I would love to visit Africa someday. I think it would settle a lot of curiosity I have about the world. For now, my most informed experience regarding the place is a seminar I took this past semester, called “Sacred and Secular African American Musics”. It wasn’t in an ivory tower (actually, it was a basement rehearsal hall) but it’s fair to say that my current views are products of the limited—yes, even detached—experience of academia. Still, what I learned there led me to form a perspective on music and history which is ultimately sensitive to violence, yet focused on beauty.
I’m writing this piece now because August was the month in 1960 when eight African nations were able to gain their independence from European powers, and I wanted to share what I know about the place of music—particularly national anthems—in this historical narrative. Celebrating these victories of the past century means grappling with great injustices, but, in my opinion, whatever strange or uncomfortable realities history may have left for us, there’s always solace in the continued march of progress.
Right now, I want you to take a moment, pause your reading, and use your imagination to conjure the sound of African music in your mind. Did you hear that? Now, of course, we all have completely individual musical histories, and it would be impossible for our thoughts in this little exercise to be the same. But I would guess that what you just experienced (if you humored me) probably involved some combination of the marimba, xylophone (or other idiophone), drums, shakers, bells, woodblocks, maybe a flute, or some singing or chanting. None of this would be unreasonable; every instrument I just listed is directly tied to the musical history of Africa and they represent just the tip of a rich musical tradition. But I would also guess that whatever you were thinking did not involve violins, snare drums, trumpets, trombones, or other familiar products of the Western canon. If my guesses were correct, then you’ll probably find the topic of African national anthems perplexing and thought-provoking, like I do.
So that you can really understand where I’m going with this, here’s a quick list of those countries which will be celebrating their independence this month, each followed by a link to a version of their national anthem, courtesy of YouTube:
- Benin (1 August 1960) L’aube nouvelle
- Niger (3 August 1960) La Nigérienne
- Burkina Faso (5 August 1960) Une Seule Nuit
- Central African Republic (13 August 1960) La Renaissance
- Chad (11 August 1960) La Tchadienne
- Cote d’Ivoire (7 August 1960) L’Abidjanaise
- Gabon (17 August 1960) La Concorde
You won’t have to listen to all of the videos to see what I’m talking about; one or two should do the trick. Without the context I’ve provided so far, these anthems might seem royal, impressive, majestic, stately, etc. But they are also distinctly Western in style, and the fact that they function as celebrations of African pride makes the entire situation somewhat baffling.
Consider that each country adopted its new national anthem shortly after attaining independence. What’s more, if you look up the lyrics to these songs, you’ll encounter themes of freedom, rights, solidarity, and sovereignty — themes which are expressed in French lyrics. How do we make sense of this all? What could it mean that these anthems, which so many nations chose to assert their freedom and strength, were set in forms of language and music that were originally of the very people who had systematically conquered the continent and exploited it for centuries?
There are, of course, practically unlimited ways to interpret this all. Let me say at this point that this is my subjective conjecture. For obvious reasons, I was not there for those conversations or decisions, and I may never find out what the people behind these exciting choices were thinking at the time. Perhaps the contradictions I’ve described appear perfectly clear to you as indicative of the permanence of the cultural erosion caused by Europe’s influence in Africa. You could say that these people did not choose the French tongue, and they did not ask for Western instrumentation, rhythmic structure, or tonality — these things chose them, and forcefully, at that. No doubt, a globalized world which had never seen a colonized Africa would have produced drastically different anthems—if any at all. Personally, I don’t see a whole lot of merit in thinking of things in such hypotheticals. What happened in Africa happened, and next month eight independent countries will celebrate what they have become, in spite of—or perhaps, because of—it all. If they ever want to change their tunes, they will. Because, after all, isn’t that what independence is all about?