Westerners are coming to love West African music, but can we really understand it the way it’s meant to be understood?

The Top 10 Ways Western Ideas Muddle Our Experience of West African Music:

Here is our list of the top ten ways Western music theory has muddled the true nature of West African music. The Cradle of Jazz Project believes that by clarifying these myths, we can not only strengthen Mande music as it is interpreted in America, but also assist jazz players find their way back to their roots.

10.  There is a “one,” and I can find it.

Famadou Konate is a world-renowned master of the Malinké drumming tradition. He speaks of an “elementary pulsation” in music which is called a “tatum” in the world of computer-automated transcription of percussive music. This elementary pulse/ tatum means that there is a smallest note value running silently through all music. In the case of West African music, only as long as one stays within the boundaries of the tatum is one playing correctly. This understanding is crucial both for solo and ensemble West African musicians.

When the tatum rules the music, music expands beyond the repetitive counting associated with keeping time in Western music. West African music drives forward in an endless continuum through space. Cycling back to a “one” over and over again would interrupt the flow and depth of the music. There may be common “jumping in” points in the music, but there is no beginning or end; there is no “one.”

Additionally, West African music is meant to be experienced through the phenomenon of “melo-rhythm,” or hearing rhythm in the melody and melody in the rhythm. Melo-rhythmic phrasing allows the musicians to experience the music from a variety of places. Even a brief 15-second cycle of the music embodies a host of different phrases, all starting and stopping in different places. The Western “one” thus limits the pliability of the music.

Westerners have a hard time believing that music can exist that doesn’t begin or end. But here is an illustration, albeit it an odd one… Does double-dutch jump-roping have a beginning or end? True, at one point two people must pick up the ropes and start swinging them in rhythmic coordination. But the potential for them to do so was always there. Next comes the jumper. Is there a tangible “one” that leads the jumper into the ropes, or must the jumper just feel the cycles, and leap in when it is comfortable? In West African music, the musician must be able to simply leap – in proper rhythm – into the space that has always been there.

9.  I can use what I know about Western music to count it out.

Jazz players take note – It is precisely by being able to feel rhythms in their smallest fractioning that so much freedom is gained in improvisation. Just as Western musicians cannot tolerate “pretty much in tune,” West African musicians cannot tolerate “pretty much in rhythm.”

Early ethnomusicologist A. M. Jones was able to prove how his African music partners could hear the smallest rhythmic deviations – as small as one twenty-fifth of a second. Whereas in the West it is an orchestra’s job to ebb and flow with the soloist, in West Africa it is the ensemble’s job to never divert from awareness of the smallest pulse – the spacing of the notes. Otherwise, the ensemble is compromised and the soloist is crippled.

If the possibilities of a musician’s solo are limited to how tightly his band mates are playing together, and West African musicians demonstrate a unique ability to play with an infinitesimally small tatum, it seems only logical that jazz musicians – whose worth is based on the tightness of their music and the freeness of their improv – would hunger for this knowledge. Jazz students need to be given this knowledge when they come to study in universities!

8.  The solo is my chance to show off.

Just as in jazz, the most soloing should be done by the most experienced players. But while the solo demonstrates the technical prowess of the artist, the function of the solo is to further add to the good space being created by the music – to contribute in a positive way to the success of the situation; to play with and emphasize the grooves. The solo is not about the artist, it is about the community that has gathered to be a part of the event. Furthermore, it is not what you play that creates a good solo, but rather knowing when not to play, leaving a good sense of space in the music.

The solo also functions to showcase the brilliance of melo-rhythm. A soloist can build his phrases around the various melo-rhythms found within a phrase, in turn bringing different aspects of the piece alternately to the foreground of the musical experience.

John Miller Chernoff brilliantly describes it this way in his African Time and Sensibility:

“…patience and sense are necessary to bring one’s power to the service of form and beauty… [Experiencing the melo-rhythm of West African music correctly]…calls for mediated involvement rather than concentrated attention, collectedness of mind rather than self abandonment… Without balance…the music abdicates its social authority, becoming hot, intense, limited, pretentious, overly personal, boring, irrelevant, and ultimately alienating.”

Would any jazz player disagree?

7.  I can learn these rhythms by reading them in a book.

The sound of early African-American music captivated colonialist Americans. Many well-meaning folks tried to capture the music through notation, though almost all who tried had to humbly admit that they were only transmitting the shadow of the true experience. As time passed, it became clear that there was real money to be made in quenching the White American’s desire to know the music of the Blacks, so more and more tunes were copied and disseminated.

When these tunes were put into Western notation, the true rhythmic character was utterly lost, as were those obscure notes which are known now only as “blues’ 3rds and 7ths.” The thick cross-rhythms became merely “swing.” American curiosity was satiated, but at what cost?

Ethnomusicologist by Mongo Sise

‘Le regard des ethnologues,’ by Mongo Sise, 1983

Today, many of the best, most open-minded, cultured musicians in the West are drawn to West African music. With the best of intentions, those who venture to write about the music give tentative apologies for their efforts, then launch head-long into endless notated transcriptions of traditional West African rhythms. Are they doing any better than the colonialists who scribbled down the slave songs? In a music that is so deeply different than what Western music theory has given us, can one ever capture the true nature of the music in writing, or is one just striving to convey the basic idea of it?

The only true way to learn West African music is to listen, listen, listen, and then practice, practice, practice, and then humbly verify – through playing with those who are more experienced than you. This music developed as an oral tradition. By its nature, it changes when it is written down.

The scientists who notate music with computer programming admit that Western computers – let alone the naked Western ear – can scarcely break down the pulse of music as finely as West African musicians naturally hear it. What’s more, when a computer system tries to notate West African music, the swing/ cadence of the piece is far beyond the scope of the transcription program. Accordingly, we see that written music is an insufficient way to convey the rhythms of West Africa. West African oral tradition is not the result of cultural deficiencies – it is the only accurate way to impart the music.

6. The repetition is boring.

Westerners often find the cyclical rhythms of West African music monotonous to play, because they see the cycles as having a beginning and end. That thinking is audible when the Westerner plays the cycles.

In truth, the repetition of the cycles is an invitation to explore the depths of the layers of music. The repetition is a necessary extension of the music’s relationship to space. Each note leads into the next in an endless continuity… a stream of tension-filled sound driving forward, instead of a few notes played over and over. And again, unlike Western music where one phrase follows another, through melo-rhythm, each cycle contains many, many of its own phrases, which in turn must be picked out by the listener.

As Chernoff brilliantly footnotes the philosopher Kierkegaard:

“He who wills repetition is matured in seriousness… If the young man had believed in repetition, of what might he not have been capable? What inwardness he might have attained.”

5. The tighter the drum the better.

For a lead jembe, a tight head can be a great thing, though many older Mande musicians prefer a more mellow sound even for the soloist. But for dun dun, songbon, kenkeni, and accompaniment jembe, the idea is to strive for a range of tones.

Melo-rhythm is a phrase found throughout this website. In a West African ensemble, the creation of melo-rhythm is often a result of a fusion of parts. The various instruments will all contribute notes to form the overall rhythm and melody of a piece. This technique is rarely used in West. The best compatible term in Western music theory is hocket.

In West African music, the idea of melo-rhythm carries over beyond percussion instruments. Melo-rhythm occurs in the stringed instruments as well, and this effect can also be heard in American blues recordings, with repetitive guitar phrases that the carry melodic and rhythmic weight of the song.

4.  A good way to convey the tougher rhythms is to break them down.

Mustafa Diaby

West Africans make their music in relationship to space. Time means little to West Africans in their daily life – nothing to them in music.

Mustapha Diaby (pictured above in yellow) was a well-known musician who played jembe in Guinea’s renowned Djoliba National Ballet. Later in life, he found himself teaching Westerners who had come to Guinea to learn more about the jembe. In one instance, he tried to convey a simple 9-note break, commonly used to begin such songs as Tiriba and Soko. The Westerners were stumped. Trying hard to learn, they asked Mustafa to “break the rhythm down.” Mustafa didn’t know what they meant. “You know”, they said – “count off, then just play the first couple notes.” It couldn’t be done, Mustapha protested, to the bewilderment of the Westerners. He happily played the break for the students again and again, even slowing it down quite considerably, but in the frame of reference of West African music theory, it made no sense to play three of the notes alone. All nine of them belong together, period. It is a point of contention few Westerners are willing to understand. Inseparable groupings of notes, and their inner relationships, are the core of West African music.

3.  Time and Space are the same.

“Westerners are concerned with time, whereas West Africans are concerned with space.”
– Kassim Kone, president of the Mande Studies Association, professor at SUNY Cortland

To the passerby, this statement might seem vague, but to the person who is well-acquainted with both Western and West African ways of thinking, it is profound. Westerners respond to time as if it is a fixed ideal, while simultaneously manipulating it to suit their fancy. West Africans respond to space.

It is difficult for Westerners to comprehend, but time is mostly irrelevant in West Africa. Space is what is important. Time, in truth, is little more than a continuum of space – an agenda pushed onto a clock by the whims of man, to be played with and adjusted by the whims of man.  Space is indifferent. It exists, whether we are a part of it or not. Time begins and ends. Space is infinite. Time is measured – in years, days, hours, minutes, seconds. Space is so open that it does not respond to these measurements of man, no matter how precisely they were gauged off of the spinning of the sun.

With an understanding of space one can achieve the tension that is built from the complex layering of well-spaced groups of notes. Chernoff says

“In the conflict of the rhythms, it is the space between the notes from which the dynamic tension comes…” [boldface ours].

2.  I, as a Westerner, am not bound by time.

Westerners are – no doubt – concerned with time. An example: A man finishes work exactly at 5 o’clock. He drops off a birthday card at Fed Ex instead of the post office so it will arrive on time. Then he’s irritated that the commute home took 35 minutes instead of the usual 28, so he eats dinner at a fast food restaurant to save time. On his agenda for the evening is the symphony. He speeds to the theater – to arrive on time for the 7:00 performance. There he sits still and quietly while the conductor beats perfect time, except for the many, many accelerandos and ritardandos. Then back home, he sets the coffee maker for a precise time, and turns the alarm clock on so as not to be late to work the next morning. But at the last minute he remembers to move the clock forward for daylight’s saving time. He drops off to sleep at 11:45, upset that he’s getting to bed 30 minutes past his regular bedtime, not to mention the extra hour of sleep he’s losing due to the time change.

This obedience to time is just one way to live; it’s just one way to approach music. Think of old African-American Southern folk who love joking about C.P.T. – Colored People’s Time. Here we see a clear reference to what it means to be space oriented instead of time oriented – “I’m not worried about getting there when the clock says to; I’m worried about getting there when it feels right.”

1.  It’s only a few repetitive notes – how can I mess that up?

Just as early Americans butchered the true nature of the early African-American’s music by committing it to paper, there are many ways to misinterpret a few repetitive notes that make up a West African rhythm.

You can drag your part and fail to drive it; you can play the overall part in the right place, giving the wrong spacing to the smaller notes in the middle; you can apply Western counting ideas to your part and thus totally miss the phrasing; you can play your part perfectly but not know where it fits in the ensemble; you can move the part around with disregard for the tatum; you can accent the wrong notes, just to name a few.

No matter how well trained in Western music a person is, if he doesn’t approach West African music with an openness to the West African musical mind set, his music will carry a thick foreign accent. Just as these mistakes occur every day in modern American drum circles, these same mistakes happened frequently enough in early American history to become an entire new style – the blues and jazz, with blues’ notes and swing as the only remaining archeological evidence.

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