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  • Graham Abbott

African Associations

The vast continent of Africa is something of an unknown region to most of us in the west, myself included. All too often, countries in that continent are in the news for all the wrong reasons, and this tends to overshadow the extraordinary cultural richness and ethnic diversity of the region. In this article we’ll survey a few works which have been created under the influence of the musical cultures of Africa.



To even the most uninitiated, the element of African music most readily recognised is its rhythm. Most African cultures seem to make use of a huge range of drums, and percussion instruments in general are a hallmark of many African musics. This is not to say that African music is devoid of melody - far from it. The popularisation of South African township singing by groups such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo reminds us that singing is also fundamental to the African experience.


We’ll start by looking at two composers who wrote works influenced by North Africa, and who both chose to express influence this in terms of melody rather than rhythm. The English composer Gustav Holst was attracted to cultures other than his own, including the worlds of Hinduism and Sanskrit literature. When holidaying in Algeria in 1908 he was immediately struck by the music of that part of north Africa, and this led to one of his most important early works, Beni Mora, an “oriental” suite for orchestra, which completed in 1910.

An Ouled Naïl Girl, Algeria (1905)

The third and final movement of the suite is called In the street of the Ouled Naïls and it’s based on a fragment of melody Holst said he heard played by an Algerian musician in the distance at night for two and a half hours. Holst repeats the four-bar melody almost 50 times (in 163 fragments) as the basis for ever changing orchestral textures and colours. [listen]


North Africa inspired the Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks in the early 1950s. Over more than 40 years – ending only with her death in 1990 - Glanville-Hicks carried on an extraordinary correspondence with the American novelist and composer Paul Bowles who, from 1947, lived in Morocco. In 1952 it occurred to Glanville-Hicks to set some extracts from Bowles’ letters to music, and the result was Letters from Morocco. The restrained yet intense way in which these songs for tenor and orchestra are written display Glanville-Hicks’ skill in being able to say a great deal with the minimum of means. Here is the third song from the cycle: There are concerts here, too beautiful to imagine... The composer is trying to evoke Morocco’s heat, its physical and aural sensuality, and the way in which the writer is clearly intoxicated by it all. [listen]


Moroccan musicians, Tangiers

Let’s focus now on rhythm. The use of ostinato rhythm – rhythm which is repeated obsessively – is a feature of much African music, and this is often highlighted in music inspired by Africa. In the 1950s a Belgian priest, Guido Haazen, was working as a missionary in the Congo, and, impressed with the musical abilities of the local people, started a choir which soon achieved international prominence. This mixing of African culture with the Catholic faith led to the creation of the Missa luba, a setting of the Latin Mass in a quasi-African vocal style, accompanied by ostinato percussion rhythms. The Missa luba is now an established work in what we might call the “crossover” field, and still very popular today. Here is just one movement, the Sanctus, from a recording made in Nairobi in 1990. [listen]


Fr Guido Haazen

Taking the same idea a great deal further, the English composer and ethnomusicologist David Fanshawe incorporated actual recordings of music by non-western musicians in some of his works, the most famous of which is the African Sanctus, dating from the early 1970s. It is scored for choir with solo soprano, rock band, percussion, and a pre-recorded tape which contains the field recordings made in Egypt, Sudan, Uganda and Kenya between 1969 and 1973. There is also scope for the addition of “ethnic” drummers – that is, live African musicians – if they are available. The tape and the live music have to be exactly co-ordinated in performance, and he result is very much a child of its time: a plea for world peace, a mixing of “serious” and pop styles, and a delicious blending of cultures and religions into a coherent whole. [listen]


David Fanshawe

Of course, some composers make reference to Africa in their music without actually quoting its music. In 1937, Alexander von Zemlinsky – the friend and teacher of Arnold Schoenberg – wrote a set of twelve cabaret songs, his opus 27. One of these, lasting less than a minute, is inspired by African drums and is called African Dance. The text makes reference to “African tom-toms” which stir the blood, and you’ll hear the piano play low notes to imitate these drums. Even when sung in the original German, the word “tom-toms” is impossible to miss! [listen]


Alexander von Zemlinsky, c. 1900

If we go right back to the early 18th century, it’s interesting to see that Africa was a place that people in Europe knew about even then. I bet you didn’t think I could work Handel into this topic, but I have. Handel wrote a great many secular cantatas, usually for one or two voices and a simple continuo accompaniment, comprising a few recitatives and arias. They are like miniature opera scenes, and in one of them, Handel uses the image of a wounded African lion, stumbling about in pain, as a metaphor for a man emotionally wounded by the woman he loves. To make matters more interesting, Handel was clearly writing for one of the greatest bass voices of his day, as this music is truly terrifying in its demands upon the singer. The opening recitative talks about the animals of Africa – and the fearsome sounds of beasts and serpents and birds are imitated in some of the vocal writing. In the following aria, the lion is portrayed as limping and stumbling instead of walking proudly and nobly, the result of an arrow which has fallen from the sky. (No prizes for noticing the Cupid analogy...) The stumbling and falling of the lion is painted in the enormous downwards leaps for the voice. Of course, Handel makes no attempt to sound African in this music, but he contents himself with writing music that is actually almost impossible to sing. It’s sung magnificently in this classic recording by David Thomas. [listen]


Saleh: Wounded Lion (c. 1839)

Handel’s cantatas were the popular music of his day, designed for domestic use in the homes of the rich and famous. The sounds of Africa have infiltrated much popular music of recent times as well. In 1970 – at the start of the same decade that saw the creation of Fanshawe’s African Sanctus – a number of African musicians formed a group called Osibisa. These musicians combined their traditional musical heritage with the commercially popular style of the day. The results – in a style which came to be known as Afro-rock - are clever and infectious and a lot of fun. Note that the harmony almost never changes, and the percussion performs ostinato rhythms in the style of much African traditional music. Whether the invention of Afro-rock was responsible for the invention of some truly shocking hairstyles, though, is something I’m not prepared to comment on... [listen]



Osibisa (2008)

Now both of the preceding pieces – the music of Osibisa and that of Handel – reflect their own times – and the next piece does so as well. In the 1980s, pop and rock musicians began to use electronic instruments as a matter of course, not as something new and unusual, and the next piece we’ll hear is very much in this world. Its electronic sounds, and the opening rhythmic and melodic ostinati are clearly derived from the music of Africa – which also the title of the piece. It’s typical of the popular music of the 80s: sleek, shiny, polished, metallic in its edge. The words of the song are pretty “stream of consciousness”, which is often a euphemism for “it doesn’t need to make sense so long as the imagery is strong”, but the references to Africa in both music and lyrics are very clear. The band is Toto and the year is 1982. The link here is of the original music video. [listen]



Toto in London (1982)

It should come as no surprise that composers from Africa who write in the western tradition should be inspired by the traditional music of their own continent. One such composer is Kevin Volans, who was born in South Africa in 1949. Quite a few of his works refer to African music and culture, among them his second string quartet of 1987. This uses a number of traditional African melodies, among them one from southern Ethiopia which is heard near the beginning. Volans’ second quartet is called Hunting: Gathering. [listen]



Kevin Volans

In 1970 the American composer Steve Reich visited Africa. The direct exposure to the power of African rhythms led to Reich’s longest work, simply called Drumming. Scored for a range of percussion instruments, voices and piccolo, Drumming is in four connected sections and takes an hour and a half to perform in its entirety. I’ll link two videos here. The first contains the original 1971 sound recording performed by the composer’s own ensemble, while the second is a video of a live performance of a slightly shorter version, given in Canada in 2017.


Original 1971 recording: [listen]

Live video performance, 2017: [listen]


Steve Reich

The marimba is like a big xylophone, with a deep, mellow sound. It’s an instrument with African roots, and in 1995 the English-born composer Dave Heath wrote his African Sunrise for the phenomenal Dame Evelyn Glennie, a work for marimba and orchestra which lasts about a quarter of an hour, and which is designed to precede another, shorter piece, called Manhattan Rave. In African Sunrise we have sounds clearly derived from traditional African music, but translated into a modern “classical” idiom. This video features a live performance of both pieces from the 2014 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. The soloist, just 15 years old at the time, is Elliott Gaston-Ross. [listen]

Elliott Gaston-Ross

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2003.

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