African traditional music is a rich and diverse tradition that spans the continent. From the drums of West Africa to the stringed instruments of East Africa, there is a wide variety of instruments and musical styles to be found across the continent. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in creating orchestras that feature traditional African instruments. African music is incredibly diverse and rich, with each region and ethnic group having its own unique musical traditions and styles. While there are numerous traditional African instruments used in various ensembles, one popular type of traditional African orchestra is the “balafon orchestra.”
The balafon is a traditional wooden xylophone-like instrument found in many parts of West Africa. It is played by striking the wooden keys with mallets, and the keys are usually made from different types of wood to produce distinct tones. Balafons can vary in size; some larger ones can have up to 27 keys or more. In a balafon orchestra, the balafon players are accompanied by other traditional instruments, creating a beautiful and vibrant sound from the Kora (A harp-like string instrument found in West Africa, with a large calabash resonator and 21 strings that are plucked by the player’s fingers) to the Shekere (A type of African shaker made from a dried gourd with a net of beads or shells covering it, creating a rattling sound when shaken). An orchestra with these instruments, playing together in harmony, creates a mesmerising and authentic African musical experience. Such performances can often be found at cultural festivals, events, and gatherings in Africa and around the world where African music is celebrated and showcased.
There are a number of reasons why an African traditional music orchestra would be a valuable addition to the world of music. First, it would provide a platform for showcasing the beauty and complexity of African music. African music is often characterised by its use of polyrhythms – this is the simultaneous combination of contrasting rhythms in a musical composition, call-and-response vocals, and improvisation. An orchestra that features traditional African instruments showcases these unique musical elements in a way that is both accessible and engaging to audiences.
Second, an African traditional music orchestra would help to preserve these traditional instruments and musical styles for future generations, these styles have been replaced by Western instruments in music and are slowly being lost. The colonial mentality and influence has led to African instruments of music being thought of as inferior in quality yet the quality is incomparable. Many of these instruments are made from natural materials and might not be well-suited for playing in a Western orchestral setting. However, with careful planning and execution, an African traditional music orchestra would help to ensure that these instruments and musical styles are not lost.
The Pan-African Orchestra (PAO) was founded in 1988 by Nana Danso Abiam to explore the classical foundations of African music and to cultivate an integrated continental art form through new compositional and orchestral techniques. The orchestra was based in Accra, Ghana, and consisted of 48 musicians playing a variety of traditional African instruments. The PAO released two albums, Opus 1 (1991) and Explorations (1994), on the Real World Records label. The orchestra toured extensively throughout Africa, Europe, and North America. In 2014, Nana Danso Abiam passed away and the PAO has not performed since his death. However, there have been some efforts to revive the orchestra, and there is hope that it will be able to resume its activities in the future. The orchestra’s legacy lives on through its recordings and performances, and its mission and ideology is hope for the preservation of African traditional music. It is possible that the orchestra will be able to resume its activities in the future and continue to bring the music of Africa to the world.
Third, an African traditional music orchestra would provide an opportunity for musicians from different cultures to come together and collaborate. This would be a valuable opportunity for musicians to learn from each other and share their unique musical traditions.
Of course, there are also some challenges that would need to be addressed in order to create a successful African traditional music orchestra. One challenge is that there is no single “standard” set of instruments or musical styles that could be used. Each region of Africa has its own unique musical traditions, so it would be important to find a way to incorporate a variety of different styles into the orchestra. Another challenge is that many traditional African instruments are not well-suited for playing in an orchestral setting. These instruments are often made from natural materials and have a limited range of notes. However, there are a number of ways to overcome these challenges. For example, new instruments could be created that are specifically designed for orchestral performance or revive a composition to fit the style creating a new sound. Additionally, traditional instruments could be modified to make them more versatile.
Despite the challenges, I believe that an African traditional music orchestra would be an indisputable valuable addition to the world of music. It would provide a platform for showcasing the beauty and complexity of African music in its relation to the contemporary world, help to preserve these traditional instruments and musical styles for future generations, and provide an opportunity for musicians from different cultures to come together and collaborate. The Okavango African Orchestra aims to celebrate and promote the diversity of African music, by recording and performing music in many different African styles and incorporating many of Africa’s unique musical instruments. The Toronto Orchestra derives its name from the Okavango Delta, a basin in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, where different animals, predators and prey, coexist and share meagre resources. Similarly, they bring together the traditional music and instruments of several major African cultures that historically have had little or no interaction. The musicians of Okavango create a common meeting place for these disparate cultures and a new musical language that harmonises different tuning systems, rhythms, and timbres. The multicultural spirit of modern-day Canada bridges ancient African solitude. They are the recipients of the JUNO Award, a highly coveted Canadian prize for outstanding achievements in the music industry. With careful planning and execution, an African traditional music orchestra could be a truly unique and exciting experience.