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Music and dance are an integral part of the social, cultural and religious lives of the people of Africa.  They are not only performed for entertainment, but are part of almost every aspect of life from birth to death, used in healing, worship, social gatherings and transitions from the various stages of life (rites of passage), as well as in burials.  Music and dance often accompany one aother, but there are cultural differences in styles. 

One of the most popular instruments is the drum.  The djembe of the Mandika people is believed to be the oldest and most popular drum in Africa, its origins dating back to the great Mali Empire of the 12th century.  This drum is shaped like a large goblet.  It was originally created as a sacred drum played only by men, especially those born into the djeli caste (musicians responsible for the oral tradition of the area).

Other sacred drums include the ngoma lungundu (drum of the dead) of the Venda and the Lovedu drum, both from the northern parts of South Africa.  The Lovedu drum was commonly played at important ceremonies such as the first fruits and the annual festival of the biting (‘loma’) of the emerging termites.  The ‘drum of the dead’ was used for performing miracles as it was considered to have magical and killing powers.  It contained a stone, thought to have been obtained from the stomach of a crocodile or a deceased chief.  Drums among the Venda, as with some other cultural groups, were traditionally played by women while men played the pipes.  The drums were beaten mostly by hand.

The majority of drums are made from wood and the top is covered with an animal skin, usually from a goat or cow.  However, shapes differ, e.g. the ngoma is large and hemispherical with a single pegged head.  Clay pots covered with animal skin were also used by the Zulu and Sotho.  The Zulu used the hide shield as a drum and the use of a stiff ox-hide as a temporary drum was common during Zulu and Xhosa witch-doctor ceremonies.

Drums are still used as an accompaniment to song and dance at many traditional ceremonies such as initiation, healing and worship.  The dances and rhythms played during healing rites, or when healers are undergoing initiation, enable the healers to transcend into a trance-like state.  In this state it is believed that they connect with ancestral spirits, who give instructions on how to heal illnesses (physical or spiritual) and treat social misfortunes.  The xhentsha, performed by Xhosa healers, is one such dance and has similarities with the San trance dance, which is central to the religious and healing rites of the San people.

Drumming, dancing and singing are also common in worship, particularly among the Apostolic and Zionist churches of southern Africa.  These churches incorporate Christian beliefs and practices with certain traditional African customs.  Music has, however, also always been part of the older Christian denominations (e.g. Roman Catholic, Anglican and Methodist) where hymns are accompanied by clapping and/or a musical instrument, particularly the organ.  In charismatic churches various musical instruments are played, and the church choir and congregation sing along to the instruments.

Other African musical instruments include musical bows, mbiras (hand pianos), flutes, horns, rattles and xylophones.  The majority of cultural groups use dancing rattles, which are worn either around the ankles or waist, or shaken in the hands.  Whistles and horns, known as wind instruments, were popular with herd boys.  The gora of the Khoi (a stringed wind instrument) was adopted by various groups in southern Africa.  Among the Sotho it is known as the lesiba.  Most of the musical traditions (dances, instruments and songs) were shared among different cultural groups through their interactions with one another.

With the arrival of missionaries and other Europeans during the 19th century, more musical styles and instruments were introduced.  This included instruments like the guitar and accordion that were incorporated into the musical traditions of groups such as the Sotho and Zulu.  Among the Zulu, the guitar is popular with maskandi music and the accordion is mostly synonymous with the traditional music of the Sotho (in Lesotho and South Africa).  However, the development of these musical traditions is attributed largely to many generations of migrant labour to the mines and farms in South Africa.  Migrant labourers developed their own subcultures that included distinct languages, music and dances (e.g. the gumboot dance).  These dances were characterised by the high kicking steps common in traditional dances such as indlamu (Zulu) and mohobelo (Sotho).  The makhwaya and muchongolo (Shangaan-Tsonga) were known as mine dances, due to their origins among mine-workers.  Other popular musical traditions are the monyanyako (Sotho), scathamiya and mbaqanga (Zulu).  Monyanyako combines choral music with intricate group dance steps performed on stage.  The music sung by the internationally acclaimed group Ladysmith Black Mambazo is scathamiya and the music of Mahlathini and the Mahotela Queens is an example of mbaqanga.

Music and dance are also an important part of oral tradition (folklore) and the games played by children.  Children learn most of the songs and dances from a young age and as they go through the various rites of passage.  Kgaga male initiates learn a dance called matlakalana which is performed at the penultimate ceremony of the initiation that takes place before the burning of the lodge and their coming out, and Sotho male initiates are taught dikoma songs, which are not accompanied by dance.  The dikoma songs are chanted slowly in low pitched voices and include self-praise.

Traditional African dances are often performed in groups, but there are often differences between male and female dances.  The mokhibo dance (knee dance) of Sotho women, for example, represents the domestic chores performed while kneeling.  Femininity is celebrated in dances like xibelani and ditobolonya that involve the shaking of certain body parts.  In both dances, attire is important.  For example, xibelani skirts help to emphasise the shaking and accentuate the hips.  Although most of these dances are still performed, many have lost their original context.  An example is ditobolonya, which was a private dance for women but is now performed at most public gatherings.


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Hammond-Tooke, D.  1993.  The Roots of Black South Africa:  An Introduction to the Traditional Cultures of the Black People of South Africa.  Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers.

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Ngoma drums (Photo: National Museum)


Mbiras (Photo: National Museum)


Xylophone (Photo: National Museum)


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