Traditional African Music Forms

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Saint Maurice, patron saint of soldiers.

Portrait of an African Man by Flemish painter Jan Mostaert, c. 1525

Here are some examples of what African music from the earliest days of cross-Atlantic cultural encounters might have sounded like.

When we talk about traditional African folk music, we have to qualify what we mean by “traditional.” We know about certain west African dances, like the Pandulungu, Guandu, or Cubango from Angola, from the writings of 17th-century Portuguese explorers and missionaries, but the dance and musical forms themselves have been lost. Most of the folk music of the Americas that is most directly tied to African traditions can be found in its purest forms in South and Central America and the West Indies, such as this invocation to the ancestors of the Maroon people of Jamaica, the descendants of Africans who escaped from slavery and established free communities in the mountains.

Most of these African musical traditions, however, were inexorably changed by the cross-cultural encounters brought about by the slave trade beginning in the sixteenth century.

The bomba, a traditional musical style of Puerto Rico, owes much to west African drumming, and was first documented in the early sixteenth century. It’s a call-and-response challenge between the dancers and the drummers, with the dancer leading and the drummers responding.

Another Puerto Rican dance form, originally from Angola:

Afro-Colombian traditional music incorporates the marimba, a west African instrument:

More traditional Afro-Colombian music:

Three African-American/Afro-Caribbean fiddle tunes transcribed in the eighteenth century, played on a replica of a homemade slave fiddle.

Even in Congo Square, the music played by enslaved African-Americans had already been changed by its translation from the coast of Africa to the West Indies and to the American mainland.

The history of African music is, in a sense, a history of loss.

For more images of blacks in medieval and Renaissance Europe like the ones at the top of this post, go here.

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