Music in many African countries is often synonymous with song. In most of South Africa’s nine African languages, for example (See ‘African Music Scores: Instruments and Languages‘), there is no word for ‘music’: the words commonly used are the equivalent to ‘song’, or ‘dance’. The voice is the major indigenous instrument in southern Africa, and the missionaries in this region simply overlaid various indigenous traditions of singing with a western choral approach, and this was written in tonic solfa notation, which African choral composers still use. The idea of ‘purely’ instrumental music written in staff notation is also a western one, introduced during the colonial era of various African countries. The region now has a wide variety of composers and musics.
John Knox Bokwe stands “at the head of the tradition of black choralism” in southern Africa, as Grant Olwage has observed (NewMusicSA Bulletin Issues 9/10, 2010/2011, pages 18-19). Bokwe’s first notated composition, Msindisi Wa Boni was published in 1875 and he followed it with more than 30 pieces over as many years. With this piece and in his own practice Bokwe established certain norms in the genre of African choral music that have persisted throughout its history: he was a “self-taught composer [who] composes almost exclusively for voice [and who] is typically also a choral conductor [for] whom choral practice is a part-time activity” (Olwage); s/he also typically writes in tonic solfa notation, the mission script.
The voice remains the most widespread ‘instrument’ in Southern Africa, largely because access to instrumental tuition has been impossible for most people, due to the inadequate funding of African music education over many decades. Where instruments are played, the most popular is probably the guitar, and in some areas the concertina and accordion.
Most music in southern Africa has historically been performed by people who do not sing or play from written scores (see African Music Scores: History), but since the later 19th century notated music has increasingly been used, alongside orally transmitted music.
Editing African choral music from southern Africa has to take into account several facts: works are written in tonic solfa notation, original manuscripts are rare, even published scores are; and the music belongs to a strong tradition of practice.
CD Sheet Music
Center for Black Music Research
Documentation Centre for Music, Stellenbosch University