Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category


December 17, 2009




There are a great variety of flute-like instruments made from bamboo with one to three finger holes to change pitch. Certain Islamic groups such as the Hausa play the double reed oboe-like instrument called the algaitha.


  • Bamboo flutes of one to three holes
  • Globular flutes
  • Algaitha oboe-like double reed instrument.



There are a wide variety of horns both in their construction and size as well as how they are used and played. In essence the performance practice of these horns varies throughout the country. The highest pitched horns are from Antelope horns while the lowest come from wood i.e., hollowed out tree trunks.

While in Burkina Faso and Mali I heard many Idiophones, membranophones and chordophones similar to those found in the Central African Republic. However, I did not encounter horn or flute ensembles.

  • End blown trumpets cut from tree trunks (Banda-Dakpa people)
  • Traverse of oblique long horns made of bell ended roots (Banda Linda)
  • Ivory trumpets some with gourd bells (this reminds me of the shofar)
  • Kakaki trumpets made from metal (Hausa people)

Both the flute and horn ensembles use the hocket technique. Esembles vary from five to eighteen performers and each performs only one pitch. A resulting melody stems from the highly contrapuntal interplay incorporating a complex and organized rhythmic structure.

The sounds of these ensembles are very dramatic and powerful both in their sound quality and complexity. Simha Arom recorded these groups and some of the music can be found on the album CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Musics & Musicians of the World. The record label is Auvidis. (The music of this album is discussed in great detail in Arom’s African Polyphony & Polyrhythm.)



December 1, 2009



These are essentially instruments that are plucked. For example musical bows called mouth bows where the players mouth cavity acts as a resonator and the mvet or harp-zither usually eight-strings with a gourd resonator. The mvet is found in the region of Ghaya in the West of the Central African Republic. There are also many other varieties of harps that Kubik has called the national instrument.

While in Mali we heard Kora players. The Kora is a harp/lute popular is West Africa. One of the best-known performers of this instrument is Toumani Diabate who has performed in the US and recently at Le Poisson Rouge in NYC.

Plucked Instruments:

  • Mouth bows
  • Mvet Harp-zither (eight strings)
  • Variety of other harps in different sizes and string counts based on the region.


November 20, 2009

In African Polyphony and Polyrhythm different categories of instruments in the Central african Republic are mentioned. In one such category, we see that many of these drums aka membranophones look familiar to us. They are all struck by hand or with a stick and typically in families of up to five instruments. These drums all have membranes but have different shapes and are fastened differently to the body of the resonator depending on the region.

  • The Manja have cylindrical drums with buttoned skins.
  • The Ngbaka have conical drums with laced skins.
  • The Mbenzele have waisted drums with pegged skins.
  • The northern Islamic groups have hourglass tension-drums.


Drums such as those listed above are seen in many other parts of the world in a somewhat similar form perhaps having traveled by ship hundreds of years ago or through collective memory.

Many of these drum shapes and styles are a staple among classical and pop percussionists constructed out of wood, metal, fiberglass, plastic and alloys. Simha Arom desribes membranophones in families of up to five that reminds me of drum kits with a snare, two mounted toms, floor tom and a kick drum. Good ideas crossover.


November 14, 2009


The Central African Republic has many types of idiophones. These are instruments that vibrate without strings or a membrane. In Western music some types of idiophones may be a triangle, cymbal, or marimba. Many of the instruments mentioned by Simha Arom below have become an essential part of Afro-Cuban and Latin percussion. I heard all of these instruments performed by various ensembles while in Burkina Faso this past summer. Actually the clappers made out of metal blades were somewhat challenging to play and they had a powerful sound quality.

  • Metal blades used by the Pygmies as clappers
  • Single or double bells, with internal or external clappers.
  • Wooden slit drums used by the Banda and Manja in families of two to four at a time.
  • Gourd aka water drums found in Islamic groups
  • Xylophones with five to ten keys, some with gourd resonators and others with mobile keys that may be placed on the knees or in a hole in the ground.
  • Log drums (Mpyemo and Kaka)
  • Rattles, pellet bells, ankle and knee-jingles.

In Burkina Faso, (West Africa)  I saw dance troops, sometimes 10 – 20 dancers, moving in unison with knee-jingles to great dramatic effect.

  • Scrappers (Ubangi river-dwellers)
  • Sanza aka Mbira, Kalimba or thumb piano: metal or bamboo tongues attached to a resonator. Also very popular in Zimbabwe. Often tuned to a pentatonic scale and/or various micro-tuned subsets.


Organological Classification

November 13, 2009

Book I of African Polyphony and Polyrhythm closes with Simha Arom dividing the functions of musical instruments from the Central African Republic into five different categories:

  1. The most important use is their modal and/or rhythmic support for vocal music.
  2. Sometimes, such as with the Banda horn ensembles, they are purely instrumental.
  3. For transmitting messages that would otherwise be spoken, they use wooden slit drums or whistles.
  4. In order to create a connection with supernatural powers, the community uses certain instruments.
  5. Some instruments are rarely used because they are symbols of spiritual or tribal authority. For example, drums represent the ancestors of the Nzakara.

There are a number of generic intstruments used by many different tribes such as xylophones, harps, the mvet (harp-zither), the sanza, and many different kinds of drums used for rhythm.

There are also vernacular instruments that are exclusively used by a people. For example the Mbenzele and Aka pygmies are known for the end and side-blown Banda horns. The Ngarka are known for the ngombi, a ten-stringed arched harp.


September 23, 2009

Scale Systems:

Songs in parallel fourths are the most common throughout the many tribes that Simha Arom has studied. Most of the time there is a fluctuation between 4ths and 5ths and an occasional 3rd in order to preserve the pentatonic sound and not veer off into polytonality.

The most widespread musical scale is the anhemitonic-pentatonic scale. It can be organized in five different ways: (Arom, 24) It is the same pitch set with just a different starting note.

1)     C-D-E-G-A

2)     D-E-G-A-C

3)     E-G-A-C-D

4)     G-A-C-D-E

5)     A-C-D-E-G

Perhaps, singing this scale with an overlapping and staggered form (as André Gide mentions in his description of the ‘Tam-tam’) results in what he describes as “harmonic richness”.

Also, note that if a D# is added to inversion no. 5 above, you have the traditional blues scale A-C-D-D#-E-G-A. One can imagine how African-American blues evolved from this anhemitonic-pentatonic scale when sung with certain vocal inflections.

Here is a hypothetical arrangement I created of four voices each singing the same melody but not in unison. Notice that the 1st time I evenly stagger the entrances of the scale. The 2nd time, the scale has a “jagged” layering. Both ways create an “harmonic richness”.

Voice 1   D-E-G-E-G                                 D-E-G-A-G

Voice 2      D-E-G-E-G                 D-E-G-A-G

Voice 3            D-E-G-E-G               D-E-G-A-G

Voice 4               D-E-G-E-G                  D-E-G-A-G

Furthermore, by moving two lines in parallel motion but with different starting notes you can arrive at a succession of 5ths. Below is a hypothetical melody I created of a pentatonic scale demonstrating what some ethnomusicologists describe as a hybrid of medieval organum:

Movement only in parallel 5ths using the pentatonic scale

Upper voice:   G-A-G-E-D-E-G-A-G

Lower voice:   C-D-C-A-G-A-C-D-C

Arom states that tribes in the Central African Republic speak in a tonal language.  If one sings a particular word, it must use the same intervallic motion or else the word will cease to have meaning. I understand this to mean then intervals heard in spoken language are similar to what Arom has heard and recorded in their sung form. That is, the pitches heard in song must follow the language’s tonal scheme. Does this mean that the tonal languages of some tribes of the Central African Republic use pentatonic intervals?

Tempo is the Only Constant

September 9, 2009
Excerpt from Susman's Pentateuch showing divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections with three choir groups of tenors and basses in 5ths below the soprano lead

Excerpt from Susman's Pentateuch showing divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections with three choir groups of tenors and basses in 5ths below the soprano lead

Thoughts on the Typology of Central African Music:

Melody in Central African music is determined by the tones of the language. As I mentioned in a previous blog Steve Reich uses this approach in his work Different Trains. Also the melodic line can be transposed allowing a wider range of intervals. Often the lines descend in the form of terraced movement resting on “successve levels”. (Arom, 19)

Tempo is the only constant. The speed of a piece of music never varies. Only melody, rhythm and instrumental patterns may change in a musical discourse.

There are different techniques of plurivocality or multi-part singing: Heterophony, overlapping and homophony. André Gide relates his impressions of a ‘tam-tam’ in 1928, “but imagine this tune yelled by a hundred persons not one of whom sings the exact note. It is like trying to make out the main line from a host of little strokes. The effect is prodigious and gives an impression of polyphony and of harmonic richness.”

Simha Arom aptly describes the features of this heterophony which I will delineate in a list:

  1. A melody whose outline is refracted by a kind of halo
  2. The voices are slightly unfocused
  3. Minute variants
  4. A coming and going of dissonances
  5. Overlapping between solo and chorus parts (Gide called this ‘brocading’)
  6. Often in the middle of this process a singer will sustain a single note thus creating an intermittent drone. (Arom, 21)

Homophony on the other hand is the most common form of multi-part singing. This form of plurivocality involves parallel movement of the voices. Typically they are in intervals of 4ths, 5ths and octaves. Often certain tribes are known for singing distinctly with these intervals as 8-5-4 tribes and some sing in 3rds. (Arom, 22)

In Pentateuch (1983) a grand divisi orchestra, choir and soprano work written when I was 23 (with influences from Ligeti and Xenakis) the three male choir groups sing for an extended period in 5ths. Each group takes its turn singing a phrase in 5ths while the soprano voice predominates above in a quasi call and response. My intent was to create a very raw, basic and forceful sound in the midst of a constellation of divisi polyphonic and polyrhythmic wind, brass, percussion and string sections.

Call and Response

September 5, 2009
A mosque on the main street in Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso with a speaker to broadcast the call of the Muezzin

A mosque on the main street in Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso with a loudspeaker to broadcast the call of the Muezzin

More on the Typology of African music

Continuing with a typology or characteristics of Central African music Simha Arom mentions that antiphonal and responsorial structures predominate.

Another characteristic I found fascinating are litanical songs. These pieces contain short melodic cells typically no more than four to five in a given song but usually two.

What gives a song originality is the way they treat the form of the phrases or melodic cells for example ABABABACCAB or,  AAA…BBB…CCC or, a litany and then a refrain or, a through-composed passage followed by a litany.  Lomax documented this formal structure in 1968.

As in medieval church music repetition is used to focus the mind or create greater intensity of thought on some specific idea or purpose. Repetition is a universal concept crossing over many cultures.

In call and response music the response is nearly always invariable where the antecedent can change and often does melodically because to change the words means to change the melody as tones are tied to language.

This call and response form also reminds me somewhat of Gospel music where a leader intones a story through a series of verses followed periodically by a chorus that declaims a recurring melodic and, or harmonic response.

Arom says that the formal structure is isoperiodic that is “The periodic structure is dependent on an extremely strict division of time into segments of equal duration, each segment possessing its own internal organization. The periodic unit is like the basic material of the musical structure, or a kind of mould.  Periodic units … can be subdivided into two or more melodic and/or rhythmic units. (Arom, 18)

Arom goes on to describe how vocal music is accompanied by a formula that organizes the melodic instruments and percussive instruments. For example thinking in western measurements you could have a sung strophe which takes 8 bars to complete accompanied by an instrumental melodic pattern with a “periodic unit” of 4-bars repeated twice and under that a percussive pattern of 2-bars repeated 4 times. Many popular songs in western music follow this formula.

In other words, “in a sung periodic unit of a given duration, the melodic instruments will follow a repetitive formula that is half the length, and the percussion a formula that is a quarter of the length.” (Arom, 19)

Below is a schematic I created showing a common exponential (8,4,2) formula for segmenting time into segments of equal duration and thus creating an “isoperiodic” structure.

Sung strophe:


Melodic instruments:




For Internal Use

September 3, 2009
A granary commonly found in family compounds. This storehouse, one of hundreds in the village of Zogore, holds millet, a food staple of Burkina Faso, Mali and other West African countries.

A granary commonly found in family compounds. This storehouse, one of hundreds in the village of Zogore, holds millet, a food staple of Burkina Faso and other West African countries.

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.


The music is always measured

August 31, 2009
dancers with jingles

Dancers in the village of Zogore, Burkina Faso perform with jingles attached to their legs accenting certain steps. A seated drummer on the far left provides a steady beat.

In Book I of Africn Polyphony and Polyrhythm, Simha Arom is presenting the general features of traditional music.  The fundamental characteristic he feels is temporal organization. Music in Central African societies is “a succession of sound capable of giving rise to a segmentation of time during which it flows in isochronous units. The music is always measured and should be “danceable”. ”. (Arom, 11) (more…)