Sometimes you come across something that smacks you right in the forehead, something at the back of your mind but never entirely brought out into the light of day. There was something thrilling about the singing I used to hear in the Pentecostal Church on Thursday nights especially. The choir wasn’t there and so when someone was testifying they or someone else would start a song and others would join in. What was different was that when the choir sang, everyone was singing the same notes in the same way. Everything about the choir’s performance was pure Black gospel, but it was different from this more spontaneous outpouring of song arising from the small congregation.
That perception rested there until yesterday when I read this in Simha Arom’s African Polyphony and Polyrhythm on p. 21:
“These are indeed features that characterize heterophony; a melody whose outline is refracted by a kind of halo created by voices that are, relatively, slightly unfocussed, minute variants, the coming and going of dissonances, to all of which is added the overlapping between solo and chorus parts, that Gide very aptly labeled ‘brocading’. Often, in the middle of tis process, one of the singers will sustain the note that he has struck, and thus enrich the sound with an intermittent drone.”
Earlier, same page, Arom quotes Gide, “But imagine this tune yelled by a hundred persons not one of whom sings the exact note. It is like trying to make out the main line from a host of little strokes. The effect is prodigious, and gives an impression of polyphony and of harmonic richness.”
This wording matches the aural impression I received so many times in church but could never articulate nor even notice properly.
While examples of this in Black gospel congregational singing abound, I am sure, the one I can refer you to is