music to various African cultures.
Increased interactions between various African regions and external societies brought together a diverse range of cultures and traditions, which were then dispersed by the African diaspora across parts of the Old world and the Americas. New music forms, instruments, and dances emerged as different societies interacted with one another, influencing their practices of religion, political institutions, cultural festivals and identities.
Nowhere is this dynamism in Africa’s musical history more evident than in the musical traditions of Ethiopia. The 'Solomonic' state of Ethiopia which flourished from 1270-1974 was home to some of Africa's oldest music traditions and a unique notation system for recording music that is one of a few of its kind in the world.
The musical history of Ethiopia is the subject of my latest Patreon article,
Please read more about it here:
King Munza of the Mangbetu kingdom (in North-eastern D.R.C) dancing before his wives and courtiers in the royal hall.
"every musical accompaniment to which the resources of the court could reach had all been summoned and here was a melee of gongs and kettle drums, timbres and trumpets, horns and bells, Dancing there in the midst of all, a wondrous sight was the king himself"
Georg August Schweinfurth, 1874
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