By | January 2, 2023

Africa – music and dance

Music and dance in Africa is in principle a collective affair, in which everyone participates, although the different age groups and genders usually each fill their place, both in terms of movement patterns, instrument use and singing. The forms of expression that can channel emotions such as anger and joy play a significant role in the rites and ceremonies that surround the life of the individual and society: birth, initiation, marriage and death. Certain songs and dances have a special connection to work and production; it can be dances in which harvest or hunting movements are performed in dance form, and it can be song and music which, by virtue of a common rhythmic pulse, lighten the workload. In addition, music and dance can be used purely entertaining. Most often, however, the individual song or dance will fulfill several different functions.

  • COUNTRYAAH.COM: Offers an alphabetical list of independent nations and dependent territories in Africa. Also includes area and population for each African country.

It is common for specialists to act as initiators, and in the traditional culture where music and dance are based on oral tradition, the specialist is usually society’s guarantor that the ceremony is performed correctly. Initiators can be master drummers, it can be the professional singer-songwriters known as griot, or it can be particularly skilled dancers. In traditional culture, these duties will usually be inherited within the same genus. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the family or clan to provide the long-term training required by the specialists, as there is generally no formalized learning in music and dance. In recent times, however, a change in these conditions has begun to take effect, especially in the cities. In the context of music and dance, a distinction is made between the northern Maghreb region (see Arabic music) and sub-Saharan Africa, which in turn is divided into different cultural regions; these include the east coast and the Sudan area, which, like the northern parts, are strongly influenced by Arab culture and music.

The diversity of sub-Saharan African music makes it difficult to establish a unambiguous definition of common musical features, but certain characteristics are widely recognized. Rhythm is crucial to the structure of music. Polyrhythmics, which occur when different rhythms are played simultaneously, are found in different degrees, from simple two- to three-part division to pieces of music, where a braid of different voices with unequal period division does not even have a common initial beat, so-called polymetics.

The use of polyrhythmics can be perceived as rhythmic polyphony, but also melodic polyphony is characteristic of music south of the Sahara. The polyphony is achieved either through a question-answer structure, through singing in third, quarter or fifth intervals or through the addition of a counter-voice to fixedly recurring rhythmic and melodic figures (ostinatos). Conversely, choral singing in the Arab-influenced areas is unanimous.

African music is predominantly based on fifteen scales (see pentatonic), while in the Sahel region and on the east coast of Africa there are Arabic scale types. In the 1900’s. there has been a strong influence from the major and moltonal music of the West.

The music is made up of relatively short phrases, which are repeated in cyclical form. Repetition is the cornerstone of the musical structure, and totally free improvisation is therefore rare. Instead, it varies over the polyphonic, rhythmic pattern. The soloist can either add opposites or change the characters, which, however, must not lose their recognizability. In the same way, the recitation is varied by historical and dramatic narratives, and the singer’s ability to change within the known framework is highly valued. The human voice plays a crucial role in almost all musical development in Africa, and this helps to emphasize the close connection between music, language and communication. Many of the African languages ​​are tonal (ie the pitch is significant for the individual language sounds), and therefore especially drums are used to reproduce a spoken statement, e.g. a proverb. It is not a Morse code system, but melodic language sounds. In most of Africa, one syllable is sung on each note, while in Arabic-influenced areas, the melody is embellished with many notes for each syllable. Yodel and falsetto singing occur, for example, in the pygmy music of the Democratic Republic of Congo, but in the vast majority of Africa it is sung in the low voice registers.


Africa is extremely rich in musical instruments. The common instrument types are all represented, some in designs not known elsewhere. Particularly in the Sahara and Sudan regions, in traditional music string instruments such as fiddles, lutes and harps appear; quotes and arcs are found all over the continent. The East African area is one of the 8-12-stringed lyre, and from West Africa the harp lute kora is known in particular. From the beginning of 1900-t. the guitar has occupied an important place in the musical image, which applies to both the well-known instrument and the electric guitar. Wind instruments are known both in the form of flutes, reed instruments, trumpets and horns. All types are used as signal transmitters, while especially trumpets and ivory horns have had a representative function in the African kingdoms. From 1920 ‘ Western wind instruments have become part of the modern orchestra, but in the latter half of the 1900’s. they have been partially replaced by synthesizers. Drums and percussion make up a particularly large group of instruments in African music. Drums come in a myriad of sizes and shapes; Mention must be made here of the West Africandjembe with the very large sound as well as the speaking drum, dondon, which has a tonal range of up to two octaves. The lamellophone sanza or mbira is particularly interesting because it originated in Africa. Also rattles, bells, slits and xylophones are very common.

On many instruments, bells, pieces of metal or kazoo-like membranes are placed. These devices are intended to produce a spinning sound known as buzz.

The music of the 1900’s

The main driving force behind the cultural modernization in Africa is the migration from country to city. Like everywhere else in the world, urban life and working conditions are changing, and new cultural genres are needed. In the 1900’s. this has led to an approximation to a musical and singing tradition that came to the continent with military and naval personnel in the service of the European colonial powers. African musicians imitated Western popular music, particularly the black music of the United States and Latin America, which had its roots in Africa. From the 1950’s began a reafricanization of popular music. It took place at a time when the new states were trying to revive the pre-colonial cultural heritage by setting up national dance and music ensembles such as Les Ballets Africains from Guinea and National Dance Troupe of Tanzania. In the troupes, the culture was stylized and arranged with stage performance in mind and is now established as choreographed folklore.

Within the popular urban music culture, which in the first decades of independence was not covered by national cultural policy, the re-Africanization had other consequences. The electrical amplification of the music emphasizes in several ways the characteristics of traditional music; on the one hand, instruments such as electric guitar, electric piano and synthesizer emphasize the polyphonic and polyrhythmic elements of the music, and on the other hand, the use of a microphone makes it possible to incorporate old African instruments into the modern orchestra. Kora, sanza and speaking drums complement or replace western instruments, thereby creating a soundscape that is unique to modern Africa.

The new music, such as Ghana’s highlife, Democratic Republic of Congo’s soukous and South African mbaqanga, takes over for the villagers, many of the functions of music and dance has had on the country. The lyrics comment on the social situation, and the bodily element is maintained in the constant, close connection between dance and music. The large orchestras with up to twenty musicians have dancers in the troupe, and concert is almost synonymous with dance ball.

The new African music enjoys enormous popularity – also in the West – and it is via radio and other media the most widespread cultural form in modern Africa. Although music is subject to market mechanisms and suffers from piracy and a lack of instruments and equipment, it is a vibrant music culture that, along with dance, meets the cultural identity needs of the peoples of African states.


A common characteristic of dance in sub-Saharan Africa is that separate and partially independent centers in the body move simultaneously. This bodily polycentric corresponds to the musical polyrhythmics. The centers are highlighted optically or acoustically by, for example, rattles, colors or jewelery. By virtue of the use of footbells and the stomp, the dancers’ movements become an organic part of the musical ensemble, and in many places it is precisely with the dancers that one finds the basic pulse of the polyrhythmic network.

The regional division of the continent’s dance style largely coincides with the musical one and is based on the dance’s use of space, its relation to the music and its choice of movement centers.

In the Sahara region, dance is dominated by long jumps or high jumps performed with a straight body. There is very little movement in the room and the dances are solo. In the Sudan area, group dances are dominant, and they perform both as rows and as circles. The movement starts again from the legs, but is now directed downwards like the stomp in the ground. In the West African coastal country, the group dances form the framework of a great solo virtuosity. The movements are still centered in the legs, but are acrobatic and characterized by the refined technical language that belongs to the area. Both in the Sudanese style and in West Africa, the posture of the body is characterized by a slight forward flexion in the pelvis, which frees the shoulders, chest or upper body. In Central Africa, one finds the actual polycentric, where the various centers of movement are completely equalized and completely liberated from each other. The East African region is not unequivocally characterized. It contains features from many of the other regions as well as the Arab cultural area and is relatively inhomogeneous. In southern Africa, dances are performed in formations, and powerful kicks and punches dominate, at the Zulus.

Across Africa, there are dances that require disguise and masking. The costumes and masks can, for example, represent an allegorical figure, a spirit or a deity. This is seen, for example, in Yoruba in Nigeria and in Makonde in Tanzania.

There is often a smooth transition from dance to more sporty movement patterns such as wrestling and different types of throws, jumps and lifts.

Africa – music and dance (dance in the 1900’s)

African dance has developed under the strong influence of Europe and America. The most significant change is the division into three kinds of dance: 1. A living folk dance tradition with elements of high artistic value. A performance dance with dances from the folk tradition, often collected and performed by national dance groups in an attempt to preserve the many dances that are otherwise in danger of disappearing due to the violent socio-cultural changes in African societies. 3. A new stage dance as a simultaneous artistic expression – only with an indirect connection to the folk dance.

Since the 1960’s, national dance ensembles have been set up, which have been widely used as international cultural ambassadors, such as Les Ballets Africains from Guinea and Ndere Dance Troupe from Uganda. As a result, the outdoor performance form in open spaces has also often been adapted to the western stage form (cockpit theater) and its concrete separation of dancers and audience. The shape has been further influenced by the ranks and patterns of military parades.

The repertoire of these dance ensembles has been influenced by the many different traditional dances. Common to them is the advanced rhythmic interaction with the music and the song. It is in general the bare feet of the dancers who carry the rhythm with tirelessly circling hips and forward-bent bodies in rhythmic counterplay. Often movements are repeated with an almost infinite, pumping energy that in the traditional dance could bring the dancer into ecstasy. The movements are usually performed in variations within a defined basic pattern.

African dance is generally very weight-seeking and the soil – even jumps are often performed with a stomping effect – in contrast to the light-hearted European dance. The West has generally perceived African dance as sensuous and unspoiled, and African-American dance in particular has adapted to African movement expressions. A well-known representative of this is the choreographer Alvin Ailey (see black dance). But the fascination with the different expressions of black dancers has, on the whole, changed the body aesthetics of Western stage dance.

The Sahara forms the clearest dividing line for traditional music and dance in Africa, and this also applies to the new stage dance, which is increasingly drawn by internationally influenced companies for modern dance. In the North African countries, the influence of the traditional Middle Eastern dance is significant, especially from the belly dance with its soft hip shakes and refined arm and finger movements (see oriental dance). In the newer North African dance, this influence is mixed with influences from especially the new French dance such as Théâtre de la Danse from Tunisia. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is mainly the West African countries that have presented truly modern dance, added an African expression, such as La Compagnie de Isnel da Silveira from Senegal. Classical ballet has mainly been practiced by white dancers in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Dance in Africa is in a time of upheaval, where old ceremonies and new stage conventions must be combined. The traditional African dance structure with male dances, women’s dances and solo dances is thus incorporating the West’s favorite dance form, the couple dance. Similarly, costumes, masks and body paints are at risk of being reduced to random visual means.

In the many economically burdened and disaster-ravaged African countries, the future of dance cultures is uncertain. Not least the show and stage dance will depend a lot on cultural support. But music and dance will probably always be bearing and identity-gathering forms of expression in African culture.