African responses to the “beat” of machinery

Recently I went to dinner with relatives and one boy of 15 was there. As he walked to the table, he was dancing and I realized he was dancing to an irregular beat, supplying his own underlying pattern. The beat, it turned out, was a large, industrial bread-making machine. The whop-whop of the paddle provided the irregular pattern to which he was supplying the underlying pattern.

That immediately brought to mind Marshall Stearn’s book The Story of Jazz in which he recounts the “apocryphal” tale of Congolese natives dancing to the beats of an ill-tuned generator engine.

Last night (4/23/10) on npr, Nick Spitzer of American Routes had an interview with a member of the Meadors, a funk band out of New Orleans. The musician described how they were riding in a vehicle with a piston problem. That created a beat that they began to imitate and they eventually wrote a song based on that beat.

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