Monday, August 17, 2009

Pranks and Pragmatism

Some excerpts from "African Rhythm and African Sensibility" by John Miller Chernoff.

African drumming is renowned for the ability to express the tonal structure of their spoken languages, to the point where rhythms are imbued with complex semantics. A great illustration:

During my first day practicing with Gideon, I was following him well until he suddenly performed a rather complicated series of rhythms and then went back to the basic rhythm he was showing me. A few minutes later a man who passed at that moment returned with two bottles of beer. (p 75)

There is a short passage discussing the difference between "false meaning" and "intended meaning", due to a prank:

Ibrahim Abdulai's son Alhassan, who was assisting in my instruction displayedgreat ingenuity duringan extended prank in which he tried to confude me in my work by inventing false meanings to fit many rhythms in Takai [a dance/beat from the Dagomba in northern Ghana]. Many of the rhythmic styles a Takai drummer beats are played only to make the music more interesting, but the language Alhassan supplied matched the rhythms so perfectly that I began to think Ibrahim was withholding the meanings. When I persisted in my questions, he said, "We have a general name for the whole Takai drumming, but only a few of the rhythms have names. In Zhem [another Dagomba dance/beat, played "during the "installation or funeral of high chiefs"], all the drummers will be making speeches, but in Takai the rhythms are mainly to make the dancers strong. The name given Takai is for the different rhythms combined together, and all the rhythms are equal. Anyone who wants to tell you words for these rhythms is lying. Anytime I want, I can just listen to the sound of the dondon [an hourglass-shaped talking drum] or gondon [sic? "gongon"] and compare the music to something in the Dagbani language [of the Dagomba], but it is not the same as making speeches. As for the styles you have been learning, I am the one who has been bringing all these styles when drumming Takai, and I am the right person to give them meaning, but I have no name for them. So how can another person give them meaning or say that this style says this or that style says that while I was not making speeches when I got those very styles?" (p 76)

Another example is given of a "false meaning" for a dance, Bangumanga, that is regularly accepted by "junior players":

The drum language is Bem bo ma, be pam boma je ("They will search for me, but they will not see me"). One false meaning is Man daa yeli, mam bi lan yeli ("I said it; I don't say it again"). The meaning is a "secret" because of the seriousness of the war. In its truth, Bangumanga recalls the blood that was shed in the war... (p 206)

Sometimes the meaning of rhythms is simple misunderstood.

If you play gagedega instead of gagedegi when executing a phrase on Atsimewu [a tall drum that acts as a lead], or if you miss the pitch when beating a dondon, you may have a more serious mistake than you think. Indeed, one of the reasons why repetition is so important in African music is that repetition of a rhythm often serves to clarify its meaning. When rhythms change too abruptly, the music can lose some of its meaning... (p 80-81)

This tendency to court misinterpretation can be heard just by listening to the complex polyrhythms of any West African dance:

The effect of polymetric music is as if the different rhythms were competing for our attention. No sooner do we grasp one rhythm than we lose track of it and hear another. In something like Adzogbo or Zhe, it is not easy to find any constant beat at all. The Western conception of a main beat or pulse seems to disappear, and a Westerner who cannot appreciate the rhythmic complications and who maintains his habitual listening orientation quite simply gets lost. [...] Actually, if we try to apply Western notions of bars and time signatures, the music seems much more complicated than it really is. [...] The individual rhythms are simple, but the way they are combined can be confusing to Westerners. (p 46-47)
I see these stories as beautiful metaphors for, and examples of:
  • Information having a noisy character (the beer story)
  • The difference between intention in sending and receiving
  • Our ability to find structures that have a different cause than we expect
  • Repetition as the foundation of meaning, a type of contextualization that allows us to separate "signal" from noise
  • The interaction of repetitions producing more complex structures than the sum of their parts (in the case of polyrhythms, it's their least common multiple)
  • Our ability to misunderstand a system based on the wrong contextualization (the last example of Westerners misunderstanding polyrhythms)
  • Combinatorial music in general

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