Through my research into African music I hope to answer questions about why I compose the way I do and where it is leading. Perhaps the journey will take me somewhere new and, or simply back to a place I have always known.
Simha Arom in African Polyphony and Polyrhythm sets out to create a typology of music in African Societies. i.e classifying it according to its characteristics.
I paraphrase the general features:
Popular music where anyone can play it and you don’t verbalize the theory surrounding it.
Oral music where it is passed on from generation to generation without notation.
Anonymous and undatable music where no one knows who wrote it or when.
Collective music where the whole community is responsible for preserving it as part of their heritage.
Music for internal use where it is particular to that society, used for communication and even a higher means.
Imagine making music for personal means (internal use) or with a close friend or for your health or a family event but never sharing it with the community or thinking that it needs to be commercial. Perhaps my internal use music is what I do when I sit down at the piano and improvise. There is no goal or act leading to some new work. If I compose a new piece and call it Music for Internal Use would I want it performed in public?
I try to make music simply for internal use but it’s not easy. Sometimes it’s easier to do that if I’m playing a jazz standard or jamming with a friend. We do it for the joy of making music without another motive.
What stands out for me is that for African music to succeed there needs to be a strong sense of community. People from an early age participate even if they are simply riding on the back of their mother. Music is a social part of life.
With the Central African people vocal music tends to dominate and when you have an instrumental piece the melodic line is nearly always borrowed from the vocal.
“All musical pieces are characterized by a cyclic structure that generates numerous improvised variations: repetition and variation is one of the most fundamental principles of all Central African music, as indeed of many other music in Black Africa.
This principle excludes the process of development, fundamental to European art music, but totally unknown in African musical thought.” (Arom, 17)
Why is the concept of development such an essential part of European art music and why do so many musicians and composers of Western art music want it? Is the concept of development borrowed from the way we tell stories or are educated?