African music is, hence its name, from Africa. The exact time of when music first originated in Africa is unknown, but some instruments have been found to be over 4, 000 years old. In its most basic forms, African music is an arrangement of various drum beats and vocal calls. Eventually it evolved to include string instruments and more complex percussion instruments such as the balafon, which is the African equivalent of a xylophone. Using this wide variety of primitive, yet effective instruments, the African people employed many polyrhythmic beats that coexisted with each other to produce equal sounded music so that not one instrument was unheard.
The indigenous people of Africa were very resourceful when it came to the construction and the use of musical instruments. These simple, yet difficult instruments were all made by hand using domestic resources. Rare wood and precious animal skin were used to make drums, and strings from animal hairs produced primitive guitars. Pieces of wood or bone were hollowed out to create flutes or horns. An example of this would be the use of a hollowed out elephant’s tusk to create an ivory horn instrument. The handiwork of these hand-made unique musical artifacts is impeccable.
Music served many purposes in African culture. At first, music was used only in rituals or religious celebrations. In time, African music’s uses, along with its instruments changed. Tribes of Africa began to apply music in all of their tribal celebrations or dances. Music began being used as a way to intimidate a rival tribe. (This may have inspired the use of drummers in recent American wars such as the Revolutionary or Civil War.) Music had become an integral part of African society.
The influence of quite arguably the first music played on Earth by humans stretched far beyond Africa. Instruments were traded to countries like India or to the neighboring Middle East, where it spread to civilizations like the Assyrians or the Babylonians. Though these civilizations no longer exist, their influence is clear. Even today, typical music that relates to the Middle East or India all have that distinctive melody from percussion instruments or flutes that still echo its African ancestry. But African music’s influence doesn’t end there. With the Atlantic slave trade during the 16th century all the way up to the 19th century, African cultures and music were spread even farther than ever before. Many slaves attempted to adapt, yet retain their culture and heritage. Slaves, armed with their ancestors’ cunning resourcefulness, created familiar African instruments using only the spare items lying around their makeshift shed home. At night, slaves would gather together and sing familiar religious or ceremonial songs around a crude campfire.
As generations passed, North American slaves’ songs evolved into religious singing in English that secretly hid the Underground Railroad. When slavery was finally banned from the country, the religious singing had become its own genre; soul. From elements used in soul music, new instruments and inspirations saw the creation of jazz, with Ray Charles being known as one of the best jazz players in history.
South American slaves took a similar path. African instruments such as the bongo had become increasingly used in Spanish or Mexican festivals.