African Music Concepts
by Norm Bergeron
The study of African musical systems holds an incredible wealth for
the modern percussion educator and band director. In the average grade
school band room, the band director often has to work with other sections
of the band while the percussionists sit idle. When the percussion
section is then asked to rejoin the ensemble they frequently have
difficulty staying in time, keeping their place in parts that are
very repetitious, or holding on to a groove where the bass drum, snare
drum, and cymbals have non-unison parts. Specifically there are four
African musical concepts that will help to foster and develop solid
foundations of time, feel, groove and ensemble playing while improving
listening and memory skills. These concepts are rote learning, repetition,
hocketing and call and response.
Rote learning is the most commonly used teaching method in the non-Western
world. It is an oral and aurally based system of learning that helps
to develop a student's critical listening and memory skills. Rote
learning, in its truest form, exists without written notation. Each
part is taught to the student by an elder musician who was taught
by a master musician years before. Initially, the student listens
as the teacher sings a part in onomatopoeic syllables and then responds
by singing it back. For example, the jazz ride cymbal rhythm could
be taught as "spang spang-a-lang spang-a-lang" or "door shut-the-door
shut-the-door." Eventually, he or she must listen as the teacher plays
a part on the drum while watching the teacher's hands in order to
learn not only the rhythm but also the sticking and overall technique.
The concept of rote learning is easily applied to the following three
concepts as well as any other music in which the overall feel or groove
cannot be displayed on the written page.
Hocketing is the process of combining simple interlocking parts in
order to create a complex whole. The players of a hand bell choir
and the bass drummers of a modern marching bass line create melodies
through the process of hocketing. Each part played individually has
no identifiable rhythmic or melodic meaning, but when put together
in an ensemble the group can create melodies and complex grooves.
The Oom-pah beat with the bass drum on beats one and three and the
snare drum on beats two and four is a simple form of hocketing. Here
are some examples (these should be taught using the rote method):
A great exercise for utilizing this concept is to have the students
go clockwise in a circle, each clapping the next beat (in time).
At the heart of most African musical systems is the concept of repetition
with only subtle variation. Upon first listening to a West African
drumming ensemble or an Afro-Cuban rumba group, one is often struck
with either the notion that the same parts are being played over and
over again with no apparent change or that the entire groove is in
a constant state of alteration and transition. After some critical
listening, however, one notes that even as the groove is unfailing
there are minute and subtle changes happening in nearly every part
of the ensemble. These subtle changes have a profound effect on the
overall feel or groove. A handful of simple rhythms, each with one
simple variation, played for extended periods of time will help students
begin to understand how a groove works. For example, using the rote
method and noting the inherent hocketing of the patterns, one could
teach students the following simple rhythms and corresponding variations.
The teacher must stress that the main rhythms are the most important
to the overall groove and the variations are merely additions.
For more advanced groups one could experiment with these rhythms and
variations, taken from an Ewe style of drumming called "Gahu," again
noting the hocketing and utilizing the rote method to convey them
to the students:
the most important of the African musical concepts is that of call
and response. The most basic form of call and response is mimicry
and is directly related to rote learning. The students respond to
phrases of a determined length by mimicking the teacher's call. By
starting with one or two beat phrases and gradually working up to
two and four bar mimicry, students will be working on critical listening
skills while expanding short term memories.
A more complex form of call and response is the static response, wherein
the students reply to the teacher's ever changing call with one set
response. The challenge here lies in the potential complexity of the
teachers' calls. If the teacher begins playing calls that banish the
downbeat or are highly syncopated, the students must rely on their
burgeoning internal clocks to insure timely entrances.
most complex form of call and response utilizes a vocabulary of calls,
each with its own set response. The student must play the appropriate
response to each and every call.
teacher can keep it exciting and challenging by increasing the overall
vocabulary, increasing the length of the calls and responses, and
by randomly choosing the order of calls. Brazilian Samba recordings
are a great place to hear amazing examples of all three of the call
and response varieties.
These African musical concepts have direct application for entire
band programs as well as percussion sections. After all, each of these
concepts has found its way into popular music. The music of Count
Basie and James Brown are perfect examples of rote leaning, subtle
variation, hocketing and call and response.