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Exploring the World of Music


Marking time and moving through our bodies, rhythm has a special relationship to both musical form and worldwide dance traditions. How rhythm structures music is examined through the American marching band, North Indian tala, Japanese shakuhachi tradition, West African drumming, and Afro-Cuban dance music.

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Exploring The World Of Music Program #5 “Rhythm” Transcript



Music and time are inextricably linked. In fact one of the primary aspects of music is that it divides time into patterns of sound and silence. This division is what is known as rhythm.



Rhythm is rhythm is rhythm. But in each part of the world they have a way in which they hear and express rhythm.



Dancing, singing, walking, praying, rhythm is the way we do it.



Rhythm is the temporal organization of music, it’s how music is organized in time.



It divides time into an organized series of moments, periods, durations. Without rhythm we wouldn’t know how to perform the series of tones.



Rhythm you can consider fluctuations or pulsations in time. But forgetting the whole technical thing, rhythm is feeling and it’s motion. And rhythm hits you at your core, at your physical core. Rhythm is probably the most physical element of music.



For much of the world’s music the foundation of rhythm is a steady reoccurring pattern or pulse. Pulse in music often evokes a physical response, moving us to dance, march, sway, or tap our feet.



Pulse is the regular occurrence of rhythm in time, unemphasized, one after another, undivided. In many instances we want to organize that pulse, in Western Music we’ll use an accent on every two, for example, one, two, one, two, one, two. If you watch a marching band you’ll probably  see a lot of duple time or time divided by twos or fours.  If you watch the way they move, the way they step, it’s often divided one two, one two, one… If you watch somebody dancing to a waltz, for example, you’ll see the emphasis of their bodies moving on the first  beat of every three, one two three, one two three, and the choreography of their movement corresponds to that emphasis in time. Pulse is also something that people perceive as an audience not just the musicians using accents to organize time. But when you listen to music, you feel music and you start to dance or you start to move. You can see it at a large crowd of people at a concert and everybody seems to be moving together. The rhythm also is sort of a glue that holds the band together. It keeps everybody playing in time, as they say, and it keeps everybody thinking about the music the same. The beginning of the melody is here, you know. The beginning of the song is here and the end is here. And the rhythm and the organization of it through the use of accents provides all of that framework for the musicians.



While the rhythmic framework for much of Western Music is based on groups of  two three and four beats, other cultures  may  use larger units. In the classical music of North India for example, rhythm is organized into structures of up to a hundred and eight beats, the most common being sixteen beat cycle called Teental.



In Indian classical music rhythm is organized into tal or tala, this is  the name. Tala is a rhythmic cycle. In other words, if you think of, if

you visualize or think of a rhythm in the West you may think of a time signature and some bars. But for Indian music you must envision a circle.   It’s a cycle or a circle, and  we start at one part and  we go around and we always come back to that same part.  The very first beat of the cycle is called the sam, and its the most important beat. When we improvise we start from the sam and we go out in our improvisation and come back to the sam.



When I go on my individual rounds of improvisation I have to keep count and land back in an interesting manner so that that particular note on my main theme lands back on the first beat of the cycle. If it does not that is a very disreputable state of affairs.



The basic beat is called the theka in any tal, teental theka, it has sixteen beats. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, one… The role of tabla player in North Indian classical music is basically an accompanist role. We are not considered the main artist that would be the singer or instrumentalist, unless we are in the situation of playing a tabla solo. Otherwise we’re a supportive instrument. We provide the rhythmic structure and we should provide some sort of artistic support rather than getting in the way of the main artist.



There are many musical traditions in which rhythm progresses freely without a regularly reoccurring beat. In the Japanese Shakuhachi tradition, rhythm is guided by the breath of the performer.



In Shakuhachi music time doesn’t really force its way forward in a marching way. It’s more that you are enjoying the sounds and the shapes within the moment of time. There’s free rhythm in Shakuhachi music. We don’t have strict down beats, we’re not playing with anyone else so there’s no reason to be precisely in time with someone else; you’re playing just solo. In Shakuhachi music the silence is just as important as the notes we’re playing. And if we can somehow see the parallel in Japanese painting, if you imagine where the canvas is completely blank on three quarters of the silk. The breath which comes from the Zen meditative style is what each phrase is built upon. We have the inhale and then the note and the end of the phrase. And in between each phrase we have silence and then the taking in of the breath. This is actually the pace of all of the units and how they connect.



When you watch a West African percussion ensemble you’ll find a family of drums of different sizes. Each of these sizes of drum have a different pitch associated  with it.  Striking the drum sounds a different pitch. When put together in an ensemble these relate to each other at different pitch levels. It may be difficult to hear something like a meter in the music, something like one, two, three. Rather what’s heard is the relationship of the tones of the various drums in their own rhythmic relationships. One drum may be doing something as simple as “da-dat… da-dat” and another might be entering with something a little bit more complex ” da-ti-da da, da-ti-da da” and the relationship between the two would be “da-da….. They converse in this way.



The drum is an extension of the human voice. It is used to communicate. But you must know the language to communicate. Many times when there are dancers involved  the music will change and will tell the dancer  when to change the step, when to move, how to move, when to stop. When you travel from ethnic group to ethnic group, you will find that , let’s say in Nigeria with the Yoruba where they have a very tonal language, they might say hello “Mo-Du-Pway” so there’s a lot of variation in tone. So many of their instruments and their drums like the donno and the talking drums, they sound just  the way they talk.   You might hear “do-do do, do do do do do do do do do” in Senegal, the Wolof, the people of the Mande cultures which is the Sousou, Malinke, the Bamabara, they speak very fast. You might  hear “Naga def’ so you might hear “bla ga da, mangi flee, blanka da, blankadi bla dah, bleat bla bla bla bla bla.” So as you could see there’s a direct connection with the spoken language and what is being played and how you express it on the drum. Mandiani is a rhythm that comes out of the old Malian Empire. The drums and the instruments that they use for the rhythm Mandiani come from the Djembe orchestra. The Djembe orchestra encompasses maybe two or three djembes, usually one principle musician and the bass.



This is the Djun Djun and this is the Songba. You have the bottom here which would be considered the one or the down beat. That’s more of the gravity part of the rhythm, this is the up side of  the rhythm.  And  then you have the bell part which is playing what I learned as an African six and usually is one two three four five six, one two three four five six.

When you put all the parts together. It’s always the principle musician who’ll give the cue to start, to stop, and change the rhythm. He is the conductor of the orchestra, all the cues come from the principle musician and the person who is playing the improvisation.



He plays what we call a break or a musical cue and that will sound different depending on whatever style they’re playing but basically we hear the cue, it’s an established rhythm, and once we hear it we know to start our step.



You have to follow their feet, you know, how their hands move, and if the dancer gotta move like that you got to make sure you got the connection and the language, the language you have to do from all her movement from her body, you have to go together. Maybe you can go


“baaaaadaaaadum, baaaaadaaaadum.”



There is a direct relationship, we like to say a marriage, between the music and the dance. The musicians actually control the tempo.

Mandiani is a social dance which means that it’s not ceremonial or ritualistic.  I like to say that Mandiani is like doing our street dance you know when we’re just “Hey”, that’s what we do here to self entertain or to have a house party or to celebrate in some fashion. We have to remember  what we do in this country is for the stage, “Yes! This is great! Thank you very much!” We applaud the entertainment of it.

Traditionally this is how people explain their existence, this is how they honor Holy Spirit. This is how they honor their own life force and their connection with spirit, this is not a performance for them, this is their life.



Mantanzas is a province where a group of friends from my neighborhood , the neighborhood of Simpson, we always enjoy ourselves with a rumba.

We’re always ready to put a rumba together at a moment’s notice.



The Caribbean is a very vibrant area of musical encounters for the past four hundred years, encounters primarily between musics of Europe and musics of Africa.  You have in the Caribbean  types of music that are very close to African prototypes. In Rumba, especially the best known example Rumba Guaguanco, you have a couple’s dance. Man and woman dance together in a dance that pantomimes courtship. The man attempts to get close to the woman, the woman coquettishly dances around him and avoids his efforts.



The woman that’s dancing moves this way and that. She covers herself so that she doesn’t get impregnated.



In Rumba you have a clave. The clave pattern is the key to the rhythmic structure of the ensemble. In rumba guaguanco  the clave sounds like this (claps). The first side, if you divide this pattern in half, has three beats. And the second half has two beats. And this is an asymmetric pattern. And its asymmetry is critical to the sound of the entire ensemble. The musicians have to take this key and relate their drumbeats to this fundamental pattern that structures the entire musical ensemble. African musics and Afro-Caribbean musics have had a profound influence on the development of pop musics throughout the world. Notably in the development of the rhythm section. African-American musicians who were marching in the early brass bands in New Orleans used bass drums, snare drums, cymbals, put them together into a repeating rhythmic unit. And later on when this music moves indoors, musicians put these together into a single set, the drum set. The drum set and the bass are called the rhythm unit in a band and they interact much in the way the percussion ensemble would, an African percussion ensemble would. And they provide the rhythmic drive and the rhythmic vitality to popular musics and Jazz.



Rhythm is something which is important in all musics, but in Jazz it may be even a little bit more important because rhythm is at the heart and soul of Jazz and a certain way of phrasing rhythm, a certain approach to rhythm which we call swing, is at the heart and soul of Jazz. It’s very difficult to define what swing is. You can technically try to define it in the sense that swing is a sub-division of rhythm which is in a certain way off center. It’s uneven. If I play a series of notes, eighth notes, very straight, let me do that (plays notes) those eighth notes are played straight, there’s no swing involved. Now if I put a swing feel on those eighth notes they’re going to become uneven, one is going to be a little bit longer than the other and the shorter one is actually going to have a certain accent that the longer one doesn’t have. The rhythm comes alive, it dances a little bit. So we can take that concept of the swing rhythm and apply it to any melody, or just about any melody, and tum that melody, tum that composition into a jazz performance, a jazz interpretation. And that give.s it a jazz flavor, and so that swing element is one of the key things which defines jazz and one of the key elements in the language of jazz.



When you perform music, you do it across time and you do it in organized units. This is what rhythm is. It can be extremely regular, it can be extremely irregular. It can  be extremely  complicated  or very,  very simple. How you break up the units is extremely important because when you enter musical time your watch stops working. You’re in a different zone of human experience and the music takes over your sense of how time is going by.