Back to Africa: Global Language, Local Accent
Andrew Killick [+]
University of Sheffield
We round off the story by returning to Africa, extending the earlier coverage of West Africa and Angola to other parts of the continent where similar general principles appear in differing local guises. The polyrhythms and other features that help make Sub-Saharan African music “participatory” are encountered again, but in central and southern Africa we find more of an emphasis on harmony, which historically made these cultures receptive to the European harmonies brought by Christian missionaries. This is illustrated through the well-known vocal harmony of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which belongs to the isicathamiya genre from apartheid South Africa. Although the particular chords used in isicathamiya obviously came from European functional harmony, we discover that the general idea of harmonic combination, and even the characteristic structure of a repeating sequence of four chords, was already present in the home-grown music and also in the mbira music of neighboring Zimbabwe. By studying these styles, we learn that the European system of harmony is not the only one, and that even where European chords are used (for instance in blues) they may not be functioning in the European way. We next turn to African popular music, initially through the chimurenga music of Thomas Mapfumo, who adapted the textures and harmonies of mbira music to a modern guitar-based band to create a music that expressed a modern Zimbabwean identity. In similar ways, we find new genres emerging in other parts of Africa where musicians have plucked the fruit from the branches of the American music tree and planted the seeds in their own home ground to cultivate new growths that belong to a common species but are shaped by local nutrients, conditions, and grafting techniques into a crop that meets local needs while also offering something unique to the world. If we had the time and space, we could explore countless examples of the same process worldwide, as musicians learn to speak the global “language” of American-based popular music with local “accents” that express local identities, generating new forms of music that are always fresh and vibrant because they embody people’s sense of who they are today. But that could easily fill another whole book as big as this one. Instead, we keep the focus on Africa, noting how the continent has received a constant influx of American and especially African American popular music ever since the days of slavery, yet in its own popular music (except when directly modeled on African American styles like gospel) it has not on the whole adopted a feature that we began by describing as one of the most pervasive in the American music tree: the backbeat. Bringing the story back to where it started, we remember that the backbeat arose as an African American response to a European rhythmic framework, and conclude that it may have been unnecessary in African popular music because the European framework has not become dominant there—perhaps an emblem of hope for the continuing diversity and self-determination of the world’s musical cultures.