Music & Africa

William Susman traveling in Burkina Faso. Just another flat tire...

William Susman traveling in Burkina Faso. Just another flat tire...

This is the first entry of a blog I am creating reflecting on my trip to Africa this summer and how it has affected my work as a composer. We initially went to Burkina Faso in West Africa to visit my son who is in the Peace Corps. We also visited Mali, specifically Dogon Country, Bamako and then traveled to Tanzania and Kenya in East Africa.

The people, culture, and music of West Africa were a great inspiration to me. The climate is very harsh with little rainfall and temperatures that can rise above 120F at certain times of the year. Most everywhere we went, we heard music in the form of drumming, singing, and balaphones (African xylophone). The sounds fascinated me and I wanted to learn more. I did have the opportunity to take some basic drumming lessons and play with other musicians mostly taught with a call and response approach.

After returning from Africa, a friend coincidentally handed me an article from The Forward about Simha Arom and his work studying the music of Central Africa and Sub-Sahelian Africans since the 1960s. My friend thought it was pertinent and would interest me.  She was right!

The article discussed how Simha Arom’s work had inspired several composers and musicians from Gyorgy Ligeti to Madonna and, Steve Reich to Herbie Hancock. I had known about the African influence in their music but nothing about Simha Arom and his work. Early on as a pianist, I studied classical and jazz. In my undergrad studies as a composer I was deeply influenced by the work of Gyorgy Ligeti especially reflected in my early orchestral compositions. My work for many years has been inspired by Afro-Cuban rhythms as well as medieval techniques called Hocket and Isorhythm. I often layer rhythms called clave and montuño creating polyrhythms.

I have since acquired Simha Arom’s magnum opus African Polyphony and Polyrhythm. I was very impressed when I noticed that the introduction to the book was written by Gyorgy Ligeti. It is from all accounts and an initial overview an incredible work of scholarship on a music that is not written down but passed on through an oral tradition. Simha Arom’s ingenious methodology of recording individual musicians while they listened to the whole ensemble via headphones was brilliant and lead to many pages of transcriptions. I also noticed that hocket and isorhythm, medieval techniques going back to composers such as Machaut, are an important structural part of the music of Sub-Sahelian Africa and have a direct correlation to my musical works.

I am incredibly excited about learning and listening to the musicians he recorded and how the music is structured and fits into their culture. African Polyphony and Polyrhythm is over 600 pages and divided into six very detailed books. I’d like to read a little each day with the hope of completing it in around 6-7 months. I want to blog about my reactions to the book and how it relates to my music composition, work, and musical experiences. With my regular work load of teaching and composing, I don’t foresee getting through it faster.

This blog will help me relate and synthesize a very in-depth music study.

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