Posts Tagged ‘polyphony’


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 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.

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…)

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…)

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…)