En Rout to the Volta Region

I am writing this in the car as I drive from Medie to kopayeia where I'll be spending the next couple weeks studying ewe drumming. Up until now I’ve been focusing on music from the Dagara and Sissala tribes. I'm writing now partially because this feels like my first free moment and partially because I want to distract myself from the crazy driving out here... I don't want to give the impression I was going super hard 24/7 but the days were definitely full and intense in their own way.

 

This was an amazing couple of weeks. My time in India was mainly valuable for the reflective value: studying a completely foreign system revealed a lot about my own music. But this is valuable in a more foundational way. I'm studying the tradition that gave birth to most of my music.

 

I've learned a lot. I learned two fairly complicated drum and dance routines (the two are inseparable) and seven tunes on the Gyil all of which have their own polyrhythmic coordination to get together and some of which have new and interesting bell patterns. I also asked of myself the same consistency that Dr KSS demanded of me--playing things 4 times in a row correctly. While I was not able to play all the sequences in order with this level of execution I could play each individually which I think is good enough for how proficient I can become with two weeks on an instrument. Here were the thoughts that usually kept me from playing perfectly:

 

"Damn it's hot"

 

"What was that shit Alex just played!?!"

 

"Man, I'm sounding really good"

 

"It would sound so hip if Matt played this but with a Maj7(#9#5)"

 

"Does this all matter for saxophone? Yeah dude it definitely does. But will it help you shred? No bro that's not the point. Shit! I just messed up..."

 

 

 

In terms of quantifiable pieces of repertoire I've already learned more than in India, but that's because the main thing I got out of India was a rigor of thought in practicing and in thinking about rhythm.

 

It's also because this is folk music. It's not systematic and pedagogically linear the way the classical Carnatic system is. The tradition is more the sum of many functional stories (deaths rains dances etc) than an ornate and abstract whole. There isn't much benefit in exercises detached from repertoire. There is also a lot more room for inefficiency and disagreement that we could all really avoid if we could just get organized geez... All this leads me to think about the jazz tradition which is in a 21st century accelerated process of becoming a classical tradition.

 

Jazz has its own rhythmic and harmonic language that is distinct from the European language that I studied in depth at Oberlin and African language that I am immersed in now. The trope that "jazz is African rhythm mixed with European harmony" is obviously simplistic. Jazz, if it exists at all (see nick p.), really is an American art form and tells functional stories about the American experience (who's American experience I think is an interesting question). Ive heard some rhythms that I think of as characteristically Jazz rhythms (the "bo diddley" second line beat and "ooh bop Shabam" are some examples) but they're presented so differently that they don't really function as the same rhythm anymore. I feel like once a rhythm carries more harmonically complex information with it, it has to become a little less assertive to make room somehow... Especially now, the American experience and the music that fuels the imagination of modern jazz artists is very distant from what I hear around me. What I find here is rhythmic vocabulary that relates more to early Jazz and then an undefinable "spirit" of something that I've called swing but is maybe just human rhythm expressed through instruments more generally. The second feature as I've defined it is pretty hard to put into words except to say that it is captivating and unattainable and familiar and exotic all at the same time.

 

One music nerdy thing that I heard that is crazy is this Gyil player (Alex) playing a clave in triplets and an ostinato in eighth notes. It took me like three hours of listening to the recording to figure out what he was doing and after I had the mental shift where I began to believe that this type of poly rhythmic playing could come from a single person then I felt like I was part of a special club and I felt special because of it. Some of you will probably think "African music has rhythms that are between eighths and triplets" and that is true and it was what I was listening for in this recording but you could but the metronome on and this shit would be exact and it's really crazy. I bring this up just because it's cool but also to illustrate the polyrhythmic nature of the music which is really difference then the Indian cyclical thing or even the way we (at least I) think of time in Jazz. We kind of anglicized these rhythms to fit into a linear framework and a little bit of the dance was lost in translation. Just clapping and singing melodies when you're not clapping every quarter note is hard! That's how mono-rhythmic I am! 

 

I've been documenting a lot in audio and I'm waiting to write it down until I'm home partially because I want to focus as much as I can on learning what's out here and already inside me right now and also because I want to continually test myself to remember what I've learned without the aid of written materials. I'll post some of that stuff when I get back so you can have a look. Thanks for reading.