April 17, 2010 6 Comments
Before Africa was colonised, the continent was characterised by a large degree of pluralism and flexibility. The continent consisted not of closed reproducing entities, equipped with unique unchanging cultures, but of more fluid units that would readily incorporate outsiders (even whites) into the community as long as they accepted its customs, and where the sense of obligation and solidarity went beyond that of the nuclear family. An example of such inclusiveness were the South African Xhosa who limited Xhosadom not along ethnic or geographical lines but along political. All persons or groups who accepted the rule of the paramount chief became Xhosa. Pre-colonial African societies were of a highly varied nature. They could be either stateless, state run or kingdoms, but most were founded on the principles of communalism in that they were self-governing, autonomous entities, and in that all members took part, directly or indirectly, in the daily running of the tribe.
While pre-colonial indigenous African systems had many appealing qualities, something that has been widely advocated, if not practised, by many post-independence African leaders and Africanists generally, they have some obvious weaknesses. The fact that chieftaincy is mostly based on kinship, for instance, is problematic because of the exclusive nature of leadership that this entails, which is especially problematic in countries with ethnic antagonisms. Secondly, some of the customs of indigenous African society might have been effective in relatively smaller-scale societies but are less likely to be so in the larger states of present day Africa. An example of this is that of consensus which in a large-scale modern African state would make the political process invariably slow, as well as prone to conformity and authoritarianism that could effectively silence dissent and result in uncontroversial and un-enlightened decisions. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, in claiming that Africa’s pre-colonial peasant cultures had “oppressive reactionary tendencies” that were “only slightly less grave than the racist colonial culture” might be overstating the case, but he nevertheless strikes a chord.
It is therefore important to realize that the relevance and usefulness of traditional or pre-colonial African institutions and customs depend upon whether one views African culture, or any culture for that matter, as static, or whether African culture is deemed to have evolved and changed, to some extent because of outside influence and colonialism. Culture must be seen as dynamic, and pre-colonial African cultures seen to be historical manifestations that are relevant in their entirety only to that specific period of time. Otherwise, they are useless as sources of inspiration for contemporary societies.
One example of where certain dynamics of African culture, or at least the broadly communal nature that many of these cultures had/have in common, has “survived” is in what is generally referred to as “traditional” African music. The different styles of music can be seen as a symbolic and representative example of the cultural differences between general strands of European and African culture. Whilst contemporary music in Europe tends to by rather individualistic, music in rural Africa is very much a communal matter. Where music in Europe tends to be self-promotional, music in rural Africa reflects the commonality of the performers. In short, whilst music in Europe tends to be the artistic preserve of the few, the majority being relegated to the role of spectator, music in Africa is an inclusive matter.
I am of course aware that any talk of “European” and “African” is bound to end up with sweeping generalisations for many reasons, the most important being that one cannot speak of a “European” or an “African” culture or musical tradition and that, as previously mentioned, culture is fluid, changing and inter-penetrative.