The Cultural Legacy of West Africa

Instructor: Lorrine Garrison-Boyd
The complexity, diversity and significance of West African culture is well worth exploring. This lesson will explain in detail how the cultural legacy of West Africa influences our culture today in the areas of art and music,as well as oral traditions.

West African Countries

West Africa has, for a long time, impacted the history of the United States. This is the area of Africa were historical records indicate numbers of men and women were captured and enslaved. This is also the area where musical and artistic traditions have influenced the culture of our country. The countries of West Africa include: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

Traditional West African art forms that have influenced our culture are: folktales, the griot, proverbs, music, and visual arts. The following paragraphs will discuss each topic more closely and explain how they have influenced American art forms. Many of them continue to do so even today.

West African culture has impacted culture in America


In West Africa, people used folktales to teach their history to young people, so they would develop a respect for their elders, and pass beliefs, values and morals to other generations. Many traditional folktales were brought to our country by slaves from West Africa in the 1500s. As a result, the oral tradition of sharing folktales became part of North American culture.

A popular example of this is a type of folktale called a 'trickster tale'. Trickster tales tell of a clever animal or human who outsmarts another character in the story. Brer Rabbit is one such character. This story was brought to our country by West Africans and in the 19th century a writer named Joel Chandler Harris made this story popular along with other African stories that eventually became a part of our culture.


A griot is a skilled poet-musician who tells stories as well as performs music, dances, and drama, to also help preserve West African history and its legacy. Every village in West Africa had its own griot. Griots are considered human record keepers, living libraries of history and traditions. Their job was to preserve the oral tradition of storytelling which could last for hours, even days.

The job of a Western African griot (storyteller) was to preserve the history of a village

A griot was known to have the ability to recite accounts of births, marriages, deaths, hunts, the succession of kings and even battles. Every village in West Africa had its own griot. However, it was not unusual for a griot from one village to actually know the ancestry of other villages. Currently, griots are still famous as artists in West Africa recording popular songs as well as performing new and old work on radio broadcasts impacting cultures worldwide.

Proverbs and Music

'Every time an old man dies, it is as if a library has burned down'. This is an example of a West African proverb. Another says 'A good story is like a garden carried in the pocket'. The first proverb represents the importance of oral traditions in West African culture. The other represents the importance of stories. As a West African oral tradition, proverbs demonstrate the values and wisdom of West Africans. Proverbs like these were brought to our country by enslaved West Africans.

Enslaved West Africans brought the art of drumming to our country, still used by modern day musicians

West African music portrays feelings, ideas and values, much like our own music in the United States. This music is also noted for commemorating special occasions and celebrating historical events, as well as similar characteristics of American music. Music has always been an important part of West African lives. The West African music traditions continue to influence art in our country. Two in particular are a technique called 'call and response' and the custom of playing drums.

Call and response is a typical style of music in West Africa where a leader sings or plays a short musical phrase (the call) and then the chorus (a group of people) give the response, by playing or singing another short musical phrase. This pattern is repeated throughout the song. This technique is often used in American music such as rap, gospel, jazz, blues, and rock and roll. Enslaved West African brought this musical technique to our country and used the technique to celebrate social events, to lessen the burden of hard labor and, at times, to relay their displeasure with certain life events.

Drum playing is an important part of life West African culture. Drums made from logs or pieces of wood, then covered with animal skin were played by West Africans who later became slaves when brought to our country. Drum playing functioned as an important role at religious meetings, weddings, parties, funerals and other ceremonies. West African drum music is a popular element of music in our country evident in the music forms used by various bands and musical groups.

Visual Arts

Many beautiful and symbolic textiles, sculptures, baskets and masks were created in West Africa, and have influenced our culture. Stamped fabrics, story fabrics and 'kente' cloth are all representative of Western African culture.

The West Africa kente cloth symbolizes different aspects of life

Textiles from West Africa influenced the American use of applique and quilting, that is still practiced in rural areas of the south, as well as other places in our country. Applique is where shaped pieces of cloth are sewn on to a fabric to create a picture or design.

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