Music and religion are interrelated phenomena, and are connected to each other in two directions: Music shapes religion, and religion defines music; creating a dynamic process of exchanging characteristics of each. Music is present in religious activities such as praying, meditating, and worshipping socially in groups. It defines the rhythmic structure of the prayer, and creates the necessary mood for the ceremony. Religion defines the rules of the music performed, and determines the roles of the musicians as worshippers. This relation between music and religion exists in the specific areas of the world, where ancient civilizations inhabit. Also, every religion in the world such as Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism possesses the effects of music. But the most significant and obvious effect of music on the religion is seen in the African societies which we may call “uncivilized”. Seeing this significant effect, it would be very appropriate to clearly define the relation between music and religion regarding the African religion. In this paper, the importance of music in traditional African religions, and in the archaic African societies will be investigated. However, before emphasizing the interrelation of music and religion in Africa, it must be stated that Africa consists of many different religions, nearly proportional to the number of different tribes living in the continent. Therefore, in order to be able to derive the conclusion that music is evocative, effective, and crucial in African religion, at least a few numbers of different religions and different societies must be examined. A broader point of view would finally suggest that religion has a very active and important role in the daily lives of the uncivilized African communities; music as an indispensable element in their lives, affect their religion where the religion defines the characteristics of this music.

Although there are numerous different religions and cultural heritages throughout the continent, it is still possible to find many intersection points between all these religions, and see them as a whole in order to simplify things when trying to induce a conclusion on the African religion as a whole. Mbiti (1991), in the following phrase, emphasizes that African religion as a whole is the result of the interconnection of many religions from different areas of the continent.

Each African people has its own cultural heritage. Some aspects of our cultures are fairly similar over large areas of our continent. There are also many differences, which add to the variety of African culture in general…which make it possible to speak of African culture (in the singular) remembering, however that there are many varieties of it. (p.8)

Seeing that it is indeed possible to point out the common characteristics of African religion, it becomes absolutely relevant to examine the general characteristics of the religion in order to be able to see the connections with music.

African religion is fairly simple, and straightforward from the point of view of “civilized” men. The belief system is not developed with philosophical thoughts, and simplicity has a great significance. Polytheism is the main idea in African religion, and holy phenomena have been projected onto the nature by the African communities. For instance, natural obstacles and cosmic structures are considered as gods, or holy beings. Also, natural obstacles are thought to possess spirits and energies. Beliefs, ceremonies and festivals, holy objects, morals, and religious leaders occupy important roles in the religion. Religion is deeply embedded within the social life of the civilians, and traces of religious behaviors and acts are seen in their daily lives. The most important social event is considered to be rituals and religious ceremonies. For example, religious festivals are occasions that are held to celebrate events that possess importance in people’s lives. Such events are mostly about the nature (harvest time, start of spring, chance in climate, etc.) or about the social life (war, victory, birth, death, marriage, etc.) In these festivals, people pray to gods and holy spirits in order to be purified and blessed (Mbiti, 1991, p.11). The praying actions take place along with music, songs, dances, and rhythmic beats. Mbiti (1991) describes the significance of music in the prayers as:

Through music, singing, and dancing, people are able to participate emotionally and physically in the act of worship. The music and dancing penetrate into the very being of the worshipping individuals. Some of the dancing and singing sessions which accompany communal worship may last the whole day or even several days. Afterwards people feel satisfied in spirit, even though tired in body. (p.67-68)

Massiasta (1994) also shows the significance of music in the lives of the native Africans, and suggests that the religious songs and chants have proved to be so powerful that they can still be seen in their lives: “The songs of the past, tunes that invoke memories of African communities united by a common prayer to their divinities, memories of Africans sitting on the ground to eat from the same bowls of communal ritual, can still be heard in the countryside.”

The roles of music and musicians are not limited by only a few worshipping ceremonies. Nearly all of these religious ceremonies are accompanied by music and chants, which serve to evoke people’s emotions and give them energy. (Hodges, 1992, p.1) In a typical religious ceremony of a typical African tribe, there would be several musicians with drums, flutes, and some other instruments made out of metal, leather, or wood playing evocative rhythms (Kawawa, 1998, p.1). Along with the musicians, the religious leader of the community would possibly act as the “conductor” and he would lead the musicians according to the religious rules. This “band” would play a repeating rhythm, which would have the capability to turn the worshippers into some state of trance. Therefore, this worshipping ceremony would only be possible and successful by the help of the musicians and the religious leader (Adegbite, 1991, p.52-53). However, it should also be kept in mind that these are only the outlines of a communal worship, and it is absolutely normal for these actions to change from tribe to another.

These characteristics of religion create a wide understanding, whereas it still is necessary to consider at least a few different religions of cultures of Africa when examining the relationship between music and religion. For example, the social life and religion in Niger, in the districts where Voodoo culture is dominant, and in the uncivilized fields of the Yoruba consist of different rituals, and different properties. Therefore, at this point it becomes necessary to examine these cultures, compare and contrast them in order to be able to derive a general conclusion about the relationship between music and religion in the whole continent.

In Bori, a small town in the country of Niger, the relationship between music and religion possesses significantly important differences from the rest of the continent. The first important point to mention is that in Bori; most of the civilians are Muslims; however they still resemble their ancestors and inherit the ideas of spirits and supernatural beings from their ancestors. These people have numerous superstitious beliefs that directly affect their daily lives, and some of these beliefs are directed towards music and musicians. Music is mostly regarded as holy in Bori as people believe that “the sound of music therefore transcends the boundaries between human and superhuman realms and fuses the material with the nonmaterial.”(Masquelier, 2001, p.103).

Musicians of Bori is another interesting subject to examine. In Bori, musicians are considered as the lowest people in their traditional caste system. For the ordinary civilians, musicians are particularly dangerous because these artists have the power to communicate with the spirits. Masquelier (2001) brings a clear explanation to exactly why people are afraid from the musicians by concluding “Bori musicians are particularly feared because, as one individual put it for me, ‘The spirits follow them.’ Consequently, to offend Bori musicians is tantamount to offending the spirits, something no one wants to do for fear of reprisals.” (p.101).

The music of Bori “is irresistible, especially if it is played well,” (p.103) emphasizes Masquelier (2001) and clearly shows that music is absolutely one of the most effective phenomena in Bori. After seeing the attitude of civilians to music and to musicians, it becomes possible to realize that music has a fundamental effect on the daily lives of the citizens and it is directly related with their beliefs.

Voodoo culture behaves as an appropriate platform to examine the relationship between religion and music. However, it is impossible to clearly understand this relation without defining the notion of Voodoo properly. Voodoo is mostly considered as a cult of black magic, mysticism, and supernatural habits by the civilized people. However, Voodoo is more than just a religion or a culture. It is mostly the combination of a culture and a religion; and as Rigaud (1985) suggests, “…Voodoo encompasses an exceedingly complex religion and magic with complicated rituals and symbols that have developed for thousands of years-perhaps longer than any other of today’s established faiths.” (p.7). Inspecting the etymological root of the word makes it possible to see that the word Voodoo possesses the meaning of “introspection into the unknown” (Rigaud, 1985, p.8). Voodoo is not specific to one culture or one district as of now. Voodoo takes its origins in Africa, and then it has spread all over the world from Brazil to United States, from Jamaica to Puerto Rico, and from Trinidad to Cuba. (Rigaud, 1985, p.12). Especially, the effect of this culture has shown itself in Cuba, where most of the Cuban percussion instruments take their origin from Africa. Faro (2003) explains this interaction and concludes, “the source of Cuban percussion is from the African religion, where the rhythms of the drums summon the various energies of the orishas (African deities), and every time a percussionist plays it’s a dedication to the gods.”(p.1). This fact reveals that Voodoo culture is full of interesting characteristics, which have the capability to attract the attention of people from different nations and races.

Voodoo is full of musical elements, such as chants, songs, and rhythmic prayers. The specific musical instruments in Voodoo are so important that they are intensely defined in shape and structure so that they will be able to perform their appropriate functions in the Voodoo ceremonies. Therefore it becomes a duty for the craftsmen to construct the instruments according to the rules set by the Voodoo officials and religious leaders. The specific instruments that are mostly used in Voodoo ceremonies are the ogan, the triangle, and drums of different sizes and structures. (Rigaud, 1985, p.111-112-114).

The instruments specified for Voodoo are used for several purposes in rituals, and they have their own roles in creating the necessary atmosphere for the event. The ogan is a metal instrument, which can create loud metallic sounds which can sometimes be disturbing. “In the Voodoo tradition the ogan is basically the chromatic director of the orchestra…Its beat rhythmically controls the sacred Chromatic…this formula signifies “chief of the magic circle,” or “ruler of the ceremonial material.” (Rigaud, 1985, p.112). Thus, musically speaking, this metallic instrument is used to mark the beginning times of the bars, which then come together to create musical sentences.

The triangle holds another function in the Voodoo orchestra. It is another metallic instrument, especially made of iron that is shaped like a triangle. It is also used chromatically in the ceremonies, and its role is defined as the “opening of the path of the air.” (Rigaud, 1985, p.112). Also, for some of the ceremonies, it happens to be a necessity to paint the corners of the instrument for magical purposes. The definite role of the triangle is defined by Rigaud (1985) as: “This geometric correspondence, when referring to the magical organization of the ritual and of the ritual Chromatic, definitely signifies that the abysses are opened by the triangular form, with Danbhalah Wédo, Erzulie, and Legba at each of the three points of the triangle,” (p.112) where in this excerpt, Danbhalah Wédo, Erzulie, and Legba are considered to be some kind of “holy spirits.” (p.112).

The drums are the other instruments that help to create the mood, in which the ceremony will take place. There are three sets of drums used in the Voodoo culture, each of them having several derivatives of different sizes. The Rada, Pethro, and Congo drums are these main sets. They all are made of wood and leather; they seem to play the main function in the music of Voodoo, however they only serve the purpose of accompanying the rhythm and decorating the music. (Rigaud, 1985, p.115).

Other than the instruments of Voodoo, there are two other important factors: The Voodoo Chorus, and the mystic Voodoo Chants. (Rigaud, 1985, p.120-122). The Voodoo Chorus is responsible of repeating the Voodoo Chants according to the rhythm of the music that is being performed during the ceremony. With all these instruments and musical forms, the atmosphere in Voodoo becomes fulfilled. At this point, it becomes very obvious that music is embedded deeply in Voodoo, and that music is one of the most important elements in the Voodoo culture. Thus, the following conclusion arises: Voodoo, possibly the oldest religious and cultural activity in Africa, has intense relationships with music. Voodoo defines the roles of the musicians, and determines the effects of the music, where the musical elements come together to form the right atmosphere for the cultic ceremonies.

Along with Voodoo, and Bori, the Yoruba culture is another example of a platform where it is possible to observe the interaction between religion and music. The understanding of sound and music in traditional African religions and cultures shows similarities with the two of the previously mentioned notions. Adegbite (1991) defines this understanding as:

Sound, to the traditional African peoples may be described as the vehicle for articulating an abstract idea in concrete form…Fundamental traditional African belief holds that sound is evocative; that is, it has mystical powers which can be used to evoke psychic forces of tremendous potency; powers which, for example, a traditional Yoruba man would claim he has used time and again to produce tangible results through chant. (p.45)

Therefore, it is seen that Adegbite (1991) emphasizes the evocative power of the music in African religion. Music is forceful enough to create a tremendous effect on people; therefore it is used all the time in the religious ceremonies of the traditional African religion. (p.45).

According to the Yoruba, music holds mystical powers, by which they become able to show the existence of their spirits. Adegbite (1991) suggests that in order to appreciate the music, the music must possess the ability to communicate; where Adegbite (1991) also emphasizes that the vocal and instrumental music of the Yoruba possess this specific ability. (p.45). This ability is mostly caused by the notion of Orisa. Orisa are believed to be supernatural beings, probably spirits, which are believed to exist in the spiritual world. Yoruba musicians think that if they can play qualitative and evocative music, the Orisa will come to the earth, and be with them for a while. Adegbite (1991) defines this relation as:

…there is a belief among the Yorubas that sound is evocative and that the Orisa are lovers of music. Therefore they communicate with their Orisa through music. This communication occurs in different forms, sometimes through that aspect of ritual open to the general public, festivities and other religious ceremonies. (p.50)

Therefore, it is seen that music is made with a spiritual purpose, which again shows that music is embedded within religion in the traditional African religion of the Yoruba.

Along with the holy purpose of making music, the religion has put some boundaries on the music. For example, “it is considered dangerous to make noisy sound on musical instruments…in the middle of the day or in the middle of the night. These are said to be the periods when spirits, especially evil spirits…roam about.” (Adegbite, 1991, p.51-52). The Yoruba think that this kind of an action would make these spirits angry, which will then result with unfortunate events. Also, the musicians think that the mystical powers in the world make them play evocative music. They think that they gather this “creative source” (Adegbite, 1991, p.52) from the supernatural beings that exist in the world.

Also, the psychological effect of music on people and the importance of improvisation seem to be very well understood by the Yoruba. Adegbite (1991) shows this situation and puts forth the idea that “a Yoruba traditional musician will open his performance which is often done spontaneously by studying the psychological situation of the environment in which he is performing.” (p.52).

The Voodoo culture, the religion of the Yoruba, and the religion in Bori have resembling and differentiating characteristic, where they come together to create the general phenomenon of “African Religion”. The three different cultures that were previously examined resemble each other in several ways. They all possess the same situation of music and religion being connected to each other in varieties of directions. From each specific example given, it is seen that a general conclusion about the African music and African religion can be induced. It is possible to see that music has definite effects on religion, helps the religion by its power of creating necessary atmospheres and by its psychological effect on the humans. However, the relationship between music and religion is bi-directional. While music influences religion, religion sets the rules of how music must be generated.

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1. Adegbite, A. (1991). The Concept of Sound in Traditional African Religious Music. Journal of Black Studies, 22, 45-54. (JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org)

2. Faro, R. (2003). PerCuba 2003. All About Jazz. <http://www.allaboutjazz.com/gallery/llinhardt_percuba.htm&gt;

3. Hodges, R. (1992). Drum Is the Ear of God: Africa’s Inner World Music.<http://www.bmrc.berkeley.edu/people/rhodges/html/Ear.html&gt;

4. Kawawa, O. R. (1998, August 12-14). Lecture. “Playing Enables Music To Be Alive, Who Ever Plays Good Prays Good.” Towards Human Future, Jungle Communication Centre, Oshogbo, Nigeria. <http://www.okonfo.de/Okonfo.htm&gt;

5. Massiasta, D, H. (1994). Indigeneous African Religion (Basic Concept and Practices). Chapter 19: African Culture. <http://www.hypertextile.net/BLACKHUD/ind-reli/ind19.htm&gt;

6. Masquelier, A. (2001). Prayer Has Spoiled Everything. London: Duke University Press.

7. Mbiti, J, S. (1991). Introduction to African Religion. Oxford: Heinemann International Literature and Textbooks.

8. Rigaud, M. (1985). Secrets of Voodoo. New York: Arco.

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