The Legacy of Colonialism in Africa

The influence of European colonial rule on the African continent is not only a narrative of political hegemony, whereby the dominant Western powers extended their world-wide “land grab” to Africa, in order to secure political influence and resources. This same narrative may also be understood as one of a profound cultural change: what was at stake in the colonialization of Africa, as well as the colonialization of the world, was not a mere struggle for power in terms of land and subjects, i.e., human beings reduced to the status of the colonial subject, but also an attempt to impose a particular world-view or way of looking upon the world on a people to whom this particular world-view was radically foreign. The changes in African music are a clear reflection of this culture type of warfare, demonstrating the extent to which colonial powers strove to wield their power upon others.

The Berlin Conference is a significant event not only in African history, but in world history. As Agawu describes the Berlin conference: “The Berlin conference prepared the period of official colonial rule.” (p. 1) The Berlin conference was thus a gathering of European powers, intended to divide the spoils of Africa among the Europeans. An African voice, as Agawu notes, was entirely absent from these negotiations: the European powers, wishing to avoid conflict among themselves in the sphere of Africa, instead divided, much like bandits and criminals, the riches of the African continent among themselves, completely oblivious to the cries of the indigenous voices.

As mentioned, the extent to which such European colonialism exerted its power on the African continent is clearly seen in its effect on all the details of African culture life, prominent amongst this cultural life, the significance of music. Agawu, for example, notes that after the Berlin conference, there was a prominence of foreign instruments, which replaced traditional African instrumentation, a change in the style of African music, and also an attempt to institutionalize these same changes upon the African people. These institutions can be said to take diverse forms, but Agawu arguably notes two in particular: “the Christian church and various educational institutions.” (p. 13) These social organs disseminated a particular view of African music to the populace. To the extent that Africans became educated and gathered in official religious ceremonies, the language of music communicated through these same institutions was thoroughly European in character. Those of the African populace who were therefore involved in the organized social rituals of Colonial Africa were inculcated with a European approach to music, thus indoctrinating the educated and mobile class of native Africans with this same European approach.

One such example of this institutionalization to which Agawu gives much importance is the Achimota School of Ghana. For Agawu, the school demonstrates a clear elimination of its African students from their African cultural roots. Agawu notes, “the self-consciousness with which these African students performed African traditions was no different from the self-awareness with which they played Bach on the violion or sang Vivaldi’s “Gloria.”” (p. 14-15) Accordingly, the effect of the institution was to alienate the African students from their own culture, to the extent that there existed no difference for them, despite being Africans, between African music and European music.

This colonialism produced what Agawu terms “two traditions of music, one socially prominent, the other less so, both conceived as active responses to Europe.” One style is a “popular music”, the other an “art music.” According to Agawu the popular music incorporated “danceable beats” with catchy melodies. African art music, in contrast, tries to follow the path of European art music, thus showing a clear influence from European culture. Both schools are thus significant since they show the clear effects of colonialism on the African populace.

Accordingly, colonialism is not only a political phenomenon. It is one that reaches down to the very culture and language of a people. And this is the same reason why colonialism is such an oppressive event. It takes the indigenous social practices of a group and radically alters them, without respect for indigenous tradition.

Works Cited

Agawu, K. (2003). “Colonialism’s Impact.” Representing African Music. New York, NY: Routledge.