Music in Global America



Four sub-Saharan African musical practices are central to the growth and identity of popular Cuban and African-American music.
  1. Music made with percussion instruments
  2. The practice of polyrhythm 
  3. Call and response singing
  4. A pentatonic pitch system, and bending/sliding pitches


Historically, Europe had few important percussion instruments involved in making instrumental music, whereas Africa has a vast array of drums and percussion instruments. Drumming is important in religious ceremonies, communal dancing, communication, and for pleasure, praise, militancy, and work.  

Percussion instruments have a long important history in Afro-Cuban religions and in dance music.  In America, where drumming was effectively banned, percussion instruments were not introduced until the twentieth century when the drum set became a standard component in social dance music and jazz. 

African traditional percussion instruments are not confined to drums, but are also made of metal, wood, plants, and other material. Some, like the amadinda and balafon, produce definite pitches. Others--shakers, rattles, hand claps--are unpitched.  The photo below includes string instruments and wind instruments in addition to percussion instruments, to show the diversity of musical instruments on the African continent. 


Polyrhythm is the art of layering independent rhythmic patterns to create an intricate composite pattern.

Polyrhythm is pervasive in much of the traditional and contemporary music of sub-Saharan Africa. It is a defining practice in Latin American dance music and is reflected in the American genres of ragtime, funk, and salsa. 

Two principles are essential to polyrhythm: a time cycle (an overall length that can be measured in equal time units); and the practice of interlocking rhythmic patterns.  

The figure below shows two simultaneous rhythmic patterns within a time cycle of six units. Drum strokes are indicated by the black X's (pattern 1) and red X's (pattern 2). The drum strokes coincide at the beginning of the cycle, then interlock on units 3, 4, and 5. Once a configuration like the one shown below is established, it repeats continuously, that is, it cycles or "loops." Individual players may improvise slight variations in a pattern, so that the music is not simply repetitive.

Time Cycle of 6 units            1     2     3     4     5     6   |   
Pattern 1                                  X           X            X          |   
Pattern 2                                 X                   X                 | 

EXAMPLES of polyrhythm

FOLI - Everything is rhythm.
Scenes show how the djembe (drum) and agogo (double bell) are made and played polyrhythmically; the melding of music and dance; transmission of music-dance culture. (10:50) Watch on YouTube so you can easily read the English subtitles.


The call and response format is an exclusively vocal medium in traditional sub-Saharan African music. A soloist (the leader) sings phrases, and other singers (the group) respond in unison. The leader's phrases can be improvisational but the response must be fixed. Singers may recount royal history, tell stories, sing the praise of a patron, or discuss political and civic affairs.  

Call and response is a common practice in Cuban and American popular music, where it takes on many different forms through modifications and transformations of sub-Saharan call and response.

Sékouba Traoré is a musician from Mali whose international reputation, tours, and recordings have popularized the tradition of the dozo ton, a West African confraternity of hunters who are also adepts in the use of medicinal plants and who advocate the moral precepts found in a syncretic blend of indigenous animistic beliefs and Islam. In this video he leads a procession of dozo ton as part of a ceremony in praise of the courage and nobility of lions. The instrument he plays, the n’goni, is the accompaniment for dozo ritual song.

Melodies in the Sahel and other parts of Africa are derived from a pentatonic (five-tone) scale similar to the minor pentatonic scale of European folk music. For instance, the tones of the E-minor pentatonic scale are E G A B D but in sub-Saharan African music the tones G and D are tuned just slightly lower than in standard Western tuning.

In European music each tone is fixed with little or no pitch flexibility. Pitch flexibility -- the bending of pitches and sliding from one pitch to another --  is a fundamental stylistic characteristic in African singing and playing of variable-length string instruments. 

Pentatonicism and pitch flexibility are at the core of all popular American musical styles that have been created African-Americans, or touched by African-American music, including sacred and secular musical genres such as the blues, rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz, and rock.

E-Minor Pentatonic scale with bent and sliding pitches on electric guitar (2:45)

"Yer Bounda Fara" by Malian singer/songwriter/guitarist Ali Farka Toure  (4:20)

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