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In this lesson, explore the musical traditions of West Africa and discover how rhythms and melodies interact to create a complex song structure. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Music of West Africa

West Africa features West African music. No surprise, huh? Yeah, you could dance to it, and you should. Really, you have to! In the European-based musical traditions, we think of things like instrumental music, singing, and dancing as separate things, but that’s not the case everywhere.

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In West Africa, for example, dancing is inseparable from other parts of musical performance.So, as you can guess, West African music is, in some ways, a bit different from what we’re used to. In other ways, it’s pretty similar, and that’s because traditional West African music played a major role in the Afro-Caribbean songs that eventually moved to the United States and became jazz music. So, some of it may sound familiar.

But, really, as long as it’s got a beat and you can dance to it – that’s what it’s all about.

Rhythm

Now, West Africa is a large place, and its full of diverse people with diverse musical traditions, so we’re obviously not going to be able to cover all of it. In general, however, West African music can be characterized by two things. The first is rhythm, a repeated pattern in music and the defining aspect of West African music.West African songs are polyrhythmic, which means that they feature two or more conflicting rhythms. Traditional European music has one main rhythm, not the case in West Africa.

These songs create layers of distinct rhythms on top of each other.The most common form of polyrhythmic structure in this region is called the cross-rhythm, which is characterized by the hemiola, a rhythmic pattern where three beats are played over two beats in the same space. It is the most common form of cross-rhythm found throughout West Africa, but again, this is a simple beat by African standards. We start with the hemiola, then build more rhythms on top of it.So, how do we create these layers of complex, juxtaposed rhythms? Well, for one thing, percussion instruments are pretty important to West African music. We’ve got shakers, rattles, tambourines, cymbals, sticks, and, of course, drums. Two of the most common types of drums are the djembe and the talking drum, so called because the musician can actually control the pitch to mimic the sounds of the human voice, which is pretty cool.

Drums are pretty important to West African music, but these musicians actually use another instrument as well to create polyrhythmic songs: their bodies. This is where dance comes in. Clapping and stepping are often used to create one or more layers of the rhythm. For example, in the hemiola, that pattern of three beats over beats of two, traditionally the feet are used to keep the primary beat, while the hands play the secondary beat on an instrument. See what I mean about dance and music being inseparable?

Melody

Rhythm is one of the defining traits of West African music. The other is the use of melody, or the main musical theme.

Traditionally, West African songs do not place much focus on harmonies, the underlying notes to support a melody, they just have simple melodies. The melodies are intentionally simple because of the structure of West African songs.So, you’ve got your juxtaposed rhythms. On top of this you add on a call and response melody in which a leader creates a melody and everyone else repeats it back. In the traditional West African song called the Kye Kye Kule, the leader sings out the melody and the listeners repeat it. That’s the most common structure West African melodies take.With this basic structure, music can start to get interesting.

The music takes basic components and builds on top of them to create something really unique. You start with a basic polyrhythmic pattern from people drumming and dancing, add on several more conflicting rhythms, toss in some basic melodies, and maybe a leader setting out simple call and response melodies. West African harps and guitars can add melodies, but generally melodies are created by singing.And now, you get to add on improvisation: the top layer of the song.

Improvised rhythms and melodies are a big part of West African music and are performed by a soloist who can sing, drum, whatever to add this top level. Improvised singing often includes more than just what we think of as singing, but also whistles, yells, trills, hoots, etc. There’s no need to limit what’s allowed – that goes against the entire spirit of African music. So, at the end of the day, this is what you’ve got.

Lesson Summary

The music of West Africa is characterized by two main aspects: rhythm and melody. The rhythm is generally the most important, and West African songs are polyrhythmic featuring two or more conflicting rhythms.

The most common form of polyrhythm in West Africa is the cross-rhythm made from repeating hemiolas, or patterns of three beats played over two beats in the same space. Rhythms are often played by percussion instruments, but also from the sounds of dancing.Melodies can be performed on African harps or guitars, but are most commonly carried by voice.

The typical pattern here is the call and response in which a leader creates a melody and everyone else repeats it back. On top of this, many songs also encourage a leader to improvise new rhythms or melodies, allowing for the use of whistling, cheering, clapping, stomping, whooping, or pretty much anything else the soloist feels like. That’s the spirit of African music – no restrictions, just freedom, expression, and a beat you can dance to!

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