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Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part VII December 10, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in Africa, Andrew Shahriari, book review, books, Central Africa, ethnomusicology, Ghana, music, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Spain, Uganda, world music, Zimbabwe.
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I indicated that my final blog post on this subject would be about Leonard Bernstein’s The Unanswered Question, a discussion of tonality and the nature of music. We will get there, but after a ten-part detour into commentaries on the book World Music: A Global Journey by Terry E. Miller and Andrew Shahriari. This is a logical detour after absorbing Bruno Nettl’s information about ethnomusicology. I will do individual blog posts about each of the areas covered in the book, focusing mainly on the musical examples provided. I will first comment on general observations about the area and the selections provided. I will then post specific notes on each individual selection. These comments are not intended in any way to be definitive exhaustive examinations of the types of music discussed. They are just my comments on the musical examples provided in the context of my discussion of music, physics and metaphysics. (Also, this study will contribute to the new music I am in the process of creating, an effort to meld many international styles together. This is not some politically correct effort to create a global music for humanity. It is simply my fascination, as a composer/music creator, with all the different sorts of musical approaches available to humans. Technology allows me to explore this fascination and create based on it.)

Previous posts from World Music: A Global Journey:
Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part I
Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part II
Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part III
Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part IV
Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part V
Book Commentary/Review – World Music: A Global Journey, Part VI

Sub-Saharan Africa: Ghana, Nigeria, Central Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Senegal, The Republic of South Africa

General Comments: When we think of African music, we think of rhythms, of drums and pitched wooden percussion bound together in energetic syncopated magic. And there is a lot of that with these selections. Another African characteristic is the solo-response choral style where a soloist sings a line and a chorus responds by repeating the line or playing off of it in some way. This music also has elements seen in other music—pentatonic scales and even tonal “Western” harmonies. Even with the exotic and distinctive rhythms and sounds, there are more indications here of universal human musical commonalities.

CD 2, Track 19 from World Music: A Global Journey
Ghana: Polyrhythmic Instrumental Ensemble
A driving rhythm in four moves this piece. Those familiar with Santana (late 1960s Santana) would feel right at home with the way the bongo-sounding drums pound out the main rhythm. A syncopated hand clap springs out of the drum chorus with 16th note drum beats ornamenting the main rhythm. This underpins the singing. There are no pitched instruments in this piece. The singing is carried by a lead male voice (later trading with a female vocalist), with a chorus echoing the melodic lines. The lines are simple—1 to 5, cadencing down to 3, to 2, then resolving to 1. There is a syncopated feel to all of this—yes, the downbeats are pretty clear, but the music jumps and gyrates around the beats. That syncopation is familiar to jazz and rock fans, not necessarily in the comfort zone of traditional “Western” music.

CD 2, Track 20 from World Music: A Global Journey
Ghana: “Talking Drums”
This is really just a simple recitation. A female speaks (not singing notes, speaking), barely in any kind of rhythm. The drums are the only musical instruments, pitched a major second apart.  They appear to comment on the rhythm of the words.

CD 2, Track 21 from World Music: A Global Journey
Nigeria: Jùjú Popular Music
This is modern pop music in a Sub-Saharan style. We have electric guitars, organ and bass. The song starts with a drum kit, but the drum kit recedes in prominence, with African drums pushing the rhythm. The song is in a basic 4/4 rhythm, but at times feels truncated possibly to accommodate the vocal lines. The vocal lines are simple, almost motivic; diatonic major (though I hear diversions to the flat 3, almost a blues move). What makes this sound African as opposed to “Western” pop? Stanzas found in “Western” pop song construction are not present. The form is freer—the music starts with a little intro that is clear ensemble playing, but then drifts into an ongoing rhythm on one basic. There is a little motivic hook from 2 to 1 to 6 back to 1 played in unison with the bass. The primary percussion is a plethora of African drums. The drum kit stays back—I hear primarily hi-hat with some snare drum sprinkling in. The bass does not join the drums to anchor the rhythm—the bass notes join guitar notes and sometimes the vocals. It is a fun marriage of the pure African style and modern “Western” pop-rock colors.

CD 2, Track 22 from World Music: A Global Journey
Democratic Republic of the Congo: Pygmy Music
This piece has an exotic, strange-toned vocal line that underpins it—pentatonic motives intertwined to create a shimmering effect. Handclaps are the only rhythm. The rhythm is in a basic four, with a lot of syncopation. The vocal lines are simple, but intertwined in a way that creates more complexity. A solo voice calls over the top of this, mostly singing in a pentatonic mode, but sometimes shouting.

CD 2, Track 23 from World Music: A Global Journey
Zimbabwe: Mbira Dza Vadzimu
Two Mbira Dza Vadzimus lay down the instrumental tracks. They sound a lot like steel drums, though less edgier. The two combine to create a I7 to IV progression that repeats. The detuned quality gives us a quarter tone/microtone feel, though the music is still diatonic major (but with the flat 7 of the scale). The vocalist sings over the top within the I-IV diatonic feel. A rattle taps out the rhythm, holding together the two instrumental lines.

CD 2, Track 24 from World Music: A Global Journey
Uganda: Akadinda
Western percussion instruments play together to create a shimmering pattern.  It’s a pentatonic feel, and serves to outline a chord, but in a frenetic way. World Music: A Global Journey indicates this is easier to follow visually, as we can see what each percussionist is doing. Musically, this is an exotic feel, a wonderful way to express a single chord without just holding the notes sustained. “Western” composers do this, trading lines around different timbred instruments to spice up a static chord or tonality. It gives the music a drive, a life, like atoms/quarks/the energy of existence bubbling—nothing is really ever still—this music captures that.

CD 3, Track 1 from World Music: A Global Journey
Senegal: Jali with Kora
The kora is a “bridge harp.” This is again a diatonic major scale with introductory lines offered in cascading thirds. The instrument then goes into a vamp on a I/major chord. A male singer brings us a descending vocal line that seems to cadence on 1s, but sometimes drifts down. The singer hits both the natural 7 and the flat 7, implying a Mixolydian mode and major scale. The kora does not give us a 7 in the scale, so the singer is free to go Mixolydian or diatonic major (or neither, maybe just pentatonic).

CD 3, Track 2 from World Music: A Global Journey
Republic of South Africa: Mbube
This piece is performed by an all-vocal all-male ensemble. The soloist sings the line, followed by a big choral response. For some of the solo lines, we hear a low chanting of chords. Everything is I-IV-V-I in various combinations. There are lots of suspensions from the 4 to the 3, leading to cadences on the I chord, suspension-resolution cadences that would make a “Western” church choir proud.

CD 3, Track 3 from World Music: A Global Journey
South Africa: Ladysmith Black Mambazo
This is an internationally popular a cappella choral group. The harmonies involve simple, big chords, meticulously accurate and polished both in pitch and ensemble. The African sound comes from the solo-response style, plus the sounds of the voices. The rhythm is a basic four, but phraseology bends the rhythm at times. Syncopation is evident in the music as well, and a kind of percussion comes via vocal sounds like rolling r(s), tongue clicks, and rhythmic chants of block chords.

Personal Compositional Note: I will be employing rich rhythms as I have in my own music already. Technology gives me access to many sounds from all parts of Africa. And these rhythms are already part of my own musical culture as they were brought over with blacks and incorporated into the American music tradition in blues, jazz and rock. I like the solo and response feel. My melding of music will be instrumental, but there is no reason the concept of solo and response can’t by applied to instrumental music. Harmonically and modally, the African music I heard is not as intricate as some of the other traditions. African rhythms with some of those modal traditions will be fun!

The next post will move to the Caribbean.

Previous posts on this topic:

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin

Music, the Brain and Ecstasy by Robert Jourdain

Music and the Mind by Anthony Storr

Good Vibrations/The Physics of Music by Barry Parker

Measured Tones by Ian Johnston

Exploring Music by Charles Taylor

Music and Mathematics: From Pythagoras to Fractals, edited by John Fauvel, Raymond Flood and Robin Wilson

Harmonies of Heaven and Earth: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde by Joscelyn Godwin

The Study of Ethnomusicology by Bruno Nettl