I’m posting these two entries at the same time because my sim card didn’t work out here so I only got a new one a couple days ago. I think it’s funny how much my opinions have evolved, changed, and clarified in only a week.
I think one of the themes of this trip is realizing how much is out there. I’m in a region just three hours drive away from where I was and the instruments, language, and culture are all totally different.
The days here start reeealy early so I’ve been getting up at 4:30 to go for these long runs in the dark with this guy Odante. Really nice guy and passionate about the arts. We go at that time because there are no cars on the road and that’s the only place to run for a long way. We ran right up to the border of Togo which was cool. In the night (early morning?) time you can see all the lights from the city Lome.
I’ve been to two funerals and I’m realizing that they are so important because most of these tribal religions are based on the worship of one’s ancestors. These religions seem to be coexisting with Christianity here sometimes within a single person. This also explains why everybody in Medie and here all seemed to be related because they are! I think that up until 2 generations ago it was commonplace for men to have four or so wives with like ten kids each and this led to huge families that made up these tribes who all live in the same place and develop their own cultural and musical languages. That’s probably not exactly the factual story but it’s the impression I get being here and talking to people.
I’m feeling continually excited but also a little worn out. This music is very physical (dancing and drumming involve a lot more movement than playing alto) and I’ve been really trying to push myself to learn as much as I can every day. But I’ve been doing that for three weeks and the content is all in my memory so I’m a little tired. I’ve also been staying in a new place every week or so since January and I’ve been out of the US since August and that is a long time for me. I’m hoping I will still get the most out of these next couple weeks but I took today to listen to some of my recordings and try to reflect and solidify some of this knowledge.
I like this place because rather than playing in unison with the instructors I’m being asked to dance and drum and sing my own parts while they play theirs which obviously takes another level of independence and confidence. I’m learning just a couple of drum and dance routines but on each instrument in the drum choir which is actually way more information than just learning the lead parts like I did in Medie. I also need to respond in the moment to some of the “calls” and arrangement changes in the music which is a great exercise in being aware of what the rest of the ensemble is doing rhythmically. It also has made me more aware of the drumset when I listen to recordings that are not African music. Wayne Shorter’s Juju came on by accident yesterday and I just left it on because I saw all this beauty and complexity in what Elvin plays on that record that I never noticed before. It kind of just sounded like a really groovy current for Wayne and McCoy to play over. What this reveals is that learning another music also changes the way you hear any music, especially when the styles are linked like these are…
This gets me to my next point: The Indian math can be applied to the African bell. I only know a little about the brain science of this but I’ve been “chunking” a lot of the info I’m hearing by thinking of it in terms of numbers like the Indian musicians do. When I do this it helps me remember the information until I can really internalize the phrases by singing or playing. But it also opens up some creativity. Like what if you add another 5 to the typical 5 and 7 patterns? It sounds nice. And this makes me very excited for what I can do with these materials. Coming to these places makes me learn a way of thinking not just some different language from my own perspective. And so that makes me hopeful for my future creativity.
But I also realized that when I do this it is a different way of thinking than the Ghanaian musicans are doing and that’s interesting too. The way they teach and more importantly the way that young children play music reveals that their thinking is polyrhythmic from the start. By this I mean that they are feeling a consistent pulse and a bell pattern at all times and then playing phrases as they relate to the bell pattern and dance motions. These phrases are not always related to four bar phrases or four beat measures but often are. The music is gestural and contextual meaning that certain sounds are linked to certain movements which in turn have their own affect and message. I’m sure there is a lot of more informed and well written scholarship on this but this is what I feel being here.
Last point is that I’ve changed my mind about what I wrote last week. I said that the rhythms I’m learning here only relate some to what modern musicians are playing. Even if that’s true these rhythms are clearly the root of those. And more importantly the aesthetics of this music—for example rhythms as units to react from like speech, density as intensity, music as accompaniment for dance, music as a connection to one’s cultural and familial heritage—are so deeply rooted in today’s American music that you can’t distance them as much as I was in my last post.
…Ok so this post is a little all-over-the-place but I think there’s some interesting stuff in here if you are willing to read it a couple times. Promise next week will be more organized.