European string music has been in existence in Europe for thousands of years. Instruments such as violins, violas, guitars and lutes have provided the soundtrack for coronations, films and permeated into contemporary pop culture through the use of samples or harmonic structures. Children worldwide start their musical journeys by playing European string instruments with some progressing to play famous works by Vivaldi, Paganini and Telemann, as well as playing in European string ensembles in schools.
Ever heard the term ‘European string ensemble’, though? Probably not – because it doesn’t really mean much. Are we talking about a group of violins? Guitars? Contrabasses? A mixture of these and more?
This brings me to my question – why are we still talking about ‘African drumming ensembles’?
Consider the many different cultures and 54 countries that make up Africa. From the Habesha in the East, Arabs in the North, Twi in the West and Zulu in the South, the various languages and cultures number into the thousands. To put things into perspective, there are more languages spoken in Nigeria (520) alone than in the whole of Europe put together (28 official) (Ethnologue, 2017).
Simona Abdallah playing a Darbuka
‘African drumming’ ensembles in schools usually consist of djembes, bongos, tambourines, agogos and other smaller percussive instruments. It should be noted however, that the use of bongos in these ensembles is an egregious error; bongos originate from Cuba, not anywhere in Africa. Meanwhile, East African instruments such as the darbuka from Egypt or the ravanne from Mauritius are often excluded. Even the BBC Bitesize website fails to acknowledge East Africa on its website.
The djembe is the most common drum used in so-called African drumming ensembles in the UK, and is generally accepted to have originated in West Africa, specifically in the Malian Empire which spans parts of modern-day Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Gambia. This information alone not only informs children about where the drum originates from, but the existence of the Malian Empire and that the aforementioned countries make up part of Western Africa. These pieces of information may seem obvious to many, but we are talking about British school children, who often receive very little education about the continent. These pieces of information may seem irrelevant to many, but this knowledge might be the only moment where a child feels as though their culture and heritage are seen and valued.
This lazy labelling also fails to place the music and ensemble on a time continuum. Are we talking about music being made today? Or 200 years ago? Educational resources for western classical music adorn music classrooms all around the world depicting the progression of music from the medieval era to western art music for all to see. A bit of research will tell you that the djembe drum dates back to the 12th century meaning that theoretically, children are being taught on instruments which were in existence at the same time as Gregorian chant and organum in Europe. As it stands, young people may be under the impression that Africans have been playing these drums in the same ensembles, in the same style and format since time began, while Europe ‘progressed’ in terms of instrumentation, technology and technique.
Djembe drums (Wikimedia Commons)
Then there’s the perception that ‘Africans’ make their instruments out of anything they can find, propagated by images of half-clothed people sitting on dusty floors in villages. When I was growing up I thought the people who played these 'African drums' were primitive and unskilled. After all, compared to the intricacies of western music notation, the composers and the history of the majority of the music we studied, African drumming was just something we did in Year 7 to keep us engaged. We never learnt, listened to, or discussed the music of Fela Kuti, Malika Zarra, Oum Kalthoum or Hugh Masekela. I wonder if music teachers are letting their students listen to P-Squared, Maurice Kirya, Richard Bona or Nneka so they can hear that the infinite musical styles of Africa are not purely confined to drumming.
It’s evident, yet unsurprising to learn that musical styles from Africa are marginalised in GCSE exam syllabuses. The 2016 AQA syllabus (aqa.co.uk, 2017) includes two pieces of suggested listening for the topic ‘fusion music incorporating African and/or Caribbean music’. Those two albums are Bob Marley’s Legend and Paul Simon’s Graceland.
Edexcel’s 2016 (Pearson, 2017) course planner includes five weeks of fusion which includes the category, ‘music from African, Turkish, Afro-Cuban Jazz and Latin traditions’. That’s five weeks out of 39 teaching weeks which amounts to just 12.8%; enough for exam boards to say, ‘yup, Africa is covered’, but nowhere near enough to amount to any holistic and respectful understanding of even one among countless music cultures.
Through this reductive thinking which puts Africa in a tickbox, we deny young people specific knowledge about the world they live in, we negatively affect their ability to interact with the people they encounter, see in media and learn from in their everyday lives. This is not just about ‘African drumming’. This is about giving young people the right tools which allow them to navigate their lives and social interactions. To me, ‘World Music’ and ‘African Drumming’ are terms which not only segregate 'The West' from the world, they also diminish the people and cultures who make those musics, effectively white-washing intrinsic value by glossing over important facts. The history, the context, the art, the complexity.
The lackadaisical attitude displayed when it comes to art that originates in Africa isn’t confined to music. Yet it’s an important front on which we need to demand change. The UK’s archaic music curricula which allow vestiges of colonial thinking to remain, and homogenise art forms which actually feed so much of the music that modern Anglo-America calls its own must be challenged.