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Foundations of African Music

February 14, 2008

The following account of essential features of African music is taken from West African Pop Roots by John Collins (1992).

Omissions are indicated by square brackets.

African Music in the West

Africa and diaspora have influenced a profusion of music and dance-styles that are the nearest thing we have in the twentieth century to a global folk music. At the opening of the century it was ragtime and blues; then the swing and Latin-American ballroom dance crazes of the interwar period; followed by black rhythm and blues, soul, disco, reggae, and rap – recently supplemented by the music of Africa itself.

What is it in the African approach to music that has enabled it to cross all frontiers to become, directly of indirectly, a major force in international music? Or to put the question in a different way, why is that European classical music (unlike its technology) has not become the dominant form of the twentieth century? In fact, the two questions are linked, for the waning of classical music from the turn of the century (with the emergence of the so-called atonalist modern school) corresponds exactly in time with the proliferation of music-styles that contain seminal black influences.

One could say that the latter filled a vacuum left by classical music, but more positive reasons than this can also be found. Probably the most important is the flexibility and adaptability of African music. Indeed, this is exactly how African slaves in the Americas were able to overcome the problem of having the play the music of their masters. They syncopated it by playing around the rigid European metre and emphasising the gaps or offbeats largely ignored in white tempo, so creating a significant space for themselves to swing in.

Unlike much of European music, with its score-sheets, metronomes, and baton-wielding conductors, African music emphasises the spontaneity of the players. This creative approach even embraces the African audiences who, unlike European ones, always dance and just as likely to clap during the performance as after it.

[Collins discusses the relevance of African music to modern society.]

Foundations of African Music

The agbadza, discussed here as an example, is a variation of the widespread African rhythm termed the “African signature tune” by musicologist A.M. Jones. The agbadza of eastern Ghana and Togo, a beat used in both traditional ensembles and in the modern guitar-and dance-bands, is a recreational dance of the Ewe people and emerged in the 1920s out of a much faster traditional war-dance.

One: The Parts or Subrhythms (The Hot Aspect)

African music is mostly polyrhythmic, composed of multiple rhythms each with its own particular metre. The friction between these criss-crossing polymetric strands of rhythm is what generates its energy or heat. The first stage in learning to play African music is to acquire the discipline of the separate beats. It is a training that, in Africa, starts in infancy on the dancing mother’s back, or from the myriad of children’s rhythmic games that abound on the continent.

In the agbadza, there are four subrhythms that create its basic phrase and correspond to one complete agbadza bell pattern. This single basic phrase of the agbadza can be imaginatively treated as being divided into twelve equally spaced time intervals – a temporal framework into which all four subrhythms can fit.

1. The feet (i.e. the dance downsteps) are played evenly four times for each basic phrase: on the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth of the imaginary twelve time intervals mentioned above.

2. The kagan drum is played with two sticks. It s rhythm is made up of groups of three notes. The right stick strikes the open drum twice; the left is then played, but with the skin muted by pressure from the right stick. This results in two high notes followed by a low, muted one. This is played four times to correspond to the twelve imaginary time intervals.

3. The kidi is a hand-drum. Its simplest rhythm is made by the right, left, then right hands striking the perimeter of the drum-skin, producing three open notes, then the three muted notes, played twice over in the full agbadza phrase to make up the twelve time intervals.

4. The claves or cow-bell (Ewe gankogui) pattern is made up of seven pulses. If a double-headed bell is used, the very first pulse is played on the lower-pitched bell. The spacing of the seven pulses on the twelve imaginary time intervals exactly corresponds to the spacing of the seven major notes (do, re, mi, fa, etc.) on the twelve intervals of the one octave of the melodic scale. The first agbadza bell pulse is therefore equivalent to the note “do” – and so on up to the seventh bell pulse, which is equivalent to the note “ti”.

Of interest here is that that octave scale is thought to have been developed by the Greek mathematician and musician Pythagorus, whose name comes from the sacred python and priestesses (pythia) of the Delphic Oracle. This snake cult, of which he was a member, came to pre-Achaean Greece from North Africa.

Pythagorus actually studied in Egypt, from where many of this geometrical theorems came. If his musical theories also came from Egypt, then an intriguing fact is that Africa has provided the same musical octave arrangement of seven notes/pulses on twelve intervals twice over: once in melodic and once in rhythmic form.

Two: Rhythmic Spacing (The Cool Aspect)

Besides polyrhythms, another feature of African music is the silent gaps between the individual pulses of the rhythm (between the striking of the drum and bell, the clapping of the hands, or the downward movement of the feet).

This characteristic was noted by E.M.Hornbostel, one of the first European musicologists to become interested in African music. He divided each stroke of a drum into two components: an acoustic downbeat (the note itself) and a silent motor upbeat (when the hand is raised to strike). He believed that while Europeans focused on the sounded aspect, Africans put equal emphasis on both the heard and the unheard.

In the case of the agbadza rhythm, this even-handed stress can be illustrated by the way the maracas (Ewe axatse) are played. In the simplest rhythm pattern, the instrument is held in the right hand and beaten on the knee in time with the cowbell. Instead of leaving the upstroke silent (as in the bell), the upbeat of the maraca is accentuated by striking it against the left hand, which is held above the instrument. This creates a slightly different sound from the downstroke, in a rhythm that is the exact opposite of the cowbell pattern.

This ability to flip at will from the positive to negative aspect of rhythm is vital to the appreciation of African music, so much of which is based on call and response and interpenetrating rhythms……

Quite another expression of spacing in African music concerns its rhythmic tempo. In the case of the twelve imaginary time intervals of the agbadza, the intervals are absolutely evenly spaced, equivalent to the exact ticks of a chronometer. Yet no drum or instrument actually plays out the rigid common denominator (the kagan comes closest in the agbadza). The drummer, in fact, can use different combinations of rhythmic tempo, anticipating or delaying the downstrokes to create all sorts of “auditory illusions.” This heightened awareness of time …is the basis of swing in African music…..

Three: The Summation of the Subrhythms (The Balancing Aspect)

The individual rhythmic patterns that constitute a particular style of African music are not fragmentary, but knit together into a total sound or acoustic gestalt- the “Beat”.

The “Beat” manifests itself in two ways, the most obvious being that the music moves in cycles. The shortest cycle revolves around one key instrument (the bell in the case of the agbadza). The “Beat” is also found in the sound pulses of any two subrhythms; these sound waves cancel and reinforce each other to create an interference pattern or standing wave.

Precisely the same thing happens with multiple rhythms, although in a more complicated way, the interference between the subrhythms creates a third or inherent rhythm that no one actually plays and yet has a rhythmic life of its own. The sum is greater of the parts and this inherent rhythm helps hold the beat together. African musicians call it an “inside rhythm.”

All the individual cross-rhythms, as well as their resultant inside rhythms, move in cycles of time. The most important thing to note is that the rhythmic phrases do not all start at the same time, but are staggered or out of phase with each other, in the fashion of a music round or fugue. Thus in the agbadza “Beat” the feet, bell, and maracas open on the first of the twelve intervals, the kagan on the fifth, and kidi on the eight; master drums such as sogo and the long atsivemu-drum begin on yet other intervals…..Of equal importance are the differing endings; where one finishes another takes its place, constituting a rhythmic dialogue among the instruments.

[Collins discusses some points about performance.]

Another feature of African music is the silent side of rhythm. The complementary aspects of the maracas and bell pattern have already been discussed. Another is the hand-clapping pattern provided by the audience. Although the claps follow the tempo of the four dance steps, they are not continuous like those of the feet, due to a gap in the hand-claps at interval 4. And it is precisely this quiet space that supplies a crucial anchoring or reference point in what would otherwise be a bewildering and sustained round of rhythm.

Collins, John, West African Pop Roots, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1992, ISBN 0-87722-793-4, pp. 10-14.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Roane permalink
    April 12, 2008 5:49 pm

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    This continues the personal studies, enhances personal developement, and encourages the appreciation of a self taught african american musician.
    I continue a family tradition and now have more to actively pass on to my children.

  2. October 15, 2010 8:38 pm

    Thanks for this great educational African music language write up. Will share this with my students.

  3. October 31, 2012 2:40 am

    Hurrah! In the end I got a website from where I
    be capable of in fact obtain valuable facts regarding my
    study and knowledge.

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