Monday, November 17, 2008

Tricky Beats: Polyrhythm, Part 1

Yoruba musicians with talking drums

I’ve been waiting a long time for the right theme, so I could share some world music with everyone. Now, the time has come.

In western music, notes are layered with other notes to form harmony. Over time, we have developed counter melodies and other levels of complexity in our harmony techniques. In Western Africa, the native music features simple melodies and almost no harmony at all. But the rhythm is quite another matter.

Where we layer notes and melodic lines, the musicians of western Africa layer rhythms. Many drums and rhythm instruments are needed, and sometimes each one plays in a different time signature, all at the same time. It sounds like it should be chaotic, but, once you get used to hearing it, the results are amazing. This is polyrhythm. Some of the finest practitioners of polyrhythmic music in Africa are the Yoruba people of Nigeria and nearby countries.

Babatunde Olatunji: Jin-Go-Lo-Bah


In the 1950s, Harry Belefonte traveled all over the world, and brought his musical discoveries to American audiences. One of these was Babatunde Olatunji. Olatunji brought the sounds of traditional Yoruban drumming to the United States, and released a series of albums here. “Jin-Go-Lo-Bah” comes from the first of these American releases, Drums of Passion Many jazz musicians have cited Olatunji’s music as an inspiration.

King Sunny Ade: Ja Funmi


Fast forward thirty years, and music has changed. On American radio, “Heartbreak Hotel” has been replaced by “Rapture”. In Nigeria, there have also been changes. Western popular music has reached all over the world, and native musicians have incorporated these sounds into there work. And so, the traditional Yoruban music has evolved.

This evolution took two main forms. The leading figure in the afro-beat style was Fela Kuti. And the leading figure in juju music was and is King Sunny Ade. Of the two styles, juju music is the one that best preserves the polyrhythmic features of the traditional material. In juju, some of the drums from a traditional ensemble are replaced with electric guitar, synthesizer, even slide guitar. The resulting music has a more delicate sound, but is just as rhythmically complex.

I hope everyone enjoyed part 1 of my look at polyrhythm. In part 2 later this week, we’ll see what happened when polyrhythm came to America.

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