Music from Africa to America

By Nichele Washington

From Burundi to America, music has been to Africans and African Americans, an instrinsic method of expression. Whether this music was cultivated using ivory trumpets in the heart of Ghana or remembered aboard slave ships as enslaved persons were forced to sing and dance as exercise, one fact remains true- the vitality of Africans and African Americans can, in part, be credited to the cultural and social norms that traveled via music as the African people dispersed across the globe. To understand the African and African American is to understand the crucial role music plays in both of these communities. 

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

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

In both African and African American communities, music is used not only as a unifier, but as a way to stress importance, commemorate an occasion, memorialize a loss, etc. Because of its ability to vocalize our experiences as human beings, music is used in the African and African American community when words fail to convey the emotions of life’s many ordeals . In fact, according to Mellonee Burnim and Portia Maultsby, “the objective of African music is not necessarily to produce sounds agreeable to the ear, but to translate everyday experiences into living sound.”(Page 28) The text then goes on to define some of these experiences as being “…royal functions, religious and life cycle rituals, community festivals, [and] occupational, recreational and leisure activities.” (page 24) Music is also used in the African and African American community to memorialize the dead, aid healing rituals, and speed up the process of working.

In each and every one of these events, the role of music is not to fill the space with noise. Instead, its task is to help communicate/contribute to the living that is taking place.

Unlike European styles of music, African and African American music is created using a complex structure of syncopated beats, stagger entering instruments, diverse rhythms, and most importantly, improvisation. To make each song unique, Africans and African Americans might change the pitch, switch up a tempo, or invite the use of a different sounding instrument. A combination of these diversifying mechanics of delivery, allow Africans and African Americans to create new sounds that create new genres of music. For example, Gospel music in the African American community is most commonly characterized as being Call and Response music. However, the same can be true of folk music which utilizes Call and Response, clapping, stomping and other actions that are also associated with Gospel music. 

While the creation of African/African American music can differ across genres, the ways in which this music is performed and experienced remains an important common denominator. 

The style of delivery for Black music is one that focuses on aliveness, physical movement, and the humanizing of instruments. According to Burnim’s observations, “performance in Black culture symbolizes vitality [and] a sense of aliveness.” (Page 40) Through physical movement such as clapping, stomping, and dancing, the performer encourages the audience to participate in the music making while uniting them all in a “singular shared experience”. Participation is also encouraged when the performer is able to turn their instrument into an extension of themselves; one that knows fewer limitations than the human voice.  As a result, Black music is experienced emotionally and physically. This is validated when the text states, “the musical experience is by and large an emotional one… the display of emotions indicates that the [Black] musical performance has been experienced at the highest level of enjoyment. (Page 41) When audience members “…scream and holler, talk back, wave hands, jump out of their seats, and run down the aisles, “(Page 41) this is an indication that the music has both connected to Africans and African Americans emotionally, and been an experience worthy of physical participation. 

Describe the ways in which the desired timbre in African and African American music differs from that of European-derived 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?

In African/African American music, timbre plays a primary role in the creation of Black sound. This sound (which seeks to vocalize “everyday experiences”) is so unlike European music that “European travelers, missionaries, and other outsiders uniformly describe [the] vocal and instrumental timbres as “wild”, “crude”, “peculiar”, “strange” [etc.]” (Page 28)

Unlike European music, African/African American music syncopates, layers instrumental sound, utilizes call and response, and invites physical participation. Most notably, however, is the ability of Africans and African Americans to make “…a musical instrument [speak] the same language as…its player.” (Page 30) What this means is that rather than restricting an instruments ability to the players ability, Africans/African Americans utilize instruments to further extend themselves musically. In almost every way, this juxtaposes European music. 

European music is categorized by its simple melodies, lack of percussion sounds (wether instrumental or physical), and lack of emotional involvement. Where African/African American music seeks to connect audience and performer, European music creates a stark divide between those performing the music and those enjoying the music. In this sense, European music is not nearly as engaging (emotionally or physically) as African/African American music. 

Although African Diaspora has created significant differences in the African community vs the African American community, music is a cultural practice that unifies all persons of African decent. This is partially because of two common musical structures found in both communities: Call and Response and Repetitive chorus. As explained before, Call and Response is a unique characteristic of African/African American music. With a leader speaking first and a congregation echoing, phrases, song lines, and even words are emphasized and create music that is participatory. In African American communities, this style of delivery is common in Gospel songs such as Donnie McClurkin’s Victory Chant (Hail Jesus). In African communities, this style of delivery is also common in religious songs which are often times used to help heal the sick. 

Repetition is also a musical structure shared between the two communities. Repetition in African/African American music “…provides a stable foundation for the improvised lines of the soloist.” (Page 33) It allows a song to be lengthened, taken up or down several octaves, changed metrically, and much more.

Both of these musical structures inherently require a communal participation in music making. Wether this be through a back and forth dialogue between singer and audience, or a repeated melody that allows artists to actively create new music, these two structures set African and African American music apart from the rest. 


Music in both the African and the African American community plays a substantial role. Not only is it used to express everyday experiences, but it is also used to build community and foster environments of togetherness. Through improvisation and other varying musical structures, both communities are able to create music that is as unique as it is impactful.

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