Music of Africa

Music of African Slaves

The unfortunate and brutal practice of slavery existed in the United States from its earliest days as a young nation all the way into the 19th century after the end of the American Civil War.  From 1620-1865 it is estimated that around 450,000 people were forced into slavery in the United States (of the approximately 12.5 million who were shipped to the Americas) with a majority of those people coming from Africa.  Though this practice was unjust and cruel, it did create the conditions for the mixing of cultures in America which would become the foundation for later developments in art and music.  Though enslaved Africans were not able to bring with them any of their belongings, they did bring with them the sounds, rhythms, melodies, and traditional music of their home country.

Characteristics of African Music 

The music of Africa is as varied as the many different regions and diverse nations that live on the continent.

Before and during the years of the slave trade and the settling of America much of the traditional music of Africa was passed down orally from generation to generation.  Music played a large role in the daily lives of many Africans and their communities. Music was used to pass on local history and stories, to accompany religious ceremonies and express beliefs, and as an expression of art and dance.  

African singing often used vocal harmonies and phrasing that were different than the European music of the day. Many African languages are tonal (use pitch to indicate meaning) and often have a strong connections to making music.  

The music of Africa is known for relying heavily on percussion instruments including drums of all types and sizes, shakers and rattles, and pitched xylophones like the marimba.

Variety of African Drums


African music also has many non-percussion pitched instruments like the kora (a harp-like instrument), the mbira (thumb piano), the washint and atenteben (end-blown flutes),  the masenqo (spike fiddle), and the akonting (banjo-like instrument). Many regions also had instruments that were specific to the music that they created.


Mbira (thumb piano)

Washint (end-blown flute),  

Masenqo (spike fiddle)

Akonting (banjo-like instrument)



Senegambia was a term used to identify a region of Africa that was largely made up of two countries: Senegal and Gambia.  Senegalese and Gambian music share many commonalities including Sabar (traditional drumming and dance music of the Wolof and Serer people), and the music of the Griots whose music told local stories and histories and were often accompanied on the kora (21 string harp-like instrument).


Sabar is both the name of a traditional drum from the region of Senegambia and the style of music when playing this drum.  It is generally played with one hand and one stick and the music is characterized with complex overlapping rhythms.  The rhythms themselves were often infused with meanings and were often used to communicate with other villages.  The sound of the drumming could be heard up to 9 ½ miles away!


Griots, also known as Jelis, are musicians, singers, and storytellers and are most often families who pass on their tradition of music, singing, and stories from generation to generation.  Because of this connection to the past, Griots have generally been held in high esteem within their communities as a connection to the local histories and stories of the past.  Griots often perform praise-music, sing of local histories and stories, and improvise music and lyrics commenting on the recent happenings of their communities.


Sometimes the music of the Griots is considered the “classical” (art) music of this area and is often more calm and flowing than the faster sabar dance music.  Traditionally, Griots accompany their songs with the kora, the talking drum, or xalam (guitar-like instrument)


Music of the Gold Coast (Ghana)


During the years of the slave trade, what is now the independent state of Ghana was called the Gold Coast and was occupied by the British.  The traditional music of the people who lived in Ghana can generally be divided between the music of the open vast Savanna country in the north and the the music of the coastal regions in the south.  The music traditions of the north belong to the Sahelian tradition (music of the Sahara desert) and is often played on various stringed instruments including the kologo lute and the gonjey fiddle, as well as a variety of other wind and percussion instruments.



Another common style in this area is Gyil music which is both the name of a xylophone instrument and the music that is played on it.  It is the main form of music of the Dagara people.

The Ashanti people who live in this area of Africa (specifically what is now known as Ghana) have a form of music called fontomfrom.  It is the royal music of the Ashanti people and a fontomfrom ensemble provides music for ceremonies and gatherings for Ashanti royalty.  “Fontomfrom” is both the name of the drum specific to the Ashanti and the style in which it is played.

Gulf of Guinea

The Gulf of Guinea is the home to many nations and tribes who were abducted into the slave trade.  The  Bight of Benin and Bight of Bonny (also known as Biafra) were large bays that were the home to  ports from which the slave trade flourished.  These bays are the eastern and southern borders to Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon.  Africans from Nigeria were some of the most affected by the slave trade to the United States.  Of the slaves brought to North America, DNA testing has shown that the majority were from the Yoruba and the Igbo peoples who lived in the areas along the Gulf of Guinea.

The Yoruba people of the eastern part of Nigeria had strong tradition of drumming and singing centered around the dundun – an hourglass shaped talking drum.

Played in ensembles with other types of drums, the dundun is often played by the leader of the ensemble (the iyalu) who uses uses the changing pitch of the drum to emulate the speech patterns of the Yoruba people.  Much of this dundun music is spiritual and is devoted to their God.

The Igbo people of the South Eastern part of Nigeria have a musical style into which they incorporate various unique percussion instruments including the udu (jug/pot drum), the ekwe (log drum), the ogene (iron hand bell), and the oja (vertical flute).





Masking is one of the most common art styles and is linked strongly with Igbo traditional music.  A mask can be made of wood or fabric, along with other materials including iron and vegetation.


Masks have a variety of uses from the retelling of Igbo histories and stories to religious rituals and celebrations.   Many of masks and dances have deep cultural meaning to the Igbo that communicated through the movements and the style of mask itself.


Central Africa 

One of the largest ethnic groups in Africa are the Bantu peoples.  This group spreads over a vast territory of central Africa including the Atlantic Coast and many were sold into slavery.

This large area is occupied many kingdoms of different Bantu peoples who speak different languages including the Shona of Zimbabwe, the Luba of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Zulu of South Africa, the Tivs of Cameroon, the Sakuma of Tanzania, and Kikuyu of Kenya.

One major form of music that the Bantu are known for is their polyphonic singing.  Polyphonic is a term that describes multiple lines of music being sung at the same time to great layers of harmony.