International Journal of Education & the Arts

Volume 6 Review 1

January 11, 2005

Herbst, Anri; Nzewi, Meki; and Agawu, Kofi (Eds.). ( 2003). Musical arts in Africa: Theory, practice and education. Pretoria, South Africa: University of South Africa Press

317 pp.
Book, CD, and video; ISBN 86888-279-9
SA price R399.00; Other countries in Africa R415.00; Overseas US $66.40.

Sheelagh Chadwick
University of Illinois

Musical arts in Africa: Theory, practice and education is an exciting contribution to the field of African music education and I hope it will be the first of many such publications. The book honors the spirit of apprenticeship and collaboration exemplified in many African musical communities of practice. Invited scholars, both experienced and emerging, from 10 countries and diverse national, cultural and disciplinary backgrounds participated in this project, following a framework developed by authors and editors Anri Herbst and Meki Nzewi. The resulting compilation is rich and diverse, exploring many themes in the manner of an African musical ensemble.

I come to this volume with a background of working with pre-service music teachers in Botswana and a concern that they learn to challenge the fossilized anti-musical methods and content of colonial education. I have strived to design classroom contexts in which students listen to, discuss, create and perform music which responds to their time, place and culture and I am beginning to research into how Botswana’s pre-service teacher education serves teachers in the field, what music teaching in Botswana is and how it is constructed by the teachers.

As many of the authors point out, given the size and diversity of Africa, meaning and relevance can be constructed only in relation to a context. In Botswana, for instance, music education in secondary (CJS) schools has recently taken steps towards change by starting a pilot project with some sixteen schools offering the subject. Through my discussions with the teachers, as well as my work with pre-service teachers in classrooms and in the field, I feel confident that this book will be welcomed, and that it can provide different models for practice from those critiqued by several of the book’s authors (Nzewi; Oherle & Emeka; Nixon, Uzoigwe, & Kigozi). Botswana teachers are beginning to involve students in classroom activities; they are beginning to recognize students’ knowledge and the musical skills of their families, communities, religions or tribes as valuable and important musical understandings. In this respect, the encouragement to make music participatory in chapters by Tracey and Uzoigwe and Nzewi can support the efforts of all those who are attempting to change from pen and paper learning and testing of mainly theoretical knowledge to active music-making in accordance with the mandates that are already in the syllabus.

Recurring and therefore salient themes are the importance of musical arts activities in communities and families, and the need for educational systems and structures to change and adapt, not only to musical activities and pedagogy as experienced in the wider community, but also to African ideas of what constitutes knowledge, and what it means to be musically literate or educated.

In keeping with the title, the theme of integration is raised in almost every chapter. Nzewi terms this connection the “African musical arts matrix” (p. 13). One point is made particularly clear: separation of the arts into discrete disciplines contradicts community practice, music as a school subject needs to embrace a holistic African approach. The need to begin with students’ own experiences in and knowledge of local musical arts, to reinforce and incorporate their own histories and cultural environments as a starting point cannot be overemphasized. Agawu advocates that students (and presumably also teachers) start with their own music as the core of learning and move from there to explore parallels with and divergences from other African musics and beyond; avoiding top-down approaches to curriculum (see for example Tabulawa, 1998) and celebrating what is closest to students’ lives.

Not unexpectedly there are many references to the specific impact of colonialism on African music education. Agawu urges us to question even the term music itself because of its origins and to reassess what words and meanings are relevant or useful in African settings. Nzewi is more pointed referring to the devastating self-rejection and cultural amnesia that has resulted from colonialization.

For the teachers I know, I believe the success and utility of this book lie in the core chapters that advocate practices such as play and integration. These chapters provide detailed, specific examples and relate concepts to contexts teachers recognize, examining not only other cultures but carefully considering the repercussions for music education and possible solutions to the tensions raised. The various authors do not claim to provide watertight solutions for every situation but, rather, the beginnings of a conversation. Although the references are often non-African, these writers have derived their own patterns and examples from African arts forms and African interpretations of their meaning. These chapters go beyond mere description, information, or even analysis. Rather than claiming authority, they provide a generative platform from which musicians, teachers and students can examine and challenge their own ideas and experiences within their own cultural milieus, developing their understanding not only of other cultures but their own in greater depth, bringing out the global in the local and vice versa. Embedded in the above is the importance of fostering research communities in order to continue deepening these and other understandings of musical arts in Africa. As Agawu states from the outset, the African composer’s work takes on its fullest meaning within the context of his particular community and this book invites and encourages teachers and students alike to approach music from their own tribe or region as part of a larger tradition, that of the African musical arts.

The book’s many reference lists provide a wealth of material from which to launch further studies and research. As Primos states, non-Africans still have the monopoly on writing about African arts. However, this book sets a new and invaluable precedent through showing Africans at work on a regeneration of African values and perspectives in the fields of music and musical arts education.

More specific issues are thoughtfully considered by a number of the authors. Kwami, Akrofi and Adams examine the notion of literacy, and the importance of recognizing multiple systems within education rather than perpetuating the dominance of staff notation. They, like Agawu, show how African musical ideas can be distorted if misrepresented. For example using linear notation when cyclical is far more relevant (p. 268); this is not given as a straightforward or universal decision, as consideration must be given to whether notations are cultural or cross-cultural.

Several chapters caution against perpetuation, supported by an archeological approach to preservation and research, as the goal for music education. Instead, they highlight the changing nature of musical arts. Bakare and Mans’ statement that “living art can only survive when reflecting the demands and concerns of the ever-changing society” (p.215) could apply to art forms other than dance. Kwami et al also highlight the importance of “admitting cultural dynamism into curriculum practice” (p. 271). Part of this change is the necessity of involving local culture bearers in the education process. A more flexible view of the art and practice of teaching would enable local musicians and artisans to be invited to schools to share their immense and valuable knowledge of African indigenous arts practices.

Of all the advice given to teachers, perhaps the most important and certainly timely, is that embedded in the chapter by Nixon, Uzoigwe, and Kigozi:

At times classroom music educators are too caught up in explaining the music verbally and through diagrams and notation and spend too little time teaching through playing, performing and having learners perform. Music educators need to perform regularly or at least identify and create performance opportunities, and should encourage their students to do the same. (p. 70)

Without a doubt, this publication will provide the inspiration and concrete material required for such important changes. Encouraging words from Kwami et al: “Music teachers need not necessarily be knowledgeable in all non-Western musics. But they can at least immerse themselves in the indigenous musics of the area in which they live and teach” (p. 270) will also help teachers to find new priorities and philosophies. They go on to advise an approach which could be used by teachers and teacher-educators alike. This is not some “dumbing down” of educational discourse but rather a possible way forward, enabling and encouraging musical arts teachers to take control of and responsibility for what they teach and how they teach it.

I would like to turn briefly to issues that I hope could be addressed in future editions or similar publications in order to give the authors’ arguments even more strength. A recurring theme is the juxtaposition of "African" against "Western." Donald Macedo writes most appropriately that

a global comprehension of indigenous knowledge cannot be achieved through the reductionistic binarism of Western versus indigenous knowledge. The essence of indigenous knowledge is found in the experience of the colonized which is never restricted to Third World and other "tribal" context. The idea of a West with particular way of thinking and being and educating really is no longer viable. In terms of power inequalities and people being marginalized because of race, ethnicity and class, North America’s inner cities are colonized and in many aspects taking on "third worldness." (p. xii)

There is too much diversity in the “West”, for it to be any more meaningful a term than “African” in contexts such as these.

Macedo makes an additional and perhaps more important point against these types of generalizations and polarizations:

It is only through the decolonization of our minds, if not our hearts, that we can begin to develop the necessary political clarity to reject the enslavement of a colonial discourse that creates a false dichotomy between Western and indigenous knowledge. It is through the decolonization of our minds and the development of political clarity that we cease to embrace the notion of Western versus indigenous knowledge, so as to begin to speak of human knowledge. It is only through the decolonization of our hearts that we can begin to humanize the meaning and usefulness of indigeneity. (p. xv)

Writers who polarize African against Western leave themselves nowhere to go, with no shades of subtlety or agreement or in-betweeness where they can negotiate. Everything becomes black or white, in perhaps more ways than one. Just as it is crucial to “avoid the essentialistic tendency to lump together all indigenous cultures as one” (Semali & Kincheloe, p. 16), talking about the West as a single entity in every way opposed to Africa will not help develop a fully nuanced and deep understanding of African musical arts anywhere in the world. These ideas should be presented as significant and important in their own right, not simply in how they stand in relation to some fictional composite that is “Western” music or for that matter any other genre.

A number of authors, including Bakare and Mans, are very successful at presenting a closely nuanced picture of specific cultures or musical arts forms rather than “othering” African arts as something exotic and strange (p. 216). Africa certainly has unique issues with respect to its arts traditions, but it also has similarities with the arts of other times and continents and does not need to assert its importance through difference based on generalizations or polarizations.

The book certainly reveals an ongoing conflict surrounding the use of Western classical staff notation to facilitate analysis and discussion of music not from that tradition. I realize that the representation of music from African traditions is not a new dilemma, nor is it one that can be easily solved. However, given the nature of the book and the genres of music being discussed I would have liked to see more consistency in how notations are used. Staff notation is used almost exclusively but with no comment on what that means and although some use is made of cyclical patterns and alternate forms of notation they are not in use consistently. Is the use of standardized staff notation appropriate in this kind of volume? Should its use not be addressed as a wider issue? These questions deserve fuller discussion.

In the opening chapter, Agawu perceptively explores how Africans and African ideas are presented and represented and the power involved in naming and defining concepts. For example, he asserts that “European ideas such as call and response do violence to African concepts which are much more subtle and varied.” He points out that terms and ideas used to reference musical concepts are culturally embedded and not the universal language they have been accepted as. He urges writers, researchers, and academics to derive terminology from performers’ own ways of talking about their art, valuing their own conceptual categories. When African writers continue to use systems of notation developed in the Western classical music traditions are they distorting the music and musical ideas in some way? Are the musical excerpts being pushed into a frame that does not fit them? As Semali and Kincheloe say of all indigenous knowledge systems, “to speak of indigenous knowledge systems in Western terms [...] is to inadvertently fragment knowledge systems in ways that subvert the holism of indigenous ways of understanding the world” (p. 21). Specifically in this book, some written justification for why Western staff notation was being used in some chapters but not others would have been illuminating.

Understandably, several authors cite many non-African authors in support of their larger theoretical concepts and ideas. Many chapters very successfully and convincingly relate these geographically and often philosophically distant texts to specific African contexts, tightly connecting and reinterpreting these concepts within more specific local situations. In societies where, as Nzewi states, the analysis is conducted through the performance and where ideas have been explored aurally and, significantly, before the need for publication, circulation to a wider audience and perhaps even demands of tenure, written material that explores African theories and philosophies is still not as prevalent as it is in Western societies. As Primos says in the concluding chapter: “internationally established theoretical frameworks and research methodologies will need to be scrutinised for their continued efficacy or misfit in African contexts” (p. 293). This is another delicate but necessary balance to strike if African authors and ideas are to gain wider understanding, recognition and acceptance.

The book encompasses a wide and varied terrain, including Herbst and Tracey’s stimulating chapter on technology. It touches on common themes of the arts connectedness to society, the fusion of traditional with contemporary, and the impacts of colonialization, yet it still seems to be a little out of character with the rest of the book because its content remains remote in terms of the book’s central foci. Placed near the beginning with the other framing pieces and, perhaps, centering the wealth of references to African philosophies in relation to the arts in general would have given readers the benefit of the authors’ expertise in this realm as a means of framing the text as a whole.

With the concerns of a practitioner in mind, I applaud the inclusion of so many suggested projects and activities. I would like to see this aspect of the book expanded, perhaps even to create an accompanying volume for teachers. Creating activities based on the book’s material would give all the authors the opportunity to develop and contribute focused activities that have been given in-depth and detailed consideration.

The last chapter on research is important particularly for its capacity to inspire confidence in others to continue research, and generate more interest on the ground with students. However, Primos’ use of the term scientific in qualifying the nature of the research she feels should be taking place, seems to ignore the debates around this issue. Flyvbjerg (2002, p. 25) says “the study of social phenomena is not, never has been, and probably never can be, scientific in the conventional meaning of the word” because explanation and prediction are context independent, going against what has been reiterated throughout the book about the importance of context and situatedness of knowledge. Eisner too would question this emphasis: “it has no monopoly on the ways in which humans inquire” (p. 214). Even in the field of music education itself, there are voices against this paradigm: “We interpret everything that we claim to know through certain epistemological attitudes, through certain assumptions, concepts, theories, models of reality and worldviews and these attitudes are contextual rather than universal” (Westerlund, 1999, p. 94). The universal truths implied by scientific research and the theories they generate are designed to circumvent the very cultural embeddedness and values important to understanding the meanings of indigenous knowledge. With all of this in mind, perhaps a more open idea of what constitutes research would create more possibilities for directions and kinds of research to take place. I support Primos’ call for research that is appropriate for African contexts rather than merely appropriated from the West. Yet she reiterates a standard formula for conducting research without considering alternatives. If arguments are going to be persuasive then they will have to be situated, specific and involving teachers and students in the process. This will require a more thoughtful consideration of what constitutes as research and how it might differ for the African context (see Tuhiwai Smith, 1999).

Given the range of expertise present in this volume, I would have liked to see a more detailed consideration of the implications of this material for music education at any level. It seems that many countries in Africa, Botswana being one, have decided that music belongs as a subject in school. This decision is not accepted without question here, but are the statements implying that changes are necessary really strong enough to motivate that change? The book has invaluably opened the door for debate surrounding important questions such as: what issues and questions will need to be addressed and by whom? What further research is necessary in order to facilitate this transition? If the syllabi currently in use are a product of colonial and neocolonial mentality then how will they be distorting or even destroying the ideas from this book when they are placed in the same context? Will the conclusion be that musical arts are best learned outside of that regimented system? Are they incompatible with the way schooling is currently structured? This volume goes some way to uncovering and addressing such vital debates.

A small but important omission given the potential audience for this book is that of an index. Nzewi refers at the outset to the spiral nature of the presentation and development of themes. Given that all ideas surrounding aural tradition for example are not to be found in one chapter with that title, it would facilitate use of the book as a resource for teaching, learning and research if it had a detailed guide to the contents. I hope one can be added for the next edition.

The editors and authors are to be congratulated for their efforts in producing this much needed and, for some, long awaited book. I hope that many of the points raised in this book will be developed and researched in the future to form fully argued volumes of their own, particularly examining the implications for arts education in Africa’s classrooms. Nzewi (p. 14) says that “[a]ccess to such education is the fundamental right of every member of indigenous society in Africa”. I hope that the wonderful kaleidoscope of musics, ideas and people that constitute this book will be truly influential in making arts education deserving of every child in Africa.

The time is long overdue for a book such as Musical arts in Africa: Theory, practice and education. I am sure it will make a significant contribution to classrooms both in schools and in higher education in terms of musical content, activities, and pedagogy but also be found in the hands of educational policy makers continent-wide.


Flyvbjerg, B. (2001). Making social science matter: Why social inquiry fails and how it can succeed again. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Macedo, D. (1999). Preface. In L. M. Semali & J. L. Kincheloe (Eds.), What is indigenous knowledge? Voices from the academy (pp. xi-xvi). New York & London: Falmer Press.

Semali, L. M. & Kincheloe, J. L. (1999).Introduction: What is indigenous knowledge and why should we study it? In L. M. Semali & J. L. Kincheloe (Eds.), What is indigenous knowledge? Voices from the academy (pp. xi-xvi). New York & London: Falmer Press.

Tabulawa, R. (1998). Teachers’ perspectives on classroom practice in Botswana: Implications for pedagogical change. Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(2), 249-268.

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies. London & New York: Zed Books.

Westerlund, H. (1999). Universalism against contextual thinking in multicultural music education – Western colonialism or pluralism? International Journal of Music Education, 33, 94-103.

About the Reviewer

Sheelagh Chadwick is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois. She is currently undertaking fieldwork in Africa.

   home   |   articles   |   abstracts   |   editors   |   submit   |   subscribe   |  

You are visitor number since January 11, 2005.