African and African American Music

Describe the role of music in African and African American communities. Give examples.

Music is a way of bringing African and African American communities together. It is performed in group settings for both major and minor life events, such as rituals and leisure activities, and, historically, played a role in African royal courts. Dance or work almost always accompanies music. The songs’ texts reflect the occasion during which they are sung. For example, the texts in work songs would relate to the work performed and included topics based on folklore, heroic figures, the local surroundings, and biblical figures.

Describe the way music is created, performed, and experienced in African and African American communities.

The mechanics of delivery of African and African American music is entirely different from those of European-derived traditions. Improvisation, variety, and repetition are all characteristics of our culture’s music. Call-and-response is a common method of musical performance in African and African American communities. Both instruments and the audience dialogue with the singer as he/she performs. Syncopation, “the shifting of accent from standard Western stressed beats to atypical stress points in the measure”, and polyrhythms, “several contrasting rhythms played or sung simultaneously”, are also common characteristics of African and African American music. We can hear variations of these different methods and characteristics in shout songs, ring shouts, jazz, funk, and gospel.

Because of the energetic way in which music is created and performed, Black music is always experienced. The performer involves members of the audience in their performance, while the audience engages themselves both physically and verbally – by, for example, dancing, shouting, singing back, and hand-clapping.

Describe ways in which the described timbre in Africa and African American music differs from that of European-derived traditions.

The timbre in both African and African American music was described by European musicians as “weird” and “peculiar”. Unlike European-derived music, African and African American music has contrasting timbres and textures. Handclapping, foot-stomping, lined hymns, varied rhythmic and melodic sounds, and “talking” instruments that imitate vocal timbres distinguish African and African musical traditions from European-derived musical traditions.

Identify the two most common musical structures found in African and African American music. In what ways do they reflect the communal and interactive approach to making music?

Call-and-response and polyrhythm are the two most common musical structures found in African and African American music. They both encourage participation and feature complex layers of sound. With call-and-response, there is a soloist or lead singer who begins the song and all other elements – whether it’s the audience, background singers, or the instruments – respond according to how the lead chose to sing the line. Polyrhythm, however, is only with instruments. Various instruments with various timbres are woven together to create contrasting rhythms. The instruments used will usually have staggered entrances.

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