West African Folk Music

• Folk and Traditional Styles

West African Folk Music

The music of West Africa is a limitless field of study. Though its boundaries are indefinite and fluid, the region stretches roughly from Senegal east to Chad, south to Cameroon, and back west through Nigeria, Ghana, and the other coastal countries. Within this area, there are hundreds of distinct cultures and languages, each with its own musical practices.

West African music, like all music, is in a state of constant change, both through indigenous innovation as well as external influences. Before the arrival of Europeans, West African history was dominated by a series of empires that developed highly stratified societies and major cities. There has been extensive and continuous contact between the people of West Africa and their northern Arab and Berber neighbors across the Sahara, resulting in musical influences in both directions. Islam crossed the desert as well-in parts of West Africa, the sound of the muezzin, the Islamic sung call-to-prayer, calls Muslims to pray five times a day. Many music styles also feature highly melismatic singing like that found throughout the Arab world.

Europeans arrived in the 1400s and established trading networks, missions, and eventually colonies by the 1800s. Their influence can be seen in many instruments, popular music forms, and church music. By far the largest influences on West African music styles came from other West African styles, a process which the noted African music scholar Gerhard Kubik calls the "intra-African influence."

General Music Concepts

With the array of cultures and styles in West Africa, it is impossible to make generalizations that apply to every case, though some basic principles can be discussed. Music, dance, theater, and other arts overlap in many West African cultures-in fact, they are often seen to be part of one larger concept. In some languages, one word is used to represent music and dance. Music is largely an oral tradition; written notation has been used in only a few instances during the past 100 years. Despite this, many songs are composed, in that a structure is organized by a composer prior to performance and then taught in parts to other performers. Variation is allowed and often encouraged-it might include adaptations to the lyrics or changes in rhythmic accents.

Vocal music and songs are an important part of all West African cultures. Choral music is generally sung in unison or octaves in West Africa. Call-and-response singing, in which a leader alternates with a chorus of singers, is very common. Sometimes, the beginnings and ends of the leader and chorus parts overlap. Solo singers are common, and they accompany themselves or sing with an instrumental ensemble.


Rhythm is the fundamental organizing principle in most styles. Generally, a steady tempo is divided into pulses-the smallest units of rhythm-that serve as a way of orienting time. Groups of pulses are organized by beats every 3, 4, 6, 8, or 12 pulses. These are not accented as downbeats are in European music, but rather serve as markers of the passage of time. During performances, singers and sometimes audience members clap the beat.

Actual instrumental parts and song melodies are then organized by cycles, repeating patterns that usually last 8, 16, or 24 beats. These cycles are usually syncopated patterns that repeat throughout a piece. In West Africa, different patterns interlock to create some of the most complex polyrhythms found in the world. This complexity is usually held together by a time line, which is a steady, repeating (though usually syncopated) pattern played on a bell, sticks, or the side of a drum.

Music and Society

In all cultures music is deeply integrated into the activities of society, and the cultures of West Africa are no exception. First of all, music can be played simply for entertainment, whether it's an individual singing or playing to pass the time, or it's a large concert to celebrate the weekend. Music often accompanies religious rituals or ceremonies that mark cycles of life, such as birth, puberty, weddings, and funerals. Among the Fulbe people, all the young males of a certain age are taken away from their families to learn their new social roles, and also to learn special songs and instruments that they play upon their return. Music is often connected to work; occupational groups (like guilds) might have their own music and songs. In other cases music helps make work more enjoyable or efficient. For example, in many places women coordinate pounding millet with a mortar and pestles to produce rhythmic patterns.

Music can have a connection to politics as well. Historically some instruments were used only in the courts of rulers. Musicians there would play songs of praise and stories of the history of the ruling family. This practice continues today among some cultures, including the Ashanti of Ghana. The atumpan is a special drum played only for the chief. By manipulating the tone and pitch of the drum, drummers are able to "speak" with the drum to praise the chief and his ancestors. Today this practice lingers with politicians who hire musicians to play for them at rallies or other political events.

A griot, also called a jali or gewel, is a professional royal musician found in Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea, and Mali, though they now are not always attached to a court. A person is born into a griot family and learns the profession as a child. Historically griots not only praised the chief and his relatives, but also served as the society's historians-singing stories of great events from the past.

Instrument Types

Every type of instrument can be found in West Africa. Though drums are often thought of as the defining element of West African music, idiophones (literally "self-sounding" instruments) are the most pervasive. These include shakers like the shekere of the Yoruba of Nigeria, bells like the gankogui of Ghana, finger-pianos, and xylophones like the large bala of the Mande people. In many cultures an idiophone is used to play the time line.

Drums are found in many different shapes, sizes, and construction, even within one culture. Some drums are single-headed, like the djembe, while others have two heads and are held under the arm or in the lap, like the bata drum of Nigeria. Double-headed tension drums called dondo can be found in Ghana and Nigeria and are lined with rope that a player can squeeze to change the pitch. In general, drums are played with sticks or with the hands, or both.

Aerophones, or wind instruments, are found throughout West Africa. Animal horns and tusks are often used for side-blown trumpets, while end-blown flutes are generally made from bamboo, millet, or carved wood. Double-reeded wind instruments are found in the savannah belt, and may be evidence of influence from Arabs to the north across the Sahara.

Chordophones, or stringed instruments, are also widespread. One-string bowed fiddles are often played by a solo singer to accompany the song. Lutes like the ngoni of the Mande often play in ensembles with the bala. The kora is a hybrid instrument that combines elements of a lute and a harp. The kora is built with large gourd body and a long neck made from wood. Up to 21 strings extend in two rows from the body to the neck so that a player can pluck the intricately polyrhythmic melodic patterns with both hands.

Folk Music Today

Folk music retains an important place in the lives of most West Africans, particularly those who live outside the urban areas where popular music thrives. Like cultures everywhere, folk music helps maintain the unique identity of each culture and pass along important information to each generation, while simultaneously helping lighten the many burdens of life.