Time, Science, and Society in China and the West

By J. T. Fraser; N. Lawrence et al. | Go to book overview
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The Shape of Time in African Music

Ruth M. Stone

The time is now.
All days are not equal.

Summary For a century, comparative musicologists and ethnomusicologists studying African music have marveled at and speculated about the rhythms by which performers organize their musicmaking. This study examines the implicit ideas of temporality in the work of these scholars, relating these ideas to broader concepts of African time and suggesting that their configuration represents an alternative to Western linear quantitative time. While the focus is song time, other time levels are briefly considered as they relate to song time: event time, biographical time, life-cycle time, stylistic time, and historical time.

The study of African rhythm seized the imagination of scholars from the earliest European scrutiny of African music, and an important issue has been the search for an organizing principle. Whether identified as the downbeat of the big drum by W. E. Ward, the motor activity of the body by Erich M. von Hornbostel, the metronome sense by Richard Waterman, or handclapping by A. M. Jones, all assume an underlying equally spaced beat or pulse, as Alan P. Merriam aptly pointed out. Such an assumption should not surprise us because Western clock time, as well as much Western art music of the eighteenth through early twentieth centuries, is based upon the homogeneous division of time.

During my own research of Kpelle music in West Africa, particularly the Wọi* epic, I determined that the idea of a single organizing beat with equally divisible units is quite obscure in Kpelle conceptualization. A multiplex basis appears to ground the organization for the Kpelle.

Recent work on hemiola, inherent rhythms, the time line, mnemonic syllables, and transaction suggests that African music emphasizes qualitative over quantitative elements, the delineation of a three-dimensional space, and motion. A consideration of other aspects of time in African societies supports such conclusions.

African music compels not only the people who create it, but also those scholars who have tried to study it. The rhythm--apparently special and unusual--arrests our attention as we wonder how these artists achieve such constellations of sound, of movement. In this paper I will explore both scholarly and indigenous concepts used to explain time in African music and identify the most interesting and powerful ideas in light of data available. I will argue that African rhythm is organized on a multiplex basis derived from a motion-filled, threedimensional spatial conceptualization with a qualitative focus.

African musical performance is an exciting and often dazzling mélange of singing, dancing, speaking, masquerading, and acting. In a closely intertwined event these modes of communication fuse in a way that makes it difficult to separate and analyze. Ethnomusi

In the orthography, = o, = η, y = λ and & = ε is pronounced "aw" as in awful, is pronounced "ng" as in sing; & is pronounced "ch" as in the German ach; & is pronounced "eh" as in let.


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