Egyptian Music’s African Roots

Although our African Music at UCSD course attempted to cover all the continent’s major regions in its first unit, including the Sahara Desert in the north, it nonetheless omitted one major area of Northeast Africa that I would have preferred to see explored: the Egyptian Nile Valley. Even our textbook says barely a word on Egyptian music from any time period and none at all on its pre-Islamic, pre-Arabic stages (what we commonly call the “Ancient Egyptian” period). I presume this was because UCSD’s musicology department classifies ancient Egypt not as a “true” African culture but as a Near Eastern one, the same policy as the History Department (notice the one Ancient Egyptian course is sorted under Near Eastern rather than African history).

I object to this classification. I submit that ancient Egyptian music shares many parallels with that played throughout so-called “traditional” Africa, both in instrumentation and in musical style. Furthermore, I shall propose the possibility that these parallels between Egypt and the rest of the African continent reflect not simply technological diffusion from the former to the latter, but instead can be traced to a common pan-African cultural root. In other words, not only did the Egyptians resemble Africans in certain cultural respects, they were themselves an African people.

I shall start with the instrument toolkit. The musical instruments available in ancient Egypt can be sorted into three main categories: wind, string, and percussion. Wind instruments produce sound when you blow through them, string instruments when you strike a string attached to them, and percussion instruments when you beat them.

The first category of wind instruments in the Egyptian repertoire were the flutes, which the Egyptians would carve from reeds. These were actually more similar to modern clarinets than what we conventionally regard as flutes insofar as they had vibrating reeds in the mouthpiece to produce sound (Wind Instruments, n.d). Although sometimes compared to the modern Arabic ney flute still played in Egypt today, ancient Egyptian flutes actually tended to run longer and have their greatest similarity in design to flutes used by some indigenous Ethiopian peoples today (Belly-Dance.org, n.d.). Sometimes the Egyptians would play two flutes together at the same time, positioning them either parallel to each other or forming an acute angle.

In addition to flutes, Egyptians also had a peculiar kind of double oboe made up of two pipes of unequal length. The longer pipe was used to produce droning sounds or play notes that the shorter pipe could not hit (Dollinger 2000).

Perhaps the earliest string instrument used by the Egyptians was an arched harp which apparently evolved from the hunting bow. These would be played at social gatherings, religious liturgies, and ceremonial events. Harpists could produce music not only by striking the eight to twelve strings made from animal gut, but also by striking the soundbox with their hands. The Egyptians would often decorate their harps with figurines, leopard skins, and painted designs, making them expensive works of art (Dollinger 2000). Harps with the same basic arched design appear throughout the African continent, including the West African kora and the Ugandan adungu. (Levy 2011)

In addition to harps, the Egyptians possessed a lute with an oblong soundbox, two to four strings, and a long neck. This design bears a close resemblance to the ngoni still played throughout West Africa (Morgan 2008).

Despite the presence of wind and string instruments in African musical toolkits, African musical styles are best known for their emphasis on percussive instruments such as drums. According to Egyptologist Emily Teeter, percussion also played the most prominent role in ancient Egyptian music despite the presence of other instrument classes (Smith 2012). Perhaps the best known African musical instrument is the goblet drum, or djembe, and this does appear in ancient Egypt (Wysinger, n.d.). Another African drum design, the Ethiopian kebaro, also has an Egyptian counterpart; additionally Ethiopians and Egyptians both share a special kind of rattle called a sistrum, used in religious ceremonies (Belly-Dance.org, n.d.). Other Egyptian percussive instruments include ivory clappers carved to resemble human hands and handheld tambourine-like drums (Dollinger 2000).

Of course, the most basic musical instrument ever used by humanity is its own voice. Singing as part of religious liturgy became a prestigious profession for ancient Egyptian women, particularly the female relatives of public officials in the nobility. These Egyptian temple songstresses could perform in the honor of both male and female deities. Other Egyptian musicians would also sing hymns while they played their harps. Not all Egyptian singing was done in a religious context however; sometimes singers would provide background music at secular banquets for nobility, and even Egyptian peasants would chant to keep themselves amused while performing rigorous manual labor (Dollinger 2000). This last example of singing during work has a parallel in both traditional West African and African-American cultures (“It’s A Long John”, n.d.).

Since the ancient Egyptians did not use a written notation system as modern Western musicians do, much remains mysterious about how exactly their music sounded. However, some Egyptologists such as Dr. Teeter have inferred that it may have sounded something like rap music (Smith 2012), which most musicologists trace to the sung poetry of West African griots (Haye 2008). Others infer from the positioning of holes on Egyptian flutes that they used a pentatonic (five-toned) scale, more similar to traditional West African and African-American music than to the heptatonic (seven-toned) scales used in the ancient Middle East (Dollinger 2000). Indeed, it is very improbable that ancient Egyptian music sounded anything like stereotypical Arabic or other Middle Eastern music, much of which has absorbed Turkic influences from the historically recent Ottoman domination of North Africa (Belly-Dance.org). Although speaking of a general African music style may misrepresent the vast continent’s cultural and musical diversity, we can safely say that the ancient Egyptian style would have closer parallels to the various African styles than to anything in the Middle East.

How did the aforementioned instrument and stylistic parallels between ancient Egyptian and “traditional” African music styles come to exist? The traditional explanation put forward by musicologists (e.g. Wachsmann 1964) is one of technological diffusion. They see the ancient Egyptian musical instruments and styles as having chronological precedence over those used in other regions of Africa, and therefore reason that the appearance of similar music in sub-Saharan Africa must attest to foreign Egyptian influences.

Admittedly it is difficult to trace the origin and evolution of music to confirm or disconfirm this hypothesis, but I shall present an alternative one: namely, that the ancient Egyptians did not have to introduce new technology or culture into other areas of Africa, but instead inherited the same musical traditions as the other Africans from a common, pan-African source. In other words, the connection between ancient Egyptian and traditional” African music is a fraternal rather than a parental one.

The idea that the Egyptian people were at all offshoots of the same African race of humanity as so-called “Black African” or “Negroid” peoples might shock Eurocentric academia, but there is strong evidence from many disciplines in its favor. A comprehensive discussion of all this data lies beyond the scope of this paper, but I shall cite two recent genetic studies performed on ancient Egyptian remains. The first study (DNATribes 2012) compared DNA data obtained from the mummified bodies of Pharaoh Tutankhamun and his immediate family to those of populations around the world, and found modern sub-Saharan African people to match them much closer than anyone else (even North Africans and Middle Easterners). They replicated the same results with the later mummy of Ramses III and his possible son (DNATribes 2013). This shows that the ancient Egyptians did indeed share ancestry with sub-Saharan African people, and therefore that we may classify them as a Black African people. Given these findings, it is not difficult at all to imagine the ancient Egyptians obtaining music and other cultural traditions from a common source with other Africans.

In conclusion, the ancient Egyptians were an African people by virtue of both culture and race, and their music reflected this African heritage much more than conventionally realized.

Works Cited

Andre Dollinger, Ancient Egypt: Music and Dance (2000). Retrieved from http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/timelines/topics/music.htm

Belly-Dance.org, Ancient Egyptian Dances (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.belly-dance.org/pharaonic-dance.html

Deborah Haye, “Poems, Prayers, Promises, and Possibilities: The Music of Poetry” (January 3, 2008). Retrieved from http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/2001/3/01.03.08.x.html

DNA Tribes, “Last of the Amarna Pharaohs: King Tut and His Relatives.” (January 1, 2012) DNA Tribes Digest. Retrieved from http://dnatribes.com/dnatribes-digest-2012-01-01.pdf.

DNA Tribes, “Ramesses III and African Ancestry in the 20th Dynasty of New Kingdom Egypt.” (February 1, 2013). DNATribes Digest. Retrieved from http://dnatribes.com/dnatribes-digest-2013-02-01.pdf.

“It’s a Long John”: Traditional African-American Work Songs (n.d.). Retrieved from http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5758/

Julian Smith, Tomb of the Chantress (July/August 2012). Retrieved from archive.archaeology.org/1207/features/valley_of_the_kings_egypt_chantress_coffin.html

K. Morgan, Ngoni: History of the Instrument (March 5, 2008). Retrieved from http://musc265proj.blogs.wesleyan.edu/ngoni/history-of-the-instrument/

Michael Levy, The Ancient Egyptian Arched Harp (September 15, 2011). Retrieved from http://www.ancientlyre.com/?section=blog/the_ancient_egyptian_arched_harp

Klaus Wachsmann, “Human Migration and African Harps” (1964). Journal of the International Folk Music Council, Vol. 16, p. 84-8.

Myra Wysinger, Ancient Egyptian Musical Instruments (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.homestead.com/wysinger/music.jpg

Wind Instruments, (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/arc/music2/html/inst-wind.htm

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