Theory of African Music, Volume II


Taken together, these comprehensive volumes offer an authoritative account of the music of Africa. One of the most prominent experts on the subject, Gerhard Kubik draws on his extensive travels and three decades of study in many parts of the continent to compare and contrast a wealth of musical traditions from a range of cultures.

In the first volume, Kubik describes and examines xylophone playing in southern Uganda and harp music from the Central African Republic; compares ...

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Taken together, these comprehensive volumes offer an authoritative account of the music of Africa. One of the most prominent experts on the subject, Gerhard Kubik draws on his extensive travels and three decades of study in many parts of the continent to compare and contrast a wealth of musical traditions from a range of cultures.

In the first volume, Kubik describes and examines xylophone playing in southern Uganda and harp music from the Central African Republic; compares multi-part singing from across the continent; and explores movement and sound in eastern Angola. And in the second volume, he turns to the cognitive study of African rhythm, Yoruba chantefables, the musical Kachamba family of Malaŵi, and African conceptions of space and time.

Each volume features an extensive number of photographs and is accompanied by a compact disc of Kubik’s own recordings. Erudite and exhaustive, Theory of African Music will be an invaluable reference for years to come.

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Editorial Reviews


Theory of African Music is monumental and falls into the ‘must read’ category for (ethno)musicologists, most particularly Africanists. Beyond the enormous quantity of information, data, and analytical approaches, the overwhelming strength of these volumes is Kubik’s lateral savvy. His breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding is unequalled in African music scholarship. Kubik also leaves a legacy of fascinating yet unexplained ‘musical riddles’ to stimulate our curiosity (Vol. I, 15–19). How is it that the multipart singing of the Baule in The Ivory Coast employs the same tonal system of triads within an equiheptatonic scale as the Ngangela, Chokwe, and Luvale in Angola? How can one explain the almost identical xylophones and performance practices among the Makonde and Makua in northern Mozambique and the Baule and Kru in The Ivory Coast and Liberia? And why do almost all sub-Saharan Africans dance in counterclockwise processions? Kubik may have left these riddles to others, though we look forward to his future publications with anticipation.”
Eric Charry

“Gerhard Kubik’s scholarship is deep and vast, and this collection of his writing has no parallel. He stands alone among Africanists for many reasons, which are amply demonstrated in these volumes: the length of time in which he has been actively researching and writing about music, the vast geographic breadth of his work within Africa, his experience in both Anglophone and Francophone Africa, and his seamless understanding of and sympathy for both older genres and more recent guitar music.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226456942
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2010
  • Series: Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology
  • Pages: 408
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Gerhard Kubik is professor of ethnology and African studies at the Universities of Vienna and Klagenfurt, Austria, and the author of many books, including Africa and the Blues.
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Table of Contents

Author’s Preface to Volumes I and II  

VI.     The Cognitive Study of African Musical “Rhythm”  

VII.    African Music and Auditory Perception  

VIII.   Àl—Yoruba Chantefables: An Integrated Approach towards West African Music and Oral Literature  

IX.    Genealogy of a Malawian Musician Family: Daniel J. Kachamba (1947–1987) and His Associates  

X.     African Space/Time Concepts and the Tusona Ideographs in Luchazi Culture  

Further Recommended Readings  

List of Musical Examples on CD II  

Indexes for Volumes I and II

Index of Artists and Authors  

Index of African Ethnic-Linguistic Designations  

Index of Song Titles  

General Index  

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First Chapter

Theory of African Music

By Gerhard Kubik

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 Gerhard Kubik
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-45694-2

Chapter One

The Cognitive Study of African Musical "Rhythm"

A continent-wide sampling of data on the theory and practice of African music inevitably leads the researcher to questions of a more general nature regarding humans as music makers (cf. Blacking 1973a), and to increasing consciousness of the limitations of cross-cultural understanding. The more necessary it seems to work comparatively, the more evident challenges of comparison become. Survey-type studies can, of course, be multiplied indefinitely, but in- depth studies of musical cognition are more difficult to carry out. Researchers in African music can focus on one or two musical cultures that are different from those in which they grew up, to an extent which makes them almost "native speakers" of that culture, but it is not possible to repeat the same experience in an unlimited number of cultures. Such "code-switching," excessively practiced, would lack credibility.

Music is considered a universal phenomenon, in a sense that all cultures seem to have developed resources for producing sound-and-motion patterns that are organized and message-carrying. However, music is not a universal language. Universally, music represents the picture of a plurality of communication systems. Its code-systems are culture-bound and conditioned for intra-cultural reception. Cross-culturally, therefore, music is regularly misunderstood by audiences, rather than understood; i.e. it is "understood" in terms of perceptual sets and conventions pertaining to the receiving culture.

In the 1960s the need for bi-musicality was often stressed, and at one time it was almost a campus fashion to be "bi-musical." The reality in psychological terms is much more prosaic. "Bi-musicality" is at best a transitional state of getting acquainted with another musical culture, because eventually all new acquisitions of knowledge are integrated into a person's total resources.

What I mean is that an individual, after intensive cross-cultural experience, does not end up as a sort of two-channel carrier of traditions, switching to and fro. Inevitably, cohesive psychological forces bind the new idiom to the old one, rounding a bit off the edges of both. After some time the individual no longer belongs exactly to the culture he or she once came from; various new experiences have generated a new configuration of cultural references. This is perhaps what is really implied by Fernando Ortiz's term "transculturation" (cf. Ortiz 1940). Cognitively, therefore, nothing like permanent individual bi-culturalism (cf. Euba 1988a:404) really exists, let alone collective "cultural pluralism." What may come out of a cross- cultural encounter is a reconfiguration of cultural resources within the individual. And this can also change considerably during an individual's life span.

This chapter is devoted to the cognitive dimension in African musical practices. It deals extensively with both intra- and cross-cultural understanding, particularly with reference to that structural realm of African music which has been called "rhythm." Its orientation is analytical and comparative. It deals with a variety of issues in some detail, but with no particular ethnic community in extenso, looking at musical cultures both from inside and outside, and analyzing individual conceptualization.

Section 1 Cognitive Anthropology and African Music: What We Can Learn from Each


Stephen A. Tyler has defined the theoretical orientation of cognitive anthropology as follows:

It focuses on discovering how different peoples organize and use their cultures. This is not so much a search for some generalized unit of behavioral analysis as it is an attempt to understand the organizing principles underlying behavior. It is assumed that each people has a unique system for perceiving and organizing material phenomena-things, events, behavior, and emotions (Goodenough 1957). The object of study is not these material phenomena themselves, but the way they are organized in the minds of men. Cultures then are not material phenomena; they are cognitive organizations of material phenomena. Many anthropologists have expressed an interest in how the natives see their world. Yet, there is a difference of focus between the old and the new. Where earlier anthropologists sought categories of description in their native language, cognitive anthropologists seek categories of description in the language of their natives (Tyler 1969:3, 6).

The cognitive study of African music includes a multitude of questions:

(1) What acoustic phenomena are significant in specific African cultures, and how are these organized within the concept of music / dance?

(2) How does musical terminology in African languages reflect individual and culture-specific patterns of conceptualization?

(3) What intra-cultural and cross-cultural margins of tolerance are present in the perception, recognition and conceptualization of patterns in specific African musical cultures?

(4) How can universals in musical perception and understanding be identified when dealing with learned modes of behavior?

(5) To what extent is musical understanding variable in an apparently homogeneous musical culture? How is it related to individuals with different specialization, with the existence of sub-cultures and the association of musical genres with social strata, age groups, etc.?

Cognitive studies imply that cultural behavior is assessed according to the thought processes prevalent in the individuals concerned, basically from anemic standpoint. This contrasts with studies undertaken from an etic standpoint, i.e. when researchers analyze a culture within the framework of scientific concepts that are external to the culture. Both processes of investigation are necessary and complementary.

Some readers may not be familiar with the emic / etic dichotomy. These terms, introduced by the linguist Kenneth L. Pike (1954), are derived from the designations "phonemics" and "phonetics" in language studies which mark important differences in approaching the study of language. Phonetics studies all the measurable sounds in language on a global basis, and one of its creations has been the International Phonetic Alphabet. Phonemics registers what is different in meaning from the standpoint of the speakers.

In some African and Asian languages, for example, [1] and [r] are one and the same phoneme. It makes no difference in meaning if you articulate these consonants in either of two directions. In Chichewa of Malawi, you may pronounce these sounds either way: "Ndilibe" or "Ndiribe," most often somewhere between, and it will be understood to mean: "I don't have (it)." In German, the lexical items "ich" (I), "Nacht" (night) and "nackt" (naked) employ the sounds [ç], [x] and [k]. For German speakers the difference between the first two-though noticeable-is insignificant, because you could exchange these two sounds with each other in the words "ich" and "Nacht" without altering their meaning. Therefore we can say that [ç] and [x] are one and the same phoneme in German. The third sound [k], however, stands apart. My good friend, the musician and composer Donald J. Kachamba from Malawi, discovered that in 1972, when he was eighteen, on his first trip to Europe. Trying to say "Good night" to one of my female colleagues in German, he replaced the unfamiliar sound [x] with [k]. Therefore, to the amusement of everyone, instead of saying to her "Gute Nacht" (Good night), he was saying "Gute Nackt!" (Good naked) ...

In his historical 1954 essay, Kenneth L. Pike suggests that the conceptual distinctions inherent in the terms "phonetics" and "phonemics" can be applied to the larger field of cultural studies. Hence, the origin of the terms "emics" and "etics."

Pike ([1954] 1967:37-38) has summarized the "principal differences between the etic and emic approaches to language and culture" as follows:

The etic approach treats all cultures or languages-or a selected group of them-at one time.... The emic approach is, on the contrary, culturally specific, applied to one language or culture at a time.... Etic units and classifications, based on prior broad sampling or surveys ... may be available before one begins the analysis of a further particular language or culture.... Emic units of a language must be determined during the analysis of that language; they must be discovered, not predicted ... (etc.)

Subsequently, Pike's thesis was often misunderstood as equating "emic" and "etic" analysis with insider and outsider perspectives. However, he was talking about standpoints; and anyone, regardless of their place of birth, can alternate between standpoints. Pike's primary idea resulted in a new consciousness about culture-specific variation margins in conceptualization. This generated the great leap forward in cultural anthropology in the 1960s. Emically oriented studies elicited native categorizations; etically oriented studies described phenomena from external, cross-cultural and universal standpoints, using scientific terminology.

However, both standpoints, so defined, exclude a third one, the idiocultural, in which popular, non-scientific ideas pertaining to the observer's culture become a framework of reference for the analysis of another culture. In his treaty on problems, methods and aims in ethnomusicology, Artur Simon (1979) has given lucid examples of idiocultural standpoints in music research. In concrete terms, if one measures African instrumental tunings with a Stroboconn to obtain the c.p.s., this may be called an etically oriented investigation (although Alexander Ellis's Cents system also has an idiocultural bias). Like radio- carbon dates in archaeology, the results of these measurements are verifiable to a certain extent. They may be subject to fluctuations and calculable probabilities of error, but in a sense they are facts. Their interpretation is left open. If, on the other hand, one undertakes comparative studies of African music on the basis of categories and concepts adopted from one culture and transferred to another, e.g. "hocket" technique (Nketia 1962b), "hemiola-style," "horizontal and vertical hemiola" (Brandel 1959, 1961), "organum" (Jones 1949; Kubik 1968a), down to ubiquitous terms such as "major" and "minor," "melody," "rhythm" and "harmony," one runs the risk of idioculturally determined interpretations. I am not saying that such an approach is necessarily wrong; I am only recommending enhanced consciousness of one's implicit frame of references.

A. M. Jones's graphic notations of African drum strokes and time- line patterns, executed by means of a transcription machine he constructed himself, constitute research from an etic standpoint. His collection of drum teaching syllables from his Ghanaian informant, Desmond K. Tay (Jones 1959b), demonstrates an emic approach, while his rewriting in Western staff notation of the percussive patterns originally notated by his machine demonstrates neither emic nor etic standpoints; it is the author's attempt at understanding from an idiocultural point of view.

"Rhythm" is, of course, not an emic category in Africa. No term has been isolated in any African language whose semantic field would be congruent with the Western notion "rhythm." Robert Kauffman even claims that "in Africa there are no highly verbalized or systematic means of determining the nature of rhythm" (Kauffman 1980:393). I personally cannot subscribe to that, because there are other concepts in African languages which are equally suited to describe such phenomena; but in a general way it is true that in the absence of a concept there cannot be any statements, unless the informant uses the researcher's idiom. Thus, to begin one's studies by proceeding from a concept which is (a) non-indigenous, and (b) one on which many doubts have already been cast, is probably ill advised. Moreover, attempting an emic analysis working from a category which is not part of the emics of African music is a contradiction. To express my reservations, therefore, I have put the word "rhythm" in quotation marks in the title of this chapter. It stands as a thought-provoking tag to let us discover the reality behind this concept.

Preoccupation with "rhythm" has been a persistent trait in cultural studies conducted in sub-Saharan Africa. But at least since the late 1970s, critical remarks have been heard. When John Miller Chernoff's book African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms appeared in 1979, Alan P. Merriam's review in Ethnomusicology pointed to

the reader's difficulty in orienting himself to the author's framework and approach and, indeed, in satisfying himself as to the background of the work and the consequent center of its thrust ... Chapter II is devoted to discussion of the features of African music structure, but this quickly boils down to rhythm, which "forms the basis for discussing ... the general characteristics of the various African musical traditions" (p. 40), and thence to drumming. It is here that the reader will probably decide whether the basic premise of the approach is reasonable or flawed; for me, it is the latter. To reduce African music to African rhythm as expressed in African drumming is to substitute one complex factor for the study of a much larger set of complex factors. (Merriam 1980:559-60)

The concept "rhythm" belongs to the classical Greek heritage in Western literature, science and music theory. In Western music theory it is part of a trilogy of categories-which Cajetan Lunsonga (1978:72) pertinently calls the "musical trinity"-comprising "melody," "harmony" and "rhythm," each of which is heavily charged with symbolic side-meanings and associations such as: melody -< spirit; harmony -< soul; rhythm -< body. Projected onto Africa, such conceptualization has suited Western stereotypes about the African culture world. In 19th- and early 20th-century writings Africans were often described as born with a "natural rhythm," but lacking higher intellectual development symbolized by "melody" and "harmony". "Il faut noter que les peuples primitifs ignorent de l'harmonie," was written as late as 1967 by a French ethnologist, Jean Cazeneuve, in his volume L'Ethnologie, of the Encyclopédie Larousse de Poche (Cazeneuve 1967:363).

Such ideas linger on in popular thought, though nowadays they are mostly articulated in some form of disguise, using substitute expressions. They were also largely internalized by a generation of pre- independence African writers. Certain ideologies of aestheticism and "authenticity" have often been served by the idea of "rhythm" as something symbolizing the core of "African culture." Négritude considered "rhythm" central to African "life," and in French-language treatises by Léopold Sédar Senghor (1956, 1964, etc.) the term was rolled out in florid philosophical and poetic generalities. Négritude responded to stereotypes from Europe by inverting their negative charge, while accepting at the same time the projection of those thought models that were generating them.

The Intra-Cultural Approach

In 1963 William Bright first suggested there should be more cooperation in language and music studies, but it took time for methodology developed by the beginnings of cognitive anthropology in the 1960s to be tested in studies of African music. For a long time Hugo Zemp's "Musique Dan. La musique dans la pensée et la vie sociale d'une société africaine" (Zemp 1971) has remained the exemplary work in book form.

In recent years I have outlined a methodology for what I have called an intra-cultural approach. Its basic premise is that a culture always manifests itself as a closed system of communication. By this I mean that the total margin of transmission of verbal and non-verbal concepts, ideas and forms of expression between individuals is determined by the intra-cultural communicative repertoire. To guard against any misunderstanding, it may be noted that the term "closed system of communication" literally refers only to the communicative channels of human interactions. I am not saying that cultures are closed systems-on the contrary, we know that in the historical dimension cultures have always been open, ready to absorb, integrate and adapt by creative response. However, from a historical perspective, cultures may at any point in time be viewed as momentarily closed systems of communication. Regardless of their transformations, the momentary communicative repertoire of a culture is a distinctive arrangement understood within that culture.


Excerpted from Theory of African Music by Gerhard Kubik Copyright © 2010 by Gerhard Kubik. Excerpted by permission.
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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