Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Temporal Geometries of an African Music: A Preliminary Sketch

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Temporal Geometries of an African Music: A Preliminary Sketch

Article excerpt

Introduction: Rehabilitating Rhythm

[1] This paper is a brief and preliminary sketch culled from a much larger study that describes and defines geometric perspectives of temporal patterning in various musical genres found in southern Africa. Of particular interest for this study is the music of the lamellaphone-type, including that of the njari, the mbira, the matepe, and the kalimba, found in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. This paper will focus on one of these lamellaphones, the mbira dza vadzimu, played by the Zezuru people of Mashonaland East. First, I will introduce and demonstrate some elementary ambiguities of meter-formation in the rhythmic figures of mbira music; second, describe the basic kinesthetic processes that underlie these figures; and third, suggest a conceptual affinity these rhythmic processes have with the cross-penetrating symmetries and near-symmetries that characterize harmonic patterning in these musics. By focusing on rhythmic patterns and their relationship to both kinesthetic motor movements and abstract harmonic ones-effectively oscillating between an understanding of this music as embodied material practice no less than formal conceptualization-this intervention hopes to expand the coordinates of the field of African music theory. While the analyses are largely grounded in a well-established "Western" theory of rhythm and meter, this theory is frequently expanded or revised to capture otherwise unassimilable details of the music. In the final analysis, the point is as much to challenge as to embrace the theory in the context of non-Western modes of music-making. Most music-theoretical literature on mbira music (with a few notable exceptions) limits its analytic findings to general observations. To the extent that music theory is engaged at all, most analyses of traditional African music examine aspects of rhythm alone, such as interlocking performance techniques, asymmetric melodic lines, polyrhythmic interlacing of parts, shifting metric downbeats, and inherent patterns. Indeed, there is an impressive literature on African rhythmic processes; including technical analytic excursions (Locke 1987 and Anku 1992), theories grounded in anthropological narrative (Jones 1959 and Chernoff 1979) and even political critique of the very elevation of rhythmic complexity as a peculiarly African musical trait (Agawu 2003, Scherzinger 2003). For all this methodological richness, the overarching preoccupation with rhythm-figured as an autonomous musical parameter-simultaneously marks a kind of deaf spot in the literature. For example, there is very little scholarly work involving non-rhythmic aspects of African music, such as pitch spaces or pitch processes (melody, harmony, counterpoint, etc.), and still less work on the relation between pitch processes and rhythm.

[2] It would be easy to claim, in a quick pseudo-Orientalist way, that this one-sided textual production is simply the ideological legitimization of a kind of racialist 'Africanism'; an exotic invention of rhythmic complexity that maps onto geopolitical zones of economic exclusion and cultural difference. Kofi Agawu, for example, has amply described the ways African rhythm is invented in scholarly discourse, linking this default perspective with an a priori projection of Africa's cultural difference from the West (Agawu 2003, 55-70). Resisting the tendency to keep the African aboriginal in a state of excluded cultural conformity, this position recommends de-exoticizing African cultural practice by emphasizing its points of affinity (instead of difference) with Western practice. This is an important critique, but it bears the marks of another kind of limit in the current scholarly context, which has substantially expanded its horizons. In the last two decades non-Western musics have been demonstrably mainstreamed and canonized in both academic and popular cultural circles in the United States.

[3] Instead of adding to the critique of the ideological valences in Western discourse about African rhythm, this paper aims to recognize, retrieve, and rehabilitate the dimension of rhythm in African music without disavowing the political concerns raised by the critique. …

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