A Rhythmic View: Volume Two

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Usually, the same tuning system is observed within a single village or family. For the Bobo and Bamana tribes, a single-row pentatonic balafon is one of the main musical instruments used in rituals and daily activities. The same type of balafon is used in our workshops and rehearsals, which is built by Youssouf Keita, the builder of the Keita brand. It usually consists of 20 wooden slats made from rosewood and different sizes of natural calabashes as resonators.

After the calabashes are dried and emptied, one to three small holes are cut on the shell with a centimetre in diameter.

by Adilia Yip

These holes are covered by fine membranes to produce buzzing effect. Youssouf usually tunes his instrument in a pentatonic scale on A A—B—C —E—F in Western temperament, resulting in four pentatonic registers. The range and tuning can be tailor-made upon request; for example, Youssouf has made new balafons tuned in a pentatonic C scale for a student.

When Youssouf is tuning the wooden slats, an electronic tuner is used to help fine-tune the correct frequencies of the Western temperament of equal tuning. It is no surprise that he endorses a tempered tuning due to the Western influence; but it is a pity that we can no longer hear the tuning used by the Keita family before Western influence. These acts show us how the Keita family defines the tradition of their instrument: they are little concerned about preserving the original construction and tuning, as a tempered tuning provides more opportunities to collaborate with Western musicians and can result better instrument sales and promoting their music to the Western audience.

Sound is produced by striking the wooden slats with rubber mallets. The rubber mallet is densely wrapped by latex, mounted on a thick wooden stick with a diameter of three centimetres. The contact with the wooden slat is rather supple due to the latex band, which can produce a cushioned impact and a round sound. The two sticks are not necessarily balanced in weight and size. Usually, the left hand takes a slightly softer and bigger mallet, and thus, heavier than that for the right hand. Such mallet is better for sounding the lower notes, so the relatively harder mallet in the right hand can sound clear in the high registers.

In most cases, balafon musicians hold one mallet in each hand and a maximum of two when they want to add more tone colours; in the latter case, usually the upper or lower interval one wooden slat apart is added. There are two ways to hold the sticks: between thumb and forefinger, or between the forefinger and middle finger.

Both ways are acceptable to all balafon musicians I have met so far. But interestingly, the word seems to be absent from African languages. Further, Arthur M. Jones in Studies in African Music London: Oxford University Press, wrote extensively on African rhythm in Ewe music, but reported that hardly any term in the Ewe language is found cognate to rhythm in English.

The International Rhythmic Collection Vol 2 - Alfredo Ortiz

The Mande people are a large family of the ethnic group of West Africa who speak the Mande languages of the region. Mande groups include the Soninke, Bambara Bamana , and Dyula. Instead of using the term rhythm, Youssouf has his own ways to explain the time matter. At first, he played the patterns on the balafon without any references as in Western music — metre, tempo, pulse or any other system that can help us to define the time lapse between each note or the groove of a phrase — and ask us to imitate.

In fact, he illustrates the musical time events by showing the coordination of the hands. Hand coordination becomes a parameter to demonstrate the time lapse. As the balafon patterns are composed of two superimposed melodic lines each line played by one mallet , each melodic line, controlled by one hand, forms a referential common beat to the other. These videos of the song Barica can show the complex rhythmic patterns. Video 1 presents the melody and patterns of the song; Video 2 is the complete version of combining the melody and patterns.

Video 1 The melody and patterns of song Barica. Video 2 The complete performance of Barica. Referring to the schematic illustration of the pattern A of Barica Figure 3 , the polyrhythm is subdivided into cycle duration by the smallest isochronous interval to be timed, and successive taps from either hand on the appropriate beats is plotted on a timeline.


The proper sequencing of the hands is guaranteed because the performer can consciously coordinate the fixed associations between the hands. Figure 3 Schematic illustration of Barica, Pattern A. The upper line is the right hand beatings and the lower line is the left hand. They are plotted on a horizontal axis of milliseconds, the isochronous time interval of the polyrhythm between the left and right hand.

Krampe, R. Kliegl, U. Mayr, R. Engbert and D. In an article by Krampe, Kliegl, Mayr, Engbert and Vorberg, two types of two-hand coordination, or more preferably bimanual control, in the execution of polyrhythms are identified: integrated timing and parallel timing. The authors explain how integrated timing only happens during initial practice at slower tempos. Here, conscious counting is allowed, meaning that the performer can count a sequence of varying interval durations.

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When speeding up, the bimanual technique is switched to parallel timing, and conscious counting becomes difficult. In this situation, the within-hands structure of the polyrhythm lends itself to timing out two isochronous sequences, one for each hand, performing two sequences of short and long durations independently the anisochronous sequence. The perception of playing one syncopated polyrhythm becomes the playing of two anisochronous time sequences respectively and autonomously. Parallel timing is observed when balafon musicians improvise with two-hand coordination technique: each hand holds one mallet, the left hand plays the repetitive skeleton phrases, the right hand can perform improvisation on the rhythmic and melodic themes, or vice versa.

Video 3 Aly Keita performing an improvisation using two-hand coordination in the song Boro.

The sensation of groove is affected by the interaction of rhythmic and harmonic complexity

Surprisingly, the teachers expected the students to comprehend the polyrhythm by listening to the integrated rhythmic layers and observing the physical coordination, but did not ask the students to first analyze the contrapuntal structure and practice each rhythmic layer independently by each hand.

This is one remarkable difference between the balafon and Western music in learning polyrhythm, as the latter always suggests students to delineate contrapuntal layers when learning polyphonic music. However, it is arguable that the balafon musicians ignore the contrapuntal relationship of a polyrhythm, because in two-hand coordination — the advanced independence coordination technique in executing polyrhythm — it is essential to recognize fully the syncopation of each independent rhythmic layer to synchronize the left and right hand.

Interestingly, Youssouf did not consider the regular beat or pulse as a reference to understand time in music. Only reluctantly, he demonstrated the music indicating the pulse after one student explained that this was more effective to Western students. In the song Commis , the teacher showed us a rudimentary drum pattern that sounds like an ornamentation technique in classical percussion. Figure 4 Western notation of flam.

For the naming of melodic materials, the Bobo and Bamana musicians either sing the pitch they would like to express or play the wooden slat; they employ no names, symbols or letters to represent the identical looking wooden slats. Strand reports that in Sambla Baan, the southwest region of Burkina Faso, only 50 kilometres away from Bobo Dioulasso, the wooden slats of the instrument are given names, which may reveal the position of the slat within the scale or its function within a melodic or harmonic context.

Strand, The Sambla Xylophone , pp. Usually, the teachers described the physical distance on the keyboard by indicating the number of wooden slats that the hand has to space out for the next note. These difficulties have led me to metaphorically compare playing a melody on a balafon to two chess pieces jumping and joining different points tactically on a game board. As with learning rhythm, students learn melodic patterns by listening and imitating; only when more explanation is needed, do the teachers demonstrate the hand coordination slowly and repeatedly.

By interviewing musicians of popular music, i. In another study, Johansson investigated the strategies used by rock musicians to identify unfamiliar guitar chord progressions. He suggested that ear playing is learned by doing it; a musician has to understand the music styles thoroughly, or embodied, so that he or she feels the chord progressions and formulas on an instrument and knows in what styles they are used, and the contexts in these styles. A kinetic approach involving the coordination of both hands seems to be at the heart of learning the practice. From the lessons with the African musicians, the embodied movement becomes one visual representation to help communicating timing and melodic concepts, revealing the music in two dimensions: the vertical movement in the air represents time lapse and the horizontal spatial movement represents the melodic pattern.

Video 4 The top view of playing on the balafon, which clearly shows the horizontal spatial movement of a melodic pattern. Song Kebini performed by Youssouf Keita. In spite of breaking up lengthy melodic patterns into groups of five notes, the teachers devised no specific method to help the students to digest the long phrase.

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