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African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms


"We have in this book a Rosetta stone for mediating, or translating, African musical behavior and aesthetics."—Andrew Tracey, African Music

"John Miller Chernoff, who spent 10 years studying African drumming, has a flair for descriptive writing, and his first-person narratives should be easily understood by any reader, while ringing unmistakably true for the reader who has also been to West Africa."—Roderick Knight, Washington Post Book World

"Ethnomusicologists must be proud ...

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"We have in this book a Rosetta stone for mediating, or translating, African musical behavior and aesthetics."—Andrew Tracey, African Music

"John Miller Chernoff, who spent 10 years studying African drumming, has a flair for descriptive writing, and his first-person narratives should be easily understood by any reader, while ringing unmistakably true for the reader who has also been to West Africa."—Roderick Knight, Washington Post Book World

"Ethnomusicologists must be proud that their discipline has produced a book that will, beyond doubt, rank as a classic of African studies."—Peter Fryer, Research in Literatures

"A marvelous book. . . . Not many scholars will ever be able to achieve the kind of synthesis of 'doing' and 'writing about' their subject matter that Chernoff has achieved, but he has given us an excellent illustration of what is possible."—Chet Creider, Culture

"Chernoff develops a brilliant and penetrating musicological essay that is, at the same time, an intensely personal and even touching account of musical and cultural discovery that anyone with an interest in Africa can and should read. . . . No other writing comes close to approaching Chernoff's ability to convey a feeling of how African music 'works'"—James Koetting, Africana Journal

"Four stars. One of the few books I know of that talks of the political, social, and spiritual meanings of music. I was moved. It was so nice I read it twice."—David Byrne of "Talking Heads"

The companion cassette tape has 44 examples of the music discussed in the book. It consists of field recordings illustrating cross-rhythms, multiple meters, call and response forms, etc.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226103457
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/1981
  • Pages: 280
  • Sales rank: 986,168
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 8.97 (h) x 0.66 (d)

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African Rhythm and African Sensibility

Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms
By John Miller Chernoff

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1979 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-10345-7

Chapter One

The Study of Music in Africa

If you ask people what African music is like, most will with little hesitation and great confidence tell you that African music is all drumming: Africans are famous for their drumming. It is exactly this mass impression that ethnomusicologists, those people who study the music academically, love to correct. Anyone reasonably well-informed about music-making in Africa will immediately react against such a naive notion by citing a wealth of musical instruments: xylophones, flutes, harps, horns, bells. Regarding drums, he might further report that almost every tribe, and sometimes even specific groups within a tribe, has its own different kinds of drums, beaten in a special way, or he might say that there are a few tribes which have no drums at all. Yet the popular conception persists, and it is perhaps understandable that after several months in Ghana as a music student I was surprised to hear an old man gleefully welcome the approach of some drummers by saying, "Ah, music!" Most Westerners cannot find anything particularly musical about a group of drums, and their judgements, therefore, seem only to demonstrate their ethnocentric biases.

People from Western cultures historically have had a difficult time understanding anything African. Those who dislike African music respond to it in several ways. Some say that they are bored, that the music is so monotonously repetitive that it just dulls the senses. Others, alternatively, say that the music is so complicated rhythmically that they get confused and cannot make any sense of it. These people are likely to add that because they cannot figure out any pattern, they feel threatened that either the monotony or the confusion might take them over, and they do their best to ignore the unpleasantness. Less tolerant people have felt their sanity or their morals challenged, and in the past some of them even took the truly remarkable step of forbidding Africans to make music. Those with an open mind wish the music were more quiet.

Yet there are many Westerners who love African music. To them it seems to translate, they might say, into visual patterns or physical movement. Such Westerners overcome their frustration by eliminating the need to find the beat: they express themselves any way they like, they say, and appreciate the feeling. A dancer I know told me how she had practiced very hard to African music until she was finally able, as she said, to let herself go and move freely. African music, like other African arts, is admired mostly as a spontaneous and emotional creation, an uninhibited, dynamic expression of vitality, and Picasso himself found such inspiration in African masks early in his revolutionary career. We may note that, in a sense, those who accept African music affirm the feelings of those who reject it: neither admirers nor detractors can relate to the music by making distinctions among the rhythms. Popular Western attitudes toward African music, whether affirmative or negative, are alike in emphasizing an awesome distance between Western and African sensibilities and in involving the topic of African music with the extremely ambivalent connotations of the word "primitive."

Understandably, the work of many ethnomusicologists derives from an attempt to confound any generalization about African music which might wander close to the swamp of racial prototypes. The detailed and esoterically specific studies of Western academicians, though serving to deprive Westerners of their myths, have reinforced the sense of distance between continents. It is almost as if African music gains in respectability by remaining beyond the facile and patronizing understanding of Westerners: both admirers and detractors find that one should not think of Africa as a single place, for to do so would be to ignore its diversity of cultures. African poets and politicians may speak of African unity; Western students avoid the dangers of racist simplification by stressing African complexity. It is probably safe to say that many ethnomusicologists, though hoping to demonstrate a wider usefulness for their knowledge, consider their main purpose to witness, record, preserve, and thus enrich the world's musical heritage. As a science, ethnomusicology is still at a "data-gathering" stage, and its most immediate applicability seems to be to augment music theory. Moreover, the appearance of a specialized branch of academic inquiry has discouraged many social and cultural anthropologists from their former practice of discussing art in their monographs. Though the study of art is a valid tool for historians and philosophers, it is reasonable and quite common for an anthropologist to discuss a social event without any analysis of the music which might have been played at the time: in most views music is only an accompaniment to something more important. Two major gaps in the academic study of African music, then, are the lack of a unifying framework for evaluating the information collected about African music and the lack of a theoretical perspective for integrating musical analysis with social analysis. Given the undisciplined prejudices of many Westerners, the difficulty and dryness of most academic studies is commendable, but such work often does not touch our capacity to feel the reality of our common humanity or to recognize our most wonderful potentials in the genius of a strange person.

From another perspective, though, music seems to offer one way of thinking about what unities may exist among African cultures. Certainly there is a musical continuity which reaches in an easily distinguishable way into the Americas, and music continues to carry a message of solidarity to African peoples throughout the world. You can hear Soul and Latin music almost anywhere in Africa; you can hear African and West Indian music on the radio at various times in most large cities in the United States; you can sit in a bar in Ghana, Togo, or the Ivory Coast and hear music from Zaïre and Congo, from Nigeria, from South Africa, from Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Colombia, and the United States; great drummers, aficionados, and scholars can trace the rhythms of the Latin dance halls of New York to Cuban and Brazilian cults and then to West Africa. Haiti, I demonstrated for some drummers several Yeve Cult rhythms which were familiar enough to have Haitian names, and while I would not consider the rhythms to be identical if I transcribed them, my friends there said they knew the rhythms well. That there exists a basis for thinking about an "African" musical style seems obvious and is unquestioned by those most directly involved. If they consider all this music to be their own, then it is. And interestingly enough, even the inability of most Western listeners to move beyond a simplified response or to make rhythmic distinctions at a basic level is balanced by their ability to say, with surprising accuracy, "That sounds African."

What, then, is "African" about all this music? This academic problem is as well a political and historical problem. "Africa" is a concept, a broad generalization we may use for various reasons, yet the academic stand against simple reductions is not without foundation. Among the metaphors of African unity, racial ones are spurious; geographical ones omit the African peoples spread throughout the Americas; historical, political, and economic ones are unrealized; and cultural ones are often vague or inaccurate. Discussing "African" music, therefore, we must recognize that, academically, we are examining music as potential evidence for a conception of Africa. What so many people accept is that there is an essential African style which can be perceived in the different musics of African peoples. While a social scientist understands such an identification as an indication that a unity exists, it remains important to characterize what it is. Although to discuss "African" music, or "African" anything, will involve the looseness and possible distortion that comes with generalization, we realize that without a feeling for the general meaning and order of what we may see and hear at an African musical event, it would be difficult to sense the significance of the variety of specific details we may experience. Although our interest is usually aroused by the particular character of the people and places we know, we can nonetheless make good use of a flexible and unifying orientation. As a first step to familiarity, therefore, we must build a model, an abstracted and composite description of those features of the music which appear more or less in common in the various musics of African cultures. A social scientist might call such a model an "ideal type" and use the relative limitations of its applicability as a basis for making comparison.

With this model, however, we can only begin to describe the African musical style. To refine our sensitivity, we must ask aesthetic questions: Why is a certain piece of music good? Why are people moved or bored when I play? What is the purpose of the music? The quality of a specific performance cannot be judged by whether the music conforms to an abstracted formal model of "musical" properties or structures as defined by the Western tradition. These properties may serve as a basis for an academic description of diverse African musical idioms, but people do not relate to the music on such a basis. The variations from formal and familiar structures in an actual performance are what count most in distinguishing and appreciating artistic quality within a certain type of music. To clarify this point, we might think of a joke which we have heard before, maybe often: a good comedian could still make us laugh at it. We would miss the point if we analyzed or thought of the joke as merely an arrangement of words about a particular theme or of the music as merely a structure of sounds. In other words, we can clearly perceive African musical forms only if we understand how they achieve their effectiveness within African social situations. Ethnomusicologists working in foreign cultures consider themselves social scientists rather than humanistic critics because they are aware that the best way to begin to appreciate another culture's music is to try to understand the people who make it and its place in their society.

This issue is a bit more subtle than it appears, and it may seem perhaps too academic to some readers until we have carried through the substantive discussion of African musical form in the next chapter. On the most obvious level, of course, we understand that music's effectiveness and meaning are dependent upon its context because aesthetic standards of judgement, taste, and perception are relative. This perspective is basic and simple: anyone who has ever traveled or lived among different types of people knows how the whole feeling of life, down to the smallest detail, can change from place to place. In my introductory discussion of participation and understanding, I said that a person's relationship to an event determines what he can see of it, and similarly, people listening to the same music will hear different things. Philosophically, there is no logical connection between music and an individual listener's response. Though some people still like to argue the point, it is difficult to maintain that a certain piece of music is inherently and universally religious or warlike, filled with love or anger. The history of Western music is full of stories about how certain works were first reviled then loved, and for different reasons; even in the course of one's own life, one may find that music which once moved one to tears can seem boring or trite. When we try to understand the music of a different culture or historical period, we must be prepared to open our minds not only to the certainty that people will have different standards for judging musical quality but also to the possibility that they may have an entirely different conception of what music itself is.

More significantly, then, our attitudes about what art is can influence our notions about how art works. As Westerners, we habitually look at art as something specific and removed from the everyday world, something to appreciate or contemplate, something to which we must pay attention in a concert hall, a museum, a theater, a quiet room. The fact that we have, at least since Plato, developed an impressive tradition of philosophical, moral, and critical literature regarding the problems and possibilities of our relationship to art is evidence that we see art as in many ways something separate and distinct. Learning to appreciate an "artwork" usually involves developing an awareness of its place within a tradition of influence and innovation among other artworks. In other words, we isolate the work of art from the social situation in which it was produced in order to concentrate on our main aesthetic concern, those qualities which give it integrity as art. Whatever gives the artwork its unity becomes a symbol for the art's communicative effectiveness as the purest representation of an idea or the most expressive condensation of an emotion. From such a perspective, art reflects the social and psychological realities of its context, restating and representing them through the artistic medium which transforms or, some would say, distorts them. While we admit that the meaning of an artwork may have been different in its original context and while we can certainly be interested in deepening our understanding of that meaning, what we generally consider most wonderful about art is its enduring ability to affect us, to withstand the test of time, as the saying goes, and to transcend the limitations of its particular historical and cultural location.

Even music, toward which among the arts we are perhaps least inclined to be analytical, remains somewhat beyond our daily lives, having little direct relationship to what we are doing most of the time. We speak of a musical diversion, interlude, or distraction. We must stop in order to listen, and we might say that someone who talks or moves around during a musical performance is not "really" listening. Yet we respect music as a profound art because it enriches our lives. Those people who take music seriously say that it beautifully expresses and communicates ideals and emotions and that they return again and again to music to find again the fulfillment and revitalization they may have found at a concert, in church, or wherever they as individuals were touched and moved to a different feeling about life. According to our conception of a music-making situation, the conditions of musical enjoyment are those that enable us to focus exclusively on the greatness that is in the music itself, greatness that a virtuoso musician can elicit. In a well-built concert hall, people will forget that they are in the second balcony, and after a particularly fine performance of a work, the whole audience hay be moved to a standing ovation. But if you begin clapping your hands in time with a symphony, people will tell you that you are disturbing them. The effectiveness of music, for Westerners, is its power to express or communicate directly to individuals, and we would defend our right to a personal aesthetic judgement independent of the tastes of everyone else.

What is aesthetically significant for a social scientist looking at such a situation, however, is not so much our preferences for Mozart or Beethoven or Prokofiev or Bartok but rather the way we orient ourselves to music in the first place and our consequent approaches to the potential experiences we might have. This is the crucial issue, of course, which confronts Westerners who find themselves alienated when they listen to African music. Expressing oneself "spontaneously," without a sense of appropriateness or control, being able to hear only a single, monotonous beat, or trying to put the music out of one's mind, these responses are indications that the difficulties in perceiving the complexities in the rhythms are also difficulties in recognizing the meaning and purpose of one's relationship to the music as an event. To put the matter another way, we might characterize these responses as an initial anxiety followed by privatization and simplification, and suggest that this withdrawal from a sense of intimacy with African music stems from different assumptions about the conditions of involvement and communication. Like institutions, the different musical styles which different cultures evolve require and focus different kinds of participation, and to a social scientist the nature of this participation is the key to the music's effectiveness. When a Western friend for whom you might play some African music says in disgust, as he sits fidgeting in his chair, "That's not music," he is ironically both right and wrong. African music is not just different music but is something that is different from "music." For a Westerner to understand the artistry and purpose of an African musical event, it is necessary for him to sidestep his normal listening tendencies, slow down his aesthetic response, and glide past his initial judgement. The reason why it is a mistake "to listen" to African music is that African music is not set apart from its social and cultural context. Perhaps more than the novelty or the strangeness of the sounds, the different meaning of a music which is integrated into cultural activities presents difficulties to the Western listener and undermines his efforts to appreciate and understand African music. A Westerner who wishes to understand African music must begin with a recognition of his own fundamental attitudes about music so that he may adjust to a fundamentally different conception. The study of African music can thus also become a focus for understanding the meaning of cultural differences.


Excerpted from African Rhythm and African Sensibility by John Miller Chernoff Copyright © 1979 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Plates
Pronunciation and Transliteration
Introduction: Scholarship and Participation
1. The Study of Music in Africa
2. Music in Africa
3. Style in Africa
4. Values in Africa
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