In this essay, Kofi Agawu reveals secrets. Why the most important sources of information on African music routinely ignore the tradition of art music, why the postcolonial state is hidden and why the cat is by now out of the bag.
I sometimes play a game with my students. I ask them: What comes to mind when you think of African music? Then I have them listen to three brief recorded excerpts to see what sorts of associations they make. The first and third are often the most familiar. The first is a song from Guinea entitled Kalefa ba. It features kora player M’Bady Kouyaté and his wife, singer Diaryatou. Her voice reaches far, she enunciates clearly, her melody is affecting, and the performance seems to summon the Mande cosmos. The third is a popular southern Ewe dance, Agbadza, from Ghana. It is an index of the communal ethos and polyrhythmic expression that binds singers, dancers and drummers together in collective action.Kalefa ba may be heard on track 19 of the CD accompanying: Brandilly, Monique, (1997): Introduction aux musiques Africaines, Arles, cite de la musique, Acts sud. Agbadza may be heard on track 2 of the CD: Yao Younge, Paschal; Billing, Maria A., (2000): Ghana: Rhythms of the People, Barre, VT, Multi-cultural Media.
But what about the second, a solo piano piece with a strong interrogative quality? This piece lacks a consistent pulse, invests in silence, trades in fragmentary gestures, and essentially tells listeners: Listen up, this is music to be contemplated. Is this also African music? My students often draw a blank. This is indeed African music, music by the Nigerian composer Joshua Uzoigwe (1946-2005), a composer of great originality and enterprise, whose work displays the lineaments of postcolonial composition.
Outing a secret
If you’re not familiar with music such as Uzoigwe’s, you wouldn’t be alone, for a well-kept secret about Africa is the existence of a significant body of art music: music self-consciously composed by individuals, often notated, usually rehearsed and performed by skilled practitioners for non-participating (or minimally participating) audiences in designated modern spaces (churches, concert halls, community theaters and private homes). The example I include in my game is Ilùlù, an item from the genre of African pianism. For the composer, the piece is atonal and expressionistic, and indeed some listeners may be reminded of early 20th-century European modernism. But Ilùlù was composed in 1991, not 1911, and it was recorded in 2003 by Ghanaian-American pianist, William Chapman Nyaho.Chapman Nyaho, William (2003): Senku: Piano Music by Composers of African Descent, Musicians Showcase Recordings, track 2.
Why do the major published sources of information on African music, including the periodical literature, routinely ignore this tradition of art music, a tradition that has been in existence since the 19th century? What accounts for its under-representation or non-representation in the work of leading European scholars (Rouget, Kubik, Arom, Erlmann), scholars who have devoted entire lifetimes to the study of African music and oral literature?
Let me state the problem in a different way. If I were to present you with the names Ngugi, Armah, Soyinka, Achebe, and Adichie, many will probably recognize them as leading African writers. Everyone has read the novel Things Fall Apart, a canonical work of African literary imagination. Yes, it is written in the language of our colonial oppressors (well, sort of), but it inscribes experiences, values and beliefs that many readers readily identify with; it evinces a postcolonial worldview.
If, on the other hand, I were to provide you with another list, this time with the names Sowande, Euba, Tamusuza and Labi, many will probably be clueless. These are composers. Like their literary colleagues, they are attempting to exercise the African imagination, only this time in the medium of sound. Is there something about sound that impedes the circulation of their work? That seems unlikely; after all, artists like Fela Kuti, Angelique Kidjo, Youssou N’Dour, Burna Boy and Davido have managed to attract a huge international following from musical performances. Of course, they operate in the realm of urban popular music, with its easy, media-assisted circulation, not in the realm of art music. What accounts for the markedness of African art music?
Well, be assured that this essay is not a song of lament nor am I going to whine about what Euro-America knows, does not know, or more to the point, does not wish to know about certain African musical practices. Rather, I want to use the existence of this secret to reflect on the entailments of an art music tradition. I will be suggesting that it is precisely the failure, perhaps even the refusal, to come to terms with the realities of the post-colony, that has impeded appreciation for a musical tradition whose historical emergence was inevitable, whose affordances for creativity considerable, and whose symbolic value for African modernity very high indeed.
The story of Black African art music cannot be recounted in its entirety here, so I’ll make brief mention of two countries in which the tradition is thriving: Nigeria and Ghana.
Art music in Africa owes its origins to the twin forces of missionization and colonization.
As is well known, music played an important role in the realization of the goals of the missionary project, while colonial education provided avenues for the cultivation of musical interest through singing, playing of instruments, and in a few cases, composing. In his pioneering book on Nigerian art music published in 1995, Bode Omojola lists and discusses the work of composers like Achinivù, Akpabot, Bankole, Ekwueme, Euba, Ndubuisi, Nzewi, Omojola himself, Sadoh, Sowande, and Uzoigwe. And while there is no comparable single source for the Ghanaian story, well-known figures like Ephraim Amu, Kwabena Nketia, N.Z. Nayo, Gyimah Labi, Kenn Kafui, and George Dor have been the subject of individual studies, including self-studies.Omojola, Bode (1995): Nigerian Art Music, with an Introductory Study of Ghanaian Art Music, Ibadan, Institut Francais de Recherche en Afrique, University of lbadan. For an early general discussion of the very possibility of an art music tradition in Africa, see: Irele, Abiola (1993): “Is African Music Possible?” in: Transition 61, p. 56-71. An informative and comprehensive discussion of African art music is Scherzinger, Martin (2004): “Art Music in a Cross-Cultural Context:The Case of Africa” in: The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music, ed.: Cook, Nicolas, Pople, Anthony, p. 584-613.
What kind of heritage do these composers possess? The first thing to note is that the heritage is multiple and eclectic. It stems from community-based traditional music (music with the strongest claims to being of pre-European origin – like the Agbadza clance referred to earlier), modifications of this tradition into neo-traditional forms; the ubiquitous popular music of Cuban, American and British origins; and, perhaps most important for the purposes of this essay, selected European repertories, including hymns, simple classics, Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and a little encounter with the music of 20th-century composers.
Let me dwell for a moment on the European part of that heritage by citing a little-known but revealing source, the so-called Seminary Tunes published in 1907 by the Basel Mission in Ghana and aimed at Twi-speaking tutors and students of the Akropong Seminary. This compilation of 125 tunes served as a kind of musical bible, profoundly influencing individuals like Amu, Nketia, and R. O. Danso, all of whom attended or taught at the Seminary, and who later became well-known composers.
Three things stand out about this document of missionization. First, in assembling a musical diet for Africans whose souls were also being targeted for redemption, the Basel missionaries induded work by a handful of well-known European composers (like Händel, Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn) but reserved the greater space for works by lesser-known composers (with surnames like Klein, Nägeli, Becker, Stern, Voigtländer, Kreutzer, among numerous others). Second, the musical material consists of chorales, opera choruses, and excerpts from oratorios, all fitted with Twi words, not necessarily translations of the original texts. One interesting exception is the Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah, which retained Händel’s English text. Most interesting in the compilation are adaptations of secular instrumental melodies for this religious context. Appearing on pages 235-237 of Seminary Tunes is the theme from the slow movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata, here arranged as a four-part chorale, transposed from the original key of D-flat major to F major, and fitted with the Twi words, “Nyame pa, yen s’ro agya”, (Good God, Let’s Fear the Lord).
Third, the harmonic idiom is firmly tonal in the common-practice sense of the term. Hierarchic structures anchored by a tonic-dominant polarity control the movement at phrase levels; secondary dominants are used occasionally, but there are few extended modulations. Indeed, none of the items in Seminary Tunes makes extensive use of chromaticism. African composers brought up in such a milieu later found it impossible to escape the regimes of syntax and vocabulary imposed by this music-regime, it must be said, that were initially antithetical to those of indigenous musical expression. The result was a form of colonization, a colonization of musical consciousness.On the colonization of consciousness, see: Comaroff, Jean; Comaroff, John (1991): Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa, Chicago, University of Chicago Press. See also Agawu, Kofi (2016): “Tonality as Colonizing Force”, in: Audible Empire, ed. Radano, Ronald: Olaniyan, Tejunmola, Durham, Duke University Pres, p. 334-355.  Gyimah Labi’s work is included in the appendix to his book: Labi, Gyimah (2003): Theoretical Issues in African Music: Exploring Resources Creatively, Bayreuth. Bayreuth African Studies: Owoaje’s score, Expansions on Afantala, is unpublished; Amu’s choral piece is published in St. Louis by E C. Schirmer and edited by Felicia Sandler: Uzoigwe’s work remains unpublished.
Sampling sound worlds
I have dwelt on the Seminary Tunes compilation because I believe that some such anthology of European music lies behind the tonal thinking of most composers of Black African art music. Exposure and training do not tell the whole story, however; we also need to consider the “choices” made by individual composers. Again, in the interests of space, I will refer to a few scores to provide visual evidence and then cite a few recordings to provide the aural evidence.
The four scores listed below give an indication of the kinds of notational environment found in African art music:
Gyimah Labi, Timpani Concertino (1993)
Busolaséun Owoaje, Expansions on Ajantala (2015)
Ephraim Amu, Asem yi di ka (This talk has got to be spoken, 1944)
Uzoigwe, Ilùlù (1991)
A glance at their framing suggests a concern with titles, instrumentation, rhythm, harmony, melody, and style, all of which signify multiply.Gyimah Labi’s work is included in the appendix to his book: Labi, Gyimah (2003): Theoretical Issues in African Music: Exploring Resources Creatively, Bayreuth. Bayreuth African Studies: Owoaje’s score, Expansions on Afantala, is unpublished; Amu’s choral piece is published in St. Louis by E C. Schirmer and edited by Felicia Sandler: Uzoigwe’s work remains unpublished.
As for the aural evidence, three works from the genre of African pianism and readily heard on the streaming service Spotify provide some indication of the actual sonic environment:
Gyimah Labi, Earthbeats from Five Dialects for Piano (1988)
Bongani Ndodana-Breen, Flowers the Sand, I (2001)
Akin Euba, Igba Kérín (1964)
All three are different in character. The pounding fury at the opening of Labi’s Earthbeats yields to more lyrical, Akan-flavoured material. But the drama of that opening is unfinished business, and the composer will return to it from time to time throughout the work.
Ndodana-Breen offers a different kind of temporal experience, a non-linear experience, perhaps, as if sounds were being projected into space. Muted utterances form amidst a quiet and circular doodling.
And in Euba’s Igba Kérín, the inventor of African pianism himself serves up an energetic ditty with a huge choreographic supplement.
Indeed, a lot of West African art music carries similar supplements even though it is intended for listening, not for dancing. Without entering a complex discussion of technical skills, compositional intention, musical values, and aesthetic results, I will only say that I doubt that any fair-minded critic would dismiss this music out of hand. or discourage others from listening to it, or deprioritize it in surveys of African music.
So why does the African art music tradition remain little known?
Resisting African art music
Saul Bellow once famously said, “When the Zulus produce their Tolstoy, we will read him”. Lurking behind that seemingly innocent claim is skepticism about the abilities of others, those “other” being Blacks, people of colour, non-Westerners, and so on. If we read Bellow literally, the standard for measuring a composition’s worth will be set by a member of the European avant-garde (I dare not name names). By these lights, pitch organization in African art music, for example, may seem conservative; aspects of this music may seem displaced from the Euro-modern, as if the century from 1820 to about 1920 simply did not happen.
By this argument, critics imply that African composers are writing music that has, as it were, been previously written; they are in effect re-writing the West’s achievements. Taking us back instead of forward.
But to pursue this claim of a temporal displacement, however, one would have to impute a linearity to European musical history that is simply false. Yes, conventional narratives have it that tonal harmony, for example, became increasingly chromatic in the 19th century and reached a highpoint in the atonal music of the early decades of the 20th century. But the aftermath of the 1920s, not only in jazz, blues or popular music but in some styles of classical music (like minimalism or post-minimalism), could hardly be described as progressive complexification of harmony. What we witness, instead, are “new patterns of co-presence” in the parameters of a work. It is this recontextualization that accounts for some of the novelty in African art music.
Occluding the postcolonial condition
If the quality argument is, as it were, porous. we must look elsewhere for an explanation for our secret. Could it be a poor understanding of the very conditions of the musical post-colony, including the complex layers of sedimented cultural and stylistic influences, and the values that shape the choices made subjectively by individual composers? If so, what we need is an anthropologist’s thick description of the worlds that each individual composer inhabits. Again, such a construction lies beyond the scope of a short essay like this, but we might gain some insight into those worlds by reflecting on two terms that have become mainstays of post-colonial criticism: hybridity and essentialism.
Central to postcolonial expression, or so the story goes, is hybridity, the interaction of elements of different – sometimes radically different – provenance. At first sight, compositions such as Labi’s, Euba’s or Uzoigwe’s may seem hybrid on account of the dual origins (European and African) of their materials and processes. There are problems with deploying that term, however. Here are three of them.
First is the implication that other compositions (European or African) are non-hybrid or even “pure” (these presumably being the opposing terms). Is Uzoigwe’s music beholden to hybridity in a way that the works of Brahms or Stravinsky are not, To raise the question is to expose the fragile underpinnings of the attribution, for by the time you’re done excavating the various “topoi” that animate the music of a Mozart or a Mahler, a Debussy or a Britten, a Stravinsky or a Kurtág, you’ll probably become wary of (or suspend belief altogether in) the actual existence of non-hybrid musical material.
Second is the failure to historicize hybridity instead of hypostatizing it. The changing patterns and meanings of the interacting elements suggest that something judged to be hybrid in one time period may lose that aura in a subsequent period. The third problem concerns the pejorative associations of the term hybridity, including the implication that it betrays some kind of divided consciousness. It is not at all clear that a composer who routinely combines three-against-two rhythms with authentic cadences and asymmetrical phrase-construction is plagued by any kind of divided consciousness. In language use, code-switching comes naturally to speakers of a Creole language.
The musical equivalent of linguistic code-switching is a more elusive proposition, however, because the codes themselves bleed at their edges, relinquishing any autonomy they might possess.
So, to imply that African composers labour under competing allegiances because of the diverse origins of their materials is to mischaracterize this aspect of musical creativity; it is to erect borders where in fact none exist.
Another challenge to the reception of African art music is the reliance, sometimes overtly, other times covertly, on essentialist attributes. Let me approach this problem by way of an anecdote. One of my Ghanaian students told me of a visiting European composer who had come to Ghana to run a composition workshop. The composer would constantly enjoin the African students to “be themselves”. When a European tells you to “Be yourself”, when he seems to know in advance what sonic form that self should take, you might wish to be alert to a looming ideological imposition. For this particular instructor, the essentialized African sound was evidently rhythmic, and so “be yourself” meant writing music that is rhythmically complex, where, incidentally, complexity is to be judged from a European perspective, a perspective that routinely excludes the subtle sedimentations of language in African rhythmic expression. An obstacle to the open reception of African art music thus develops from this desire to see Africans thinking African musical thoughts. A postcolonial perspective would reposition essentialism as a strategic choice. It would not deny those patterns of musical investment that history and anthropology have shown to be valid, but it would struggle against, and indeed reject, the under-complicating of our lived experience.
To decolonize or not?
I’ve been urging a more nuanced understanding of the postcolony, but since coloniality and missionization are key historical enablers of African art music, I must in closing make a comment about recurrent calls for de-colonization. Decolonization here presumably refers not to the discourse about music (the writings of scholars and critics) but to the discourse of the music itself, including the very structures that enable composition. So, what would it mean to decolonize African art music?
Historically, decolonization has typically engendered two kinds of reaction, a turning inwards and a turning outwards. One turns inwards to reclaim indigenous territory, including knowledge and expression, presumably under a real or perceived threat from outside forces. Language and its associated thought systems are the key vehicles for executing this turn. There is, however, a reciprocal turn to the outside, this outside carrying both spatial and temporal valences.
For if the point of turning inwards is to recover something lost, the ultimate test of that recovery is that it engenders new, presumably more grounded forms of creativity.
These new forms, in turn, are aimed at contemporary audiences. In addressing what we might call the postcolonial contemporary, then, the artist is simultaneously concerned with past residue and future prospect, along with local and translocal reception.
A number of African composers have already taken steps in this direction. Uzoigwe, for example, well into his career, returned in the 1980s to a study of a set of Igbo-tuned drums, Ukom, from which he extracted elements and processes for use in composition. He was seeking to ground his work in an African sound field and to do so not only affectively but structurally. Similarly, Nketia in the 1940s drew inspiration from the dirges sung by his grandmother in Asante Mampong to produce new music, music with aspirations to transcend the local while also addressing a contemporary imperative. So, it would not be an exaggeration to say that African composers have already been engaged in modest “decolonial” acts. These steps, however tentative, typically assume an incorporative rather than a separatist stance. So, instead of imagining an art music tradition purged of ostensible European influence – that’s simply a chimera – we’re better off recognizing ways in which African composers have sought change from within, transforming existing material and practices (the things they came to meet) in response to new awakenings and stimuli. It’s all a gradual process.
Finally, it bears repeating that Europe’s desires for decolonization are shaped by Europe’s histories and the experiences of its actors, so even if the underlying impulses resonate with Africa’s, we must not assume that we share the same goals. Instead, for example, of importing Europe’s neuroses about its influential figures into the erstwhile colonies, we might encourage composers who wish to creatively appropriate things tagged “colonial” (including Beethoven!) to follow their impulses, especially if such appropriation seems obviously empowering. In making this concession, notions of “whiteness” or “Europeanness” will not be wielded as self-evident categories when it comes to creativity. Creative practices are fields of possibility, fields that may be tagged with different colours – black, brown or yellow – according to desire and context. In this way, African composers will not be forced into a defensive mode when it comes to justifying their work; they will not be sent on a wild goose chase looking for “non-white” or “authentic” or “African” spaces that they’ll be told are their own. All spaces are “potentially” African, and so composers will read the injunction to “be themselves” pragmatically and opportunistically.
In short: The cat is by now out of the bag. Updated lists of composers, works and performances confirm the existence of an art music tradition. True, African art music may not have attained the degrees of salience achieved by popular music and traditional music, but its composers are thriving within a pluralistic soundscape. This music’s potential is enormous, comparable in principle to the potential of African literary and theatrical production, production that has proved seminal to the discourses of postcolonial theory and world literature. It may in fact be that, as calls to action, postcolonialism inscribes a different set of priorities from decolonization.
The futures imagined by postcoloniality tend to provincialize Euro-America, whereas those associated with decolonization remain fixated on pasts denied by Europe. The distinction is not absolute, of course, but it suggests a different scheme of priorities.
The tradition of African art music that I have described in this essay signifies a modernity that is undergoing constant redefinition. It is a dynamic tradition. Under current imperatives, its recognition is long overdue.
This article was first published in Dynamic Traditions Global perspectives on contemporary music A text collection on behalf of Donaushingen Global and is published in herri with kind permission of the author and the editors, Elisa Erkelenz & Katja Heldt.
|1.||Kalefa ba may be heard on track 19 of the CD accompanying: Brandilly, Monique, (1997): Introduction aux musiques Africaines, Arles, cite de la musique, Acts sud. Agbadza may be heard on track 2 of the CD: Yao Younge, Paschal; Billing, Maria A., (2000): Ghana: Rhythms of the People, Barre, VT, Multi-cultural Media.|
|2.||Chapman Nyaho, William (2003): Senku: Piano Music by Composers of African Descent, Musicians Showcase Recordings, track 2.|
|3.||Omojola, Bode (1995): Nigerian Art Music, with an Introductory Study of Ghanaian Art Music, Ibadan, Institut Francais de Recherche en Afrique, University of lbadan. For an early general discussion of the very possibility of an art music tradition in Africa, see: Irele, Abiola (1993): “Is African Music Possible?” in: Transition 61, p. 56-71. An informative and comprehensive discussion of African art music is Scherzinger, Martin (2004): “Art Music in a Cross-Cultural Context:The Case of Africa” in: The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music, ed.: Cook, Nicolas, Pople, Anthony, p. 584-613.|
|4.||On the colonization of consciousness, see: Comaroff, Jean; Comaroff, John (1991): Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism and Consciousness in South Africa, Chicago, University of Chicago Press. See also Agawu, Kofi (2016): “Tonality as Colonizing Force”, in: Audible Empire, ed. Radano, Ronald: Olaniyan, Tejunmola, Durham, Duke University Pres, p. 334-355.  Gyimah Labi’s work is included in the appendix to his book: Labi, Gyimah (2003): Theoretical Issues in African Music: Exploring Resources Creatively, Bayreuth. Bayreuth African Studies: Owoaje’s score, Expansions on Afantala, is unpublished; Amu’s choral piece is published in St. Louis by E C. Schirmer and edited by Felicia Sandler: Uzoigwe’s work remains unpublished.|
|5.||Gyimah Labi’s work is included in the appendix to his book: Labi, Gyimah (2003): Theoretical Issues in African Music: Exploring Resources Creatively, Bayreuth. Bayreuth African Studies: Owoaje’s score, Expansions on Afantala, is unpublished; Amu’s choral piece is published in St. Louis by E C. Schirmer and edited by Felicia Sandler: Uzoigwe’s work remains unpublished.|