African Elephants

In our seventh article following our armchair travels, we focus our attention on Africa, sometimes called ‘The Mother Continent’. Africa is the oldest inhabited continent, the source of the world’s longest river (the Nile), home to the world’s oldest university (the University of Karueein, Morocco), the kingdom of the world’s richest man (Mansa Musa, or Musa I of Mali, 1312 – 1337 AD), the world’s largest desert (the Sahara) and the place where the largest, fastest and tallest animals live (the African elephant, the cheetah and the giraffe).

Against this backdrop of natural phenomena, we now turn our attention to the culture and music of Africa. Music in Africa is very important when it comes to religion where songs and music are used in rituals and ceremonies. Music is also used to pass down stories from generation to generation, as well as to sing and dance to.

A distinguishing factor of African music is the call and response form; where one voice or instrument plays a short melodic phrase or rhythm, which is echoed by another voice or instrument. African music is also highly improvised. A core rhythmic pattern is typically played, with musicians then improvising new patterns over the original ones.

And so, as we explore African music, we will examine the music of Africa past and the challenges of the present day. Finally, we will focus on three African pianists who are celebrating their African heritage.

Music of Africa Past

Africa is synonymous with drums and singing, but we will delve deeper into the cultures of the world’s second largest continent and discover that there is more to the music of Africa than the beating drum.

North Africa is associated with the lands of ancient Egypt and Carthage; civilizations which had strong ties to the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. When these lands were eventually conquered by the Arabs, the music of this region was strongly influenced by Middle Eastern music and culture.

In West Africa, there was a history of a variety of instruments as witnessed by Hanno (a Carthaginian sailor who led a naval exploration around the islands of West Africa in the 5th century BCE). “By day we saw nothing but woods, but by night we saw many fires burning, and heard the sound of flutes and cymbals, and the beating of drums, and an immense shouting. Fear, therefore, seized on us, and the soothsayers bid us quit the island”.

African drums

Around the 15th century AD, the Yoruba (one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria) introduced the dùndún or bass drum. Evidence of dùndún drums as well as double iron clapperless bells, horns, and even bow lutes have been excavated in the kingdom of Benin. These were used for various ceremonial purposes.

In Central and Southern Africa iron bells have been excavated in the Katanga region of the Congo (near Kinshasa) and at several sites in Zimbabwe. It appears that these bells originated in West Africa, and due to migration the use of these bells spread to central Africa and then south to the Zambezi River valley and Zimbabwe. In the 17th – 18th centuries AD, the ancient kingdom of Zimbabwe also began to use lamellaphones. This instrument was a set of tuned metal or bamboo tongues (lamellae) of varying lengths which were attached to a soundboard.


Music of Africa Present

African music is a part of everyday activities. Musical performances are often long and involve the audience singing, clapping and dancing.

Songs are sung for every occasion, including:

  • childhood lullabies and play songs
  • birthdays, marriages and funerals
  • religious, political and tribal occasions
  • work, hunting and political activities

Songs can be both a capella (unaccompanied by instruments) or accompanied by musicians. A wonderful example of an a capella call and response is Mbube (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) sung by South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Among some tribes, certain restrictions are placed on the musicians based on age, gender, or the social status of the player e.g. among the Xhosa in South Africa, only girls play the imported jew’s harp, a modern replacement for the traditional mouth bow. In Lesotho, it is believed that the cattle graze more contentedly when entertained by the sound of the lesiba mouth bow.

The early influence of African music is widespread. Music migrated to America with the African slaves and combined with the folk music of the European settlers to produce new styles of music such as blues, gospel and jazz. It was from these genres that pop music was born.

However, during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s music seldom travelled beyond the continent. In most African countries, recording studios were technically ill-equipped, and record companies had neither the funding nor methods for exporting records.

In South Africa during the apartheid era of 1948-1994, jazz was played as a form of resistance but faced significant censorship. Despite this, scholars have stated that anti-apartheid music within South Africa, played an important role in putting pressure on the South African government to change.

Lesotho Women

While South African musicians often emulate the sounds of American jazz musicians, musicians in the rest of the continent are more often drawn to Caribbean rhythms and in French-speaking countries, Cuban rhythms are celebrated. Hypnotic ’Juju’ (Nigerian popular music) developed from combining Christian congregational singing and Yoruba vocal and percussion traditions.

For most African artists though, concerts are one of the few ways to earn an income in the music industry. Piracy is a huge threat and the enforcement of copyright law remains weak. In response to this, Kenya, Gambia and South Africa have had protests over airtime given to American music and in Zimbabwe, the law states that 75% of airtime must be given to local music. Protective actions have seen the growth of new genres like Urban Grooves emerge in Zimbabwe and in 2016, Sony Music opened an office in Nigeria to try to support the music industry.

Hugh Masekela

Pianists from Africa

There are several extremely talented pianists from which to choose including:

  • Petronella Malan (South Africa)
  • Nomfundo Xaluva (South Africa)
  • Nduduzo Makhathini (South Africa)
  • Echezonachukwu Nduka (Nigeria)
  • Fred Onovwerosuoke (Ghana)
  • Marouan Benabdallah (Hungarian-Moroccan heritage)
  • Mehdi Ghazi (Algeria)

However, for this article, we have chosen to focus on Abdullah Ibrahim, Rebeca Omordia and Aaron Rimbui.

Abdullah Ibrahim

Ibrahim (baptised Adolph Johannes Brand) was born in 1934 in Cape Town, South Africa. He is of mixed-race heritage, which under the apartheid system classified him as a ‘coloured’ person. He began learning the piano at the age of 7 and his earliest musical memories were of traditional African Khoi-san songs, Christian hymns and gospel tunes that he heard his grandmother and mother playing at the local African Methodist Episcopalian church.

As a teenager, he was exposed to a wide range of music in the cultural melting pot of Cape Town including American jazz, classical and Cape Malay music. He made his professional debut at the age of 15 playing with local groups and in 1959 he formed The Dollar Brand Trio. He became well known in jazz circles in both Cape Town and Johannesburg and in 1959 he played with the Jazz Epistles with saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, trumpeter Hugh Masekela, trombonist Jonas Gwanga, bassist Johnny Gertze and drummer Makaya Ntshoko. They recorded the first jazz album by South African musicians and in that same year, he met and first performed with vocalist Sathima Bea Benjamin whom he was to marry 6 years later.

Abdullah Ibrahim

After the notorious Sharpeville massacre in 1960, mixed-race and jazz bands that were defying the increasingly strict apartheid laws caused the group to be targeted by the apartheid government and they were forced to disband.

In 1962 Ibrahim was driven into exile in Switzerland and in 1963 Sathima Bea Benjamin (at that time his fiancee) convinced Duke Ellington, who was touring Europe at that time, to hear Ibrahim play in Zurich’s Africana Club. After the show, Ellington helped to set up recording sessions in Paris and this gave Ibrahim (now called Dollar Brand) a platform to perform at many European festivals.

In 1965 he moved to New York, played at the Newport Jazz Festival, Carnegie Hall and even substituted for Duke Ellington at five dates, leading the Duke Ellington orchestra. In 1967 a Rockefeller Foundation grant allowed him the opportunity to study at the famous Juilliard School of Music in New York and as the Black Power movement developed in the 1960s and 1970s, this led Dollar Brand to begin to incorporate African elements into his playing.

Duke Ellington

In 1968 he converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdullah Ibrahim. He briefly returned to South Africa in the mid-1970s and continued to make music and record with Rashid Valley, a record shop owner in Johannesburg. Their most famous collaboration during this time was ‘Mannenberg’, which was recorded in one take. The piece was inspired by the plight of the District Six people who were forcibly removed and relocated to the Cape Flats Townships. The music spoke of the defiance of the people and ‘Mannenberg’ became known as the unofficial anthem of South Africa and the theme tune for the anti-apartheid movement.

After the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, he returned to South Africa permanently and was invited to perform at Nelson Mandela’s 1994 presidential inauguration. This led Mandela to refer to him as ‘our Mozart’.

In 1999, he founded the ‘M7’ International Music Arts Academy for South African musicians in Cape Town and in 2006 he launched the Cape Town Jazz Orchestra, an 18-piece big band to strengthen the standing of South African music on the world stage.

Ibrahim has been the subject of two documentaries; ‘A Brother with Perfect Timing (1986) and ’A Struggle for Love’ (2004). He continues to tour the world, appearing at concert halls, clubs and festivals and he remains South Africa’s most distinguished pianist, a much respected musician worldwide and the recipient of several honorary doctorates.

Rebeca Omordia

Omordia was born to a Romanian mother and Nigerian father, during Ceaușescu’s regime in Romania. Her father, a member of the Igbo ethnic group, had moved from his home in Nigeria to Romania in the 1980s to study medicine, where he met and married her Romanian mother.

Omordia started learning to play the piano at the age of 5 with the idea that one day she would play in church but follow in her father’s professional footsteps and become a doctor. Due to the country’s strong ties with Soviet Russia, Omordia was exposed to concerts from classical greats like Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter from a young age. At the age of 7, when she was due to start school, Omordia asked her parents to send her to a specialist music school so that she could grow up to become a pianist. She describes herself as someone who was occupied with the piano for hours on end, but that she tended to lose patience with almost anything else. Her teacher spotted her talent and began to enter her into competitions, which led to appearances on Romanian television.

In 2006, she graduated from the National Music University in Bucharest and moved to the UK to study at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and later at Trinity College of Music in London, where she received a scholarship. It was during this time that she caught the attention of cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and went on to perform with him for 3 years. He remains a staunch supporter of Omordia.

Since then she has continued to tour around the world, including Nigeria and the Guardian described her as 'the pianist who cast a spell on Lagos'. The BBC World Service described Omordia as ‘an African classical music pioneer’ and in 2018 she released her CD, ‘Ekele’ which featured piano music by African composers.

In 2019 she launched the world’s first-ever ‘Concert Series in London’. This is a monthly concert which features African classical composers and aims to reflect "the depth and diversity of African art music, the richly diverse genre of music which forms a bridge between Western classical music and traditional African music". According to Omordia, “Knowing your roots, your heritage and culture helps you know who you are – and it’s powerful!”

Aaron Rimbui

Aaron Kimathi Rimbui was born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1979. His father loved music and had a vast collection of LP records which meant that Rimbui was exposed to music greats like Stevie Wonder and Henry Mancini from an early age. At local restaurants, he heard African bands perform and this had a significant influence on his own musical ideas.

Rimbui started "messing around with the drums" in church but as a teenager, he taught himself to play the piano. This switch came about when at the age of 14, Rimbui was involved in a near-fatal gas explosion. The accident meant he was forced to recuperate in hospital for a month with severe burns on his hands, face and feet. He needed reconstructive surgery and skin grafts on his face and left hand and it was during this time that he says, “Music was my solace, my go-to place. I found instrumental music calming. It was at that time I felt increasingly drawn to the piano. The accident had a deep spiritual impact on me”.

It was also after his recovery that Rimbui was drawn into the world of jazz. At the age of 14-15, he would listen to Miles Davis and John Coltrane and then stay up to 2 a.m. working out the solos and harmonies on his brother’s small Yamaha keyboard. He also listened to tape cassettes of Herbie Hancock and George Duke, both of who he credits with having a profound impact on his playing.

Aaron Rimbui

After school, he began working at a recording studio in Nairobi that specialised in jingles and ads. Although he knew nothing about programming, he was hired primarily because he could play the piano/keyboard. Working at the studio allowed Rimbui to learn about music production and engineering.

In 2001 at the age of 22, he was invited to the United States to join in a year-long gospel tour. It was during this time that he applied to the Musicians Institute in America and was accepted, but as the college was not offering scholarships, the $20,000 a year tuition fees meant that Rimbui was unable to take up the place and he was forced to return to Kenya.

On his return he worked in a recording studio, producing pop and world music albums for local artists. In 2006 he was offered the opportunity to write the theme song for Tusker Project Fame (a television show like American Idol) and later, the theme song for Tinga Tinga Tales (a children’s animated series that appeared on the BBC).

Since then Rimbui has also worked as a radio host and a bandleader. He has recorded 4 albums and he continues to perform at and curate music festivals in Africa. In Rimbui’s words, “There is something special about African music, and that's what I'm coming to offer: my African experience”.

And so in our armchair travels across the mother continent of Africa, we have considered some of the musical roots of the past. We have seen how music of the present day is thriving despite the challenges due to lack of funding, piracy and politics. Finally, we have shone our spotlight on the lives of three African pianists who have found a way to spread the magic of the music of Africa to the rest of the world.