Centres of Polyphony

Sub-Saharan Africa

It would be quite safe to say that sub-Saharan Africa is the biggest and the most active polyphonic region of the world. Although generalizations are always volatile and it is always better to avoid them, I would say that there is hardly a musical tradition is sub-Saharan Africa that does not employ a vigorous group musical activity.
“All African melodies are constructed upon harmonic background” declared arguably the first influential native African musicologist George Ballanta (Ballanta, 1926:10). Of course, the bold generalizations like this are almost always to be found incorrect, and these words are often cited in ethnomusicological scholarly publications as one of Ballanta’s obvious inaccuracies (Nketia, 1998:20).

There is a certain historical importance in these words though, acknowledging the immense importance of part-singing in African traditional music. “To some extent, most people in African communities are expected to perform music and dance at a basic level. Performing is considered as normal as speaking. In many areas, social puberty is marked by singing and dancing, as young people display their accomplishments in token of their maturation” (Stone, 1998:8).

Performance practice in most of African societies can be considered as a social model of traditional polyphonic performance, where all the members of society are actively involved in the process of performance, without any division of the society on “performers” and “listeners”. Going to the music performance is a different experience for native Africans in Africa than for most of the Europeans in Western Europe. “People do not go to ‘listen music’, they make music together” (Arom, 1991:15). Alan Merriam write that in Africa the “Distinction between the artist and his audience … are not so sharply drawn as in our own [European] culture. In some parts of Africa the cultural expectation involves almost everyone as potentially equal in musical ability, although this is not the case everywhere” (Merriam, 1962:129). In some sub-Saharan traditional societies there is no profession of a musician at all (see for example, Arom, 1991:12).
Before we discuss the type of polyphony in sub-Saharan Africa, we must mention two very important aspects of African traditional musical culture: (1) immense importance of rhythm in African music, and (2) intimate relationship of music and dance in African traditional culture.

Rhythm. There is nothing unusual in a special appreciation of rhythmic element of music in sub-Saharan Africa, as rhythm (together with pitch) makes up the two the most important elements of any music. And still, the extraordinary importance of the rhythmic component in African music goes beyond our (western) appreciation of this element of music. Scholars noted, that in some regions of Africa (for example, in South Africa) rhythmic component of music (and the resulting meter) is considered to be more important than the pitch. Therefore, rhythm alone without the pitch (for example, drumming, or reciting) is considered music, whereas the vocalization without meter in South Africa is not considered as music (Kaemmer, 1998:701).
Rhythm in sub-Saharan Africa is generally clearly pronounced and strictly followed. Duple rhythm is dominating. According to another famous generalization of George Ballanta, “duple time is the only time used in Africa” (Ballanta, 1926:11). Later studies found the misleading simplicity of Ballanta’s overgeneralization, although we may say that duple time does play the leading role in most of the sub-Saharan African musical traditions. Arom presented an excellent survey of African rhythms and works connected to them (Arom, 1991).
African drums have found followers all across the cultures (particularly in the western world), and the appreciation of African sense of rhythm became a common place in popular accounts about African music and African musicians. If the reader of this book has ever attended a workshop of African traditional drumming, she (he) would already learnt the most important lesson, that the extraordinary complexity of African drumming ensemble sound is based on the simultaneous repetition of several layers of relatively simple drumming patterns. This phenomenon is known as “polyrhythmic” (see Arom, 1991).

Unity of singing and dancing is another crucial feature of African traditional musical life. As a matter of fact, most of the music in sub-Saharan Africa involves dance and body movements. Ruth Stone wrote: “Honest observers are hard pressed to find a single indigenous group in Africa that has a term congruent with the usual Western notion of “music”. There are terms for more specific acts like singing, playing instruments, and more broadly performing (dance, game, music); but the isolation of musical sound from other acts proves a Western abstraction, of which we should be aware when we approach the study of performance in Africa” (Stone, 1998:7). This primordial syncretic unity of singing and dancing, which is well documented from the most archaic layers of traditional cultures, is still a very active part of traditional cultural and social life of sub-Saharan African peoples.

Tone languages and polyphony

One of the important issues that fundamentally affect African music (and traditional polyphony as well) is the tone (or tonal) character of most of African languages. According to Pike’s classical study (1948), all the languages of Africa “west of Ethiopia and south of the Sahara” are tone languages. Despite the fact that more than half of human languages of our world today are tone languages, it is amazing how little are they known among the general public. Every year, when I start discussing tone languages among my students at the University of Melbourne, only one or two students out of the group of twenty or twenty-five students usually know something about them.
In tone languages tone modulation (rising or falling of the pitch) during their speech have lexical (and sometimes grammatical) significance. In more simple words, if you pronounce a word with a rising intonation, and then pronounce the same word with the falling intonation, this word will have two totally different meanings in tone languages. According to the number of tones and their combinations, the number of different meanings of the “same word” can exceed half a dozen.
In case of grammatical use of the tone, if you, for example, pronounce a sentence, and then pronounce the same sentence, but on a higher pitch, this could mean the same content, but in a past tense. So, if you want to learn a tone language, you would need to pronounce not only the correct mix of consonants and vowels, but you would need learn and maintain the certain melodic contour and the duration of each syllable as well. Therefore, ordinary everyday speech of tone language carriers contains musical qualities. “The languages are themselves pregnant with music” (Senghor, 1964:238) Africa is not the only region where tone languages are spoken. Two other major regions of the distribution of tone languages are southeastern Asia and languages of southwestern Mexico and the USA. As a matter of fact, in a contemporary world there are more tone, than non-tone languages.
The implications of the character of the tone languages are crucial for the musical traditions. Kirby was possibly the first to point this out: “Speech-tone of the Bantu has not only influenced his melodies, but has also directed the course of his polyphonic thought in a direction analogous to that taken by the polyphonic thought of the peoples of Europe during the early years of Christian era” (Kirby, 1930:406). This idea is generally accepted (see, for example, Arom, 1991: 22)
Therefore, the use of tone languages must be responsible for the first (and the most important) feature of sub-Saharan African traditional polyphony: the ample use of parallel movement of the different parts. The basis of this feature seems quite obvious: as soon as the group of the singers pronounce the same verbal text, they are bound to move the same directions, in a parallel melodic movements (otherwise the meaning of the text will be completely changed or become obscure).

Characteristics of sub-Saharan polyphony

Scholars described sub-Saharan African polyphony with different terms with a subsequent difference of the meanings behind these terms: organum (Kirby, 1930, Schaeffner, 1936, Jones, 1959, Kubik, 1968), harmony (Jones, 1959, Kubik, 1968, Brandel, 1970), homophony (Arom, 1991), parallel homophony (Nketia, 1972), tonally linked parallelism (Schneider, 1934-35, 1969). Arom (1991:22) considers the term used by Schneider (“tonally linked parallelism”) the best describing the peculiarities of sub-Saharan polyphony, and these links between the tonal systems and the parallel polyphony in sub-Saharan Africa was later confirmed in influential works of Austrian ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik (Kubik, 1968, 1986, 1988). Without going into the detail (for example, details of the use of different portions of the series of natural harmonics in different cultures), we can point to the following characteristic features of sub-Saharan polyphony:
*The first feature would be, as I have already mentioned above, the parallel movement of parts. This is natural when the population speaks tone language.
*The second important issue concerns the distance between two parts. (In music the distance between two notes is called interval). In the case of polyphonic music we are talking about the vertical distance between two simultaneously sounding pitches. According to ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik, if you want to count the vertical distance between any two simultaneously sounding notes in sub-Saharan polyphonic music, you should “skip one step” on a scale. So, say, if we are in “C major” scale (white keys starting from “C” to the next “C”), and if we have someone singing the pitch “C”, the other (top) voice would be singing note “E” on top of “C” (as we need to skip “D” which is next to “C” – you remember, we need to skip the next note), or, if we want to sing a lower harmony, we need to sing “A” below the same “C” (again, we need to miss the next note “B” below the “C”). In this kind of scale we will always have the same vertical distance. In music this particular distance (between “C” and “E”, or between “C” and “A”) is called “third”. To be more precise, the third can be “major” or “minor”, but I think we can skip this technical detail from our current discussion (more saw in traditional music the third if often between the major and minor thirds and is sometimes referred as “neutral” third). As a matter of fact, the existing system of labeling the intervals as “second”, “third”, etc. is mathematically controversial. The distance between “A” and “C” in actually “2”, not “3”, so it would be more correct to call “A-C” distance as “second” not the “third”. The same way the distance between the same notes is “0”, not “1”. I sometimes jokingly tell my students that “musicians are the worst mathematicians, because in music 3+3 equals 5” (try to put two “thirds” together on a piano and you will get the “fifth”). The same way according to the “musical logic” 2+2=3 (because two seconds together make up a third). All mathematical equation are incorrect using the existing incorrect numeral names of the musical intervals.

Russian composer Sergey Taneev, who actually was the first to record and transcribe the traditional polyphonic songs of North Caucasians in the 19th century, and who is best known as the teacher of Russian composer Tchaikovsky, suggested to use another, mathematically correct name-numbers. For Taneev the same note distance (unison) is “0”, the distance between “A” and “B” is “prime”(1), the distance between “A” and “C” is “second”(2) etc. Of course, this brings us to the mathematically more coherent system and suddenly all the equations become correct (like 2+2=4), but, unfortunately, the force of tradition prevailed (once again!) against the sound argument, and we still call “A-C” interval as a “third”. Of course, Taneev was by no means the first to pay attention to this odd arithmetic of musical intervals. This has been a topic for discussions from Guido d’Arezzo and Boetius (11th and 13th centuries).

*One of the difficulties of this system is that the scale that we just used for the counting of the vertical distance – C-major scale (the set of seven white keys from “C” to the next “C”) – is only one (and not the most popular) possible scales, used in sub-Saharan Africa. Scales in Africa (as in some other regions of the world) often have less that seven notes. Imagine, for example, to have the same C-major scale, but instead of the whole set of the seven white keys (C, D, E, F, G, A, B) omit the “B” and have only six keys in a scale (C, D, E, F, G, A). Now, if we use the same sub-Saharan African principle of the distance between the keys (“skip the next key” principle) in this new scale without “B”, on top of the “C” key we will have the same “E” key, but the lower harmony from the same ”C” will be now different, because now there is no “B” in a scale So, the lower harmony for “C” now will be “G” (as there is no ”B”, we will need to skip “A” key, as “A” is now the next from “C”). As a result, in this scale we will have not only thirds, but couple of fourths as well. If you now imagine that there are only five keys in a scale – omit two keys from the set of seven white key between “C” and the next “C” (most likely the omitted keys will be “F” and “B”. Other versions are also possible). We will have now the scale C, D, E, G. A. This is so-called pentatonic, or anhemitonic scale [“penta-tonic” means “five tones”; and “anhemitonic scale” means a scale that does not have any half between any of the keys. Name “pentatonic” is generally more popular for this scale]. Many cultures of the world (including Chinese and Scottish) are mostly based on this (pentatonic) scale. Now, if we try again to put harmonies to a melody in this five-tone pentatonic scale (with the same principle “skip the next note”), we will soon find out that we will have the interval fourth almost all the time (there will be only one third – between the “C” and “E”). This scale is dominating, for example, in Central African Republic, where polyphony mostly consists of two parts. As if this is not enough, there are also scales with the less than five (four) keys in a scale as well. They are called “tetratonic scales”. In this scale you would have fourths and fifths in the harmonies, and in this scale number of parts do not exceed two.

Of course, as every generalization, this characteristic of African polyphonic music by no means covers all the diversity of polyphonic forms in African music. For example, there are singing traditions where the verbal text is not used at all (or used only as nonsense-syllables). This frees the melodic movement of different parts, so no parallel movement of parts is necessary. For example, this is the case with the wonderfully developed tradition of yodeling in some African musical cultures (yodels are always free of meaningful verbal text). The abovementioned characteristic of African polyphony (based on parallel movement of parts and using vertical harmonies by “skipping the next note”) will serve only as a rough guide as the main (or the most widely distributed) form of sub-Saharan African vocal polyphony.

Another very important feature of sub-Saharan African vocal music is the crucial role of responsorial singing – based on the alternation of the leader’s call and the group response. Responsorial singing is so widespread and so well documented in all regions of Africa (and in fact in the whole world) that I do not feel the need to provide any prove for the crucial importance of this phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa.
Another uniting feature of sub-Saharan African cultures could be the live interest of native African populations towards the European choral (polyphonic) music. Although the original Christian hymns were very often changed according to the local traditions, it has been frequently noted in musicological literature that the work of Christian missionaries was very much aided by the strong interest of Africans in Christian choral music (most likely the result of wide distribution of tradition of polyphonic singing among sub-Saharan African populations).

Jones divided sub-Saharan polyphonic traditions into two big group: “Generally speaking, all over the continent south of the Sahara, African harmony is in organum and is sung either in parallel fourths, parallel fifths, parallel octaves, or parallel thirds” (Jones, 1959:217). According to Jones, Africa can be divided into two groups: (1) certain peoples sing in thirds, and (2) other peoples sing in fourths, fifths and octaves (Jones, 1959:219).
After this brief general characteristic of sub-Saharan African traditional polyphony, let us now briefly discuss the regional styles of sub-Saharan African polyphony: east, central, south and west, finishing with the island of Madagascar.

Examples of african polyphony

Nghombi Bwiti Gabon Music-therapy

Baka Pygmies Traditional Song – Cameroon

Traditional Dance – Chegutu, Zimbabwe

Masai tribe dances

Nnwonkoro – A Female Song Tradition of the Akan of Ghana

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