Music and Religion in Africa


The partnering of the terms music and religion in regards to Africa can only have an a priori informative value.  Religion’s use of music and music’s search for inspiration on religious terrain no longer needs to be proved.  For centuries, the relationship between the two fields has seemed so intimate that it is difficult to believe that one ever existed without the other.  Apart from Islam, which has debated the place of music in its religious practices, music and religion seem to form a homogenous couple.


“Sacred music” is a generic term often used to encompass a hodgepodge of all the music that is played or sung in places of worship.  However, it is necessary to distinguish between “song” and “music” and, in Africa, between the song and the sound of the tam-tam.  To simplify, we can define religious music as that which, by its author’s intention as well as the subject and the objective of the work, seeks to express and arouse pious and religious feelings which, consequently, “greatly aid the religion”. Popular songs spontaneously born from man’s innate religious sense which, consequently, has a universality and blossoms amongst all peoples, can also be placed in this category.  In principle, only music that contains nothing of the secular and doesn’t produce, even on surface levels, the allure of worldly passages would be accepted in this framework.  But if this criterion was rigid, religious music would be reduced, at least in Africa, to virtually nothing.  We propose to take a look, both diachronic and synchronic, at the relationship religion maintains with music in Africa.  Do not be misled by the usage of the singular in regards to the nature of religion.  Beyond the initial global perspective, we will also examine the specific relation that specific religions hold with music.


Traditional African religions and music

To speak of sacred music in regards to African religions necessitates caution.  Some prefer to speak of sacred music in Africa only in regards to religions of the book, especially Christianity.  Thus, they see it as debuting during colonisation.  In fact, it is difficult to discuss sacred music in traditional religions without taking some precautions.  The first concerns the notion of traditional religion.  What is it exactly?  A set of fetishist and magical practices around man-made objects, a relation with God by the intermediary of the ancestors’ sprits and the forces of nature, or is it social life celebrated in its temporal display in close relation to the transcendent?  It is a bit of all of those.  But if one looks a bit closer, traditional African religion has a primarily social function of structuring and moralizing.  In this sense, traditional ceremonies cannot be separated from the sacred, even if they maintain a relatively secular character.  If one chooses to recognize only certain acts, such as sacrifice, as part of traditional religion, we would hardly see music’s place, even though, among certain groups, one sings during sacrifices.  The second precaution arises from the vision one has of the sacred and the profane.  If one understands “sacred” to mean all that is explicitly related to religion, music will only rarely be placed in the religious framework since purely religious songs are rare in religious practices.  On the other hand, one cannot deny that there are purely sacred tam-tam rhythms.  It can be argued that these rhythms belong to the secular repertoire as well. This is also true.  However, as for the rest, it does not seem judicious to establish such a radical separation between two spaces which, for most African peoples, juxtapose and interact.  That being said let us try to understand the relationship between traditional religions and music.

In Africa, songs are always associated with life events: births, mourning, games, prayers, work, wars, love… Music is present at all key moments in a person’s social life not only as a vector of participation with the group but also as a source of information on the nature of the gathering.  Among certain peoples, traditional music is so diversified that each rhythm carries its own symbolically valuable imprint.  The tam-tam doesn’t only incite dancing but is also able to speak and listen. Thus, during a festive occasion such as a marriage or the naming of a newborn, the sounds of the tam-tam spread the news.  When there is mourning, that is broadcast too.  The music also announces the steps to follow during a ceremony.  For example, among the Moba of Togo, all the phases of a funerary ceremony, starting with the announcement of the death to the burial and including the other expressions that will follow through the burial and the end of the mourning period, are punctuated by different rhythms. When one reaches the stage of the washing of the body, everyone learns of it by the sound of the tam-tam.  One can thus follow all the stages of a traditional ceremony even from a distance.   Music thus holds a large place in traditional practices and is, in this way, related to religious practice.  Those who limit traditional African religion to a set of diabolical magic practices while removing it from the social field that it structures only see music as playing a trivial role.  No traditional religion holds itself separate from the traditional ceremonies which structure social life and anthropological time.

Beyond this general framework, it is necessary to bring up the specific case of peoples among whom music not only accompanies the ceremony but plays an integral role in all its stages and their unfolding.  This is the case of the atigali and blekete ceremonies in Togo and of voodoo in countries on the coast of the Gulf of Benin.  The spirits or fetishes take possession of the persons through which those spirits will manifest themselves (vodussi) to the rhythm of the tam-tams that call them.  A sort of euphoric atmosphere sets in during which the spirit penetrates the person of its choosing, provoking in that person a violent trance.  The gods manifest themselves through dance during the trance and during the possession in the course of voodoo ceremonies.  Dance and music fill a decisive function in the symbolic configuration of the link with the divinity; dance forms the foundation of a physical rapport between man and the divine.  During the ceremonial dance a process of conquest-recuperation of the body, which is no longer controlled by the individual, establishes itself.  This process is achieved by the intermediary of the tambour so that the spirits can incarnate themselves through the bodies of their followers.  Each rhythm of the tambour is supposed to correspond to a specific god.  Thus, dance seems to be a method of communication with ancestors and the gods.

It would be false however to pretend that all traditional music is sacred.  In addition to the sounds and rhythms that cannot be played outside of appropriate events, there is purely playful music that can be played, without offence to anyone, in traditional ceremonies.  This music distinguishes itself by its festive spirit and invitation to dance.  The last characteristic led to the adoption of certain rhythms, once reserved for religious occasions, to also be used at festive events.  As a result, certain rhythms once strictly reserved for one, are used at both type of events.  This double usage gives proof to the remark made above about the superposition, homogeneity even, of these categories.

Foreign religions and traditional religions: meetings and influences

If African traditional music has a particularly sacred aspect, sacred Christian and Muslim music arose from the encounter between African tradition and religious liturgy.  The historical evolution of sacred music is inextricable from the history of the people.  While the evangelisation of sub-Saharan Africa dates back many centuries, holy Christian music that is specifically African only dates back a few decades.  African music’s relationship to religion as far as we are able to decipher today goes back to the days following decolonization.  The oldest musical manifestations date from the beginning of the 1970s when, to ratify the liturgical reform initiated by the Council, some African churches dared to introduce songs, rhythms and even dances of the land into the liturgy.  But even before this cultural adaptation, during the period when Latin was still the official language of the Catholic Church and the liturgical language par excellence, missionaries found themselves obligated, for evangelisation and pastoral needs, to translate the existing liturgical songs into local languages.  Some even had to translate the songs from their own native languages.  Such is the case of German missionaries who translated the German songs into southern Togo’s ewe language, which was later adopted as the liturgical language.  The French would also have to do this in the North beginning in the 1930s.  Regarding Catholicism before Vatican 2, even though the need to adapt Christianity to local realities of the different peoples was evident, the African traditions were kept at a distance because they were considered, by ignorance, devilish.  It wasn’t until the early 1970s, after a visit by Pope Paul VI to Kampala during which he encouraged the Africans to “be authentically Christian and authentically African”, that action was taken to compose liturgical songs in the local languages.  To do this, African Christians did not at the outset attempt to invent a new genre.  They contented themselves with repeating the existing popular tunes while giving them a new sense.

Religious songs and all the religious music were modelled on traditional songs.  The festive parts of the liturgy copied the joyous melodies of traditional music and the meditative parts, particular airs of traditional religion.  When all is said and done, traditional music produced and fed Christian music.  Even today, holy Christian music hasn’t been able to create its own rhythms.  In the countryside, for example, the melodies are still very traditional.  On the other hand, the music is moving farther and farther away from traditional music, especially with the influence of polyphony, choirs and Gospel music.


In regards to Islam, there is no African particularity.  Among Muslims, sacred art has always been a point of debate.  Music, for example, has never been able to take a dominant place in Islam as it has in Christianity.  In most cases, the usage of music is limited to the recitation of the Koran which is sung more than spoken when done in the company of others.  Undoubtedly, this is why Muslim “religious music” remains dominated by the usage of Arabic.  Nevertheless, here and there, one finds the usage of local languages in religious songs composed, not for prayer itself, but for gatherings of worshipers.  In fact, outside of prayer where singing, strictly speaking, has little place, most socio-religious ceremonies (marriage, circumcision…) have religious songs that honour the glory of the Prophet.  These songs and dances aren’t made for their specific spiritual value but more so because they enhance the ambiance.  As in the case of Christians, the songs are modelled on existing tunes and rhythms of local culture, even if the Arab and Eastern influence is less perceptible.

Gospel at the crossroads of the holy and the profane

If Catholic churches have travelled a long road to arrive at a music dear to African worshipers, Protestant churches have had less difficulty.  Not only did they introduce traditional instruments into their liturgy in the 1940s, but they also adopted the musical tradition born of the adaptation and reinterpretation of white Protestant hymns by Africans taken to the United States between the 17th and 19th centuries which imposed themselves throughout the Anglophone Protestant world.  In Togo, the first missionaries being German, then French, the influence was, for a long time, European.  It was later that gospel music was adopted.  Gospel, an evangelical and reverential music sung, after its birth, in a more emotional tone, transformed into songs of celebration, joy, exhortation, and communion in the heart of African churches between the preacher and his congregation.

Gospel maintained its evangelical lyricism that often called for obedience to God and refusal of the kingdom of sin in order to gain rewards in Heaven.  However, gospel is especially music of celebration of faith and love of God.  The songs are built on a chorus of voices, either singing in unison or led by one singer.  They are executed with a fervent enthusiasm and energy motivated by spiritual inspiration while leaving room for improvisation and solo vocalisations.

For a long time, gospel remained confined to churches.  It was in the beginning of the 1980s, during the explosion of independent churches, that so-called Christian orchestras singing gospel appeared.  Little by little, it asserted itself to gain a place beside secular music as a popular music that one could sing and dance to during the same occasions.  It was therefore not because gospel dug deep into the roots of African traditions that it was so quickly adopted in Africa.  It was its resolutely festive and rhythmic aspect that made it so popular.  Today, given the growing number of “revival” churches and prayer groups, we can estimate in the thousands the number of these groups.  Many among them are linked to churches, conducting ceremonies and, at the same time, leading ceremonies and church services in less holy spots.  From popular religious songs interpreted during services, gospel has progressively left the church for the stage.

These songs have become the works of artists who have gained fame, glory and profit from them.  They borrowed certain elements and instruments (drums, but also brass then electric guitars) from secular music.  Gospel songs rapidly secularized and adapted themselves to the commercial exigencies of a world where radio has become the primary tool of diffusion.  This evolution was facilitated by the fact that African-Americans, following Africans, never separated the spiritual from the temporal.  Work songs and traditional celebrations were always mixed, feeding off each other.  Today, gospel is sung in places of worship and on stage.  Believers and non-believers alike compose these songs so well that it is difficult to demarcate between secular and religious music, especially when it comes to sound, orchestration, and choreography.  The two genres converge; they use the same instruments, chords, rhythms, and sources.   The current trends in rhythm and cadence call for the same gestures and surface behaviour.  Gospel has become a serious competitor to secular music that shows no sign of diminishing.

From Togo to the Congo

A festival uniting all the big names of African gospel has been going on for several years.  The latest, held in 2004, showcased, once again, the importance of the phenomenon.  Starting in 2002, gospel was included amongst the different musical categories presented at the Koras in South Africa.  In 2003, gospel was also included at the pan-African music festival (the equivalent of the FESPACO for African cinema) in Brazzaville.  Several countries count at least a dozen or so artists who dedicate themselves to gospel.  In certain countries, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Togo, the trend is more widespread.  Some have acquired international standing.  Such is the case of Makoma, the Congolese religious group that has established itself as one of the biggest names in contemporary African music.  A precursor of modern gospel, today Makoma leads a hectic international career. Mokama’s show has inflamed Africa and the world.  Awarded the Kora for the best African group in 2002, the religious group has carved a place for itself among the biggest artists on the continent.  The five brothers and sisters and their friend Patrick are all Congolese but now live in Rotterdam (Netherlands) and rouse the crowds at each of their concerts.

The same is true of: Dupe Olulana of Nigeria; Queen Etémé (Cameroon); the Notre Dame de Salette choir from Koula-Moutou, Gabon who were elected Best African Gospel Group at the 2004 Koras in South Africa; Deborah Fraser from South Africa; Cindy Thompson, the revelation of Ghanian gospel; the group Eben Ezer from the DRC; Guehi Leon alias O’Nel Mala from the Ivory Coast; and many, many others. People like Dupe Olulana are on their 16th album which shows how much success religious music has found on the continent.

From religious music to top of the charts!

It must be said that, in order to face up to its new notoriety and maintain itself among the competition, gospel had to open itself to other musical genres by integrating even more ambiance and danceability. Judging from vibe alone, nothing distinguishes Makoma from American R&B groups even though it is a religious group.  To stick religious songs sung in lingala onto R&B and rap music, what an incredible mix!  This is why Makoma is in the process of taking over African music while bypassing Koffi Olomide, Mewe, Angelique Kidjo and other popular African musicians.  Makoma doesn’t only sing for God.  They also, and especially, want to incite people to dance for Him or simply for personal pleasure. And they definitely meet their goal.

Another remarkable example of the modernisation of gospel remains that of two Ivorians.  First, Guehi Leon, alias O’Nel Mala, who, in only a few years, has asserted himself as one of the inescapable figures of the African musical scene by creating a genre that he calls “Afrifusion”.  This musical genre is inspired by traditional rhythms and melodies adapted to modern music in all its forms: reggae, groove…

The second is Erick Didier who makes religious zouk!  It is well known that zouk is music of love songs, a symbol of sensuality, a smooth, carnal music of which the dance, done by interlaced couples, can be very torrid.  The Ivoirian artist doesn’t sing the love of women but of God.  His first album, “Flood Me”, is an original and spicy sermon that has nothing to envy classic zouk productions for, a true rhythmic force that gives you an immediate urge to dance.  Another striking example (this list is not exhaustive) is that of the group Eben Ezer which adapts gospel to the times through R ‘n’ B, rap 2 step (a musical trend of which the British artist Craig David is emblematic), and posits themselves as artisans of a resolutely contemporary and spicy urban gospel.

The current direction of the content shows the tendency towards substitution of… The original gospel that drew it inspiration exclusively from the Bible now draws its subjects from a social domain marked by wars, crises, sickness…  Political discourse, not being palatable to all, gospel has entered the social domain through music.  These religious songs denounce, warn, convey words of hope, console and appease.

If religion has always maintained a close relationship with music in Africa, those ties are more visible than ever today.  This results not only from the developments of religious sentiment that took place in the 1990s (sentiments that were always strong but intensified by the proliferation of sects and independent churches), but also from the role played by the media, especially radio, which created a bridge between religion and music.  The artists have also played a role by reprocessing musical genres that have imposed themselves on the musical landscape such as Ndombolo, mapouka, makossa and other secular music.

Religious music has become a true craze, on the way to becoming the most listened-to genre of music.  It is played in nightclubs, like any other dance music, and attracting even larger audiences than non-religious music.  African religious music’s force resides in its capacity to integrate fashionable elements (from a rhythmic and orchestrational point of view, videos…) all while conserving its own direction: religious music.  It is because of this religious aspect that it deserves and has garnered so much attention.

By Etienne L. Damome (Afiavimag)

Translated by Portia Lewis

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