Unlike European music, African music begins and ends with rhythm. While harmony forms the basic framework of Western music, rhythm is what organizes and structures the music of Africa. For Westerners, whose culture has not produced such advanced rhythms, it’s easy to dismiss the importance of rhythm in favor of harmony, melody, form or dynamics, but the truth is that when your music has a high level of rhythmic sophistication, it really doesn’t need much else. This statement may be hard to swallow for some people, so I’ll give it some context. In many traditional cultures spanning the entire African continent, music making is something that’s done by and for the community, not the individual. There’s no hard boundary between the performers and the audience, and participation in making the music can take many forms depending on the skills and preference of each individual. Thus, some people dance while others clap; some play a melodic instrument while others play drum or shakers; some sit and sing while others sit and bob their heads silently. How each person participates is up to them, yet there’s a prevailing sense of connection and teamwork with the other participants that’s fundamentally different from the experience of sitting in an audience, separated from and observing the performers.

One of the main things that I believe creates this sense of connection and participation is the prevalence of dance in these traditions. It’s very telling that some African languages do not have separate words for “to dance” and “to play music” or “to sing”. In the eyes of these cultures, all three are merely different facets of a single larger activity, namely making music with other people. When people in a community dance together, it tightens existing social bonds while creating new ones. So why do these cultures do so much more dancing than Europeans do? Historical and religious reasons are surely a part of it, which you can think of on your own. And yet, there’s another reason for why there’s so much dancing in these traditions, and it has to do with the structure of the music itself.

Creating Ngoma

Another interesting bit of linguistic evidence is that in the Shona group of languages spoken throughout the Zambezi River area,  as well as in Congolese, the word ngoma can mean either a drum or the music as a whole. You play an ngoma when you want to create ngoma. So what then does this second, broader definition of ngoma really mean? I think in English one must combine the words “music” and “groove” with a little something extra in order to come close to describing this concept.  The rhythm or drumbeat you are playing forms the heartbeat of a more-or-less living entity, called ngoma, which is the music as a whole. Just like any other living being, if you disrupt its heartbeat too much, ngoma suffers and dies. In Western music composition classes, they talk about giving your ideas “motivic unity” to hold the piece together; in African music composition, they talk about not breaking ngoma.

Downbeat & Upbeat, Kushaura & Kutsinhira

Still, having just a musical heartbeat is not enough to create ngoma, and certainly not enough to make people dance. Once you’ve established a steady main beat, you must next do something that pulls against that beat in order to bring it to life. At the simplest level, this could just be a steady off-beat, like an eighth-note syncopation in Western music, but that would have relatively little pull against the main beat. Instead, complex systems of syncopations and cross-rhythms are used in each different part to continuously create a main, steady beat, as well as many other rhythms pulling against it in different ways. Now, I say “pulling against” the beat as a verbal approximation of what’s going on, but don’t take that phrase to mean there’s any sense of conflict:  the different rhythms work together symbiotically to fill in each other’s gaps, and in truth the most opposite of rhythms are exactly the ones that fit together the best. The whole of ngoma is greater than the sum of its parts, because its parts are so complimentary and opposite to each other.

In Shona, they use the word kushaura to refer to either a style of playing where you’re mostly giving the basic beat or the main melody, or to a part on an instrument that does these things. The word kutsinhira refers to the opposite style, where you are filling in the gaps in the other person’s part by playing mostly off-beats and countermelodies. However, this is different from the Western concept of melody and accompaniment, because each person is literally playing half the notes of the main melody and half the notes of the accompanying melodies at the same time. This produces sounds that are simply impossible to play with just one part, no matter how virtuosic that part may be. The concept of kushaura and kutsinhira reflects other dualisms in the natural world, and relates to the creative processes of life: Subject and object. Yin and yang.  Male and female. In each case, whether it’s to play mbira music or to create a child, two distinctly different (and somewhat opposite) elements must come together in order to create something new that’s distinct from either one of them.

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