Foundation Course in African Music

Beat Schemes


In forming a cross rhythm, Anlo-Ewe aesthetics of rhythmic organization produces four important developmental techniques.

Technique of Main Beat

In a complex interaction of beat schemes of varying rhythmic motions, the human mind normally seeks a focal point. Among the Anlo-Ewe, one of the integral beat schemes is dominant and the rest are perceived in cross rhythmic relationship to it. This dominant beat scheme is considered the main beat because of its strong accents in regular recurrence that pervade and regulate the entire fabric.

In the cultural understanding, the technique of main beat is an artistic animation of a strong purpose or goal in life. It embodies a vital Anlo-Ewe concept that life must have a dynamic purpose or goal strong enough to regulate the dynamics of contrasting obstacles.

In the artistic animation, this strong purpose or main beat is conceived as a living, physical phenomenon reminiscent of a moving body in downward motion directing the energy or weight with the pull of gravity. When the body achieves a good center of gravity, an accented pulsation occurs.

In an Anlo-Ewe culture, ancestral divinities and the ancestors are the most important positive elements. These elements are commonly represented or buried on earth. The concept of directing the energy or weight towards these positive elements in the artistic animation of a strong purpose is an ingenious artistic expression of the lesson that the dynamic purpose should be a positive one. In a broader sense, it is a way of bringing the purpose closer to the protective divinities and thus increasing a sense of its security and success.

In a general sense, any of the beat schemes listed in figure 1 could form the basis of a main beat, but in practice, the beat scheme of four units is the most commonly used. At any given tempo, the rhythmic motion of this beat scheme is the most moderate (not too slow or fast) and the most convenient as a focal point.

Main Beat Schemes

To better comprehend a main beat, it is structured so that it measures off equal increment of pulsations, the first of which normally bears an accent. These integral fractions or background pulsations are the major ornamental forces that give a main beat its distinct texture, flavor and character.

There are two most useful main beat schemes in Anlo-Ewe dance-drumming. In the first scheme, each main beat is structured measuring off three equal pulsations as its distinctive feature. This main beat texture is identified here as a triple structure main beat scheme.

Figure 3
Triple Structure Main Beat Scheme

The second most useful main beat scheme is structured with each main beat measuring off four equal pulsations as its distinctive feature. This texture is identified here as a duple structure main beat scheme.

Figure 4
Duple Structure Main Beat Scheme

As noted in figures 3 and 4 above, the background pulsations of main beats are developed in the faster rhythmic motions produced by the beat schemes of 12 units (triple structure) and 16 units (duple structure).

In the Anlo-Ewe cultural understanding, this concept embodies another important world view guiding that a purpose in life should possess a distinct flavor or character. In other words, a purpose in life should be logically or aesthetically coherent to oneself as well as society who will be the beneficiaries.

The flavor and energy of a main beat is of prime importance in Anlo-Ewe dance-drumming. A main beat possesses that character of regular energy or accent that runs throughout a composition as a unifying element and gives the cross rhythms as well as the entire composition, a unique quality of logical coherence.

The student should learn to construct the main beats in both the duple and triple structures and practice by handclapping the pulsations while foot tapping the accented to acquire the habit of conducting them with a good comprehension of the various inherent pulses and energy. It is very crucial, in the development of informed skills of appreciation and performance to translate the artistic techniques into their real-life meanings. In other words, if it is to be meaningful, the developmental techniques must be studied within the context of the shared customary ideas that they convey to the mind.

Measure Schemes

The recurrent grouping of the main beats normally creates a fixed musical period or measure. While it is possible to create several measure schemes by varied groupings of the main beats, two types of such groupings are the most frequent in the development of Anlo-Ewe dance-drumming.

The first most useful measure scheme consists of four main beats with each main beat measuring off three equal pulsations as its distinctive feature.

Figure 5
A Musical Period of 12 pulsations

The next most useful measure scheme consists of four main beats with each main beat flavored by measuring off four equal pulsations.

Figure 6
A Musical Period of 16 pulsations

These beat schemes are roughly equivalent to 12/8 time and 4/4 time in Western music.

In contrast to the Western measure concept of accenting the first beat of each measure, the Anlo-Ewe concept maintains regular accents on all the main beats. However, there is a tendency to end phrases as well as the entire composition on the accented pulsation of the first main beat implying further movement or flow. This attitude of considering the beginning of a measure to be also the end embodies the sub-saharan cosmological concept similar to reincarnation. This is the belief that every new born child is a partial rebirth of an old ancestral soul in a new body. Thus all human life is cyclical, every ending is a new beginning.

Figure 7.
Popular concluding phrase in Anlo-Ewe dance-drumming

Technique of Composite Rhythm

A cross rhythm consists of a main beat scheme (a purpose in life) and a secondary beat scheme (a perceived obstacle). Each beat scheme has a significance and function in making up the distinct cross rhythmic texture.

In performance, a cross rhythm becomes a composite unit by combining the contrasting beat schemes into a one line resultant rhythm or motif that recurs throughout the measure scheme as a unifying element.

Figure 8

By the very nature of the desired resultant rhythm, the main beat scheme cannot be separated from the secondary beat scheme. It is the interplay of the two elements that produces the cross rhythmic texture.

Discovering the character of a cross rhythm simply implies absorbing the distinct texture produced by the interplay of the beat schemes, noting the distinct rate of speed with which they coincide or disagree. When the beat schemes coincide, a static effect (standing still) is produced and when they are in alternate motions an effect of vitality (fast-moving) is produced. These features occur in varying manners and moments and reveal the distinct character or texture of a cross rhythm.

In aesthetic expression, a moment of resolution or peace occurs when the beat schemes coincide and a moment of conflict occurs when the beat schemes are in alternate motion. These moments are customarily conceived and expressed as physical phenomena familiar to a human being. A moment of resolution is expressed as a human being standing firm or exerting force by reason of weight alone without motion while moment of conflict is expressed as a human being travelling forward alternating the legs.

In the cultural understanding, the technique of composite rhythm embodies the lessons of establishing contact between two dissimilar states of being, or in particular, the right way to look at despair.

Let me paraphrase an old Anlo-Ewe song to further illustrate the real-life lessons inherent in the technique of composite rhythm. The song says, despair is not only useful, it is vital. Those in despair recognize the facts of their existence, rather like a drowning swimmer admitting the water is there. If you block off the despair, you block off the joy. More simply, an avoidance of contrasting obstacles is an avoidance of the real challenges of life. It will only stifle progress.

Technique of Polyrhythm

A cross rhythm in its basic form begins with a moment of resolution and continues with moments of conflict, thus showing a progression from a "static" beginning to a "dynamic" continuation.

Figure 9

In another popular technique, the normal interrelationship of the component beat schemes of a cross rhythm is inverted to produce a variant texture. In a primary form, the regular recurrence of the main beat scheme is normally preserved and the secondary beat scheme is shifted to start at a different but specified moment in time.

Figure 10

As noted in figure 9 above, the beginning moments of the beat schemes, in a vertical relationship, establish a permanent polyrhythm against one another, and thus, in a composite structure produces a variant progression from conflict to resolution or "dynamic" beginning to "static" continuation.

This customary process of changing the relative positions of the beat schemes of a cross rhythm in producing a variant texture is identified here as the technique of polyrhythm.

The technique of polyrhythm simply implies that the secondary beat scheme of a cross rhythm can be shifted to produce variant textures. In the development of these polyrhythmic textures, the secondary beat scheme can begin and accent any moment of the time span.

Cultural Understanding of Polyrhythm

In the cultural understanding, the technique of polyrhythm simply asserts the highly unpredictable occurrences of obstacles in human life. They occur without a warning. It reinforces the need for the development of a strong and productive purpose built on a foundation of adequate preparation for life.

These real-life meanings of cross rhythmic techniques were repeatedly driven home to me as I grew up gradually in a traditional Anlo-Ewe community. In this community, dance drumming is an integral part of the life of everyone from the moment of birth. A training in dance drumming is an essential part of the larger comprehensive preparation of every child for a productive and fulfilled participation in adult life. In this community, artistic elements are not abstract phenomena. They assume real-life characters. A main beat scheme represents a strong purpose in life and a secondary beat scheme represents an obstacle. Tension created by the customary ordering of these characters conveys a number of ideas simultaneously.

As a child going through this normal routines of Anlo-Ewe upbringing, my lack of subtleties in performing new sophisticated rhythmic contrasts were frequently criticized as lack of a strong sense of purpose capable of regulating the dynamics of contrasting obstacles in life. Blocking off a beat scheme to ease the hostility between opposing beat schemes of unfamiliar rhythmic contrast was often severely punished as my avoidance of the real challenges of life. A rare guidance in the proper management of opposing beat schemes of a rhythmic contrast was usually in form of a large dose of philosophy such as: to solve a problem, you must convert obstacles into stepping stones.

During these formative years, organized community rehearsals were my greatest relief. On such rare occasions, the interactive totality of a dance drumming would be re-synthesized from scratch in a more relaxed practice environment. These rehearsals were customarily aimed at encouraging the development of a greater understanding of the structural components, their interrelationships and most importantly, their performance. For us the younger generation, these practice sessions were essential head start in our assimilation into the cultural tradition of the community.

Spirited aural demonstration, earnest imitation and assimilation were the norm of this exchange of idiom. An experienced elder would lead the community by extracting major component parts from the whole, aurally demonstrating how they sounded and fit together, and when appropriate, he would explain the meanings or ideas that they were intended to convey. The community would follow in earnest assimilation until a discernable confidence in their ability to perform was achieved.

During my professional career as a master drummer and scholar of African dance drumming with the Ghana National Dance Ensemble and the University of Ghana's Institute of African Studies, I have had the privilege of participating in several elaborate research and study residencies in many cultures across the sub-sahara. In these residencies of intense participation in dance drumming very much different from my own ethnic origin, I have had the rare opportunity of comparing my Anlo-Ewe experiences as remarkably similar with the shared concepts of these other sub-saharan cultures. The surface structures or sound-products among all these ethnic groups were indeed very diverse but the undercurrent principles demonstrated profound homogeneity.

The concept of perceiving artistic elements as real-life characters is the most visible characteristic of this sub-saharan cultural homogeneity. This attitude is also the premise for idiomatic discourse or verbal interchange of ideas. It is the single most important factor that integrates the dance drumming as well as its component elements with the everyday world as a functional coherent phenomenon.

Cross-Rhythmic Textures

© Copyright 1995 C. K. Ladzekpo
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