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European Dream Music

Although knowledge of and interest in African music has increased considerably among European and American music scholars in recent decades, its many forms remain among he least understood and most devalued of musical genres. Historically, many European and American (hereafter referred to as Western) critics regarded African music as a primitive mixture of coarse, unmusical vocal cries and hopelessly intricate drum beats. This is unfortunate, given the inherent musical richness of this art form, as well as its fascinating and pivotal role in African society.

The reasons for this dismissal are varied; cultural indifference and outright racism surely play a part. More subtly, though, the lack of interest may stem at least partially from the fact that African music does not lend itself to easy analysis through the lens of Western music theory. Until the mid-twentieth century, at least, Western music theory was as a self-important sheriff of a small town, intimately familiar with every nook and cranny of his own backyard, but utterly lost when he stepped across the county line. Then, music was most commonly analyzed along three axes—melody, harmony, and rhythm—and in each of these, African music confounded expectations.

Melodies use scales, in the case of Western music, a seven-tone scale system that had developed from the modes of medieval chants. African music, by contrast, employs a wide range of scales with varying numbers of tones, almost none of which correspond exactly to the Western norm. Harmony, or the instantaneous combination of pitches, was similarly problematic, as much of African music consists of several voices or instruments playing in unison*. This meant the music was entirely lacking in harmony, leaving the musicologist with nothing to sink his teeth into.

From famine to feast, the Western musicologist could then turn to rhythm. Western music at that time consisted of simple divisions of a beat based on the numbers two or three, stately music for stately dancing by stately people. By contrast, much of African music, especially the West and North African varieties most familiar to Europeans, has rhythms that are astoundingly complex and fast, and often contains several different rhythmic subdivisions simultaneously, based on the numbers two and three. The hapless Western musicologist was left entirely out of his depth. Musicologists were also accustomed to viewing music as a discrete entity, separate from the concerns of history, sociology, philosophy, and religion, while African music is intimately involved in each of these.

Likewise, music in Africa is rarely seen as a separate art form, distinct from dance, poetry, and storytelling. And African music is not only deeply intertwined with other art forms; it is intertwined with everyday life. There are traditional songs that mark every occasion from the mundane to the highly ceremonial. Many African societies have songs to mark births, deaths, marriages, and puberty rights, as well as day-to-day concerns like hunts, harvests, and meals. Some societies even carry out litigation through music, as parties present their arguments in song to a tribal elder, who then delivers his judgment likewise. Tellingly, one African society has no word for “music”—it is too fundamental to the fabric of life to be teased apart and considered as a separate thing. Surely, this resistance to dissection and analysis must help explain why Western musicologists were for so long unwilling or unable to cultivate an understanding of African music. Ironically, it also demonstrates the importance of such an understanding to anyone who wishes to learn about African culture as a whole.

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