Teaching Plato to Dance; The Philosophy of African Music

by bria4123 on October 23, 2011


John Miller Chernoff, in African Rhythm and African Sensibility, wrote that African drumming is one of the most subtle art forms on the planet. No argument from me.

Many specialists say that rhythm is the most basic feature of African music. African concepts of rhythm are much richer than Western ideas of it are.

Westerners focus more on melody and harmony. We admire Beethoven for creating his towering Fifth Symphony by constructing variations if its first 4 note phrase. We usually see rhythm as a constant pulse that melodies are played within. We also think of rhythm as an abstract measure that melodies are ordered within.

But many Africans have associated a much larger range of concepts and experiences with rhythm. Drumming is like human dialog. All instruments together sound like the community in a meeting in which everyone shares his wisdom.

Obo Addy is a drumming master from Ghana, and his CD Afieye Okropon expertly balances of all instruments. Nothing dominates anything else. The deep drums come in and go out. Then smaller drums chime in. As this conversation ensues, the high pitched timbres clatter above the drums.

And of course people are clapping their hands. Their singing is also finely balanced–between a single man and a group in call-and-response fashion.

The performances thus allow each sonic identity its space. The community celebrates its harmony.

Chernoff wrote that measures in African music are open. They allow more and more people to join. The key for the next joiner is to allow everyone else his space and yet play a beat that adds to the mixture.

The different beats are thus related more to each other than to an abstract measure. And there’s no limit to the number of players. A new person can always come in–as long as he’s sensitive to everyone else.

Sometimes a lead drummer decides to change the beat, and everyone needs to find his place again. A good African musician needs big ears and a quick mind.


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