Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Aka Pygmy clave

This is just a brief investigation of an interesting rhythm, a sort of clave rhythm clapped by the lead performer in the video below— a candid video of three Aka Pygmy people performing a polyphonic tribal song.

I know very little hard theory on African music, but I know that applying a Western music theory concept of meter to it is a very slippery prospect, and is basically guaranteed to be a distortion of what's actually going on. The rhythm and meter as I've transcribed them are functionally accurate, but the placement of “the barline”, and even the primary beat is questionable. If the performers conceive of a downbeat (that's the 1) as we understand it, it's often buried— not unlike with clave-based music, where the strongest note is the & of 2 of one measure, and the 1 at the beginning of the rhythm is relatively de-emphasized. This music seems to be inherently syncopated, and it's possible that the primary beat is not even being stated— the beat as you and I feel it may be the middle note or last note of a triplet to the performers. I suspect that the performers may be perceiving the beat as a compound pulse, or pulse matrix, rather than the simple pulse used in Western music. At any rate, we trust at our peril our own first instinct about what we're hearing.

I think it's best to avoid looking for the one definitive answer of “what it is”— that may not be knowable by anyone not living this culture— and take more of a matrix approach; figuring out the obvious-to-us version, then running that through inversions, with different barline placements (while remembering that barline is an extremely foreign concept here). It's a technical process, but it's all we can do as people not raised in that culture. Just trying to “feel it” without any of the cultural learning that went into it will not work on any level.

The rhythm has groupings of seven notes and four notes. The seven note group is the primary group, and the four note group the response. If we put the seven note group at the beginning, we get this:

I initially felt the seven note group as crossing “the 1”, like this:

The remaining examples will be written both of those ways— with the seven note group placed at the front, and with it crossing the bar line.

This inversion is attractive to me— favoring the middle note of the triplet is an African “thing”:

Here is the version crossing the barline:

This inversion may be closest to what is happening in the video. The secondary performers are tapping their feet approximately this way— a little after the beat as written in our first version.

Crossing the barline:

At the beginning the leader sets up the groove this way (or with some inversion of it), which appears to support the first, easy, nursery school version of the rhythm, until we remember that African musicians will often not start on the 1.

I recommend clapping all of these patterns while playing the bottom line part with both feet in unison. I'll post a few possibilities for exploring this rhythm in a few days.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Relating the clapping to the singing, it's hard for me to hear it in ways other than the last note of the grouping of 4 landing on beat 2 (in 8/4 time). Similar to how you notated your initial interpretation, except starting on beat 5 of that 8/4 measure.