Together – Apart: a view of Western music

Western Europe and West Africa have a lot in common in their musics and musical traditions but are also clearly distinct. Both regions and traditions have enriched each other. So how might we characterize these two traditions? How about this?

European music brings together and African music pulls apart. European music brings notes together into chords and harmonies with rhythm supporting the whole while African music pulls music apart over the extent of a ‘song’ or ‘number’ and then pulls it back together. For Africans, it is the inventiveness of improvisation in pulled the music apart that delights. Reaching all the way down into a music of the African Diaspora deeply formed along European lines, jazz, this approach is seen in the way jazz musicians typically begin a standard song and then proceed to pull apart the chords only to bring them back together at the end.

Underlying all of Diasporan music is the rhythmic practices unique to West African and West Central African musics, called variously “hot rhythm” or “cross rhythms, cross meters”, the latter striking Western European musicians as incredibly complex.

Traditional African music lacks the harmonies of European music and one African popular musician wondered about that. When he invited a traditional Congolese musician to play around on his electric keyboard, the musician played traditional xylophone music on it and the other musician, not finding chords in that, realized that the lack of chordal structure permitted other players to enter into the piece in an improvisational manner, displaying the fact that African music is very social. The idea of a musician and his audience being separate parts of the music-making process is foreign to Africans.

More and more we see deep penetration of each other’s music into the other. Watching audiences in Europe responding to African performers by either playing instruments or simply handclapping and dancing demonstrates the penetration of African rhythmic sensibility into European people, while African choirs and orchestras master the extremely fine techniques of European art music.

Neither tradition seems to be losing anything, but, on the contrary, gaining much.

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