Like a bell pattern urging us to dance, an insistent refrain rings throughout Kofi Agawu’s illuminating new study of traditional, popular, and art music made by Africans: The result [of a lead drummer’s improvisational strategy] is a deep level of coherence that may come as a surprise to those who have underestimated African intellection or who would prefer a mystical explanation to a rational one (187). This demonstration [of core melodic principles] will hopefully disrupt any lingering suspicions that African melody is primitive, inferior, or unsophisticated (198). As for the supposed absence of abstraction in African thought, this demonstration [of melodic archetypes] should once again call it into question (239). The fact that African musicians are not readily credited with imaginative ways of creating form should now look odd given some of the routines and potentialities described here (265). The author aims not only to scrutinize the continent’s rich musical practices, but also to confound entrenched prejudices and to promote a deeper appreciation of its musicians’ creativity and expression. While he takes measure of African imagination partly in its “astonishing diversity” (3)—a quality that could be attributed to any collection drawn from a wide enough geographical area—he also provides ample evidence for the characteristics cited above: coherence, rationality, principle, abstraction, and distinctive routines. Accordingly, he allies himself with scholars who sense a “connectedness” at a “background level” evident when we “listen beyond surfaces to the shared structures that prop up those surfaces” (3). All these features “set African music apart from other world music” (307), a claim that he intends as “an expression of desire, an article of faith, and a mark of pride” (18) that will inspire African scholars and musicians to test his formulations on their own repertoires and add creatively to their heritage (25). Broad introductions such as this may be designed to engage readers on different levels. Most aim at least to dazzle, and this volume certainly showcases the diversity, virtuosity, and expressive range of the sub-Saharan repertoire. Some provide the readers with tools to discover riches for themselves, and the most edifying ones provide a critical perspective on those tools. Since I am no Africanist, I must leave it to others to evaluate the accuracy and comprehensiveness of Agawu’s representations, which echo and supplement those made in his earlier publications. In this brief review, I will simply make a few evaluative comments on his analytical techniques, in response to his hope to “engender additional theoretical dialogue with colleagues in musicology and music theory” (21), a dialogue that has import for the analysis of world music more widely. The book systematically surveys each facet of African music—instruments, language, rhythm, melody, form, and harmony—with reference to a primary dataset of 100 recordings supplemented by others for specific topics. Most chapters begin with an aphorism establishing a general orientation (such as “the origin of all melody is the human voice,” 195), then drill down to identify “truly” (not “uniquely,” 18) African musical procedures, with generous references to foundational scholarship by Jones, Kubik, Nketia, Arom, Anku, Locke, and many others. The discussion often proceeds categorically: for example, there are three modes of drumming (165), four components of ensemble playing (169), and five principles of form (249). For the general reader, vivid vignettes add an intimate human dimension, demonstrating how the music reflects social structures, conventions, and values, although Agawu also cautions against associating them facilely with musical structure (57). The writing is personable, rich, and clearly organized; only rarely do specialized interests protrude in such daunting jargon as “[the music] subtends a palpable essence that indexes a deep-level expressive coherence” (14–15), and only a few of his summaries feel merely obligatory, such as the survey of circular representations of music in society (58–63). Theorists, though, may find his treatment of some topics too sparse. For instance, the chapter on harmony mostly catalogs different sorts of sonorities and textures and does not engage with important concepts usually regarded as harmonic: a repertoire of root patterns that provide the basis for phrases, or even simply the different expressive qualities a pitch may assume as the member of a simultaneity, for instance, as the root, third, fifth, or seventh factor of a chord. The reader is left to wonder from this omission whether such concepts are too technical for the layperson or whether they are too inappropriate to be applied at all. For some aspects of the music Agawu advocates indigenous conceptions. For example, he proposes replacing the Hornbostel-Sachs system of instrument classification with a typology more attuned not only to materials of construction but also to musical function and metaphorical connotations (78–112). He also cautions against importing European aesthetics into analyses. For example, he finds that certain virtuoso xylophone repertoires, which constantly repeat long, rapid, interlocking patterns, promulgate a distinctive experience of time that “by compelling attention to the here and now … sets aside the stylized management of long-term desire that one so often encounters in European music of the common-practice era” (99). However, he rejects narratives of difference, especially those that attribute an irrational uncoordinated freedom to African rhythm. Rather he advocates “frameworks of understanding that affirm its rational basis” (157). For instance, he posits a shared meter, expressed in dance steps, as the background coordinating mechanism for concurrent patterns in polyphony (179). Dismissing anthropologists’ attempts to correlate drumming with “circular,” “lived” time, such as agricultural cycles, he cites studies that show how it is “strongly linear or goal-oriented” (158) with the performers “in full awareness of the shifting relationship between bell and lead-drum pattern” (187). Aside from a few brief analytical forays—including a rich exegesis of the lyrics of a hiplife song (140–46) and an incomplete sketch of a system to analyze complex rhythms as generated from simpler ones (189)—the first chapters avoid detailed engagement with specific musical utterances and remain positioned closely in relation to (or in tension with) existing scholarly literature. When the discussion turns to melody and form, though, which Agawu feels have not been sufficiently appreciated, there is a marked “turn away from general impressions [to] specifics, away from overt advocacy to description” (198). Indeed, what makes these two chapters especially valuable and distinctive is their close focus on the details of individual items, with “open eyes” to current Western analytical approaches (20). The accounts concentrate on purely musical aspects, describing the systematic pitch, timbral, and temporal organization of the events, the logics of their specific orderings and combinations, and their relation to the whole. Considering the potential of these analyses to direct future research into African music, and into world music more generally, I hope they will be examined in detail to see what kinds of insights they provide, and how they might serve as models. All of his examples merit study, but for the purpose of critical evaluation, I will comment on just two of the most striking. Up front I should acknowledge that for Agawu structural analysis is not an end unto itself. Indeed, analysis “cannot ultimately prove the aesthetic worth of an African melody; it can only draw attention to the kinds of structures imagined and enacted by African composers” (208). But even though analysis is not sufficient, he does treat it as necessary for an appreciation of African music. Example 1 reproduces his transcription of an Aka children’s song. (It is characteristic of his attitude that he treats even such quotidian utterances as products of distinctive imagination.) To it I have added annotations that summarize the main points I glean from his discussion: In terms of pitch structure, a clear hierarchy is formed around the two pitches, D and G. The melody’s reigning pitch system is established definitively in this song as a  trichord … ; given what we know of other Aka practices, we might infer that the notes D–E–G actually constitute a subset of a larger pentatonic collection, perhaps D–E–G–A–B. On first hearing, this little song … may seem unremarkable. But add to the basic oppositions in pitch and rhythmic value the implied meter, and we begin to see some special things. The underlying feel of the melody suggests a dotted quarter-note reference, so we might notate this in 812 as I have done. The clever feature is the way the patterns lie within the metrical cycle. The words Nzɛ, nzɛ, nzɛ occupy the space of two dotted quarters, the first sounding of nzɛ o dɛ kun dɛ [sic; the example shows the last syllable as de] occupies three, and its immediate repetition also occupies three. A grouping structure of 2 + 3 + 3 is thus suggested. We may speak of a nonalignment between metrical structure and grouping structure: the 812 meter remains inviolate while the “contents” shift position within the meter.… Noteworthy, too, is what might be called the rhetoric of the melody. The song begins emphatically with an almost bell-like insistence on G (its highest pitch) in the context of a cross-rhythmic relation with the underlying meter…. Then it skips to (what will emerge as) the lowest pitch, taming it by means of neighbor-note action. The difference in the presentation of the G–D controlling dyad is noteworthy. While the initial G is merely asserted through immediate repetition, the closing D is defined by contrapuntal [sic] action.… Notice two further details that add spice to this melody: first is the continuity of pitch between the end of group 1 (onset 3) and the beginning of group 2 (onset 4)—both on pitch G4. Real assurance of the precise location of a grouping boundary comes only in retrospect, only after group 2 (onsets 4 through 8) has been literally repeated as group 3 (onsets 9 through 12). Notice also the pattern of introducing new pitches. New notes appear on onsets [sic] 1, 8, and 10 in the first bar (the “call”) and (reckoning onsets starting on 1 again) on 1, 4, 5, 7, and 10 in the second (the “response”). The degree of pitch novelty is thus increased in the second half of the melody (209–10).1 Example 1. View largeDownload slide Agawu, Figure 5.2 (Aka children's song) with added annotations Example 1. View largeDownload slide Agawu, Figure 5.2 (Aka children's song) with added annotations Despite Agawu’s wariness of European aesthetics, he has no recourse to an indigenous metalanguage, so he freely invokes Western theoretical concepts—metrical structure, grouping, hierarchy, counterpoint, neighbor, continuity, collection, and trichord subsets—and he attributes to a “controlling dyad” a never-resolved “opposition” that manifests in different rhythmic and melodic elaborations of its pitches. Thus he describes what he finds “special” and “clever” as if this were Stravinsky’s music—a repertoire Agawu himself has theorized.2 That may be an effective strategy to convince his Western readership of the aesthetic merits of this song, but it implicitly raises some methodological questions. For his African readership, does it suggest that the music can only be fully appreciated in foreign terms? For readers who are not “culture bearers” (222), how does one decide the identity and structure of the events? Often a piece may be represented various ways, as I will demonstrate below. The analyst’s choices should be both justified and consequential, by which I mean that they play a crucial role in the analysis. To appreciate music from an unfamiliar culture, it would be very helpful to have such analyses as models. In Agawu’s analysis of pitch, the choice of structure is justified but not consequential. He considers three possibilities for an underlying scale: diatonic (implied by the transcription), chromatic (implied by characterizing the pitches as a  trichord), and a particular pentatonic scale. While he gives a convincing cultural reason for hearing pentatonicism, the choice is inconsequential: nothing in his account depends upon perceiving these pitches as part of a larger referential collection. For one thing, he does not explain why D–E–G–A–B would be a better choice than, say, C–D–E–G–A; in the culture, does the former entail a polarity between G and D that the latter does not? To decide, it seems that one needs to be aware of all the possibilities and how they manifest in the form and processes of other Aka music.3 Moreover, a different hearing of the pitches seems equally plausible. The average frequencies of what Agawu calls G4 and D4 correspond to G4 + 4 cents and E♭4–46 cents (as may be determined using an audio analysis program like Praat). Their interval lacks the acoustic purity characteristic of fourths in other pentatonic Aka melodies, so a neophyte might easily hear it as a major third.4 As such it could still be part of a pentatonic scale, say E♭–F–G–B♭–C, consistent with Aka practice. Agawu provides no basis for preferring his pentatonic interpretation to any other, or to no scalar interpretation at all. Conversely, in his discussion of rhythm, the choice of structure is analytically consequential but not justified. He identifies a regular beat from a vague “underlying feel,” but he need not appeal to an intuition that the reader might not share: the children’s dance steps are audible on the recording. Neither does he give a specific reason for hearing two 812 measures rather than, say, simply an undivided eight-beat cycle. This is frustrating, because much of the “cleverness” he finds depends on privileging the 812 reading: without two measures there is no “nonalignment between metrical structure and grouping structure (209),” and the number of pitch changes per measure (his “degree of pitch novelty”) is not salient. For a reader wishing to discover similar procedures, it would be much more empowering to justify hearing 812, point out the interpretations that 812 affords, and explain why those interpretations are more aesthetically satisfying or culturally appropriate than others. Examination of another analysis shows how decisive the choice of representation can be in the search for truly African musical procedures. Example 2(a) reproduces Agawu’s transcription of an Akpafu lament, in which a soloist sings three phrase pairs (numbers 1 + 2, 3 + 4, and 7 + 9) with the same text, interspersed toward the end with a contrasting text phrase (5) and three brief intensifying choral interjections (6, 8, 10). To explain the melodic structure, his figure (reproduced in Ex. 2[b]) employs paradigmatic analysis, a technique that has fallen out of favor among music theorists but still carries sway among some ethnomusicologists.5 One ideal of this technique is that the sonic trace be rendered neutrally, with no predetermined criteria of relevance. Accordingly, Agawu renders each phrase as an arrhythmic string of equally weighted events whose pitches are determined precisely even when brief, ghosted, or gliding. No obvious relation obtains among these ordered strings, so Agawu rewrites them as ascending scale segments, omitting duplicate pitches, and treats the corresponding unordered pitch-class collections as the objects of analysis. “Perhaps the most striking feature,” he then observes, is the “pentatonic substructure (A–C–D–E–G), which interacts with, without dominating, the C-centered hexatonic structure of the musical surface…. If phrase 4 displays the ideal form of the pentatonic substructure, all the other phrases may be heard as departing in various ways from that ideal.” For instance, he accounts for the E♭s in phrases 7 and 9 as “‘mixture’” and the Fs in phrase 1 as “a ‘borrowing’ from the hexatonic surface pattern” (227). EXAMPLES 2(A) AND 2(B). View largeDownload slide Agawu, Figure 5.8a (Akpafu lament). Agawu, Figure 5.8b (paradigmatic analysis of 5.8a) EXAMPLES 2(A) AND 2(B). View largeDownload slide Agawu, Figure 5.8a (Akpafu lament). Agawu, Figure 5.8b (paradigmatic analysis of 5.8a) As his scare quotes suggest, the proliferating allusions to a variety of theoretical orientations (scales, pc-set relations and hierarchies, deformations, chromatic harmony) do not readily cohere. Moreover, his representation has forced him onto an abstract conceptual plane of unordered set relationships, rather distant from the intimate immediacy of the song. Just two Fs—even though they appear fleetingly in only one phrase, and no further from E than the E♭s he corrects—compel him to attribute a hexatonic surface structure to the entire song, relegating the predominating pentatonic collection to “substructure,” a status whose analytical significance he does not explain. Without contradicting Agawu’s intuitions here, perhaps one could posit an analysis that is tighter but still revealing of truly African musical imagination. My attempt, in Example 3, begins with an alternative transcription of the soloist’s phrases. It is not entirely neutral, but deviates only in the same way that Agawu’s does: I indicate a few rhythmically subsidiary events with a slightly different pitch than they appear to have, assuming the discrepancy arises from the inevitable approximations of performance. With these changes, the lament remains pentatonic throughout, in a way that endows it with an elegant structure. The soloist’s phrases are heard here as repetitions of ordered interval series, not just of unordered pc sets: the head (labeled x) of each phrase repeats a single pitch, G or D, thrice, and the tail of each phrase (y) descends through four notes of the pentatonic scale before moving up a step to cadence. (I also hear the rhythm differently, but in a way that highlights the phrase parallelism.) Each head is either high or low, with those possibilities lying two steps apart in the scale. Each tail is also either high or low, with the low version similarly two steps below the high version in the scale. One way to think about the melodic process is that the singer is playfully constructing each phrase by pairing the various versions of the head and tail. She uses three of the four possible combinations. This sort of combinatorial thinking is evident in the Vai children’s game song Agawu analyzes (211), as well as in other cyclic African music, notably for the mbira.6 Another merit of my reading is that it attributes to each phrase the same mixture of assertion (in x) and neighbor-note elaboration (at the end of y) that Agawu identifies as a “favorite device used by numerous African melodists” (210) in his analysis of the Aka children’s tune. Example 3. View largeDownload slide Alternative transcription and analysis of Example 2a Example 3. View largeDownload slide Alternative transcription and analysis of Example 2a Now, I do not claim my analysis is better than Agawu’s. They “issue from different descriptive economies,” as he says about instrument classification (85), and are shaped by different aesthetic preferences. My account restricts itself to more concrete percepts (ordered pitched events with different durations) and focuses more narrowly upon repetitive processes. This approach simply presumes that there are universally shared percepts of pitch and time that can be analyzed without expertise in African musical culture.7 Although it does not support Agawu’s idea about deformation from an ideal, it remains compatible with his reading of the background pitch structure as a stepwise motion toward closure on C, and it resonates with his accounts of other pieces. I simply intend this alternative interpretation to contextualize some concluding thoughts about the potential impact of Agawu’s book. Manifestly it is not a treatise on African music analysis. He does not aspire to a minimal reading like mine, because he aims to bring out all the principles, logics, or abstractions he can find, as evidence of African imagination. For this purpose it makes sense to adduce heterogeneous representations and analytical approaches, the more the better in fact, because he also regards variety as evidence of imagination, even if it sometimes obscures coherence. While such a catholic attitude inspires awe for its subject, it may prove a bit discouraging to aspiring world-music analysts. Not only does the “inaccessibility of its linguistic dimension” constitute “a major obstacle to [our] appreciation of African music” (200) but also the very diversity of Agawu’s examples makes it difficult to learn to analyze African music. Each one seems to require a distinctive approach. Only two of the many melodies he analyzes are segmented paradigmatically. While he hears a pitch polarity in a pentatonic scale underlying the children’s song, he hears no polar counterpart to the lament’s tonic C in its pentatonic collection. In another melody he points out a descending stepwise cadential progression A–G like the D–C in the chorus of the lament, but then he says that indigenous listeners would have a different expectation (222). Where one analysis discovers a “systematic” process that exhausts all possible pitch successions (212), others show how a single melodic template can underlie different melodies (238). Analysts need principles and heuristics as well as exemplars. When are we justified in understanding events as different than we objectively measure them to be? What determines whether a meter is 83, 86, or 812, and in what ways does that matter? To what degree is pitch priority precompositional or established contextually? When do leaps establish new structural tones, and when are they simply embellishments? Should linear interpretations take priority over permutational ones? In the context of a preliminary survey, it is appropriate for Agawu to choose representations and resolve ambiguities on the basis of his considerable native authority and rich musical intuition. To help the rest of us value African imagination more highly, though, I hope that he and the culture bearers he hopes to inspire will more thoroughly explain the bases for their judgments. Our analyses will dance better—we’ll fit ourselves to the music’s groove, and avoid collisions with our partners—if we know how the steps should go. Footnotes 1 Some minor terminological looseness in Agawu’s account may distract: by “contrapuntal” action he means not an interaction with a second concurrent voice (which is not present) but melodic elaboration, that is, the neighbor note; the penultimate sentence mistakenly uses “onsets” to mean “eighth-note beats”; and by “new notes” he seems to mean “changes of pitch” not “as yet unheard notes.” 2 Agawu (1989). Moreover, the terms that he uses to analyze the African song are very similar to those employed by Gretchen Horlacher in her analysis of the first violin’s melody in the first of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet. See Horlacher (2011), 10–13. 3 One intriguing possibility may be found in a pioneering, as-yet unpublished treatise by Nicholas G. J. Ballanta, a colonial-trained but native Sierra Leone musician who devoted two decades to collecting, transcribing, and analyzing 2000 items of traditional African music (Ballanta ). He proposed a melodic theory in which dominant, leading tone, and final are functions that can be assumed by various members of the underlying scale—for instance (G, D, C) or (G, E, D). See Beckley (2016) for an introduction to this scholar and to his opera Afiwa, which melds African rhythms and melodies with European harmony and form. 4 For example, compare the sound of this interval to the justly tuned perfect fourths in the Aka polyphony analyzed in Fürniss (2006), to which Agawu refers elsewhere (279). 5 Donin and Goldman (2008). 6 See, for instance, the dyad patterns in Ex. 23 of Scherzinger (2001). 7 The negotiation between emic and etic perspectives in music analysis is discussed more fully in Roeder and Tenzer (2012), 79f. Works cited Agawu Victor Kofi. 1989 . “Stravinsky’s Mass and Stravinsky Analysis.” Music Theory Spectrum 11 ( 2 ): 139 – 63 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Ballanta Nicholas G. J. 1934 . “The Aesthetics of African Music.” Unpublished typescript. Freetown, Sierra Leone. Beckley Joseryl Olayinka Lucy. 2016 . “African and Western Aspects of Ballanta’s Opera ‘Afiwa’.” D.M.A. diss., University of British Columbia. Donin Nicolas , Goldman Jonathan. 2008 . “Charting the Score in a Multimedia Context: The Case of Paradigmatic Analysis.” Music Theory Online 14 ( 4 ). Fürniss Susanne. 2006 . “Aka Polyphony: Music, Theory, Back and Forth.” In Analytical Studies in World Music . Ed. Tenzer Michael . 163 – 204 . Oxford and New York : Oxford University Press . Horlacher Gretchen. 2011 . Building Blocks: Repetition and Continuity in the Music of Stravinsky . Oxford and New York : Oxford University Press . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Roeder John , Tenzer . 2012 . “Identity and Genre in Gamelan Gong Kebyar: An Analytical Study of Gabor.” Music Theory Spectrum 34 ( 1 ): 78 – 122 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Scherzinger Martin. 2001 . “Negotiating the Music-Theory/African-Music Nexus: A Political Critique of Ethnomusicological Anti-formalism and a Strategic Analysis of the Harmonic Patterning of the Shona Mbira Song Nyamaropa.” Perspectives of New Music 39 ( 1 ): 5 – 117 . © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for Music Theory. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Music Theory Spectrum – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 6, 2018
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