By means of the phonograph…

Children in the village of Zogore, Burkina Faso watching a video of themselves on my camera

Children in the village of Zogore, Burkina Faso watching a video of themselves on my camera

Simha Arom opens Book I of African Polyphony and Polyrhythm with an overview of the geography of the region of the Central Africa Republic and how with urbanization and migration traditional African music is at risk of being lost. So, the essence really of his work was already considered back in 1928 when Hornbostel, as Arom quotes, knew that if we don’t start recording this music soon it will be lost forever even before we have the opportunity to know what it was all about.For example, traditional hunting songs and the percussive music associated with them are no longer used because of the introduction of western hunting techniques such as the rifle. However, so many other rituals are still practiced that even in the 1970s Arom had a rich musical landscape to mine with his tape deck.

“Art for art’s sake” also has no meaning in the African tradition. Music is always associated with some clearly defined activity be it a sacred event, celebration, or social purpose such as a dance evening. So, European music and art also display many of the same associations as African music with the exception of a composer / artist creating a work for oneself.

When Arom was doing field work in the 1970s he observed a practice of singing whereby the performer took a popular song as his starting point “from which, by association of ideas, he invents, off the cuff, new words which will tend to reflect personal preoccupations, his grief and his solitude.” (Arom, 9)

This technique sounds a lot like early blues singers through the styles of Funk, R&B and Rappers. Many ways in which performers around the world communicate are ubiquitous.

I also find these comments compelling: “pure music scarcely exists  …rhythm is thought of as the stimulus for bodily movement” and, …music practice… is conceived as a motor activity, almost inseparable from dance.” (Arom, 10)

For me this brings to mind pop music associations but also orchestral music originally conceived of as dance or ballet from Bach through Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Copland and Cage (his work with Merce Cunningham).

You can certainly listen to African, pop, or orchestral music on a CD or in a concert hall but, hearing the music while watching the dance would be a totally different experience. Studying film clips of African dance with its associated music would also be a different study.


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