Syncosradio Africa

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African Music History

Knowing about African music history helps you better understand the continent itself. Because music is so deeply rooted in African culture.

Apart from Africans themselves, this knowledge is usually restricted to ethnomusicologists and historians.

On this page, I’ll try to present it in easily understandable bits and in a way that’s enjoyable for everyone.

Djembe history, just like African history in general, is hardly documented in writing. But it is clear that the traditional, sacred rhythms and dances have gone through a dramatic transformation in recent years.

Origin Of The Djembe

The exact beginning of the djembe history and tradition is unclear, but it was certainly present in the 13th century, when the great Mali Empire was formed.

Apparently, it has its origins with the Malinke (also called Maninka, Mandinka, Mande) and Susu people, who roughly occupied the area between today’s Bamako (Mali) and Kankan (Guinea).

The “numu” are a social class of professional blacksmiths and are believed to be the first carvers of this wooden instrument.

There is also a story in circulation about the “true inventor” of the djembe: A woman. While pounding millet, she broke through the bottom of her old mortar and mounted a goat skin on it. The goblet-shape of the djembe still reminds of the mortars used by African women.

In traditional Africa, often only certain classes of people are allowed to play certain instruments. For instance, the kora, ngoni and bala are reserved to the “jeli”, the class of professional musicians (called griots in French).

With the djembe, there do not seem to be such restrictions of who may play it. In fact, most famous djembe players come from numu and even noble lineages of the Mande society, who are normally not associated with making music.

Through migration of the numu, the djembe is now not only present in Mali and Guinea, but also in the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Senegal and most recently Ghana.

The Djembe In Western Culture

Through the ballets and African teachers, the djembe has definitely settled in Western culture. It accompanies popular Western music and drum manufacturers have found profitable markets for industrially produced copies.

The therapeutic effect of music is being rediscovered in modern societies and drum circles pop up in every major city. Djembe drumming has become a tool for team building, therapies, self improvement and New Age movements in the West.

Africans are certainly proud of their instrument getting some recognition. But many are frustrated to see the djembe being completely removed from its cultural context and to hear the traditional rhythms of their villages not being played correctly.

Most Westerners are unaware of the depth, traditional use and purpose of the drum because djembe history is hardly documented. Only few are interested to research on their own. Instead, some foreign visitors to Africa even try to show Africans how the djembe is supposed to be played.

The Role Of The Sosso Bala In The Mande Society

The African balafon is the traditional xylophone of the Mande people in West Africa. The original name of the percussion instrument is bala, while the term “balafon” actually means “playing the bala instrument”.

Every Mande balafon that exists today originates from one particular instrument, the Sosso Bala.

Let’s go back to the early years of the 13th century and meet Soumaoro Kanté: He was a sorcerer and tyrannical king of the Susu people in the area of modern Guinea.  (The Susu are a subgroup of the Mande ethnic group in West Africa.)

After bargaining with Jinna Maghan, the king of the jinns (supernatural spirits), Soumaoro received their sacred instrument: the Sosso Bala, a wooden xylophone with supernatural powers.

Soumaoro used the Sosso Bala as an oracle. Through it he would gain information about the future, which gave him an advantage in war and battles.

The balafon made the king unbeatable and he kept the power of the Sosso Balaselfishly to himself. Nobody else was allowed to touch the sacred instrument.

Balafaseke Kouyate – The Smart Griot of Sunjata Keita

Balafaseke Kouyate was a jeli (called griot in French) in the service of a Malinke man called Sunjata Keita. (The Malinke are another subgroup of the Mande ethnic group.) One day, he sneaked into the Susu king’s palace. He was immediately drawn to theSosso Bala and started playing it.

King Soumaoro with his supernatural connection to the Sosso Bala, felt that his instrument had been touched and went to check. Being caught in the act, the griot quickly improvised a praise song to the Susu king.

The king was deeply impressed by Balafaseke’s playing and very pleased about the praising. Instead of punishing him, he spared his life and kept him in his service.

From now on, Balafaseke was the only person authorized to play the sacred Sosso Bala in order to praise and glorify the king’s accomplishments.