Posts Tagged ‘Central African Republic’


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?

A Musical Journey in Six Books

August 27, 2009
At the musee de la musique in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Visiting the musee de la musique in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

“Diversity, colour and vitality” is how Simha Arom describes his impression of hearing African music for the first time. It was 1963 and he had arrived in Bangui, the capitol of the Central African Republic.

I have always been impressed by the energy and complexity that one hears in African music. It is first and foremost the percussive and rhythmic drive that propels this music and interests me.  In Bangui, Arom heard percussionists playing “tightly interlocked rhythms” and horn ensembles of up to twenty musicians each playing a single note that was a part of a larger whole of  a “precise polyphonic latticework.” (more…)

The proof of the analysis is in the synthesis

August 25, 2009
Finding refuge in the shade of a Boabob tree, we discover a makeshift board setup of Mancala.

Finding refuge in the shade of a Baobab tree, we discover a makeshift board setup of Mancala.

The title of this blog today appears at the front of Simha Arom’s African Polyphony and Polyrhythm. It is attributed to Levi-Strauss and I agree with this statement. That is what I’m trying to do here. Take Mr. Arom’s analysis of the music of the Banda Linda and synthesize it. By writing about it, talking with friends and looking at my own music and the work of others through the lens of an ethnomusicologist I hope to see and hear sound differently. (more…)