Cañada College MUS 250 WORLD MUSIC




This was introduced in lecture with mbira (instrument name) music of the Shona (cultural group).

In addition to the textbook on reserve, more information about this instrument, music and culture can be found at



Do musical practices correlate with social & economic structures and practices?

LARGE-SCALE HEIRARCHAL SOCIETY: Mande, in Mali à the praise-song singing solo musician (a griot or jali)

SMALL-SCALE EGALITARIAN SOCIETY: BaMbuti, in central Africa à interlocking polyphony with equal importance among musical lines

MEDIUM-SCALE CO-OPERATIVE SOCIETY: Ewe, in Ghana à specialized roles in co-operative musical collectives


Components of Some African Sound-Cultures


I. Musical Specifics

            A.  Pitch –

1. scales – no consistent generalization applies across the continent; about 7 scales and scale-regions have been identified.

2. melodic tendencies – downward melodic contour; a very reliable and sturdy generalization.  Does not apply so much to the BaMbuti.  Mande praise song clearest example.

B.  Rhythm – generally steady tempos underlie polyrhythms.

C.  Form -- call-and-response common; repetition of rhythmic patterns and shifting those patterns a key process heard in our Shona and Ewe examples

            D.  Texture – layered polyrhythm (Shona, Ewe); call-and-response block texture

E.    Timbre --

1.     instrumental preferences: complex, noisy, buzzy;  typical, emblematic instruments: Shona, mbira; Mande, kora; Ewe, the bell as time-marking instrument; BaMbuti, often no instruments used.  Visit this terrific website to learn about the individual instruments and their roles in an Anlo-Ewe ensemble:

2.     vocal preferences: complex, noisy, buzzy, nasality

F.  Sound intensity – Ewe drumming can be very loud and sustained; Shona, BaMbuti, Mande praise song more intimate or soft; dynamic range static

II.  Social Organization of Music

A.  Who can participate (play, listen, make instruments) in this music?  Who is excluded?  The opportunity to be a Mande jali (praise singer) is a  hereditary right limited to certain families.  This is an perfect example of social limitations on participation in musicking.  At the other end of the spectrum, everyone is expected to participate in BaMbuti musicking.

B.  How many musicians are appropriate for an ensemble?  Mande praise singing is mostly associated with solo performers; Ewe drum societies range from 10-20 participants.  There is definitely a distinction between audience and solo performer in Mande praise singing.  In fact, one could conceive of a third category, that of the person to whom the praise song is directed.  There may not be a clear distinction between musician and audience in many performance contexts in Ewe and drumming.  If people standing around the drummers are clapping, they are making sound and are definitely part of the musicking; if dancers have rattles attached to their costumes, they are also adding to the sound construct; dancers or other people may be adding shouts of encouragement or expression; these two could be considered to be part of the musical texture.  In BaMbuti performance contexts, if most everyone is participating, there is no "audience" other than the participants themselves.  Some interesting words have been proposed to try to describe these various roles.  "Musicians" are participants using instruments or singing as a core part of the activity, people that are less central but nevertheless involves in making sound and music, are "musicants.”  If a musical ceremony is being performed on behalf of or being directed at someone who is ill, that person is said to be the "musicated,” similar to being "medicated."  This could apply more broadly, for example; the girls being initiated in the BaMbuti sound example on the CD could be considered to be the "musicated” subjects of the ceremony.  The Shona mbira music is used to induce trances and invite possession by ancestral spirits; those to be possessed are "musicated.”  Is the person receiving the praise of a praise song "musicated”?  These terms have not become standard.

C.  Transmission -- how is the music learned and passed on to others?  Usually through direct participation and hands-on teacher-student relationships.

D.  Social status of musicians: a Mande jali, by the nature of his socially restricted status, has a relatively high level of prestige, especially since music confers a special type of political legitimacy.  In BaMbuti societies, "musician" probably is not a distinct social role or identity, so would not have any particular status.  Similarly, it is perceived to be a good thing to be a musician in Ewe culture, but it is not necessarily prestigious.  Certain roles, such as lead drummer, are high in prestige.

III.  Ideas about Music

A.  Music and the belief system -- the relationship of music to spiritual, social, and cosmic order.  The Shona use of mbira in the bira ceremonies is an example of the vital role music plays in many African cultures.  Music’s role in validating the social order is clear in the Mande praise song genre.  Similarly, music has a role in maintaining the co-operative social order in traditional Ewe societies.  Some musicologist interpret the polyphonic interlocking texture as reflecting pygmy societies’view of their relationship with the forest, and the spare music reflects a view on the environment and cosmic order.  See the note on song texts.

B.  Contexts for use of music –  Shona bira are religious ceremonies.  The political function of Mande praise songs can be on display at a variety of social gatherings.  Work songs are important contexts, although we did not cover that directly.  Ewe drumming can be for social-religious ceremonies such as funerals, but it can also be for entertainment and enjoyment.

C.  History of music -- not covered in class.

D.   Composition -- what is a "piece" and how does it come to be?  In Ewe culture, identifiable pieces are usually collections of ideas or formulas that can be drawn on in an improvisatory way.  Mbira pieces are composed to be an interesting physical pattern as much as for their melodic characteristics.

E.    What is the contribution or role of improvisation?  Essential in many types of African music.  Perhaps less so in BaMbuti songs.  But improvisation draws on well-established vocabularies of musical rhythms and melodic gestures.

F.    Genres – what categories exist? What defines them? What maintains them?  We did not distinguish between particular genres in African music.  Though he described an example of the genre of praise singing, but we did not get into other kinds of music that are in Mande culture.  Similarly, the many types of Ewe drumming could be compared and differentiated.

G.   Theory – there is very little verbalized theory about most African musicking.  For example, there is no system of note names in the jali or griot tradition.

IV.  Allied Arts

A.  Texts – words to a song –  A praise song usually features indirect praise of a leader by praising his family.  As the practice has evolved to include praise directed to God.  In fact, the example on the reserve CD is praise directed to Allah.  Pygmy song texts are usually quite simple, often just a short phrase that is repeated throughout the entire song.  An example is "forest good."

B.      Movement – dance – great stuff, but not covered.

C. Theater -- generally not distinguishable from dance narratives.

D.  Visual parallels – art, textiles, sculpture, architecture -- not covered.

V.  Listening & Personal Response

A.    1st hearing reaction

B.    After repeated hearings and discussion?

C.   What would the “ideal” trained & sympathetic listener-participant find in this music?