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800 Years Of World Music

The West African Kora  The African Voice  The West African Lute

   The Olmec Civilisation     West Africa 1500 BC



Introduction.

 

For me.....this journey began in Liverpool in the 1950s....the docks.... the ships....the West Africans...and the music.......they all have had a profound effect......! For Africa....we recognise that the great 13th. century Malian empire was most likely the keystone....the Chironic healing influence.... that led to cultural expansion.... the musical dialogue..... and the harvesting of resources....that became an alternative to war and genocide.

Some years ago..... I had a dream....I was playing in a band with Miles Davis on Trumpet.... John Coltrane on Tenor Sax..... and Jimi Hendrix on Guitar. We were looking for a drummer...and Miles just said..."Lets call Jack" (De Johnette)... and I never really got over that..!! I see a unique parallel between the evolution of Jazz musicians in the Americas....with the current and ongoing struggle of their African cousins. The music is about to break out.......all around the world.....there is no doubt about that. A tour de force....and a change...is coming!! 

I quote from the Gambian Observer one last time. The word Jazz is derived from a West African ethnic group.... The Wollof....  a Jahass...a big mix...anything goes...throw in the kitchen sink...make some noise...!!

"West Africa, and The Gambia specifically, is being summoned culturally to the high table of global art; the supreme council of world creativity; the united nations of continental rhythm; to establish a truth that can never be undermined or exposed as fallacy. The roots of all of the music that our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean and N. America have produced in the last 100 years can be traced directly to West Africa. Let me spell this out really clearly so that there can be no misunderstandings. The great great grandfathers of people living here today, the blood relations of  Serigne Mass Kah, carried with them a genetic coding to the new world! Their progeny produced the greatest contemporary revolution in creative thinking that the world has experienced. These people were itinerants one minute and global heroes the next. They played a music that was considered subversive and yet completely desirable and necessary. They turned the standard idea of european classical harmony on its bottom, picked it up on the other side, danced with it awhile, and then played it again even harder. And what is clear is that the technique that they used was somehow carried on the wind across 3000 miles of ocean, and is still here today in the traditional music of the villages!"

Paul Hill.... The Gambian Observer.... September 2005  

Extract from Cultural Values and Role Models 

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20,000 years ago there were 3 evolving ethnic groups in Africa. One was based around the Mediterranean, one in Central and West Africa, and one in  the South. Last month we saw from S. J. Quacoo's work that there is documented evidence that the Phoenicians travelled from the area now known as Lebanon to the coastal region of Senegal and The Gambia in 2-3000 BC. This area of the modern day Middle East, including Syria, Iraq, Iran and what was known for thousands of years as Persia, has for a long time been accepted to be the cradle of civilisation. From the beginning of written history (c. 3100 BC) to the fall of Babylon in 539 BC, Bronze Age Mesopotamia included Sumer, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires. Alexander the Great conquered the area and it then became part of the Greek Seleucid empire in 332 BC. By the time that the Roman Empire had annexed Egypt, and populated parts of the North African Coast 600 years later, trade and tribal movement had spread across the Sahara desert. It is the movement of these ethnic groups that has led to the development of so many musical West African flavours. Sufism (the inner mystical dimension of Islam) originated in Persia. The Berbers are the indigenous peoples of North Africa west of the Nile Valley. They are discontinuously distributed from the Atlantic to the Siwa Oasis in Egypt and from the Mediterranean to the Niger river. The origins of the Fulani people are highly disputed, some believe that they are of North African or Arabic origin, characterized by their lighter skin and straighter hair. Some Africans even refer to them as "white people". However, recent studies show that they descend from nomads from both North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. The Fulani were the first group of people in West Africa to convert to Islam through jihads, or holy wars, and were able to take over much of West Africa and establish themselves not only as a religious group but also as a political and economical force. The Mandinka tribal movements across the Central African region bordered by the Sahara have been documented thoroughly in "Mande Music" by Eric Charry.  The area from Niger through Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, The Gambia and Senegal is historically rich in Mandinka tradition in both instruments and musical style. The wandering nomadic Tuareg tribes people of the Sahara would seem to be the historical bridge between all of these trading groups.

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A Spiritual dynamic... and analysis of Music in the West African Diaspora

      We have spent the last 18 months looking at the music of each of the countries in the West African Diaspora. This includes every country that is to the South and West of Morocco, Algeria, Niger and Nigeria. The individual results are available at the Video Archive. The evidence is mainly anecdotal, but each representation includes www.youtube.com  examples. If we now try and tease out of all of this information some deductions and conclusions, it should reveal many obvious truths but also the inevitable anomalies. The Northern Arabic, Berber, Sufi and Andalucian musical influences are readily acknowledged. The cultural exchanges, through trade and tribal/ethnic minority movement around the Mediterranean and Atlantic Coast, are seen in the musical forms of Morocco, Algeria, Western Sahara, Mauritania and Mali.  Mali also features large in its musical relationships with Senegal, The Gambia, Burkina Faso and Guinea. 

      In his essay on "The Mythology of the Gambia" ... extracted from the Gambian Observer of July 20th.  2010 ... featured  Here 

      S. J. Quacoo (Snr.) looks at the pre history of The Gambia ...  including the Stone Circles on the North Bank ... and  poses a very interesting question.

 

      Who would deny that Sky-God made River Gambia beautiful & mythical; whereas, humans like to destroy good things intentionally to conceal their purpose? 

       How is the Gambia connected to this rhetorical question? The recorded first visitors to write about the Gambia were the Phoenicians, who once lived in the coastal region between present day Lebanon and Israel. Ethnically, they belonged to the Canaanites branch of the Semitic people of the Eastern Mediterranean Coastland.  

 

      Therefore it is incontestable that the synergy of these trade adventures and exchanges produced great cultural expansion and growth. The Fulani Empire of Nigeria and evidence of their migratory habits is yet more truth of this. Speaking of truth, another quote from S.J. Quacoo (Snr.)   

      

      Since "truth" is a transcendental attribute of "being" it is not confined to a particular category or classification of "being". The ontological truth has its ultimate foundation in the intellect of Sky-God. All things that we can conceive of  were created according to Sky-God's type-ideas; therefore, the parables, myths, symbols, images, and rituals of  our ancestors, were the intensity of experiences associated with Sky-God's Divine Mind; that transcend the reach of words entirely.


There is evidence of great synergy and symbiosis along the river Niger, producing a clear migratory route from the Atlantic West coast  to the Gulf of Guinea. Gambia's river gateway leads upstream across the Sub-Sahara region to the river Niger south-west of Bamako in Mali. The trade routes carried the majority of traditional instruments and musical forms as far as the migrations of ethnic groups. The Mandinka "Afro Manding"  is today found in Senegal, Gambia, Mali, Guinea, Niger and all the way to the Nigerian coastal estuary.

      The path of the Gambian and Niger rivers acts as a semi-circular boundary to the coastal countries from Sierra Leone to Togo and Benin. There is substantially more CCC (coca cola culture) and Americanisation of the music found in this region. This is a direct result of Atlantic shipping routes bringing goods and services from the "new world" as they transported raw materials that became the foundation of colonial trade! The traditional influences seem to have been diminished and lessened in favour of East and West coast American styles, and the Caribbean reggae skank has also made a major impact in this region. There are of course exceptions. Angelique Kidjo, King Mensah and Fela Kuti for example! It is however understandable that the search for cultural identity leads many young people to seek out "Western influences". Their mobile phone ringtones and their hair styles become the backbone of identity and self esteem. 

      Perhaps more research, more historical education that is roots based and eliminates hegemony, and more availability of cultural events that include productions based on pre-history, will re-balance the cultural evolution of this trouble-torn coastal region that has seen war and conflict erase much of the historical dynamic.

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Central and West Africa

1000 BC

By the 1st millennium BC, Iron working had been introduced in Northern Africa and quickly began spreading across the Sahara. In Central Africa, there is evidence that Iron working was practiced as early as the 3rd millennium BC. Metal working had been practiced in Western Africa by at least the 3rd millennium BC. Iron working was fully established by roughly 500 BC in areas of East and West Africa, though other regions didn't begin Iron working until the early centuries AD. Some Copper objects from Egypt, North Africa, Nubia and Ethiopia have been excavated in West Africa dating from around the 500 BC time period, suggesting that trade networks had been established by this time.

Greeks founded the city of Cyrene in ancient Libya around 631 BC. Cyrenaica became a flourishing colony, though being hemmed in on all sides by absolute desert it had little or no influence on inner Africa. The Greeks, however, exerted a powerful influence in Egypt. To Alexander the Great, the city of Alexandria owes its foundation, (332 BC) and under the Hellenistic dynasty of the Ptolemies, attempts were made to penetrate southward, and in this way was obtained some knowledge of Ethiopia.

From around 500 B.C. to around 500 A.D., the civilization of the Garamantes (probably the ancestors of the Tuareg) existed in what is now the Libyan desert.

Africa 500BC

The three powers of Cyrenaica, Egypt and Carthage were eventually supplanted by the Romans. After centuries of rivalry with Rome, Carthage finally fell in 146 BC. Within little more than a century, Egypt and Cyrene had become incorporated in the Roman empire. Under Rome the settled portions of the country were very prosperous, and a Latin strain was introduced into the land. Though Fezzan was occupied by them, the Romans elsewhere found the Sahara an impassable barrier. Nubia and Ethiopia were reached, but an expedition sent by the emperor Nero to discover the source of the Nile ended in failure. The utmost extent of Mediterranean geographical knowledge of the continent is shown in the writings of Ptolemy, who knew of or guessed the existence of the great lake reservoirs of the Nile, of trading posts along the shores of the Indian Ocean, as far south as Rhapta in modern Tanzania and had heard of the river Niger!

Interaction between Asia, Europe and North Africa during this period was significant, major effects include the spread of classical culture around the shores of the Mediterranean; the continual struggle between Rome and the Berber tribes; the introduction of Christianity throughout the region, and the cultural effects of the churches in Tunisia, Egypt and Ethiopia. The classical era drew to a close with the invasion and conquest of Rome's African provinces by the Vandals in the 5th century. Power passed back in the following century to the Byzantine Empire.

The importance of Ancient Egypt to the development of the rest of Africa has been debated. The earlier generation of Western academia generally saw Egypt as a Mediterranean civilization with little impact on the rest of Africa. Recent study however has begun to discredit this notion. Some have argued that various early Egyptians like the Badarians probably migrated northward from Nubia, while others see a wide-ranging movement of peoples across the breadth of the Sahara before the onset of dessication. Whatever may be the origins of any particular people or civilization however, it seems reasonably certain that the pre-dynastic communities of the Nile valley were essentially indigenous in culture, drawing little inspiration from sources outside the continent during the several centuries directly preceding the onset of historical times... (Robert July, Pre-Colonial Africa, 1975)

Carthage was founded by Phoenecian settlers from the city of Tyre, bringing with them the city-god Melquart.  Philistos of Syracuse dates the founding of Carthage around 1215 BC, while Appian dates the founding 50 years prior to the Trojan War, but it is most likely that the city was founded sometime between 846 and 813 BC.


500BC

In the Nile valley, Egypt was becoming more and more dominated by foreign powers. To the south however, the civilization of Nubia continued to develop, becoming less "Egyptian" in its inspiration, and more "African".

In West Africa, farming had taken root amongst the Bantu peoples of the rain forest region. This transition had given them the edge over their hunter-gatherer neighbours and, starting from present-day Nigeria and Cameroon, they expanded outwards. One branch was moving into the northern Congo region, while another was skirting the rain forests and heading towards the Great Lakes. These were stone-using peoples; but to the north, in present-day central Nigeria, an iron-using society known to modern scholars as the Nok culture had appeared. 
West African people in Nigeria were smelting iron by around 400-200 BC. We don't know whether they invented this process themselves, or learned about it from North Africans. Already their art was highly developed, showing clear affinities with the later artistic traditions in the region.

Around this same time, some of these people, perhaps from a little further east in modern Cameroon, were beginning to leave West Africa and travel east, across the African grasslands south of the Sahara Desert, and south-east through the rainforests. They probably didn't all leave at once, but in small groups, now and then, moving gradually through eastern and then southern Africa. These travellers were generally called the Bantu, which means "people" in their languages. Their iron weapons may have helped them to force their way into the communities they met.

By 400 AD these Bantu people had reached South Africa, where they began to marry some of the Khoik-hoi and San peoples. Some people in South Africa began farming or keeping sheep or cattle around this time; others, who wanted to remain hunters and gatherers were forced off the best agricultural land and into the deserts.

 

500AD

Ghana (Wagadu), the earliest known empire of the western Sudan, first entered the historical consciousness of North Africa near the end of the eighth century but probably originated long before. The empire's legacy is still celebrated in the name of the Republic of Ghana; apart from this, however, modern-day and ancient Ghana share no direct historical connections. Despite early texts that discuss ancient Ghana, such as The Book of Routes and Kingdoms by the eleventh-century Andalusian geographer Abu Ubayd al-Bakri, it remains very much an enigma. Famous to North Africans as the "Land of Gold," Ghana was said to possess sophisticated methods of administration and taxation, large armies, and a monopoly over notoriously well-concealed gold mines. The king of the Soninke people who founded Ghana never fully embraced Islam, but good relations with Muslim traders were fostered. Ghana's pre-eminence faded toward the end of the eleventh century, when its power was broken by a long struggle with the Almoravids led by Abdullah bin Yasin. Ghana subsequently fell to the expanding Soso kingdom.

Many Bantu people stayed in West Africa. For instance, there were certainly people living at Djenne-Djeno, in modern Mali, far up the Niger river in West Africa, around 250 BC. By 300 AD, the men and women of Djenne-Djeno were trading along the Niger river with other West African communities to get iron and good stone to make grindstones. They buried dead people in tall pots that stood in between their houses.

By 500 AD, there were about 20,000 people living in Djenne-Djeno in West Africa, more than in most European towns at that time. There were also smaller villages around the main town. They kept on working iron and  were also working copper which was brought more than 1000 kilometres to Djenne-Djeno. They sold their pottery up and down the Niger river travelling distances of 750 kilometres or more.

The influence of Islam and the deepening networks of trade spurred the growth of several great Savanna states, including the Ghana, Mali, and Songhai empires. Further development of metallurgy contributes to both material wealth and artistic production, and Arab reports depict the Ghana empire as the "Land of Gold." As well as stimulating trade, Islam sparked great cultural and artistic innovations, producing newly synergistic mixes of distinctive regional and Islamic traditions. In 1324-25, the ruler Mansa Musa brought the wealth of the Mali empire to the attention of Europe, North Africa, and Arabia when he completed a pilgrimage to Mecca. Architectural traditions were transformed by the Malian empire. The construction of enormous adobe mosques such as those at Jenne and Timbuktu date to the thirteenth century. The mosques standing today in West Africa are the product of long histories of construction and reconstruction. They nevertheless reflect the economic conditions, cultural histories, and architectural traditions of the medieval empires from which they originated.

 

1000 AD.

The African Iron Age is traditionally considered that period in Africa between the second century AD up to about 1000 AD, when iron smelting was practiced. In Africa, unlike Europe and Asia, the Iron Age is not prefaced by a Bronze or Copper Age, but rather all the metals were brought together. The advantages of iron over stone are obvious--iron is much more efficient at cutting trees or quarrying stone than stone tools. But iron smelting technology is a smelly, dangerous one. By 1000AD there is much evidence of Iron works all around the Sub-Sahara region. Nigeria, Niger, Western Sudan, Mali and along the Atlantic coast in Mauritania. There is also evidence that the original Ghanaian Wagadoo empire had started smelting and producing Gold by this time.

It as at this point that we start to see the genesis of the 13th century Soninke, Almoravid, Soso and Mansa Musa kingdoms in the Western Mali and Southern Niger/Nigerian regions. A succession of powerful kingdoms in West Africa, spanning a millennium, are unusual in that their great wealth was based on trade rather than conquest. Admittedly much warfare went on between them, enabling the ruler of the most powerful state to demand the submission of the others. But this was only the background to the main business of controlling the caravans of merchants and camels. Their routes ran north and south through the Sahara. And the most precious of the commodities moving north was African gold.

The first kingdom to establish full control over the southern end of the Saharan trade was Ghana - situated not in the modern republic of that name but in the southwest corner of what is now Mali, in the triangle formed between the Senegal river to the west and the Niger to the east. Ghana was well placed to control the traffic in gold from Bambuk, in the valley of the Senegal. This was the first of the great fields from which the Africans derived their alluvial gold (meaning gold carried downstream in a river and deposited in silt, from which grains and nuggets can be extracted). Like subsequent great kingdoms in this region, Ghana was at a crossroads of trade routes. The Saharan caravans linked the Mediterranean markets to the north with the supply of African raw materials to the south. Meanwhile along the savannah (or open grasslands) south of the Sahara, communication was easy on an east-west axis, bringing to any commercial centre the produce of the whole width of the continent. Other African products in demand around the Mediterranean at this time were ivory, ostrich feathers and the cola nut (containing caffeine and already popular 1000 years ago as the basis for a soft drink).

The most important commodity coming south with the caravans was salt, essential in the diet of African agricultural communities. The salt mines of the Sahara (sometimes controlled by Berber tribes from the north, sometimes by Africans from the south) were as valuable as the gold fields of the African rivers. Traders from the north also carried fruits like dates and a wide range of metal goods - weapons, armour, and copper either in its pure form or as brass (the alloy of copper and zinc).

Ghana was the dominant kingdom of West Africa for a long period, from well before the 8th century to the 13th. The prosperity resulting from its activities was evident by the rapid growth of Djenne-Djeno on the Niger. In the 13th century the gold field of Bure, on the upper reaches of the Niger, became more important than Bambuk. The shift in economic power was followed by a political change when the warrior Sundiata conquered Ghana and established the even more extensive kingdom of Mali - stretching from the Atlantic coast to beyond the Niger.

Africa was the first region into which Islam was carried by merchants rather than armies. It spread down the well-established trade routes of the east coast, in which the coastal towns of the Red Sea (the very heart of Islam) played a major part. There is archaeological evidence from the 8th century of a tiny wooden mosque, with space enough for about ten worshippers, as far south as modern Kenya - on Shanga, one of the islands offshore from Lamu. Shanga's international links at that time are further demonstrated by surviving fragments of Persian pottery and Chinese stoneware. At Kilwa, on the coast of modern Tanzania, a full-scale Muslim dynasty was established in this period. Coins from about 1070 give the name of the local ruler as 'the majestic Sultan Ali bin al-Hasan'. Three centuries later the Muslim traveller Ibn Batuta found Kilwa an extremely prosperous sultanate, busy with trade in gold and slaves. In the 20th century Muslims remain either a majority or a significant minority in most regions of the east African coast. But the early penetration of Islam is even more effective down the caravan routes of west Africa.


From the 8th century Islam spread gradually south in the oases of the Sahara trade routes. By the 10th century many of the merchants at the southern end of the trade routes were Muslims. In the 11th century the rulers began to be converted. The first Muslim ruler convert in the region was the king of Gao around the beginning of the 11th century. The ruling classes of other communities then began to follow suit. The king of Ghana, the most powerful ruler in the region, was one of the last to accept Islam - probably in the 1070s. The effect of Islam on African communities with their own strong traditional cultures was a gradual process. In  1352, Ibn Batuta visited Mali. He was impressed by the people's regularity in saying their prayers, but he looked with stern disapproval at certain practices which were more evidently African. He particularly frowned upon performances by masked dancers and on the tendency of women to walk about in an unseemly shortage of clothing.

Mansa Musa, King of Ghana (1307-1332 AD)



Mali was already  famous throughout the Islamic world at the time of Ibn Batuta's visit, because only a generation earlier the Mansa had astonished Cairo by his wealth. In 1324 Mansa Musa, the sultan of Mali decided to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. His richly attired retinue and his heavily laden animals reflected his financial status; he effectively controlled the African gold trade which by now supported the currency not only of Islamic states but of European communes and kingdoms. The most valuable coins of Roman Catholic Europe were until this time minted in silver, but Genoa, Florence and Venice reintroduced gold in the late 13th century and northern kingdoms soon followed their example. Contemporary accounts say that when Mansa Musa passed through Cairo, on his way to Mecca, his caravan numbered 60,000 people and his camels carried 12 tons of gold. He distributed largesse to religious institutions and to fawning courtiers alike. Indeed he was so generous with the abundant gold of Mali that the value of the metal in Cairo suffered a temporary slump. But the reputation of Africa and its wealth was securely established.

The Empire of Mali succeeded Ghana in the twelfth century. Based slightly to the south of Ghana, Mali was united by Sundiata, who is memorialized in Malian legends (which were used, in part, as inspiration for Disney's The Lion King). This Islamic kingdom rapidly dominated the entire Niger valley from the coast to the Niger bend, roughly to the border of modern Chad. The Mali Empire marked the height of Sahel culture. Many of the great cities of the region were built or greatly expanded at this time, including Djenne and Timbuktu.  The Empire was divided into a number of provinces and semi-autonomous kingdoms owing allegience to the Emperor or "Mansa" in Djenne. By the fourteenth century, Mali's influence had eroded to the point where Imperial control was minimal.

The Kingdom of Songhai existed on the eastern border of the Mali Empire, centered on the city of Gao. In the mid-fourteenth century, Songhai extended its control westward, eventually reaching as far as Timbuktu, and gaining an ascendancy over Mali and other Sahel peoples. Songhai rebuilt much of the old trade routes, but eventually saw their disappearance. The old trade routes in gold and ivory were now less lucrative as Arabs found new sources in east Africa, and Europeans bypassed the Sahara trade route via the Atlantic and discovered American gold. Ironically, the near legendary wealth of the Sahel had attracted the interest of Morocco just as it was disappearing. In 1590, Morocco launched an invasion force across the Sahara. In 1591, at the battle of Tondibi, Songhai was defeated and the city of Gao fell. Despite the legends of fabulous wealth, the Moroccan invaders conquered an empire increasingly in debt and more dependent upon trade in slaves than in gold and ivory. The invaders abandoned the region very quickly.

After the fall of Songhai, the Kingdom of Kanem-Bornu and the Hausa States continued to dominate the region around Lake Chad and the Eastern Sahel. The Western region, once dominated by Mali and Songhai, split into many rival states. The coastal peoples became increasingly dependent upon the slave trade with the Europeans.

 

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