From the journal Material For Thought, issue number 13


Every culture lives within the interplay of two movements, an outer movement of performing the activities necessary for the continuation of physical life and an inner movement toward relating to forces, being, and intelligence beyond and above that life. The music of a culture is a measure of the relationship and balance between these two movements.

There is a music, nowadays practiced mainly in certain places where the traditional spirit has not completely given way to modernity, that uses its power over the feelings to cut through the self-absorption of everyday life and bring one to an experience of communion, the sense of being part of the vast play of forces that encompass and connect all beings. In Africa music and dance evoke a sense of communion on many levels, in a rich tapestry that includes spiritual aspiration, religious experience, evocation of deity, psychic and physical empowerment, enactment of myth and history, teaching, healing, courtship, cultural assimilation and solidarization, mutual criticism, celebration, entertainment and exercise.


Traditional Africa maintains a distinction between religious music and social music. This distinction corresponds to the wide-spread understanding that spiritual life and material life are on different levels. While many processes of a secular nature may take place in a religious context, and vice versa, this is felt as part of the unique drama of each situation, not as an undesirable contradiction. In effect, this ambiguity represents an affirmation that spiritual life and material life are inseparably united as constant reciprocal movements of the human spirit.


In Africa, as in many other traditional cultures, religious music and dance play the central role of invoking possession-trance. In possession, the person loses consciousness of himself as an individual and becomes the vehicle or mouthpiece of a “deity,” a personi?cation of one of the great forces of the inner or the outer world. The actions and speech of the person possessed are regarded as those of the deity and are looked to for advice, healing, prophecy, and magical power.


The deities in whose service music and dance are performed are traditionally understood not as being divine in themselves—rather, their divinity is a particle of the Divinity of a higher principle, the creative principle behind the Universe. But this principle is already always everywhere and in everything and hence needs no service to call its presence. No special temporal material condition, such as a temple, ceremony, or artifact, can concentrate its force. Its action at our level is non-action. Its symbol is silence. In music, it is expressed by the rhythmic pulses that are heard innerly though the instrument is not played; through their silence, these pulses give shape and meaning to the rhythm that is heard outerly.


The Great Principle is too far above the level of man for him to relate to It directly. The deities are necessary intermediaries through whom man and God address each other. In some traditions the drums themselves are also specially invested as divine intermediaries. The Dogon say that Drum is the ear of God and one must beat it with the attitude that one is speaking to God on behalf of mankind. This attitude requires respect, but also great force. In the words of a religious song of the Blekete cycle (Blekete is the name of a deity of the Ewe people of Ghana and also the name of the principal drum that is used in this cycle): “A feeble effort will not fulfill the self.”


Possession is a magic door to religious experience, but it alone does not constitute a complete relationship with the divine. To have this, to make available to oneself the powers and knowledge that are the property of a divinity, requires a further payment—to make oneself morally divine, to conduct one’s life in a way that is pleasing to the divinity. Many obligations and prohibitions corresponding to each deity are known in tradition; however, detailed observances are less important than the prime moral law. This law is the sacredness of Life, which includes the need to understand the particular place and way of each living being. Through the experience of dance, song, and music the law is conveyed and received collectively and individually. A song of the Blekete cycle expresses the following thought:


In God’s shrine, this world,


What everybody wants is a good life.


Why do people always make trouble?


God has given principles to live by,


But only you yourself can follow them.


Traditional African music is, first of all, participatory. All the activities of daily life may be—and often are—accompanied by music, song, and rhythm. And every day there may be a special event in which music and dance is the central activity. Almost everyone present will be actively involved in several different ways at once, playing instruments, dancing, singing, hand-clapping, observing, commenting, being commented upon.


Subtle verbal expressions may be encoded in drum language. Almost everybody can understand this language at a basic level; often there will be other levels of meaning woven in which can be understood only by drumming initiates of a certain level of experience. This is the source of the concept of the “talking drum.” Drum language may be used for reciting history and myth, for praising kings and patrons, for topical social commentary, for long-distance communication.


In Africa, music touches everything. The traditional musician acts in extra-musical roles that vary from culture to culture within Africa. Among the Senufo, he is healer and sorcerer. Among the Mandingo, there is a special caste of musicians who serve as historians, having memorized vast repertories of songs and narratives commemorating past events and genealogies. In several nations, there are styles of drumming closely associated with the chieftaincy, the king himself being the master drummer among masters (as for example with the Watusi and the Dagomba). Each craft or occupational tradition, such as weaving, blacksmithing, the military, farming, or hunting, has its music and its musicians who play before, during, and after every major activity; this music plays an important role in preparing for and regulating the performance of these activities.


Within this context, a very special role is played by the master musician, who must be not only a consummate artist but also wise and roundly educated and capable of exercising his power of influence with great responsibility. He must be deeply experienced concerning human nature and its manifestations in relation to the experiences which music can induce. He must develop and constantly exercise an extraordinary alertness and perceptiveness. There is a saying that a master drummer must have seven eyes, and that with these eyes he can see the skeleton inside people.


In order to be able to fulfill this role, an individual is carefully selected and intensively trained, often from a very early age. The training of musicians is a complex matter, differing from tribe to tribe, and even for different types of musicians within one tribe. One theme is apprenticeship, a special relationship to an elder musician who becomes the student’s musical father. In the frequent case of family transmission, this mentor would be his actual father. Another theme is initiation. There are numerous secret societies with special music associated with particular rites. Certain music may be played only by initiates of a certain grade. A third theme is a kind of musical scholarship which is an age-old tradition in Africa. Some musicians aspire to know well not only the music of their own community but also that of others, and spend years traveling widely to learn local music and carry it to distant places. Under the conditions prevailing in Africa of numerous coexisting independent but culturally related ethnic groups, this exchange has contributed to the development of a very complex and mature musical culture.


The body of knowledgeable musicians exercises a sophisticated critical influence which plays an important role in musical training, since every player is always being judged by a number of knowledgeable peers. This tradition supports a system of incentive for personal effort and accomplishment quite separate from the incentives arising from biological imperatives and from economic life.




The Ensemble


The foundation of African music is the complex of rhythmical structures expressed by the percussion ensemble. The sound is built up in a series of layers of parts that correspond to a hierarchy among the ensemble members. The simpler, more basic parts are played by less experienced players, while the lead part is played by the most experienced musician present. Ideally a “master drummer” fills the role of ensemble lead. His qualifications include a complete understanding of the way all the parts fit together and a developed sense of performance values which enables him to manage the ensemble. He assigns parts and often decides what parts must be omitted or simplified, based on the skills of the performers. fihen necessary in order to transmit his understanding to ensemble members, he can demonstrate all necessary refinements of any part and can himself play enough parts simultaneously to create an impression of the full texture of the composition.


While no one is allowed to play a part he is not qualified to play well enough to contribute to the ensemble, the hierarchy is not completely rigid; a highly accomplished musician might, for example, take one of the simplest parts. His experienced touch allows him to obtain a finer quality of sound than a lesser player. His rhythmic understanding and more developed sense of time enable him to reveal hidden depths in that part, providing example and encouragement to the student. The full expression of the music requires the material support of very fine playing of the most basic parts, to provide the foundation and rhythmic energy upon which the higher parts can play.


The master drummer may use rhythmic dialog to invite or challenge certain individuals to play lead parts of their own. He may then expand or comment upon their ideas by his response. This is one of the many ways that the master, when he is present, uses the ensemble context as a vehicle for aiding the development of the players for whom he is responsible and for propagating the tradition.




The relationship among layers of rhythm within a composition is articulated by the principle of polyrhythm, the simultaneous playing of two or more rhythms having different starting points. This technique is at the heart of African music. While Western composers occasionally make use of polyrhythmic ideas, this technique is much more pervasive and highly developed in Africa.


The basic problem that faces the composer using polyrhythms is how to allow each part to have its own character and at the same time to give the whole ensemble an integrated texture of sound. In African music, which is almost always for dance or for accompaniment of repetitive motions of daily work, there is the additional requirement that the overall sound must evoke and be grounded in the sense of movement of the human body.


The different layers of an African polyrhythmic composition represent different voices in dialog with each other. This is known as “call and response.” The voice expressed by each rhythm has periods when it is speaking alternating with periods when it is either silent or just softly keeping time, listening to the response of another voice, to which it responds in turn. There may be moments of overlap, when a voice begins its response before the preceding voice finishes speaking.


One or more of the simultaneous rhythms may repeat in a cycle whose duration is not a multiple of the fundamental meter. This has been called “polymeter” by some Western observers. However, trained African musicians insist that this is a misunderstanding. There is in reality only one meter in effect at one time, and it is the responsibility of each performer and listener constantly to maintain the sense of this meter as the foundation of his hearing and playing.


The Main Beat


The foundation layer of African rhythm is always the “main beat,” which expresses the basic meter. There are almost always four main beats which repeat in a cycle. This is the beat to which a musician will keep time with his feet and body while playing. It is also the basis of the main movements of the body in the dancing that is done to the music. Each period from one main beat to the next is subdivided into either three or four subordinate pulses.


The tempo of the main beats must be maintained very precisely for the energy of a performance to develop. The tempo of the main beats is usually rather fast, from about 60 to about 180 per minute. At the upper end of this range, the subordinate pulses occur as fast as twelve per second.


The first beat of each cycle of four main beats is the downbeat. Neither the main beats nor the downbeat imply extra accentuation. There is a principle that there is no distinction of accentuation between any notes played by the same “voice.” When distinctions between different notes are required, they are made by differentiating the quality of sound, not the quantity. This differentiation may be between different instruments, or on one instrument by differences in the way it is struck. For example, on the master drum “Atsimevu” of the Ewe drum set, there are nine different strokes employed as distinctive musical events. These nine are precisely defined both in sound and in the way the hand and stick address the drum.


The Bell Pattern


The next layer is highly characteristic of African music. It is a sustained rhythm repeating identically every cycle, often played on bell, rattle, or clavé. This “bell pattern” outlines the structure of the rhythmic cycle, providing a basic rhythmic feel for the composition. It also functions as metronomic reference, allowing performers of different parts to confirm their orientation with respect to the cycle.


One bell pattern deserves special examination. This pattern and its variants are so widely used in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa that it has been called “the standard pattern” by ethno-musicologists. It is also found wherever sub-Saharan musical influences have diffused, including a number of distinctive musical traditions in North Africa and in the Americas. This pattern is coordinated with and fits within the meter of four main beats of three pulses each:


C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B [C … chromatic octave


do . re . mi fa . so . la . si[do … diatonic scale


| | | | | | | whole steps


| | | | half steps


^ ^ “intervals”


x x x x x x x [x … strokes of bell pattern


X . . X . . X . . X . . [X … main beats and pulses


It is of some interest that the pattern between strokes in this bell pattern is the same as that of the whole- and half-steps in the diatonic major scale. Here we are comparing patterns in time and pitch, which might be considered apples-to-oranges; but it illustrates the idea that African music is projected upon a richly interconnected rhythmic organization that repeats indefinitely in the dimension of time and is analogous to the organization of tonal music in the dimension of pitch, with tonal pitch conceived as repeating in octaves.


The bell pattern can be heard as two distinct sections which connect to each other through the “intervals.”1 This creates a sense of alternation between outward and inward movements, evocative perhaps of breathing. The same device is also used on a larger scale. A rhythm may have a “front section” and a “back section” each of which is constructed upon a similar rhythmic idea, but with mutations of weight and syncopation that express movement out and return home.




The next layer of rhythmic architecture is often a figure in which an instrument will play on the “upbeats,” the two pulses leading up to but not including each main beat. Sometimes, a more complicated figure is used which still demarcates the upbeat pulses. This pattern is in call-and-response to the main beats. It is often played strongly on a high-pitched instrument, which makes it very prominent in the overall impression of sound, sometimes more prominent than the main beats, which may be played very softly, or very low-pitched, or not played at all. When played with the precise feel, this simple pattern can evoke an intense emotional response. A traditional description of this part envisions it as “a baby crying” above the dialog of the other parts.


Middle Parts


The basic parts combined—main beats, bell, and upbeats—outline the rhythmic space in which the music takes place. We only begin to hear actual music when the important layer of “middle parts” is added. These parts repeat in a cycle which is usually a multiple of the downbeat cycle, but there is more room than with the basic parts for individual improvisation. The middle parts further articulate the architecture of the cycle, dividing it into segments of time each of which is occupied by a “voice” sounding a coherent rhythmic motif. The call-and-response between these voices takes on a sense of poetry, of rhyming.


Lead Parts


The foreground layer of the composition consists of a “lead part” or parts in dialog. Working off the energy generated by the basic parts, the lead player introduces musical ideas which develop the polyrhythmic potential latent within the basic rhythmic structure, expressing his creative understanding. These often cut across the other parts in a way that is a challenge to rhythmic perception. This may stretch the mind in an unexpected direction. For example, in the drumming that is a major component of the Haitian Voudun service, unexpected breaks (cassé) by the lead drummer are recognized as a principal means by which the master drummer induces and controls possession in the dancers. It is


the responsibility of the drummer to be aware of the dancer’s changing state and degree of preparation for possession in order to know when and how to intensify or calm the energy.


Bringing the Parts Together


Tradition maintains that the main beat in music represents one’s purpose, while the crossing rhythms represent distracting impulses. The profound difficulty of maintaining orientation to the beat is a surprise for most Westerners who undertake serious engagement with the music. Beginners may solve the problem by blocking out rhythms that conflict with the one they are playing, but to go further, and particularly to play crossing rhythms with the correct feel, requires that the student learn to hear immediately each rhythm in its relationship to the main beat. The reward for learning this is to experience these crossing rhythms as subtle and delightful patterns of tension and relaxation.


To play any part requires a concentration of consciousness within oneself at a depth where one can receive and contain an inward flux of rhythmic energies from the other parts and simultaneously emanate a rhythmic energy that is not a reaction to what is received but is rather a distillation, an expression of one’s individual will conditioned into coherence with the ensemble. There is a drummers’ proverb: “The bell does the hard work; lead is the easiest part to play.” The bell, as the driving engine of the whole machine, cannot react to anything that may happen outside, not even to others’ errors. The bell player must emphasize the conscious attitude of an independent source of emanation. The lead part, on the other hand, serves to tie the other parts together and raise the energy to a new level; the attitude of the lead player emphasizes the aspect of reception and containment.


The quality of sustaining a relationship to the main beat while playing one’s own part is called “grounding.” This is especially demanding when the rhythm is syncopated. A student may find his grounding criticized by other musicians. He may be told, for example, to let his rhythm “sit down,” meaning to allow the playing to be done through hearing all of the main beats and their subordinate pulses, even when they are implied rather than played. His relationship to the rhythm he is playing must appear through contact with an inner sensation rather than through self-assertion, calculating, or trying to direct the hands with the mind. To assist this contact, a musician may allow a dance-like movement of his feet and body while playing his instrument.


When this movement expresses continuous contact with the earth, it is considered a sign of good rhythmic grounding.


An African ensemble aims at an extraordinary shared precision of timing and rhythmic weight, known as “locking together.” When achieved, it is a distinct and specific experience for listeners as well as performers. This precision is not a function of rigorously equal subdivision of time. Subtle delays and anticipations act as colorations within the rhythmic cycle and establish an organic texture that echoes through sensation and movement within the body. This is analogous to “swing” in Jazz (which was influenced by African music). Each different traditional beating has an essential swing characteristic, far more complex and precise than the analogous elements of Western music. Understanding them and being able to maintain their expression in performance is a key to rhythmic grounding and the essence of African musicianship.


As the basic, middle, and lead parts come together, the composition takes on the richness and vitality that characterize the sound of African music. The tempo of the underlying pulsation is too fast to be grasped by the analytical mind, so the impression passes directly to the emotions and to the instinctive movements of the body. We hear the throbbing currents of life processes intersecting with the psychological drama of individual torment and redemption, all pulsating within a mathematically constructed space of cyclically repeating creation and destruction. Then, as new rhythms investigated by the lead are felt in the body in relation to the sensation of the main beat, a channel may be opened relating awareness within the physical organism to organizing principles and forces that lie behind the surface of everyday existence. This can be one of the main purposes of music and dance, something that traditional Africa has known since time immemorial.

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