Issue 23

Sound: Thoughts on 'African' Music

By Wendelyn Okemini

Africa is in many ways life… exaggerated. The continent is a pulsating mass of sound, movement and action. Here, we love noise; we talk brashly, debate for fun, greet argumentatively, we laugh loudly, honk noisily, Africans weep raucously. We are a boisterous people; excitable, exciting, excited. For such a colourful region, I’m always fascinated to hear people refer to us as The Dark Continent. Excuse the pun. Nowhere is our colour more evident than in our music. From Sokoto to Soweto, the content is rich in sound and creativity. We are music lovers and our sound is deep; the sort of music that can creep into your bones and make all your muscles feel light, flexible and utterly agile. There’s rhythm in our blood, sound in our walk, music in our bones. Drop a beat by mistake and watch us pick it up with gyrating waists and fast feet. We are easy. On this continent you will find music as diverse as the inhabitants. Like the Africans who create it, our music is rich, diverse and always evolving. It’s impossible to box our sound; it will seep out of the spaces in the box and ooze into willing bones, evoking hands to clap and feet to shuffle.

I’m serious. Put some fela on a boom box and see what happens.

Despite the continent’s precarious balance on the brink of collapse from the combined weight of internal strife, it is interesting to find that the music can be pure and free from the cloying weight of dilapidation and disease. Even at the most difficult of times, with empty pockets and hollow stomachs, you can find Africans moving to a beat wailing from a make-shift drum. Ours is a life of hope, a culture of celebration. This is probably why I get vaguely irritated when I hear any form of African music referred to as ‘afrobeat’, or worse, ‘tribal’ music.

We sound so unserious. Music and dancing is serious business in Africa FYI.

Why do we find music in developed economies carefully categorized into genres by sound. We even find subgenres within genres; rap music hidden within hip hop or neosoul shielded by the rhythm and blues shade, for instance. Yet, when it comes to categorising the heterogenous sounds that strain across the African continent’s land mass, somehow, everything is reduced to ‘African’ or ‘tribal’ music as though there was one definition of all music from the continent.

The gentle harmonies gnarled fingers play on banjos in the streets of Mali imitating Yusuf N’dour, sound as close to the pulsing yoruba groans of Wiz Kid blasting from the speakers at Sip bar in Lagos on Saturday night, as Kylie Minogue’s ‘Slow’. Liquid Deep’s melodious flow at the continent’s tip is not only vastly different from, but also incomparable to, the wild peculations of Awilo Longomba’s Makossa. There is simply no basis to group or measure any form of African music against the other because African music is as diverse as the Africans that sing them.

What feeds the world’s tendency to homogenise Africa by force?

What many people consider authentic African music is actually the sound indigenous to smaller villages, often made by using traditional instruments carved out of tree barks. I have heard people accuse young African musicians of being “unauthentic”, or “attempting to imitate the Western world”, as though the creativity that comes with arranging Igbo consonants on a base beat is something only Kanye West can recreate in all his perceived genius. I think this attitude to African music reveals a deeper misconception, a frightening bias the world holds against the continent.

It appears that the world over, development, change and growth are welcomed but when the Africa enjoys the visitation of harmattans of change, the world is suspicious. Why can’t Africa remain that exotic continent of wild beasts and naked voodoo priests, of snakeskin thongs and catapult guns? Perhaps some may be more comfortable seeing a Masai warrior preserving his ancient customs in the wild, far away from a computer and engineering books… than an educated Kenyan with a viable business attempting to compete on the global scale with international small businesses? Every man is born with a desire for more and with the desire to dream. Yet somewhere in the world’s psyche, some of us have forgotten that all humans serve more of a purpose than as entertainment. Somehow, Africa has gotten fixed in the world’s eye as the byword for corruption OR disease OR exoticism. Growing up, I tired of explaining to well-educated lawyers I met in class at some of the world’s most prestigious universities, that I did NOT have a baby elephant where they had a puppy and, “No, I do not raise cubs for kittens in my backyard!”

These are the educated elite, the future world leaders infected with the virus of ignorance; a virus more communicable, far deadlier than the dreaded Ebola.

My continent does not respect uniformity. It has no time for sameness, it mocks homogeneity. It is wild, slightly reckless, full of drama, grows at will, full of life, rich in colour, dangerously individual, always on the brink of breakdown yet relentlessly resilient. Africa is alive and the music of the continent tells its stories; the citizen’s victories, the cities defeats, the ordinariness of a billion dynamic little people. There is no generic African sound. Like the continent itself, the music is variegated, heterogeneous, spontaneous and consistently evolving. Sometimes the pages of a book are insufficient to hold the tragedies, truths and tales of a continent. Our story is ours to tell, and we choose to share it through borderless sounds that allow harmonies arrange themselves without the obstructive noise of opinion.


Wendelyn Okemini is a lawyer who works in sustainable development. She likes writing and is author of a lifestyle blog. She is often found daydreaming, dancing or drawing.

Cover image licensed under Creative Commons.

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