Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso.
In search for the key to understanding African music, I went to meet my percussion master in Bobo-Dioulasso, a city known as one of the capitals of African music.
Music in Bobo-Dioulasso has developed from originally a means of communication to today an internal art. I home-stayed in a musician family and took intensive lessons of marimba and djembe in order to capture the un-explained world of African music.
Learning African Music – Balaphone and Djembe
My destination was Bobo-Dioulasso, the second biggest city in Burkina Faso, western Africa. It’s the capital of African percussions. In every other district of the city, we find what they call “cabarets” (beer gardens), where local artists give performances while people keep coming in and out to enjoy the traditional music with a calabash of local beer. I went to Bobo-Dioulasso to meet my percussion master.
My master gave me a balafon (also called marimba) lesson every morning, and a djembe (the African drum) lesson every afternoon. Son of a musician, he was respected as the leading percussionist of a local group in a beer garden. He collaborates with Europeans, has released some CDs, and performed abroad.
The keyboard of the traditional marimba of Bobo-Dioulasso, the balafon, is made of scales of five notes instead of seven. With two notes less than A B C D E F G, neither sharp nor flat accidentals, some might think that the musical range of the instrument is limited. That is not the case: the rhythm of the African players has variations with three, four, five, six, seven and even thirteen beats per measure. They have plenty of flexibility in the rhythm to cover the lack of notes.
The drum of Bobo-Dioulasso, djembe, is heavy. While it does not look that different from other African drums, it is so heavy that I had difficulty holding it with a single arm. This is due to the high density of wood it is made of, a quality that attracts buyers even from abroad. A djembe can be so different from one another; the quality of the materials, its shape, the tension of the sheep skin, all play important roles on the pitch or the crispiness of the sound. The humidity also changes the conditions of the skin, affecting the sound.
In Bobo-Dioulasso, the traditional way of learning is to imitate. Basically, no counting the tempo, and no score sheet. Although I first tried to write down the rhythms, I soon realized that it was better to step back from the occidental conception of the music: a kind of short cut to progress. I started jolting down onomatopoeia “patan pele pan”, then added some indications concerning the height of the sound, and which hand to use (left or right). Then I practiced, repeating the same pattern until my body naturally remembered it.
To play the marimba, we must hit the key right in the middle with mallets, in order to get the right sound, which may produce blisters where the mallets rub the skin. For the djembe, we must stand the pain until the hands warm up, in order to strike well enough to achieve a crisp sound. After a few days of practice, my arms and fingers grew stronger, the skin of my hands became thicker, and my back developed muscles.
After a few weeks of my training, an opportunity naturally came for me to debut on a djembe in a local cabaret. While the group is normally made of two marimbas, two djembes, one bass dun dun, that day they were short of players and this gave me an unexpected chance to play in front of a local audience. Even though it was an unfamiliar piece, I played the accompanying rhythms I had learned during my lessons, matching with the other players and the improvisations of my master, marimba soloist. Once the rhythms stabilized, it felt as everyone was united in a warm African way. As the climax of the piece comes, the tempo rises, excitement builds, and the feeling of unity sublimates. Then, with a sign by the soloist, we all welcome the conclusion of the piece.
African Music – Rhythmical Melody
The African drums, the hallowed out hardwoods covered by animal skin, are played by the bear-hands. Three different notes come out from the same drum depending on the way the musician strikes it. Once the performance begins, the repetition of a rhythm brings us a comfortable sensation. Soon the rhythms start to develop inside us, even without us noticing, and connect us with the surrounding energy.
The African percussion could seem like the repetition of a complex rhythm. The combination of rhythms by several musicians, on top of which a soloist brings his improvisations, grasps not only the performers but also the audience and creates a sort of harmony in the atmosphere. The lead percussionist plays a primary role in this process by tapping into each participant’s inner spirit while conducting the entire piece.
I wondered if this rhythmic sense, particular to the Africans, was intrinsic. Raised by a mother who taught me to play the classical piano, their rhythms went beyond my concept of music. I started by counting 1,2,3,4…, trying to transcribe the patterns, which I quickly realized useless. Listen with the ears, remember by the body – as their music neither includes “transcription” nor “counting”.
It was Ray Lema who taught me that the concept of the rhythm for Africans does not fit in the occidental frame. “It’s a rhythmical melody,” says Ray. It was because of my unconscious will to consider the drum beats as “rhythm”, that made me feel uneasy during my formation. Considering them as melody, I came to realize how natural their way is – with no transcribing and no counting.
But when does this rhythmical melody start, and when does it end? Ray Lema told me that the key to follow the rhythm is to look for the “Clave”. Played usually with a metallic or woody sound, the Clave gives the tempo to all performers who will base their sound variations on it. If you realize the Clave, you will then be able to understand even the most complex rhythms.
In Africa, apart from the simple signatures we are used to in occidental music, such as four quarters or six eighths, the use of complex signatures such as five, seven and even thirteen eighths is common. For signatures with odd beats over five, it is difficult to grasp the tempo and even more difficult to play. Ray Lema subscribes to the notion that in order to play on five beats, you need to stabilize your axis completely.
Living in Paris, a musician representing Africa, Ray Lema plays the piano with his hands big as his heart, and sings with a tender and nostalgic voice. When he plays, even the most complex odd rhythms are able to fit in a simple meter, and allowing us to appreciate the complete harmony. In music, having a stable axis enables us to face complexity as naturally as when dealing with the simple.