African Music and Traditional Healing

Uganda harp.

Uganda harp. (Photo credit: New York Public Library)

Nzewi.

Backcloth to Music and Healing in Traditional African Society

The African Knowledge of Sickness

The old African world thrived on a balance of the physical and the intangible. In other words there was mutual dependency between the physical world and the active immaterial or supernatural forces, and African peoples survived because of the ability to harmonize the religious and the secular, the spiritual and the mundane, the intangible and the material realities.

The human person possesses, and is animated by, both profane and spiritual egos in symbiotic existence. The disease or malfunctioning of the one impairs the stability or efficacy of the other, and thereby the health of the whole. The cure of the sick must then be holistic for the African – healing the ego that manifests tangible ailment entailed co-jointly healing the co-acting ego that has become latently infected. The process of properly curing a physically ill person in the African medical practice then compels healing the person’s psyche or spiritual well being as well as the physiological. When herbs fail, heal the spirit.

Traditional Africa recognizes that when the environment is sick, diseases become prevalent; and when such diseased material or spiritual environment is rehabilitated, human health becomes secure. When the group spirit is polluted, the minds of individuals become infected, the human sphere becomes sick. When a human body is sick, the animating spirit becomes poisoned, and the human sphere becomes unhealthy.

The traditional African concept of illness recognizes natural and supernatural causes, ordinarily co-acting together. Ill health can manifest as malfunctioning physiology, mental-spiritual disorder or unusual external misfortune. Illness may be self-generated (psychosomatic), other-engineered, congenital or caused by foreign agents. Sickness is not always diagnosed as the malfunctioning of body parts or organs in isolation, even though the seat of the sick-feeling may be located in a body part – external or internal. Sickness could be a sign for something else, positive or injurious, which is impending. When such a sign gets mistaken as ordinary sickness, or when it is ignored and unattended to, the person harboring the sign may suffer permanent injury, usually mental.

In the community-structured African socio-political system the sickness of an individual generates levels of conflicts: Conflict within the sufferer, conflict within the family and compound unit, conflict within the entire geo-political community. The conflict could have social, economic or religious dimensions. As such, the suffering of an individual affects the well-being of many others, and would compel group empathy in seeking remedy. The community is concerned to avoid the incidence of illness of any category, and to manage or contain incidents of illness as a group even though there are specialist healers. It is for the reason that an individual’s sickness can impinge on the normal functioning of an entire community that African health practice places a premium on preventive health programs. Preventive health includes scheduled and mandatory environmental cleaning, avoidance rites to ward off evil forces (human and of spirit mien), as well as constant musical arts theatre that coerces mass participation, annual group spirit purgation music-drama (new-year rites), compound hygiene etc.

The process of healing the sick, which involves the restoration of the psychic health of the sufferer as well as the community, is structured and systematic, often contextualizing the community in ritual-theatrical dimension, in order to heal the entire community psyche. The active, supportive involvement of the community boosts the life energy of the sick. A stable psychological condition is thus generated for the specialist healer to undertake the specialized process of physical or metaphysical medication.

On Becoming an African Healer

In some African cultures a person who will eventually become a healer is supernaturally selected through signs such as sickness. The signs, which often result in strange behavior or physiological ill health, manifest irrespective of age and gender. When diagnosed, preparing or capacitating the person to become a healer could entail the medical-musical theatre of “opening of the inner eyes” (to perceive beyond the commonly visible) or the “reception of extraordinary communications” (from the supernatural forces). When a sign selects a person that must be “purified” or empowered to become a healer, she thereafter becomes capable of perceiving knowledge of sicknesses and curative elements through super-ordinary sensitization. Hence there are induction ceremonies, often locally discussed as “capturing the spirit” or “welcoming the ancestral spirit-guide”.

Music in Healing

Guitar being played by Tom Walton: White Sprin...

Guitar being played by Tom Walton: White Springs, Florida (Photo credit: State Library and Archives of Florida)

The term music here suggests the musical arts theatre of the structured musical sound, dance, dramatic arts and performance plastic arts.

Music in traditional Africa is the science of being; the art of living with health. Music is the intangible resonance of which the human body and soul are composed: The human body is the quintessential sound instrument; the human soul is the ethereal melody. A matching of human souls is the foundation of African harmonic thought and sound. Musical harmony is the consonance of complementary inter-dependent melodies and timbres – vocal or instrumental. Dissonance occurs when independent melodies or souls or tone/pitch levels fail to harmonize in accord with a culture’s normative idioms of interaction in life and music. Complementation of souls or the consonance of matching melodies generates healthy resonance – a healing energy. What constitutes dissonance is culturally, not universally determined. Dissonance of component parts or elements of a music event could be prescribed by a non-musical intention, which could be healing. Dissonance, whether of souls or co-sounding melodies/pitch levels/tone levels/timbres, arouses disquietude, a disruption of composure, which then compels a need to resolve irregularity. Otherwise, a state of disrupted harmony or accord would prevail, and could become injurious.

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