Music of sub-Saharan Africa is extremely rich, colorful and diverse. This covers a region of fifty different nations, each with its own musical traditions and languages. Music plays an important role in African society and is used to communicate many different feelings and emotions. Music is nearly always part of any social gathering, be it to celebrate the harvest, a birthday, wedding, funeral or even a gathering of chiefs. On all these occasions, the music is often combined with speech and dance as well as vibrant costumes to produce exciting and dramatic performances.
In 'Yiri', there is a strong emphasis on dance. Music is frequently linked to movement, regarded as an important mode of communication - as important as the music itself. Dancers dress in vividly colored costumes replete with body painting and elaborate masks. Stories may also be related through body actions and mime. African music falls broadly into three strands:
- choral song (tribal music)
- instrumental music
Features of African Music
Several common elements can be identified in the different types of African music, ranging from the drumming to the singing and the instrumental pieces.
- Repetition - Restatement of a section of music. This might just be a few notes or a whole section of music.
- Improvisation - Music is made up spontaneously without the use of written musical notation. With Yiri, the music was later noted by a recording known as transcription.
- Polyphony - Texture featuring two or more parts, each having a melody or rhythm line and sounding together creating a multi-layered texture.
- Call and Response - Where a soloist sing or 'calls' and is followed by a group answering phrase.
Drums are probably the most widely played instrument in Africa. In African music, drum is considered to be the most important of all instruments. It has been a means of communication, with a certain rhythm patterns meaning different things, e.g. slow beat - sad occasion. Drum are also used to call people together for important community events. Different drum beats are used for different events. Most African drum music is passed on through the oral tradition.
Main types of drums:
- Djembe - Single-head instrument shaped like a large goblet and played with bare hands. Body is carved from a hollowed trunk and is covered in goat skin. Size of the drum affects its pitch - smaller drums are higher pitched.
- Dundun - Double-headed cyndrical drums played with sticks. There's a drum skin at each end so they are played horizontally.
- Donno ('talking drum') - Held under the arm, played with the hand. Strings around the sides attach to the drumhead. Drum can be sued to send messages over long distances as the pitch can be changed to mimic ordinary speech.
African Drumming (cont.)
Different sounds can be made on these drums using different playing techniques. For example:
- playing hands on the skin of the drum - different sounds are made when the fingers are open or closed
- playing hands on the wooden edge of the drum
- using sticks to create a sharp staccato sound
- stretching the drum membrane to produce a range of pitches, particularly on the donno
African Music Performance
African music is not normally written down but passed on through oral tradition. Music played by drum ensembles is very complex in rhythm and texture. The master drummer in the centre of the ensemble has the most elaborate part, leading the drum ensemble and playing solos. He signals to other players when he is ready to start, often with a vocal cry then giving them musical cues in the form of rhythm patterns. Rhythm patterns interlock and overlap to form polyrhythmic patterns (when two or more rhythms with different pulses are heard together) and exciting cross-rhythms (effect produced when two conflicting rhythms are heard together).
West African drumming often uses timeline, a short repeated rhythmoften played by the master drummer and there may also be a percussion rattle or bells, the most common being the agogo bells.
Music usually increases in tension as the piece progresses, and sections and the tempo and dynamics will vary providing interest and variety in the music. Some performances can take up to five hours or even longer. As well as solo drumming spots, which give the individual players a chance to show off their skills of improvisation, there is often movement and dance.
African Choral Singing
Sub-Saharan musical traditions are centred around singing. Many Africans believe that music serves as a link to the spirit world. Singing is a vital part of everyday life and is heard at religious ceremonies, rituals and celebrations. Singing unites whole tribal communities and everyone takes a part, regardless of ability.
Songs provide a means of communication. African languages are tone languages - pitch level (high or low) determines the actual meaning of the words. Therefore, melodies and rhythms can be made to fit in pitch outlines to match the meanings and speed rhythms of the words of the song.
African singing often includes glissandos (slides which are sometimes known as portamento) and slurs, whistles, yodels and swoops. Melodies are usually organized within a scale of four, five, six, or seven notes. They tend to use small melodic intervals and often use recurring patterns and descending phrases.
Common Features of African Songs
- Basic form of songs is call and response where one singer sings a line and the whole group then makes a vocal reply
- Melodies are usually short and simple and repetitive, and usually in a scale of only four, five, six or seven different tones
- Melodies can be changed at will by other singers, so that variations of the same theme are heard
- Performers often improvise new melodies while other singers continue the original melody, and it is common to have different melodies sounding simultaneously resulting in polyphonic textures
- Music can often be sung in rounds - for example, in Zulu choral music, individual voices enter at different points in a continuous cycle, overlapping in a complex and ever-changing musical texture
- Harmony, which will vary from tribe to tribe. In some communities, voices sing only in unison or parallel octaves, with the odd fourth or fifth. However other groups will freely harmonise in thirds or fourths and can even sing in two or three different parts
African Instrumental Music
The many different types of drum are called membranophones (because they have a skin). Idiophones (resonant/solid) Aerophones (wind) Chordophones (strings)
Rattles (shakers) Ocarinas Lutes (kora)
Mbira (thumb piano) Panpipes Lyres
Xylophones (balaphones) Horns (from animal tusks) Musical bows
Clap sticks Trumpets (wood, metal)
Slit gongs Pipes (single and double reeds)
Stamping tubes Whistle
Body percussion is also used, which includes hand clapping and foot stamping, as well as vocacl effects such as shoutings and other vocables (vowel sounds such as 'eh', 'ah', 'oh').
Instruments are selected for performance according to the nature and mood of the instrumental music or song. These instruments have more complex tuning systems than used in vocal music and are capable of playing quite demanding rhythms and melodies.
Xylophones (balaphones) are one of the most common African instruments. These African instruments are made in several different sizes, providing a wide range of pitches from the deep resonant bass notes up to the high pitches of the smaller xylophones. Wooden bars are set on a framework, and to allow the bars to vibrate and resound, a membrane is needed between the bars and the frame.African instruments use naturally occurring materials such as orange peel.
Common Features of African Instrumental Music
- Repetition (including ostinato)
- Cyclic structures
- Polyphonic textures
- Intertwining melodies
Background to 'Yiri'
Musicians in the group Koko:
· Madou Kone: vocals, balaphone, flute
· Sydou Traore: vocals, balaphone
· Jacouba Kone: djembe
· Francois Naba: vocals, tam-tam, dundun, maracas
· Keresse Sanou: talking drums
· Tidiane Hema: vocals maracas
'Yiri' comes from Burkino Faso, landlocked nation in West Africa, surrounded by other countries: Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire. Burkino translates as 'men of integrity' and Faso means 'father's house', and inhabitants are called Burkinabe.
Themes in music from Burkino Faso conjure up some of mankind's greatest battles in life, including the fight for survival and looking after the environment. Music focuses on creation, community celebrations and friendships.
Background to 'Yiri' (cont.)
In the set work there are three clear strands:
- Balaphone ostinati - these produce a complex polyphonic texture
- Drum ostinati - they play a relentless one-bar pattern (albeit with a little variation at the beginning of the bar of two semiquavers-quaver-two semiquavers-quaver)
- Vocal line - simple pentatonic call and response structure
· G♭major – emphasized throughout by repetition of the tonic note of G♭, an example of which is found in the treble balaphone part, bars 17-18
· Repetition of the tonic helps to emphasize key signature of the piece
· Hexatonic, based on a six note scale
· Occurs mainly between balaphones and voices – emphasizes melody but not overly complicated to distract from drumming
· Voices rarely sing in harmony, mostly sing in unison
· Monophonic texture at the beginning – introduces piece
· Bars 11-12 – Heterophonic texture as the contours of the melody are roughly the same
· Bars 58-60 – Polyphonic texture created by voices and balaphones playing cross rhythms
Koko: 'Yiri' (cont.)
· Unvaried throughout as drums play an ostinato throughout
· Variation in the rhythms played by balaphones in bars 22-24
· Vocals sing cross-rhythms
· Little variation in dynamics
· Created through variation in textures
· At the beginning, free tempo for balaphone solo
· Bar 8 – changes to ‘moderato’ and for the remainder of the piece it is constant and unvaried
· Metre is constant throughout
· Bars 68-69 – Balaphone melody is accented in threes, giving the impression of a change in metre