For years I treasured any little snippet of filmed African music performance. There were a few videos, like the one of the Dagomba of northern Ghana. Very rare were such gems.
Then one day recently (yes, I’m a troglodyte, hiding from technology in my cave) I noticed something titled Nigerian Wedding. I thought it was a lot of fun until I noticed on the right of the screen a series of thumbnails of Nigerians not just in traditional dress (some at the weddings were in traditional “garb”) but in traditional settings. When I clicked on them I found, incredibly, performances by dundun groups. Exploring more, I found the music of many ethnic groups, some modern, some traditional, some in between.
As I listen to these and read books on African and African-American music, I am constantly awed by the interwoven complexity of the music and the flavored use of language to describe it. A.M. Jones, Chernov, Kiel, Charters, Sublette, Nketia, Leroi Jones, and so many more I’ve read over the years. As I have more time, after retirement, I’m going to hunt down Fernando Ortiz’ five volume work Los Instrumentos de la Musica Afrocubana, still available in the ASU library to check out! Many other books he wrote as well, all stemming from his early, racist-inspired treatment of Black criminal gangs in Cuba. On investigating them, he discovered instead a deep cultural heritage not only of Cubans of African descent but of all Cubans. This was not a popular view in Cuba, although I’m sure now that both Cubans and Cuban exiles revere his name just like we name streets after King.
By playing, listening to instructional recordings and to recordings of the music, I’ll be able to penetrate this music to some degree. And now, thanks to YouTube, I can watch the music being played. But not much can be more awe-inspiring than the writing of A.M. Jones where he has his Ewe master drummer, Mr. Tay, write out the “nonsense” syllables by which drummers convey the patterns and then watches in amazement as he sees a poem made of couplets reveal itself. And all of this is spontaneous improvisation.
The secret of the patterns is that they are joined together in additive meter so that the instrumentalists can shift them around to make a constantly changing kalaidoscope of rhythms. I want to get inside that just as I want to get inside the ghazals of Urdu and the grammar of Greek.