Pestles against mortars, axes against wood, the rattling of loom shuttles, and the gasps of billows all set the tempo, the cadenced backdrop, for traditional West African music. And its distinctive sensibilities— its polyrhythmic textures, its call and response mechanisms, its bent tonalities — have shaped musical aesthetics well-beyond its borders.
West African Instruments
The pulse of a culture is made palpable through the instruments it produces and plays, through its vibrating strings, its throbbing percussions, its mellifluous woodwinds, and, in the case of West Africa, through the iconic cross-beats and off-beats* that it ultimately creates.
Nature provides West Africa with the perfect amplifier: the acoustic resonance of a hollowed-out calabash intensifies the vibrations of the Mandé kora, a double-bridged harp, the Jola akonting, a banjo-like lute, the Hausa goje, a bowed, two-stringed fiddle, or Dagaaba, Sambla and Malinké xylophones, the gyil, baan, and balafon respectively.
Even the naturally-resonant hollow of a conical vine found in the Fouta Djalon highlands of Guinea anticipates, intrinsically, the multiphonics of a tambin, the flute of the Fula.
Meanwhile, the tension of goat or antelope skin, stretched, pegged, and interlaced to a hardwood shell, sets the timbre and tone of the Ashanti atumpan, talking drums, of the traditionally ceremonial, double-headed Yoruba batá, or of the iconic, crowd-assembling djembé [Bambara: djè, “gather”; bɛɛ, “all”].
The Rhythm of the Drums
Then impressive idiophones like the Beninese alounloun, an iron and ringed stamping stick, the Yoruba shekere, a cowrie-covered gourd-shaker, or the clanging gankogui of the Ewe chime in. Strapped to ankles, clenched in hands —scraped, struck, stamped, or shaken — the rattles, clappers, gongs, and bells† of West Africa add elaborate layers of “contrasting rhythmic patterns representing the very complex fabric of life itself”.1
Life, itself, vibrates with conflicting rhythms. The unexpected metrical accents of West African music and the characteristic instruments and voices that create them, amplify this, as if powerful, far-ranging, cross-generational resonators themselves.
- *The characteristic syncopation of West African music involves a shifting of the normal accent, unexpectedly stressing what is typically an unaccented beat.
- †[Video] Bells, from Forge to Festival. See our Blacksmith Article.
From the integral nature of West African rhythm to the resonating voice of the griot, our exploration into the soundscape, unique to this region of the world, continues:
Sources and Further Reading
- 1.Peñalosa D, Greenwood P. The Clave Matrix: Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins. Redway, CA, USA: Bembe Books; 2012.
- 2.Recorded and Sampled, the Sounds of Traditional West Africa. Native Instruments. https://www.native-instruments.com/en/products/komplete/world/west-africa/.