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A compositional method used by East African composers (1948)

January 10, 2008

In Chopi Musicians (London, 1948 ) Hugh Tracey describes a compositional method used by East African Chopi composers. This extract, based on Tracey’s description, is from Music in Primitive Culture (1956) by Bruno Nettl.

My comments are in square brackets.

In Chopi Musicians Hugh Tracey describes what is believed to be the most sophisticated method of composition yet found among preliterate peoples. The Chopi [from East Africa]…have made great progess in xylophone-building, albeit they probably derived the skill from another culture…. [Nettl describes how the xylophone originated in southeast Asia and came to Africa c. 500 AD when a group of Malayo-Polynesian speaking peoples migrated to Africa. One piece of evidence for this is the similarity between East African xylophone orchestras and Javanese and Balinese gamelan orchestras (Nettl, Music in Primitive Culture, p.100).] Their xylophones are made in four sizes, and an orchestra is composed of about ten instruments. It is used to accompany long ceremonial and spectacular dances. The leader of the orchestra combines with the functions of conductor and performer those of composer and poet; he creates both music and text of a long composition know as the ngomi. A ngomi begins with an orchestral overture and consists of about ten dance movements in different tempos and styles. The composer first produces the text, which is usually lyrical and concerned with situations in the contemporary affairs of the Chopi; then he starts to work on the music. Since Chopi is a tone language, he often uses the tones of the text as the basis for the first musical theme. He develops the theme by improvisation, and his apparently excellent memory enables him to reproduce quite accurately in performance the improvisations he has evolved in private. Next he composes a second theme that is contrapuntal in relation to the first. The other xylophone players partially improvise their parts in accordance with the styles of their various instruments, and they also follow the verbal instructions of the leader. The entire composition is rehearsed. The final preparatory step is a consultation between the leader and the chief choreographer, who also has rather sophisticated techniques at his command. Together these masters change, rework, and assimilate their creation. The joint public performance of dance and music is concertlike in nature. In this culture, then, we have an unusual example of conscious composition as well as of specialization of activities, and, fortunately, the native composers seem to have little difficulty in verbalizing about the process.

Nettl, Bruno, Music in Primitive Culture, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969, SBN 674-59000-7, pp.18-19.

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