No Drums Allowed: Afro Rhythm Mutations in N. America (re/x/post)

(this article originally appeared on This Is Africa, republishing here since it is not on their new site)

Street bands playing Rock’n’Roll in Berlin, Marvin Gaye in a local bar in Thailand, Nas blaring on the streets of Johannesburg, House Music in the mega-clubs of Shang Hai – where ever one goes in the world today, no effort is needed to find African American music and its derivatives.

The embellishment of African derived rhythm/melody with European harmonics gave birth to Jazz, arguably the worlds most significant musical explosion of the millennium.  In the 100 years since, African American music, which became largely synonymous with American music, has been exerting a tremendous amount of global influence.  The spread of this influence accelerated even more after WW2, as the US became a global economic and military super power, aggressively pursuing a program of cultural imperialism, which increasingly saturated the world with its ideas, stories, images, and sounds.

But there is one peculiar thing which nearly all American music has in common – and the more one considers it, the more peculiar it becomes – an extensive emphasis on a unique rhythm, a rhythm very different from that which is found almost anywhere else in the world.  It goes like this: Boom – Bap – Boom – Bap, with a kick drum on the 1 and 3 or all 4, a snare drum precisely on the 2 and 4, with nearly nothing in between except maybe a high hat, and no major hits ever landing off the grid.  This rhythm is called the “Duple” in music theory, and you can find variations of it driving all modern popular American music styles: Blues, Motown, Soul, Funk, Rock, Disco, Hiphop, House, Pop, and beyond.

Duple Rhythm (beginning of video):

Classic Blues:

Motown/Disco/Pop:

The pervasive dominance of this simplified, rigid, and mechanical mono-rhythm, minimizing poly-rhythmic elements in the music to the role of embellishment, sometimes to the point of non-existence, is very different from the focus on complex polyrhythms in various forms of modern South American and Caribbean music. Cuban Son and Rumba, Brazillian Bossa Nova, Haitian Gwo Ka and Compas, Trinidadian Calypso; none of them rely so extensively on the Duple (besides sub-genres which were directly influenced by US exports, such as Ska Reggae, which heavily borrows from the Rhythm’n’Blues of the 50s).

Cuban Son:

Haitian Compas:

And if we zoom out to look at great traditions of music of the world: Asia, Middle East, and of course, Africa, with zero exceptions, the Duple beat is never a central element, and hardly even exist at all in the major bodies of music produced by these ancient cultures. All of them are based on intricately interlocking polyrhythms arranged in hypnotic, complex mathematical patterns. (the much younger European classical tradition, which developed as entertainment for royalty and the rich, has always regarded rhythm as an element of the under classes and “primitives”, and has “long discarded African music as an oddity of the animal kingdom” – Piero Scaruffi. With very few exceptions, these attitudes and a refusal to accept African music and its offspring continued all the way through the 20th century until today, which explains the increasing gap between it and the rest of the world.) (01)

Indonesian Gamelan:

Indian Classical:

Persian Classical:

Siamou Music in Burkina Faso:

So how did North American modern music become so different?  Why did the evolution of American rhythm take this unique path?  The answer is surely very complex, including many elements such as Native American tribal influence and the folk music of the European colonists, most of which used relatively simple rhythms.  But there is another, perhaps even more important factor which might explain this phenomenon, a single historical process which began in the early days of America.  Historians and scholars have written much about it, but the story remains relatively untold in the public sphere.  The following is a condensed, brief, and generalized version.
When first brought to North America during the 1600s and 1700s, slaves from the West coast of Africa used drums to communicate with each other in much the same way as they did at home, sending coded rhythmic messages over long distances, which the Europeans could not understand.  In this way slaves held in different encampments could stay in contact, and rebellion could be planned.  But after some time the masters realized that the drums could talk:
“…it is absolutely necessary to the safety of this Province, that all due care be taken to restrain Negroes from using or keeping of drums, which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes.”  – Slave Code of South Carolina, Article 36 (1740)
Starting on the plantations of the Carolinas and Georgia, this ban soon spread nearly everywhere.  Without drums, slaves used whatever was around to make beats: spoons, washboards, furniture, and their own bodies with hand-clapping, drumming on various surfaces of the body (Patting Juba), and foot-stomping and shuffling (Ring Shout).  “It always rouses my imagination,” wrote Lydia Parrish of the Georgia Sea Islands in 1942, “to see the way in which the McIntosh County ‘shouters’ tap their heels on the resonant floor to imitate the beat of the drum their forebears were not allowed to have.”(02) These earlier practices are also the origin of modern forms such as Tap Dancing.

Slapping Juba (the teacher in this video actually recounts a version of the actual incident which result in the first banning of the drums: the murder of a slaver by a slave named Juba, his execution, the subsequent large scale revolt organized with talking drums, and its brutal suppression. From that point on, any slave caught with a drum would have his hands cut off, or hung):

Ring Shout:

The most widely used substitute for drums, partly because of its ready availability, was the human voice. Field Hollers, Call and ResponseWork Songs, Prison Songs, and all kinds of Vocality were developed, with the voice often replicating drum patterns and to create counterpoints, using standard singing, chanting, as well as extended techniques such as guttural effects, interpolated vocality, falsetto, melisma, etc.  Sounds of the work itself such as chopping wood or marching, as well as foot stomping or hand clapping during off hours, provided a basic, skeletal time signature, over which the polyrhythmic vocal sounds could improvise (the roots of Scat Singing).  Sometimes imitating the beats of many drums in one line, these vocal elements filled the incremental temporal spaces between each clap of the hand or fall of the hammer, and played an important role in the preservation of African rhythmic heritage.

Slave Song:

Work Song:

Thus Afro rhythm traditions survived through mutation and adaptation, and formed the drum-less foundation of American music.  The descendants of these earlier styles later became wildly popular beginning in the 19th Century: Ragtime, Minstrelsy, Spirituals, Salon Music, Jubilee, Blues, and Gospel (which has been called “percussion music without drums” by historians).  The appropriation of Black slave music by White mainstream society started at this time, with the phenomenon of Blackface Minstrelsy.  One of the first and most enduring artist/thieves was Stephen Foster, who took African derived rhythms played on the African derived instrument the Banjo, and incorporated them into songs such as “Oh Susana” (which became one of the most popular American songs ever).  This, and the mixing of African slave traditions with European folk music were the origins of Country Music: “One of the reasons country music was created by African Americans, as well as European Americans, is because blacks and whites in rural communities in the south often worked and played together” – DeFord Bailey (03)

And because the drums were taken away, the forms of West African music which either were purely vocal or featured the voice prominently, traditionally played without drums, using simple instruments, such as many kinds of narrative song cycles in the Griot traditions of Mali and Senegal, took root in a big way and gained wide popularity in the deep South.  No specific African musical form can be identified as the single direct ancestor of the blues, but many elements of the Blues, such as the call-and-response format and the use of blue notes, can be traced back to the music of Africa. (04)

Historians have also speculated that the Spanish slavers, who first set up colonies in the Americas in South America, at that time had not long expelled the North African Moors after 800 years of Islamic rule back home, preferred not to import Afro-Muslims.  Thus a higher concentration of people from the Sahel/Mali/Senegal regions, many of whom were Muslim, ended up in North America, bringing with them their more vocal and string based traditions.  While more people from the Congo/Ghana/Nigeria regions arrived in South America and the Caribbean, with their more extensive drumming traditions.

A classic sound collage (Alan Lomax) comparing traditional vocal music from Africa and vocal music from the Delta, alternating, line by line, between American and Senegalese singing:

the direct ancestor of the banjo was the Malian/Senegalese instrument Xalam or Ngoni, widely used by Griots:

There was one exception to this drum-lessness: due to the Catholic laws in Luisiana being different from the protestant ones in Georgia and the Carolinas, drums were not banned in New Orleans, the center of the American slave trade, until much later, the second half of the 19th Century. This and other crucial social conditions were the ingredients of a series of cultural/musical explosions that would change the course of the entire world.

Prior to new waves of repression that would come, this port city directly connected to Cuba and the Caribbean, run by the French and Spanish, included a substantial Creole of colour land-owning middle class, so that “black” was not automatically equated with slavery – an anomaly in the South at the time, to say the least. Before the 1890s when this mixed race group suddenly lost their privilege and equality, they participated in every level of society including politics, making a huge difference in terms of racial tolerance, inclusiveness, cultural exchange with Cuba, and the development of both local music as well as music in Cuba.

An economy based on trade meant less regimented attitudes and more respect for difference: “Untouched by the industrial revolution and less socially stressed than other plantation-oriented economies, New Orleans was able to retain the traditions of the various ethnic groups while they were rapidly being annihilated in the rest of the USA.” – Piero Scaruffi (01) Also, Southern Europeans had somewhat different ideas from the Northern Europeans in their treatment of slaves, due to their countries of origin being closer to Africa, and already heavily influenced by African culture. New Orleans brothels allowed sex across the colour line (not just unheard of but completely INSANE in the 1800s) all the way until 1918, when the US government forced the mayor of New Orleans to segregate.

In this atmosphere of relative tolerance and less repressive laws, for much of the 19th century this opulent melting pot city was host to a vibrant nightlife, exotic rituals, tribal dances, pagan festivals, funeral marches and all kinds of parties which never seemed to stop. Further, there was one place, indeed the only place on the entire continent, the “Congo Square”, in the Tremé neighborhood, where slaves had for a long time been allowed to make music: “In Louisiana during the 18th century, slaves were commonly allowed Sundays off from their work. They were allowed to gather in the “Place de Negres”, informally “Place Congo”, where the slaves would set up a market, sing, dance, and play music.” – Peter Kolchin (05)

nola congo square sign

The dominant rhythmic figure popular in New Orleans and performed on Congo Square during this time, with origins in the many different slave musics of the Caribbean, is the three-stroke pattern known in Cuban music as tresillo (06).  Louis Armstrong must have heard it plenty as a boy, growing up mere blocks from Congo Square.  “Tresillo is the most basic and by far, the most prevalent duple-pulse rhythmic cell in sub-Saharan African music traditions, and the music of the African Diaspora.” – David Peñalosa (07)  In the post-Civil War period, African Americans in New Orleans were able to obtain surplus military bass drums, snare drums, fifes, trumpets and saxophones.  As a result, an original African American drum and fife music arose, featuring tresillo and related syncopated rhythmic figures.
And so it was in the brothels and bars of the red-light district of New Orleans where a potent combination of Blues, Ragtime, Quadrilles, Salon Music, Afro-Latin music, Native American music, European folk music and Marching Bands, played by multi-racial musicians who shared a passion for syncopation and improvisation, with discarded military brass and reed instruments, first came together to form what we know as Jazz.   

“It is probably safe to say that by and large the simpler African rhythmic patterns survived in jazz … because they could be adapted more readily to European rhythmic conceptions. Some survived, others were discarded as the Europeanization progressed. It may also account for the fact that patterns such as [tresillo have] … remained one of the most useful and common syncopated patterns in jazz.” – Gunther Schuller (08)

A few decades later a new hybrid style with even more reduced, simplistic, and obvious drum beats was born in the same city, in fact the exact same neighborhood: the first Rock ‘n’ Roll records were made in the Tremé district.  “Without New Orlean’s rich musical contribution there would have been no Elvis Presley or Beatles. Because both acts were heavily influenced by the songs recorded by Fats Domino and Little Richards at Cosimo Matassa’s Studios (close to Congo Square).” – Fabian Jolivet.

So there you have it: Jazz and Rock’n’Roll, probably the 2 most significant American cultural exports ever, both born in the only place in America where for a few decades slaves were allowed to play drums and dance. 

Though New Orleans Jazz did sometimes use rhythm patterns more subtle and complex than the Duple (but still much less intricate and nuanced than its influences: Afro-Latin and African music), the much wider and older history of drum-lessness had a deeply profound effect on American music in general, and the Duple fundamentally shaped all popular music to come in the 20th Century.  

There were of course other sources and reasons, both historical and modern: Native American music and Irish, Italian, German folk music such as the Oompah or Polka all used simple mono-rhythms; as well as modern environmental factors such as the rigid and repetitive sound of machines, factories, automobiles and trains in the industrialized landscape.

Native American Ritual Music:

Irish Folk Music:

German Volkstümliche Musik:

All of these cultures contributed to the complex hybrid which is American music, but from where i’m standing, as a person from East Asia, an outsider to American music, to European music, and to African music alike, the origins of Jazz, Rock, Hiphop, etc. are clearly located much more in the blues and slave music from both at home and Latin America than traditions represented by the above 3 videos. If one accepts the seminal, foundational influence exerted by transplanted African culture, this legacy of drum-less evolution might just be the most important piece of the puzzle, the main answer to the question of how the Duple came to dominate American modern music.

But unlike African Americans who RE-invented their African musical heritage through memory and forgetfulness in a completely new context, Africans in Latin America and the Caribbean large preserved homeland drumming traditions, which survive nearly intact until today. (09)

Trinidadian Steel Drums:

Drums were also banned in the Caribbean, in places like Trinidad, but much later in the 19th Century.  So the slaves had a stronger connection to African rhythm culture, which was apparent when they started using frying pans, dustbin lids and oil drums after the ban (as oil was an important national product), forming the Trinidadian tradition of Steel Pan and Steel Drum music (10).  Similarly, drums were taken away from slaves in Cuba at a later time, and the roots of Rumba lies in Afro-Cubans playing African music with “household items: the side of a cabinet functioned in the role of the present-day tumba or salidor (the primary supportive drum), while an overturned drawer served as the quinto (the lead drum) and a pair of spoons played the cáscara part on whatever was available.” – David Peñalosa (11)  The handmade percussion instrument Claves, which came from hitting wooden pegs together in shipyards to accompany slave work songs, is now a ubiquitous in all Cuban music and its derivatives from Son to Mambo to Salsa to Timba, playing the Clavérhythm pattern of African origin.

Afro-Brazilian Percussion:

Other reasons for the stronger ties with African culture in the Caribbean and South America include the much greater number of slaves (North America: 0.5 million, Caribbean: 5 million, South America: 5 million); as well as slavery lasting much longer:  Brazil until the 1880s, and Cuba until the 1890s.  Also important were certain practices in slavery: in places like Cuba, unlike in North America, slaves were literally worked to death to increase the profit of the sugar trade.  Since they were not bred to be sold (like in North America), fresh supplies had to be imported directly from Africa, a practice that continued in Havana until 1873. Thus Africans continued to arrive in South America constantly and much more frequently during the later period of the slave trade, maintaining their folkloric traditions through secret societies (particularly Yoruba and Kikongo) (12), producing amazing cultural hybrids such as Capoeira and music like in the videos above. 

As we have seen, rhythm in America took on a very much unique and drastically different character, as result of a particular historical process, a specific evolutionary path.  This can be acutely felt today: consider Hip Hop: the simple, skeletal “BOOM – BAP” beat is the modern version of foot-stomping and hand-clapping, performing the same function of time-keeping, and just as 500 years ago, complex vocal delivery (rap) fills in all the fractions of time between, imitating and substituting for drum patterns – a mutated continuation of African musical heritage.

Usually the first reaction from Americans when this story is told is defensiveness.  But while it is indisputable that American rhythm is in general relatively more simplified and rigid compared to most of the rest of the world, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  The raw physical force of simplicity, that kick-you-in-the-gut-and-make-you-see-stars brute power of American modern music can not be denied.  Due to its development through the legacy of oppression and misery, American music is without a doubt the best for expression of intense class and racial tension in a modern world filled with injustice.  As we have seen, the rhythm is literally born of the actual sounds of slavery, thus no wonder the best expression of the joys and sorrows of life as slaves (are we not all slaves of global capitalism?)
On another level, perhaps rigid, mechanical rhythms just suits our rigid and mechanical urban lifestyles better than organic polyrhythms; and the information saturated and sound polluted environments in which we live might explain the modern taste for stripped down and minimalistic beats.  Besides, the understatement of subtle, implicit, or suggested polyrhythms in a lot of African American music gives it unique formal qualities and new possibilities not found in African music.  (with that said i personally prefer Fela Kuti to James Brown :P)
But in many ways strong and explicit African polyrhythms is returning to African American music, from the self-conscious attempts to reconnect with Motherland culture made by musicians in the 1960s and 70s to the Chicago Juke/Footwork of today.  It seems unlikely that only 1 type of rhythm can sustain all these different kinds of music for long, and i think we are currently in the process of a global polyrhythmic revival.

Juke/Footwork:

Chicago Street Percussion:

Now we come to the grand finale, rainbow-in-the-sky, lighters-in-the-air, closing message of this long and dense story which spans half a millennium: African rhythm heritage not only survives, but THRIVES, in any hostile environment, despite every hardship, against every repressive measure, in defiance of all forces that tries to destroy it.

Thanks to Keith Jones, Wayne Marshall, and Darius James.

(01) Scaruffi, Piero. A History of Popular Music before Rock Music.
(02) Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues. 
(03) Kingsbury Paul. The encyclopedia of country music: the ultimate guide to the music.
(04) Barbara Vierwo. Andy Trudeau. The Curious Listener’s Guide to the Blues.
(05) Kolchin, Peter. American Slavery,
(06) Sublette, Ned. The World that made New Orleans: from Spanish silver to Congo Square.
(07) Peñalosa, David. The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins.
(08) Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz; Its Roots and Musical Development.

(09) Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues.
(10) Saldenha, Robert. Another Look At The History Of The Steel Band
(11) Peñalosa, David. Rumba Quinto.
(12) Sublette, Ned. A History of Cuba and its Music.

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ADDENDUM:
Over the years i’ve heard people say things like “at least slavery gave us good music”, or “without slavery music would be boring”.
To this i respond:
1. Cultures mix via trade and other means all the time, such as the cultures all along the “Silk Road” trade routes: for example Turkish ideas inspired Chinese music and vice versa, without war or violence, and the resulting Uyghur music is anything but boring.  Similarly, Africa could have met Europe in a number of different ways, without subjugation or slavery.
2. Given that much of American music was born in the only place where slaves were allowed to make music, what kinds of creativity would have blossomed from the meeting of African and European musical ideas, if the slaves were allowed to make music all over America?  What If there was no slavery at all and musicians could collaborate and inspire each other on equal footing??  And what if Europeans were never blinded by ignorance and racism, and had combined their developed harmony with sophisticated African rhythm starting from a much earlier time???
3.  Slavery created the need to express anger, sadness and resentment through music, and we have come to prize and “enjoy” these qualities in music.  But we should not get confused and believe these qualities to be inherently, naturally good.  Because without that legacy of abuse we would not enjoy angry and sad music at all, and would have come to appreciate other qualities instead.
4. Yes something good can come out of any catastrophic and violent injustice; but this is because of the strength of people and endurance of culture, not because of the injustice.
5. Any argument that any part of slavery, how ever small, was good in any way, is an attempt to justify racist violence.

The Real Roots of Kwaito

(bigup This Is Africa for publishing this!)

The few times western publications have written about Kwaito and South African House, styles which have thrived for many decades, the story is almost always told in terms of a unidirectional migration of House Music from the United States to Africa.  This is problematic because 1 central factor is not only understated, but entirely missing, including from the South African voices sometimes interviewed.

This central factor is the wealth of Southern African musical traditions which was the real precedent, the main cultural lineage, the Mother (with Chicago perhaps being the Father, which might be an exaggeration) of Kwaito and SA House.

Mbaqanga, Township Jive, SA Jazz, music styles from Tsonga (Shangaan), Xhosa, Tswana, Zulu, Swazi, Venda, Sotho, Ndebele, etc., tribes, numerous other Southern African 20th Century and traditional styles, and influences from other parts of Africa, these are the true ancestors of contemporary urban electronic music.

In many classic, pre-80s South African jams you can hear the 4 to the floor kick, the consecutive high-hats (sometimes done with clapping), the off-beat snares (as opposed to on the 2), additional percussion, distinct baselines, driving chants — all elements which live on in today’s SA dance music.  Many older recordings sound almost exactly like Kwaito played on acoustic instruments:

modern Kwaito:

2 examples of unmistakeable precursors to SA house, 1 of traditional music, the other of classic Jive:

During the earliest days of new urban music in the townships, as a new wave of Afro-American and Afro-European imports landed in the form of disco and house, SA artists took a lot of inspiration from these refreshing electronic sounds, incorporating the influences and sometimes outright imitating.   Western sounds had the effect of an initial stimulant and inspiration, but its impact did not last, and soon after this initial phase, Kwaito, and a little later SA House, began to mature, and became its own thing, less and less influenced by outside sources, more and more taking ideas from indigenous Southern African musical heritage.  Eventually, as African musical roots fully manifested themselves, these genres took their rightful places in the history, the lineage, the continuum, of South African music.  Important was the shifting of rhythmic emphasis: as early as the 90s, Kwaito started to use more and more the homegrown “Dembow” rhythm pattern with offbeat snares, distinctly different from the mechanical Duple 1-2 beat of Western House.

Today, if one looks at canonical artists of SA House, those most emblematic of the genre, such as Dj Cleo, Dj Clock (most recent releases of these 2 artists excepting), Black Motion, or Dj Vetkuk, the music is clearly, much more than anything else, the descendent of deep African roots, with American or European characteristics largely left behind, almost as if it was never there.  Indeed, a very good case can be made, through analysis of musical form, that South African House is now a related but entirely different breed from Chicago House, with its own rhythm signature, its own palette of sounds, attributes, textures, and stylistic conventions; its own family tree, genealogy, and history.

Yet western journalism to this day nearly always focus entirely on the American Father, to the point of completely neglecting the African Mother.  Franky Knuckles was surely seminal (unlikelihood of the gay brother impregnating anything aside), but this influence needs to be seen in the context of a larger cultural womb rich with musical nutrients which nourished and gave birth to modern SA music, and its limits recognized.   Too much importance, as always, is given to Western exports, as if SA is only doing an African version of an American thing, as if Kwaito is only “Slowed Down US House” – a distorted view so common that it is on the Wikipedia page.  Even more extreme, This article absurdly compares the relationship of SA House to Chicago to that of the Rolling Stones to Muddy Waters, demonstrating plain ignorance and ethnocentricity. Grossly over-simplified, reductionist, and simply false claims such as these are made too frequently, perpetuating structurally West-centric points of view.  Even those with the best of intentions, such as Dj Lynnee Denise, often subconsciously take the hegemonic position, inadvertently denying Africans of cultural and historical agency.   And it is not surprising that South Africans themselves often reproduce these skewed perspectives, being a people recently liberated, and still largely in awe of everything from the wealthy people up north, often under valuing their own, in every way much more significant cultural heritage.

When it comes down to it, African Mother is much older and possessive of much larger bodies of deeper and more varied musical knowledge than American Father; the later being himself, of course, only one of her many children.

NGOMA Manifesto

1. FUSION

“The boundaries of objects are vague – and that goes for us too… Describing the world in terms of discrete objects is a useful fiction.” – Kees van Deemter

Well worn cliche or not, everything is connected. Borders and separation, in the spheres of physics, of politics, of “race”, as it is of culture, are illusions fostered by narrow and fearful minds, often purposefully fabricated by those who seek control and to benefit from alienation, antagonism, and the suffering of millions.

Today our conceptions of the cultures of the world, of their history and relationships to each other, is sadly still under heavy influence of 18th and 19th century revisionist versions of history. During those colonialist times in the United States, education reform initiated by the wealthy elite of powerful industrialists applied sweeping changes across university campuses, teaching a fundamental and intrinsic divide between “East” and “West”, painting the former as largely superstitious, backwards, repressive, and the later progressive, modern, liberal. While in Europe racist German and English scholars began erasing the African and Asian foundational influence of classical Greece out of history, replaced by an absurd Euro-centric story of the “Cradle of Western Civilization” developing more or less autonomously, with the only outside influence from “Northern Tribes”, separate from much older and more advanced civilizations in close physical proximity. The dissemination of this fictional dichotomy between the “occident” and “orient” has always been politically motivated: it furthers the aims of the ruling class, provides a necessary ideological backdrop for colonial and neo-colonial agendas, and is still instrumental in world affairs today (the structural basis for “the war on terror” as related to the demonization of Islam).

But there is no essential divide between “East” and “West”, their relationship being more like parent and child. And in the realm of music, the inter-relatedness of all cultures and the character of their specific relationships becomes apparent and clear. For instance the guitar was a direct descendent of the Oud, the grand parent of all plucked instruments, the first record of which appears in ancient Mesopotamia during the Acadian period (2359-2159 BC). The Romans around 40 AD made a version of it called the Cithara, which spread to the Vikings in Europe; and later Gypsies living in Islamic Spain created the modern guitar based on that. And if one traces the history of 20th Century North American pop and dance music, a crude and very abbreviated but basically sound genealogy describes a line going back to Disco, to Soul, to Funk, to Motown, to Gospel, to Blues, to Jazz, to work songs of the slaves, and indeed, to Africa.

Continuities are everywhere one chooses to look: the Balkans are connected to Israel to Iran to Spain to Egypt to Morrocco to Mali to the Congo to Haiti to Cuba to Colombia to New York City. Yet there is still this prevalent vantage point that “World Music” is indeed somehow fundamentally different from “Western Music”, and it is still shocking to some that non-Western sounds are making such a ripple in 2010 (the success of artists such as Omar Suleyman, and a new wave of indie musicians citing non-western influence). As if Rock and Roll itself wasn’t African American, and less directly, African in origin. As if Led Zeppelin wasn’t heavily influenced by Turkish music, or the Rolling Stones by Morroccan traditions, the Beatles by Indian Classical, Can and (early) Kraftwerk by East Asian sensibilities and African percussion, Debussey and John Cage by Indonesian Gamelan, Steve Reich and Georgy Ligetti by African polyrhythms, etc, etc, etc. Forward thinking and ground breaking modern music in the “west” has always taken cues from much older non-western sources (similar to the way modern visual art owes much to pre-modern, so called “primitive” forms).

2. RE-ENTRY

“Those piles of ruins which you see in that narrow valley watered by the Nile, are the remains of opulent cities, the pride of the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia. There a people, now forgotten, discovered while others were yet barbarians, the elements of the arts and sciences.” – Count Volney

Humans have surely forgotten much more than we know today, with the ravage of time, after countless wars, destruction of entire cultures, libraries burnt down. By the same token, ancient musical traditions contain forms which are more advanced, more inventive, more structurally challenging, more revolutionary in every sense of the word, than any “futuristic” electronic dance music today. And in terms of the expansion of minds or total ecstatic celebration, the bits and pieces passed down to us, remnants of musical traditions reaching back to ancient times, often embody methods far superior to what you might find in today’s dance clubs. One man sitting on the island of Madagascar, singing over an insistent Rhythmelody plucked out of a single-string instrument contains all the elements of minimal techno, and with more ingenuity, more grace, more efficiency, more innovation, more raw power, than anything produced in the last 30 years.

All rhythm certainly comes from Africa, as the drum itself was invented somewhere around Kenya tens of thousands of years ago. But African music is much more than drumming, for example the various Kora traditions weaving complex melodic structures that would make Bach dizzy. To be more precise, in much of African music one finds an un-differentiated oneness of rhythm and melody, never divorced from each other by over analytical minds. Examples of this can be found in Soukous guitar, various Mbira (thumb piano) musics scattered through out the continent, Yoruba talking drums, and multiple traditions of tuned percussion instruments such as the Balafon or Marimba.

What we have seen in the last few centuries of Western musical development is a return to rhythm, after being largely divided from it for many centuries under the European Classical establishment, which reduced its importance and saw it as “primitive” and “plebean”, emblematic of the music of savages and the underclass. But in the melting pot of the Americas, a traumatic confrontation between European and African traditions became probably the most important source of innovation in the past mellenium, forming the seeds of the myriad kinds of musical styles we know today.

The only way to move forward is to look back upon the treasures of our collective past. It is indeed this re-entry of indigenous musical heritage, fused with urban bass culture, this combination of ancestral musical ideas and modern sound, which is now giving rise to irresistible next level dance music on every continent. Crucial new scenes thrive and vital new styles are born in almost every corner of the world, challenging and displacing the centralized hegemonic culture manufacturing machine which attempts to fill the world with its vacuous regurgitation. But despite the spread of information technologies, there is a pointed lack of communication between musical communities of the world today, and many scenes remain relatively isolated and insular, inaccessible to their potential global audience who hunger after new sounds. For instance Kwaito, the South African House/Hiphop hybrid style based on traditional Zulu music, flourished for 2 decades within the townships while being virtually unknown outside, and only recently began to make waves in the world at large.

3. the Responsibility of DJs

“who cares? it’s just music!” – anonymous

Economic, political, and other arbitrary factors entirely other than artistic merit often determine which music rises to global prominence, and which is relegated to obscurity and silence outside of it’s region. As the pioneering early 20th century ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax put it half a century ago (i paraphrase): “mass media broadcasts the voice of the privileged, while often times more deserving, more beautiful voices in poverty stricken places remain unheard.” Thus djs in these neo-colonialst times, as cultural workers whose particular role gives them direct access to large audiences, must be aware of the many levels of inequity in the world, and do his/her job with this awareness in mind.

Of course, above all other concerns, djs must rock the party. We must create unforgettable experiences on the dance floor, and fascilitate that most important (no, it is not frivolous at all!) of social functions: the celebration of life despite its hardships. But there is more than 1 way to mash up the dance, and djs do not have to pander to the charts or appeal to lowest common denominators to please a crowd.

It is possible to simultaneously entertain and educate the audience. DJs can transcend the here and now, go beyond (or destroy completely) the status quo, if they choose to. Music is never “just music”, but always an expression of subjective social reality.  The world around us and the particular dynamics and situations we are in, from the macro to the micro, should to some degree inform each dj set, with site specific references and conceptual links, infusing the musical experience with many levels of meaning. A good Dj does in depth research into her/his chosen styles, studies its history and lineage as related to other strands, and find and make unexpected connections.

In this day and age, many members of society and especially other kinds of artists still view the DJ as a clown-ish, superficial, unsophisticated and unimportant character, who exists solely to entertain drunk idiots. If all other reasons fail, this might be motivation enough to start taking ourselves and what we do more seriously.

NGOMA SOUND official here we go!

from now on all things related to NGOMA Collective, Soundsystem, and DJ Zhao will be here.

a few highlights from the past 3 years:

FUSION Festival 2008 (Germany)

FUSION Festival 2009

INCUBATE Festival 2009 (Holland)

KWAITO IN BERLIN (with Gazza and EES from Namibia)

AT.TENSION Festival 2009

UDON CLUB with COOLY G

AYOBANESS! party with PASTOR MBHOBHO and MGO from South Africa!

ETHNOPORT Festival (Poland)

EXIT Festival (Serbia) / Summer Film School Festival (Czech) 2010

SHANGAAN ELECTRO @ BERGHAIN

and i’m just going to put this photo here: