Terrence Mapurisana Deputy News Editor
On Africa Day, which is commemorated on the 25th of May each year, Africans are encouraged to celebrate their diverse and exuberant artistic activities on the continent. The day marks the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963, which became the African Union (AU) in July 2002.
ZBC’s Deputy News Editor Terrence Mapurisana interrogates the role music, sculpture, theatre and film play in bordering the objective of a more united and integrated Africa.
In Africa, the arts are an important component in the way people interact, celebrate and relay historic events. Music is a form of communication and it plays a functional role in the African society. Songs accompany marriage, birth, rites of passage, hunting and even political activities. In certain African communities music is often believed to ward off evil spirits and to pay respects to good spirits, the dead and ancestors.
Although the musical styles and instruments vary from country to country, there are some common forms of musical expression. By far the most significant instrument in African music is the African drum. It expresses the mood of the people and evokes emotion. The beat of the African drum is considered the “heartbeat of the community” and its rhythm is what holds the dancers together.
I am reminded of the Pan- African Culture festival of Algiers which I attended in Algeria in 2009. It is one of the best kept secrets on the African continent.When I attended it was the 2nd Cultural Festival, and I went there courtesy of the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe.The festival was held following the adoption of the Charter of Cultural Renaissance of Africa by the African Union summit in Sudan in January 2006 and the selection of Algeria to host the festival.
The culture festival, which was held from the 5th to the 20th of July 2009, was an official function of the African Union, authorised at the highest level, by Heads of State and Government, and adopted a Pan-African cultural charter.
The festival, which was held under theme: ‘The African Renaissance’, showcased a wide spectrum of African cultural heritage for all parts of the continent: performing arts such as music, dance and theatre; literature and books; film, photography, painting, sculpture, fashion, and other visual arts and crafts. Zimbabwe as a country was also fully represented in every artistic genre, with the National Gallery of Zimbabwe being represented as well.
According to the former National Arts Council Executive director Mr Elvas Mari who led the delegation together with the former Minister of Primary and Secondary Education Mr Lazarus Dokora, The Algerian government invited Zimbabwe and supported the participation of artists from various other African countries, including many in southern Africa.
Among the local musicians who attended include dub poet Albert Nyathi and contemporary Afro Jazz artist Rute Mbangwa and her band. The two concurred that the festival offered them new opportunities to showcase their creativity.
The festival, which saw arts and entertainment journalists from African countries attending, celebrated the revival of Africa’s artistic greatness and every African art form was welcomed. Whilst there, we also learnt about African dances which are an integral part of the African culture. Dancers use symbolic gestures, masks, costumes, body painting and props to communicate.
Dance is used to express emotion, whether joyful or sorrowful and it is not limited to just the dancers. Many times, spectators will be encouraged to join in.
Performing music and making African musical instruments is an integral part in most communities and it varies not only from country to country, but from village to village.
There are common features though and much like the other forms of African art, most traditional African music is more than just an expression.
African music is a total art form closely linked to dance, gesture and dramatisation. It permeates African life and has a function, a role to play in society; songs are used for religious ceremonies and rituals, to teach and give guidance, to tell stories, to mark the stages of life and death and to provide political guidance or express discontent.
Singing, dancing and playing African musical instruments ensure a dynamic event transpires.
The impact of the music is tantamount; the beauty of it, like African sculpture, is secondary to the primary function. Performances may be long and often involve the participation of the audience and much of it is associated with a particular dance.
There are some African musical instruments that cross boundaries and are found in varying shapes in the different countries but still have the same basic form. Some instruments have changed very little in 800 years since they were first recorded.
African musical instruments also serve as works of art, carved into various shapes, covered with patterns and decorated with beads, feathers, paint or cloth. Figures are sculpted by sculptors into the instrument as spiritual tokens empowering the musician to filter the godly or ancestral messages.
African singers use a large number of sounds, not all of them appealing to the ear; some are confronting or emotionally and spiritually charged. Names that quickly come to mind include Oliver Mtukudzi, Hugh Masekela, Angelique Kidjo, Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu, Youssour N’dour, Caiphus Semenya, Manu Dibango, among many others.
African traditions also emphasize dance and all the mime and props that go with it because movement is a significant form of communication.
Improvisation is a fundamental element in African music. The musician’s capabilities are measured by the community and listeners, they must reflect inventiveness, creativity, inspiration and technical prowess.
Singing is as basic a function as talking for most African people; mothers sing to their babies on their backs as they walk, work and dance, building an inherent sense of rhythm.
Contemporary African music is immense in every respect and is possibly the most dynamic and vibrant form of cultural expression on the continent.
The music industry is huge with most countries supporting wonderful musicians who still use traditional African musical instruments but overlay them with contemporary rhythms and lyrics. This is a hugely exciting form of expression for modern day Africans and what they produce is loved, admired and danced to, the world over.
African musicians represent the collective memory of the continent and the instruments reflect their history, culture and ancestry.
While being hugely creative, what is consistent throughout this huge continent is that it has become, like art in the form of film, sculpture, music, dance, drama and theatre – a vehicle with which all participants can make a social, political and sometimes spiritual comment.
Many African states have experienced very hard times in recent history and in the face of this, music has demonstrated itself to be a successful manifestation of emotion in the face of economic challenges.
With poetry, sculpture, dance and theatre, the experience becomes an expression of inner freedom and possession, radiant happiness and emotive expressiveness.
Contemporary African music is a huge industry with most countries supporting wonderful musicians who still use traditional African musical instruments like the kora (harp), djembe (drum) and mbira but overlay them with contemporary rhythms and lyrics.
In Reggae circles, the late Robert Nesta Marley, known to many as Bob Marley, was the most sought-after singer in Africa. Most of his songs were based on the unity of Africa, politics, freedom, peace, love and racial equality.
Bob Marley was a passionate pan-African who believed in African unity, freedom, and the empowerment of blacks. He wrote a number of anti-imperialist tracks, such as Exodus, Survival, and Blackman’s Redemption. I used to play most of these songs when I used to host the Reggae Rhythms radio programme on the then ZBC SFM radio every Sunday afternoon.
In his revolutionary songs, “Stand Up, Stand Up and Revolution,” Bob Marley called on Africans to rebel and fight the ‘oppressor’ for their freedom.
He released The Song of Atonement and Africa Unite, condemning racism. One of his popular songs, Zimbabwe, was recorded when he came to Zimbabwe in 1980 at Independence Day celebrations.
The late Jamaican reggae great Bob Marley was a pan-Africanist who believed in the unity of African people. In the Africa Unite song, Marley and a number of other African singers have come up with songs that talk about the dream for Africans to come together and fight oppression.
Shot in Nigeria, the song encourages Africans to come together. In the video, Africans are seen as people who have something in common that can unite them through music.
The song Africa by Wiyaala was shot in Ghana, and talks about the precious minerals found in Africa, but bemoans the lack of peace on the continent.
Africa Inaliya by the late Simon Chimbetu talks about the challenges faced by the people on the continent. In the song the late singer makes reference of cities in such countries Somalia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the DRC.
The Mansa of Mali Salif Keita composed the track Africa. Also known as the ‘Golden Voice of Africa’, Salif Keita, released this song in 1995. Since then the song has become the unofficial anthem of the continent, evoking a sense of pride in Africans for their beautiful continent and the music that comes out of it. A lot of my listeners on the Afro Pop music programme I used to host on the then SFM radio loved Keita music.
African cinema dates back to the early 20th century, when film reels were the primary cinematic technology in use. During the colonial era, African life was shown only by the work of white, colonial, Western filmmakers, who depicted blacks in a negative fashion, as exotic “others”.
Today African film producers and directors are also coming up with productions that foster unity, peace and love.
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