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Readings on African drumming - Djembefola - Djembe Forum

Discuss traditional rhythms, singing etc
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By djembefeeling
Just read an interesting article from David Temperley:

http://web.mit.edu/jikatz/Public/MusLan ... ey2000.pdf

who's claiming that ethnomusicologists had one-sidedly stressed and thus exaggerated the differences in African and Western rhythmic perception. We all share the basic rules for perceiving music, but we do have culuturally different sets of relative weightings of those rules.
"One might argue that this difference represents a greater degree of
rhythmic complexity in African music. African music possesses more syncopation,
that is, more conflicts with the underlying metrical framework;
and African listening requires a greater ability to maintain a steady beat
despite conflicting accents.(...) the difference between African and Western rhythm
is not simply a matter of complexity. Viewed in another way, the greater
tendency of Western listeners to shift their metrical structures in response
to phenomenal accents might be seen as a greater sensitivity to metric shift
in the music." p. 79
He argues that we are more used to classical and Romantic music and "the fluctuation of tempo for expressive purposes" and thus are inclined to shift the metrum when we hear cross-rhythms. That was interesting for me, since it gives me a positive perspective on how why i.e. my students have such a difficult time when it comes to cross rhythms...

One fascinating discussion was on the so-called Standard Pattern, that is the bell-line most common in 12/8 rhythms: x|x.x|.xx|.x.|x.x| which is also played on rhythms of the Dja family, often for one of the two measures in a cycle of the sangban on Dja as well.
This pattern has curious characteristics. Pressing (http://ehess.modelisationsavoirs.fr/ati ... ythm83.pdf) has shown that it is almost of maximal ambivalence, i.e. it can be interpreted as a sample of many different meters. Also, it is exactly analogues to the diatonic scale:
"If we consider the pattern as a series of durational values, and we consider the diatonic scales as a series of intervals on the chromatic scale, we arrive at the same pattern in both cases: 2-2-1-2-2-2-1. Morover, the centricity of the pattern is the same in both cases: the "strong beat" position in the Ewe rhythm corresponds to the tonic position in the diatonic scale." (p. 81)
He says that recent work in pitch-class set theory has revealed interesting and highly unusual properties of the diatonic scale, but mentions only one that can be related here to the Standard Pattern. Its asymmetry, where you can orient yourself within the line by the unique position of every place in relation to any other.
Asking myself what bell-line would result with the same method from a minor scale: 2-1-2-2-1-2-2, I was astonished that we arrive at the bell-line for the other 12/8 family of Dundungbé: |x.x|x.x|.xx|.x.|
Last edited by djembefeeling on Sat May 24, 2014 4:16 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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By djembefeeling
An interesting and very informed article on the Sogoninkun tradition is Pascal James Imperato Sogoni Koun:

https://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/downl ... ?version=1

You can learn there about the Wassoulou people, the tradition of perfomances for Sogoninkun and other wara performances, it's close relation in some overlap areas between Wasolon and Bamana, plus many pics of the headdress and masked dancers.
Last edited by djembefeeling on Fri Jun 20, 2014 12:12 am, edited 1 time in total.
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By djembefeeling
An o.k. reading was David C. Conrads article Searching for History in the Sujata Epic: the Case of Fakoly:

http://journals.cambridge.org/action/di ... id=9006884

His main purpose, to extract real historical events from the different versions and snippets of the epic, is highly speculative. But you can learn much about how many different versions there are of the Sunjata epic, the main cultural background for all the music of Mande people, about one of it's heros, i.e. Fakoli (there is a rhythm named after him: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xbg8kx ... lare_music), the history and social stratification of the Mande people (especially the great familiy lineages), and about how the epic is full of anachronisms.

Coming from reading the very solemn account of Dave Kobrenskis Djoliba Crossing, where Sunjata is made a role model for peaceful politics, it was interesting to read about the imperial character of Sunjatas politics and the gruesome deeds Fakoli is said to have done to his enemies on his behalf. After the victory on Sumangoro, Sunjata has subdued some of his own Mande clans who wanted to hold on to their autonomy in order to establish his Malian Empire. Even Fakoli himself is said to have been antagonized by Sunjata because his glory shone too bright after defeating Sumangoro and all the others for Sunjata.
Last edited by djembefeeling on Thu Aug 28, 2014 11:38 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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By djembefeeling
Another good reading on the theory of African rhythm is Robert Kauffman African Rhythm: A reassessment:

http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/8 ... 4065707887

The article is 34 years old and thus does not represent the newest insights in the field, but Kauffman summarizes the older research in a nice way and opens up new perspectives. His section on cross-rhythms is especially good.
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By djembefeeling
A very important article on rhythm is David Locke (1982). PRINCIPLES OF OFFBEAT TIMING AND CROSS-RHYTHM. IN SOUTHERN EVE DANCE DRUMMING:

http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/8 ... 4099306847

Locke is cited very often in the literature on African drumming. His article clarifies the main rhythmic principles working in African meter. He makes clear that in Eve drumming in the south the musicians orient themselves on the beat and that their sophisticated off-beat drumming and cross-rhythms derive part of their effect from the deviation or rather friction from or with the beat. In the 12/8 music that follows the Standard Pattern (x|x.x|.xx|.x.|x.x|) it is possible to feel multiple beats, but any structure other than the 4 beats of a cycle he calls counter beats. BTW, he calls the fastes pulse just pulse, the next level beat and the level above that meter. ever since then, the most people working on the theory of African drumming seem to follow him.
I especially liked the section on cross-rhythms, because he develops the different possibilities without any detour. In the 12/8 rhythms of the Standard Pattern there (in Southern Eve drumming) are three main ratios of cross-rhythms: 3:2, 3:4 (less often), and 3:8 (rare). I think this is true for Maninka music, too. The resulting counter-beats are thus 6 and 3 respectively in one measure or 3 in a cycle of two measures. By variation of starting points and emphasis this leads to "rhythmic structures of remarkable sophistication and variety". The only downer is the notation that often comes one or two pages later than the text due to the lack of space. And I am not that good in classical notation to grasp his ideas in a flash...
Last edited by djembefeeling on Fri Jun 06, 2014 3:43 am, edited 1 time in total.
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By djembefeeling
Rainer Polak 1997: Bewegung, Zeit und Pulsation. Theorierelevante Aspekte der Jenbemusik in Bamako, Jahrbuch für musikalische Volks- und Völkerkunde 16: 59–70.

This is his first article where he develops his theory on microtiming within the four rhythmic models or families leaning on Ingmar Bengssons SYVAR-D (systematic variation of duration).
In many respects, the content can be found also in his 1998 article Jenbe music in Bamako:
http://tcd.[spam removed].net/djembemande/microtiming.html
and is fully developed in his Rhythmic Feel as Meter: Non-Isochronous Beat Subdivision in Jembe Music from Mali
http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.10.16. ... k.html#FN7

Interesting for me where thus only points off the focus of this article. He states that for every rhythm in Bamako there is one accompaniment pattern standard for the compelete family and another specific for the rhythm. In his Jenbe music in Bamako he already asserts that "the specific accompanying patterns which existed for most rhythms get out of use."

The other point is his wider reaching implication that the idea of an elemantary pulsation is not only questionable in that it is not necessarily evenly spaced but often inflected in the music of the western Sudan, but also in that in one piece of music in jenbe ensemble music there could be more than one pulsation, yes even that the possibility of polyquantisation is an essential part jenbe music in Bamako.
User avatar
By djembefeeling
Rainer Polak, Ein Musikinstrument geht um die Welt. Zur Verflechtung lokaler, nationaler und internationaler Kontexte im Bamakoer Jenbe-Spiel. in: Interkulturelle Beziehungen und Kulturwandel in Afrika.Beiträge zur Globalisierungsdebatte, Ed- by Urlich Bauer et al., Frankfurt a.M. 2001, pp. 291-312.
and Rainer Polak, A Musical Instrument Travels Around the World. Jenbe Playing in Bamako, West Africa, and Beyond. in: Ethnomusicology. A Conntemporary Reader, ed. by Jennifer C. Post, New York and Abingdon 2006, pp. 161-185:

http://books.google.de/books?id=Edi3AAA ... lp&f=false

Both articles are essentially the same, though the original German article is shorter. For the English article, Polak seemed to have more space and thus took a more detailed draft of his German article or extended it. Either way, I would recommend even to the German readers the English article. He did not only expand the information and photos for some of the sections, but supplied much more literature for further reading, a great appendix with an annotated discography, an interesting excursus on the Ballets Africains from his dissertation, and last but by far not the least another appendix with 3 sound samples for Sunun in the styles of the 3 generations of the Bamako style of jenbe playing: one by the old Namory Keita (the last guy in Bamako who still played his leather jenbe), one by Jaraba Jakite for the middle generation, and one by Draman and Sedu Keita for the younger generation. They can be heard on the website of the University of Bamberg:

http://www.uni-bamberg.de/ppp/ethnomusi ... 20Examples

edited: sorry, this doesn't work anymore, went offline

In the article, Polak outlines the 3 spheres of jenbe playing today: the local feasts, the national ballet ensembles, and the international jenbe scene. He argues that they appeared in this cronological order, each one preconditioning the next level, but are syncronically worked for by drumers in Bamako nowadys and influence each other. The international success of ballet jenbe playing even spurred the prestige and there3by the success of jenbe playing for feasts in Bamako regardless of the ethnicity of the people celebrating.
"Since independence, jenbe playing has beome an integral part of a supra-ethnic, local culture of Bamako. The style and repetroire of jenbe drumming in the metropolis is different from rural jenbe traditions. If a master drummer from the rural Maninka land comes to Bamako, he will start out like an apprentice and play only accompanying parts for a couple of months. One speaks of bamakofoli, the "music of Bamako", as distinct from, for example, maninkafoli, "music of the Maninka." The Bamako repertoire and style of jenbe celebration music represents a tradition of its own. It is a recent urban tradition that builds on, fuses and recreates different sources." p.162
The ballets also shaped the international notion of what jenbe music is about: it were the international stars of the scene that exported jenbe drumming to the
west. It is ironic that we pick it up as something very traditional. Even the instrument had to be modernized for its international success. Polak shows in detail the invention of the technique of iron rings that came from the west, probably New York (by a student of Ladji Camara called "Chief Bay", reaching local percussionists in Chicago, where Famoudou Konate first saw it) in the 1970s and slowly made it into West Africa. He also shows how this invention had a huge impact on the style of jenbe drumming in the course of the last 20+ years of getting louder, faster, bigger (ensembles).

This is a must read for everyone interested in jenbe playing and especially with those English readers not familiar with Polaks dissertation!
Last edited by djembefeeling on Fri Jun 13, 2014 9:40 pm, edited 3 times in total.
User avatar
By djembefeeling
Alan P. Merriam, African Musical Rhythm and Concepts of Time Reckoning. in his: African Music in Perspective, New York and London 1982, pp. 443-461.

In this lucid discussion, Merriam questions the basic analytical assumption of an equal pulse unit underlying almost unanomously the studies of Western ethnomusicologists or those trained in a Western way.He first distinguishes the perspective of insiders in a given society, calling it "emic", and the perspective of outsiders trying to analyze it, i.e. the "etic" perspective. He insists it is crucial not to confuse those.

The notion of a fastest or basic pulse, density referent, or whatever name it is given in the literature on African music leads also to the assumption of a steady musical beat which in turn suggests the notion of a "meter, measures with their accompanying bar lines, accent, and downbeat, and all this leads, finally to the notion of multiple or simultaneous meters" (p.445). He traces all these notions back to our Western concept of time as being measured in small "objective" units in a linear strewam of time. He then presents the arguments indicating that African time reckoning is mostly very different from our concept, indicating it can be different in each group but are mostly cyclical. "The point is important because it reinforces the suggestion that concepts of time-reckoning do differ from society to society and that they almost certainly must affect music" (p.460f.) Orientation in the often desorientating Africian music is thus probably different from the emic perspective than for us trained in the prevailing Western concept of time. He suggests that an emic way might be a learning or comprehension by unit", which are learned as an entity rather than in terms of seperate, counted out parts (p. 458).

This reminds me much of a concept of the most successful teacher of African drumming in Germany, i.e. Hermann Kathan, who discourages counting beats and instead suggests an orientation along the rhythmic gestalt alone. But I think this must not be an opposite and go with David Locke (see above), arguing that the rhythmic complexity is achieved partly by refering cross rhythms to a steady beat that is mostly present in dance, clapping or one of the drums anyway.
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By djembefeeling
Clemens Zobel, Das Gewicht der Rede. Kulturelle Reinterpretation, Geschichte und Vermittlung bei den Mande Westafrikas. Frankfurt a.M. 1997.
(=The Weight of Speech. Cultural Reinterpretation, History and Mediation at the Mande of Westafrica)

Although this is a book on the role of jelis in Mande societies and I am not particularly interested in jelis, this book is valuable for the infos it provides on Mande society in general, which in turn can benefit the understanding of their drumming, I suppose. Interestingly, the author confesses in the preface that he probably overestimated the central position of speech and the nyama energy granted through the foundation myths, because this central position seems at least in part to be a reflex of the anthropological interest in religion at the beginning of the 20th century.

Interesting was also the deep reflection of the author about his own situation in Mali. He began studying with Sidie Diabaté as a student of the kora before he developed the desire to learn more about the role of the jeliw in modern society. But as a researcher, his relationship was defined by two factors he didn't wish for: speed and distance. The speed he needed to accomplish his knowledge was limited by the time he for his study. He had to compensate this limited time in part with money, recordings and writings, but the economy of learning is very different when you are embedded within the culture and everyday life. you gain your insights in a different way. As a researcher, you try to suspend local time. Zobel tells us about an encounter with a young griotte when he took a picture of a kora being built. She critically uttered: "you white people will soon now our tradition better than we do and we will have to come to your museums to know ourselves better." This reminds me of what Famoudou Konaté and others put for us in a positive connotation, so that we can feel good as the true keepers of a tradition in perils to become extincted. But Zobel makes clear that the griotte meant the paradox that the same time economy of speed that helps conserving the tradition for the museums takes over in Africa and leads finally to the destruction of that same tradition (p.37).

Distance is a limiting factor because the people clearly have in mind that the researcher comes from a privileged world and will finally disappear into that world again, a world where they hardly have any access to. Thus his research was often met with scepticism and was interpreted as a neocolonial attempt gain knowledge, power and status. Zobel says that in the traditional or emic perspective the knowledge of a jeli means power and status, a valuable and rare commodity you never give away without caution and an adequate compensation. Thus he tried to work with as little recordings and notebooks as possible, embedding himself within the everyday life as much as he could (p.38ff.)

Open speech in general is not an ideal in the Mande society as it is in the Western world. Speech has power over people and can elicit positive and negative nyama. The power to offend someone relates to his position within the society, which is sanctioned by the religious notion of nyama. Speech is done according to that postition, i.e mainly with reservation towards those higher in standing. "The individual has to learn early on to utter the bare words, which are in his belly, with much reservation and caution or, rather, to hold them back in case of doubt" (p.25). References to secrets in personal, historical, and religious fields are thus prevalent, even if the content is commonly known.

Zobel presents the formal hierarchy of Mande society as stratified by hòrònw (freeborn), nyamakalaw (indigenous craftsmen, literally "handle" or "antidote" of the nyama, p.25) and jonw/wolosow (slaves) in chapter 3 (p.45ff.). The share of Nyamakalaw people in precolonial Mande society was about 10%, the percentage of slaves is estimated around 2/3 to 3/4. Nowadays, there are no slaves in Mande society any more but still some people identify with the status. But the status of slave is hard to be counted, because it is a mobile status which can switch back into a freeborn anyway. Zobels aim is to prove that social status in Mande society is much more flexible and open for interpretation in many situations than is formerly attributed to. Even though nyamakalaw are excluded from political power and farming, there are many examples proving this is not strict. Even though jelis in general are seen as depending on the freeborn and thus inferior to them, jelis have their own perspective, seeing their art as being connected to higher spirits and purposes as mere service to the hòrònw, much as Bohemian artists would do in relation to the bourgeoisie. Jelis can thus not be payed by the freeborn, but only compensated with gifts which never really meet the value of the spririted words. Horonya, the issue concerning free-borness, is larger defined as honor and can be attributed to others than hòrònw. The relation of ngaraw, the "masters of truth" and nganaw, masters of action, is shaped by a mutual dependence: the acts of heros would be forgotten withouth the words of the jelis and the words of the jelis would be nothing without the heroic acts of the hòrònw. Also, with interpretations of old myths, jelies try to lift their status as well with the reference to their families origin as freeborns. Only the Kouyates are supposed to "real", i.e. original jelis.

The system of clans and patronyms, jamu, is also an interesting point in Zobels monography. Within a patrinlinear family clan can exist multiple sublineages, jamuw. A jamu is supposedly derived by the deeds of the founding ancestors of that jamu. The Konaté clan for example is supposed to be the original clan from which the Keita jamu derived through the deeds of Sunjata.
A jamu defines the place in society, from it derives the yèrèwoloya, being born by themselves (free) as a precondition of the hòrònya. Through a jamu the individual becomes a legal entity, so even outsiders like white people staying for longer periods of time get some jamu. Also, because of the wide network of clans, lineages and sublineages all of Mande society seems to be related in some way (p.77). The blood relationships make possible heredetary forms of alliances and provide a rich foundation for jelis to mediate in cases of conflict even across ethnic borders. The Diabate are called Diop within the Wòlòf, the Traore are called Ouedrago in Burkina Faso, while within the Bozo they are called Sinenta and Nienta. Sidiki Diabate said:
"Traore, Dembele, Wattara, Diabate, Ouedrago, Byiaugi, Sane Mane, Fati, Diop, Nyakate, Sinate, Kòte, Niare, wologuem, they are all Traore." (p. 76)

Such a clan is bound in alliance to a tana, an animal or a plant, which they cannot harm without doing harm to themselves and their offspring -- they would loose their horonya and harm their nyama, which could only be repaired by an expiatory sacrifice, a senankuya. The tana is an integral part of clan-identity, the features of the animal/plant are supposed to resemble those of the clan. The kouyate, for instance, haave the Waran, kana, as their tana, and the split tongue of the kana is a quality held to the character of ambivalence in speech of the Kouyate (p.76f.).

The important concept of horonya is ineresting, too. It is esepecially bound to kankelentigiya, which is a compositive of kankelen, to practice according to one word, i.e. to keep one's promise, and tigé, or complete ka sunguru tigé, to "cut" young girls meaning to avoid adultery.

(to be continued...)
Last edited by djembefeeling on Wed Jun 18, 2014 9:17 am, edited 1 time in total.
Hi Folks,

I am new to the forum, though I lurked around a few months ago. I just finished up my comprehensive exams for a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology, and one of my exam prep tasks was a comparative reading of nearly everything that has been written by academics about both Maninka drumming (Guinea/Mali focus) as well as Ewe drumming (one major exception being Polak's German-language works). I have annotations of everything that I've read and would love to engage in the discussion here.

If folks are looking for something to shake their thinking, I HIGHLY recommend Kofi Agawu's 2003 book, Representing African Music. He has some other articles that include some similar information, but this brings it all together. The writing is politically charged, provocative, counter-intuitive, and brilliant.

Willie Anku's 1997 article, "Principles of Rhythm Integration in African Drumming" includes some interesting analysis of 'masking' in multi-part drum music. Actually, all of Anku's stuff is very good, and is the first that I know of that uses a generative theory for improvisation in both Akan and Ewe musics.

On the djembe end of the world, if you haven't read Vera Flaig's 2010 dissertation, it is good. Lots of well-evidenced information on globalization of the djembe and plenty of speculation and food for thought for those of us who participate primarily from abroad.

Glad to see that some folks are into some of the ethno writing on here. Looking forward to getting more familiar with the site and mixing it up a bit!

Last edited by JBM on Mon Jun 16, 2014 10:21 am, edited 1 time in total.
Here is a citation for the Anku mentioned above:

Anku, Willie. 1997. "Principles of Rhythm Integration in African Drumming." Black Music Research Journal 17 (2): 211-238.

He does some interesting work with set theory and has a fascinating take on nested interpolation in master drumming improvisation in this article, available to all:

http://www.mtosmt.org/issues/mto.00.6.1 ... essay.html:

Unfortunately, Anku passed away just as he was hitting his stride in terms of publications, but his contributions are valuable to any musician, in my opinion.

Thanks for the warm welcome!

User avatar
By djembefeeling
hey jbm,

thanks for that! I thought I could end up playing solo on this thread for the end of my life ;)
what's your name? would love to start a real discussion, the more so since you are sort of a professional. I am just an amateur, but my reading expands...

thanks for the link, michi. I didn't know about this dissertation until this very moment.

best, jürgen
Glad to find another reader, amateur or not! My name is James.

Oh, and I think that you'll be interested in this article:

Gaudette, Pascal. "Jembe Hero: West African Drummers, Global Mobility and Cosmopolitanism as Status." Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 39, no. 2 (2013): 295-310.

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