Posts Tagged ‘Burkina Faso’


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.)



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.


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:




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…)

Music & Africa

August 24, 2009
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. (more…)