TRADITIONAL AFRICAN AND BRAZILIAN LEARNING-SYSTEM
Written by Laurence Hill
Since I graduated with a BMus in 'Orchestral Percussion and Drum Kit' from Trinity College of Music in 2008, I have travelled the world studying percussion in various exotic countries with a passion for rhythm making.
My first port of call was Ghana in 2009, where I lived and studied with master-drummer and dancer Daniel Asare in Accra. I learnt two hours a day for three months while also rehearsing with his 'culture group', who performed various Ghanaian tribes' traditional cultural drumming and dance. In my lessons I learnt the rhythms for each drum of the ensemble and wrote them down in musical notation to help me commit them to memory.
A short while after I arrived back from Ghana I joined a carnival samba band called "Rhythms of the City”, run by prominent London ethnomusicologist Barak Schmool. After a few months of studying with Barak it dawned on me that I had been learning this music in completely the wrong way – and that I would never learn to be an African-style musician if I continued to approach the music with a Western musician’s approach.
Folkloric African and Brazilian musicians largely learn their music in an informal way, similar to how you would learn a first-language, as opposed to learning music formally as a 'skill'. They certainly do not learn their music through reading or writing it down. Nor do they have a desperate need to consciously divide rhythms into on-beats and off-beats, or even to count beats at all. There have been many examples of times when I’ve been studying with an African musician where they would start off our rhythm by counting to 4, before promptly starting on beat 2-and-a-half in a completely unrelated tempo. A clear demonstration that this beat-counting concept of feeling music is completely alien to them!
No, the traditional African-style musician becomes a master of syncopation (off-beat rhythms), clave (rhythmical framework) and lilting swing purely through aural learning. By watching and listening to the drumming language of his father and uncles (drumming is male-dominated in almost all African folk traditions) from a young age, a young drummer first learns to process and understand it, then to move in time and dance to it – all before finally learning to speak the language himself using his drum. If a young drummer makes too many mistakes, he is simply told to stop playing and to continue to listen, process and understand it more before he tries again.
When I returned to Senegal in 2011, I was struck by the number of talented drummers below the age of 12. Four and five year olds would imitate their relatives by striking upturned bottles with twigs while their friends performed the corresponding dance moves to famous drum breaks. They were all learning the language of their music from a very young age. During this trip I decided to record my lessons and learn exclusively by ear – carefully processing the music and tuning in to hear the unique lilting swing of Senegal’s sabar drummers.
Though I only scratched the surface of the highly complex rhythmical music of sabar during my 18 days in Senegal, I have continued to use this method of learning while studying other music in Guinea, Ghana (again), Rio de Janeiro and Recife in Brazil.
As a largely classically trained musician, I increasingly found my musical instincts to be a hindrance in my attempts to learn groove-based music. As a youth I was encouraged to practise my percussion technique and learn pieces alone or in individual lessons, outside of a musical context and without a strong tempo. I also played percussion in youth wind bands and orchestras, trying to follow a conductor's visual beat whilst reading music alongside 30 or more other training musicians, each of which was battling to overcome their own instrument’s challenges and limitations. It is no surprise that this method of learning isn't conducive to developing an instinctively strong rhythmical musician.
In order to learn the language of the African and Brazilian masters of rhythm, you will never reach the finish line unless you attempt to tread the same path they have trodden. All music is a language, whether rhythmical or not, and while the vast majority of Western musical education focuses on teaching technical aspects of an instrument, or the 'pronunciation of the vowels and consonants', the world’s folkloric musicians teach their children to understand the meaning of the words they're learning by exclusively hearing the language spoken in a musical context.
There are many key aspects along the African musicians' path:
Aural learning through strong demonstration
Regularly practising in context alongside their highly skilled elders
Vocalising the sound of their instrument
Learning holistically - to sing, dance and play, often simultaneously
The traditional African learning method makes it easy to become a highly astute natural musician. We in the West could learn far more from this music than most people realise.