Guinea-Bissau’s history is marked by long years of colonization under Western powers. It was ruled by the Portuguese in the 16th century and did not obtain independence until the 20th century, which explains the deeply rooted influences in the country’s language and culture. Still, Guineans were able to preserve their ethnicity and ancient roots, which are evident in art and music.
Originally, Guinea-Bissau was part of the Gabu Kingdom of the Mali Empire which endured until the 18th century. The earliest reports of European contact in the region were recorded in the mid-15th century. The Portuguese established settlements along the coastal and river areas, and eventually settled the country in the 16th century after establishing permanent trading posts on the shores.
The Portuguese colony included the mainland territory of Guinea-Bissau and the islands of Cape Verde. They prevailed over African opposition and became the sole power in the region in 1913. During the Salazarist Era, roads, bridges, schools and hospitals were built. Not long after, African nationalists under the headship of Amilcar Cabral started to contest Portuguese rule and eventually gained independence in 1974.
The nationalist forces developed an economic and political infrastructure that provided basic services for the local residents, but political conflicts plagued the country, with coups overthrowing one leader after another, eventually leading to a devastating civil war from 1998-1999. The turn of the century has brought in hope for the future, with a new government rebuilding infrastructure and making efforts to stabilize Guinea-Bissau’s political and economic situation.
The Guinean culture is very colorful, thanks to the people’s diverse ethnic backgrounds. The population is made up of different tribes with distinct languages, social structures and customs, but Guineans are generally very accepting of their differences. Some of the more prominent groups are Fula, Mandinka, Balanta, Papel, Manjaco, and Mancanha, who live in different regions. Much of the remainder of the population is a mix of African and Portuguese descent. There is also a Cape Verdean minority.
Music is a big part of life in Guinea-Bissau. The tradition is connected to polyrhythmic Gumbe genres. The most common instrument is the calabash, which often accompanies rhythmically complex dances. In addition to the Gumbe genre, Tinga and Tina are also popular, along with folk and ceremonial music that are used in various rituals and initiations.
Other distinct sounds on the islands include Kussunde, Balanta Brosca, Kundere, and Mandinga djambadon, all of which can be heard throughout the Bijagós Islands.
Until the arrival of other civilizations, most of the local population adhered to animist beliefs. Today, however, the majority practice Islam, followed by Christianity and indigenous religions. Traditions are often practiced with a certain syncretism with conventional African beliefs and practices.