Across time: a favored distortion

Many decades ago I read and heard about the practice in West Africa of drilling a small hole in the shell of a drum and placing a spider web in it. As the resonating sound came through the shell when the drum head or side of the drum were hit, some air would be diverted through that hole and the spider web would vibrate, producing a pleasing sound. The few examples I heard sounded to me like distortions and I was not crazy about it.
Recently, I heard on Afro-Pop a musician explain to an interviewer the reason for the massed giant speakers at outdoor musical events. He said loud sound denotes power in his culture. But as I listened to the distorted sound, I was reminded of the spider web and wondered if the true underlying appeal of the sound were the same as that of the web.
Then I thought about the Kinshasa sound called Congotronics, which came out in 2004. It had a similar distortion, the instruments, many traditional like the likembe, amplified from car batteries and other discarded automotive parts (I once played a brake drum at a jamaican party and brake drums make fantastic “gankogui” or cow bells), emitting a vibrating, distorting sound. To my surprise, on top 40 numbers played at the gym, I heard this same sound and could not figure out how rock and roll musicians would have replicated this sound until I read about the Kasai Allstars and how their music, similar to or the same as Congotronics, was picked up by several avant-garde rock bands. Amazing how something like that can spread so fast.

So my question is how much of the sound distortion is due to this concept of power and how much due to the West African predilection for that buzzing (and, to me, irritating) sound?


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