“Rhythm is the soul of life. The whole universe revolves in rhythm. Everything and every human action revolves in rhythm.”

― Babatunde Olatunji
Abstract painting of drummers and dancers moving to a rhythm
Classic Rhythm by the Ghanaian painter Henry Appiah

The Integral Nature of West African Rhythm

So synonymous is rhythm with life and movement, that many sub-Saharan languages, like Igbo, Efik, Hausa and Yoruba, do not have a distinct, disambiguating, readily translatable word for rhythm ― or even for music, in the more binding Western sense. The Malinké manage to hem in the boundless nature of this thing called rhythm with the word foli, its very essence captured in 11 remarkable minutes of sight and sound by filmmakers Thomas Roebers and Floris Leeuwenberg.

Everything is rhythm. Everything, all work, all sound, is rhythm.  Every step we take is rhythm. Every word we speak is rhythm. So we’re all in this rhythm right now. Everything is rhythm. There is no movement without rhythm …

[Script in English]

The Polyrhythmic Texture Of West Africa

The movements of life – concurrent, constant, often discordant – generate sound signatures that are unique to West Africa, especially to Sub-Saharan West Africa.  At the very heart of this region’s metrical and musical tradition is the rich polyrhythmic texture of conflicting rhythms (cross-rhythms), unexpected off-beats (syncopation), repetition (ostinato), and the kind of rhythmic dialogue (call-and-response) that infuses all of African orature.

Rhythm is everywhere – in a foot or dance-step, in the cadence of language, in the tempo of  alternating sounds and silences that a culture musically recreates.

Sources and Further Reading

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