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From the Atlantic shores to the beats of the Congo, African musical traditions have become an integral part of jazz, shaping its soul and sparking its creativity. The rhythmic complexity, soulful melodies and vibrant storytelling ingrained in African musical traditions have given us a rich heritage that shapes and inspires jazz musicians worldwide. And so, as we vibe to the smooth sounds of jazz, it is essential that we recognise the deep impact of African music on its evolution. 

The word “jazz” probably derives from the English slang word “jasm” which originally meant “energy, vitality, spirit, pep” and which The Oxford English Dictionary traces back to at least 1860. Others say that the word may have originated from baseball writers in California, who wrote it to mean “lively, energetic”. It was first noted on a recording in 1909 titled Uncle Josh in Society.

The influence of African music on jazz dates back to the early 20th century when jazz musicians started blending African rhythms and melodies into their music. While many believe jazz originated in New Orleans, it is actually rooted in African rhythms. Freed African American slaves played a significant role in shaping this genre towards the end of the 19th century. African music impacted jazz through its use of rhythm, improvisation, call and response, and storytelling techniques.

Infusing the intricate polyrhythms of West Africa into the soulful melodies of the Sahel, each region offers its own unique contribution to the global musical landscape. The use of traditional African instruments, such as the djembe, kora, and balafon, added a distinct flavour to jazz compositions, creating a fusion of sounds that captivated audiences and redefined the genre. The rhythmic intensity and melodic intricacies of African music found a natural home in jazz, giving rise to the iconic “swing” style characterised by its infectious energy and innovative spirit.

Adding African elements injected a fresh vibe marked by funky beats, interactive rhythms, and spontaneous creativity. Africa’s rhythmic heartbeat, as diverse as its landscapes, fuels this musical fusion. Jazz artists find endless inspiration in African music, constantly innovating and exploring new frontiers in their craft.

The storytelling vibe deeply ingrained in African music shines through in today’s jazz tunes. Musicians weave tales, feelings, and life stories through their instruments, giving jazz a real and raw edge. It’s like taking a trip through music that speaks to everyone, crossing cultures and boundaries. 

One need only listen to the syncopated rhythms and improvisational flair of jazz greats from the continent like Nigeria’s Fela Kuti or South Africa’s Hugh Masekela, to witness the profound influence of African music on contemporary jazz. Through their groundbreaking compositions and electrifying performances, these legendary figures not only bridged continents but also transcended cultural barriers, laying the groundwork for a new era of musical exploration.

In the early 20th century, jazz emerged as a revolutionary force in music, blending African rhythms with European harmonies to create a sound that was both innovative and deeply rooted in tradition. Jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Peggy Lee drew inspiration from African music styles by infusing their compositions with syncopated rhythms, call-and-response patterns and improvisational flair – each with a unique blend of cultural influences. 

Fela Kuti’s impact on the music transcends geographical boundaries from a continental and global perspective. His innovative fusion of elements of jazz, funk and hi-life created Afrobeat, a revolutionary sound that captivated audiences worldwide. His politically charged lyrics and infectious rhythms sparked a musical revolution in Nigeria that reverberated across the globe, inspiring a new wave of socially conscious and politically engaged musicians. Fela’s bold stance against oppression and his commitment to Pan-Africanism not only shaped the landscape of African music but also left an indelible mark on the evolution of jazz music, highlighting the interconnectedness of musical genres and the power of music as a tool for social change.

Hugh Masekela, affectionately known as the “Father of South African Jazz”, exerted a profound influence on the genre. His indomitable spirit and musical virtuosity shaped the sound of African jazz and resonated with audiences around the world. Chart-topping hits like Grazing in the GrassBring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)Stimela (The Coal Train), showcased his virtuosic musicianship and amplified the struggles and aspirations of the African people. Masekela’s music served as a powerful vehicle for social commentary and cultural expression, capturing the hearts and minds of listeners across diverse cultural landscapes. 

Through his innovative fusion of traditional African rhythms with elements of jazz and pop, Masekela pioneered a distinctive sound that celebrated the vibrancy and resilience of the African spirit. His influence on jazz music is evidenced by his collaborations with global icons such as Paul Simon, and his enduring legacy as a cultural ambassador for South Africa.

In the 2020s, the impact of today’s African music on jazz presents both hurdles and opportunities on the continent and worldwide. On the one hand, blending African rhythms, melodies, and customs with jazz sparks fresh ideas, making the genre richer and more diverse. But along with this cultural mix come challenges, such as dealing with cultural appropriation, staying true to roots, and tackling power imbalances in the music business. There are also worries about copyright for original tunes.

On the other hand, the globalisation of African music presents opportunities for collaboration and cross-cultural exchange on a global scale. This global exchange of musical ideas enriches the jazz landscape, fostering greater diversity and inclusivity within the genre.

African musicians have continued to make significant contributions to the evolution of jazz music. One such artist is Femi Kuti, son of the legendary Fela Kuti, who has continued the legacy of Afrobeat, blending traditional Yoruba music with elements of jazz and funk. Femi Kuti’s chart-topping hits like One People One World and Africa Wears a Smile merge African rhythms with modern jazz elements. 

The influence of contemporary African music on jazz opens up new avenues for cultural dialogue and understanding. By embracing the diverse musical traditions of Africa, jazz musicians have the opportunity to challenge stereotypes and foster greater appreciation for the rich cultural heritage of the continent.

Cameroonian Richard Bona is a versatile bassist, vocalist, and songwriter known for blending jazz with traditional African rhythms. He has earned international acclaim, with chart-topping hits like Diba La Bobe showcasing his unique fusion of jazz, Afrobeat, and world music influences. Bona’s impact on the jazz genre lies in his ability to bridge cultural divides through his music, creating a harmonious blend of diverse musical traditions. 

Artists like Esperanza Spalding, a Grammy Award-winning bassist, composer of African descent and vocalist known for her genre-defying approach to jazz, have captivated audiences worldwide with their distinctive blend of African rhythms, soulful melodies, and virtuosic improvisation. Spalding’s chart-topping album Radio Music Society showcases her versatility and fusion of jazz with elements of R&B, funk, and world music. 

Similarly, South African pianist and composer Nduduzo Makhathini has created visionary compositions that draw inspiration from African spirituality and indigenous musical traditions. His album Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds received critical acclaim and solidified his reputation as one of the foremost innovators in contemporary jazz. His impact on the jazz genre extends beyond his musical contributions; he is also a passionate advocate for the preservation and promotion of African culture and identity through music.

Born in Benin, Lionel Loueke is a guitarist and vocalist whose distinctive blend of jazz, African music, and world rhythms has earned him widespread acclaim and recognition. Known for his virtuosic guitar playing and unique vocal style, Loueke has collaborated with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. His innovative approach to jazz has helped to expand the genre’s sonic palette and introduce new audiences to the rich musical traditions of Africa.

However, this global exchange also raises questions about cultural appropriation and the exploitation of African musical traditions for commercial gain. It is essential for artists and industry stakeholders to approach cross-cultural collaboration with sensitivity and respect, ensuring that African musicians are given proper credit and compensation for their contributions.

Ultimately, as African music continues to shape jazz, this brings with it both hurdles and opportunities for artists, industry folks, and fans. By handling these challenges with care and respect, we can use the power of music to unite and make the world a more inclusive and connected place.

Esperanza Spalding’s song Black Gold puts this into perspective, 

“Think of all the strength you have in you

From the blood you carry within you

Ancient men, powerful men

Built us a civilisation”

With their hit tunes and groundbreaking beats, they’re revolutionising the jazz scene, leaving a mark on fans and fellow artists worldwide. African musicians and musicians with African roots are pushing the limits of jazz and leading its evolution. So next time your jam comes on, groove to its African roots!