Louise Tythacott. Musical Instruments. New York: Thomson Learning, 1995. 48 pp. Grades 4-8, ages 9-14. $24.26 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-56847-228-7.
Reviewed by Adeline Masquelier (Department of Anthropology, Tulane University)
Published on H-AfrTeach (April, 1999)
Musical Traditions in Africa and Elsewhere
Musical Instruments is an interesting and informative chidren's book that will appeal to children in elementary and middle school. It is beautifully illustrated with color photographs of performing musicians and is written in characters large enough for children who are just learning to read. Through a cursory look at a variety of musical traditions worldwide, the book introduces its readers to the role and history of music in culture. Though the book does not attempt to survey the totality of musical traditions on every continent, it stresses the diversity of these traditions.
In the introduction, the author points out that music is used for wide spectrum of purposes ranging from communication to distant gods to dance to healing. Because of its extensive world coverage, the section on Africa is necessarily limited. It nonetheless demonstrates the variety of musical forms that can be found on the continent. From lamellphones (incorrectly referred to as "thumb piano") to talking drums to ground zithers, young readers learn that Africans have a long musical history.
The author is careful to avoid ethnocentric or universal statements and to document the role of both women and men in musical performances--three of the five photographs depict female musicians. She unfortunately refers to "the Bantus" as if they are a unified and distinct ethnic group and does not bother to mention where they live. While the major regions of the continent (including North Africa) are represented, some traditions are conspicuously absent. There is no mention, for instance, of the nyamakalaw professional class of artists, griots, and other specialists who combine the roles of praise singers, messengers, and historians in some West African societies. It is also too bad that some of the countries mentioned in the photo captions or in the text are not located on the map. While the author notes in the Central and South American section that musical traditions in these areas have been influenced by African cultures, she forgets that Africa too has been the seat of musical exchanges and cultural creativity. Alluding to the guitar bands of West African highlife or the rich musical style of juju music (an urban guitar musical genre that incorporated Christian and indigenous Yoruba traditions) would have allowed her to at least mention that Africa is far from an isolated place where cultures remain unchanging and musical styles are immutable.
Despite these shortcomings and an overall approach to musical instruments that might perhaps limit the reader's understanding of music as a total performance (involving body motion, facial expression, and singing), this is a useful and appealing book that should find its place on the shelves of many homes and school libraries.
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Adeline Masquelier. Review of Tythacott, Louise, Musical Instruments.
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