African Music is Hope–Its Dances Are Life

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As far as the human experience goes, nothing is more natural than death. Everyone dies. Spiritually-speaking we know that death is not natural. What a strange world then in which we find ourselves, pondering questions such as whether death is natural or not. Through spiritual eyes we see that the unnatural has become natural while the natural seeks to regain ground lost to the unnatural.

Last month we lost a colleague. Although I never met her, I felt compelled to attend her memorial service in order to show myself a committed and caring member of the community. The first half an hour of the service was a time of African worship led by ladies whom our deceased colleague had impacted. It was very moving. Here’s a clip.


The atmosphere of the memorial service illustrates well what I recently read in Richard Dowden’s insightful book Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. Forgive me for quoting at length, but it’s well worth the read–I promise.

What has Africa to offer the rest of the world? Patience, hope, civility – and music. If you judged the peoples of the world by their music, Africans would rank the most hopeful and contented. If music were wealth Africa would be rich. Africa gifted modern music to the world through America. All the rhythms of rock and jazz, reggae and soul have their roots in Africa. Africa’s music is defiantly self-confident, irrepressibly strong. Life is good, the bubbling rhythms throb. Love life, cry its floating songs. African music expresses African culture more strongly than anything else. Walk down any dusty, litter-strewn street in a poor part of a broken African town and the thick warm air tingles with tunes like jewels threaded on a subtle silver wire of rhythm. Music mingles with the smoke of roasting meat at roadside charcoal stoves and the dust and fumes of cars and buses. How can such irrepressible optimism come from Africa, supposedly the violent, suffering, despairing continent? If Africa produced the relentless rage of rap or the brutal speed of grime music no-one would be surprised. But there is not a whiff of stress or despair. There is no word for depression in most African languages. Africa’s upbeat music is not some chin-up, always-look-on-the-bright-side pep song, nor an underground resistance movement, a defence against hopelessness. African music is hope. Its dances are life. Africa is ruled more by its music than its misery. Is there some secret source of joy in Africa that the rest of us have forgotten or never knew? Maybe. […]

African music catches a spirit, a profound talent for living, enjoying life when it is good and surviving the bad times. The paradox is perfectly balanced: terrible times produce huge strength. Grief enhances joy. Death invigorates living. Here you see death, disease and pain every day. It is out in the open, not hidden away as it is in Europe and America. At funerals the coffin is open. At the market animals are slaughtered with axes and the blood runs into the gutter. The beggar with stick legs performs his handstand in the street then swings his shrivelled limbs towards you – and laughs. The leper takes you by the hand. You will hear appalling tales: a lost identity card that cost a job and weeks of hunger for the family, a theft of five years of savings, an illness that cost a family its land, a sudden storm that destroyed a home and its crops, a painful death from an unknown sickness. Africa lives with death and suffering and grief every day, but to be alive is to talk and laugh, eat and drink – and dance. If you didn’t dance you would curl up and die

Dowden, Richard. Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. Perseus Books Group: 2008. Kindle Edition. pp. 285-287 (emphasis mine).