The experiences of listening to “Mivua ‘gbo mayi” and playing along with traditional African percussion instruments are different. When merely listening to the music it is easy to lose sight of both the complexity and the regularity of the rhythm in the music. By playing along, the way that each of the various instruments relates to the central core of the song is much easier to understand.
To Western ears, Agbadza music seems to be chaotic and based o0n chants and swelling percussive rhythms. While this observation is somewhat true, the music is actually much more formal and controlled than it appears on an initial listening. The best way to establish a deeper connection and understanding with the music is, of course, to play along with it. In this regard, playing a percussion instrument such as the bell, rattle, or kagan can provide immediate and profound insight into the the way that African music is constructed and also the way in which various percussion instruments are able to weave together to create a sustained theme that includes countless variations.
One of the most interesting things about the way the percussion instruments are used in the music is the way in which each individual is allowed to articulate their personal response to the time-signature and the other rhythm instruments while at the same time embellishing the overall composition. This is symbolic of the way in which all people in a society can be unique but also work together to produce a communal activity or event. In other words, the music is a useful way to express that there is a unity between people despite whatever differences individuals may have. The music is meant to inspire people to dance: “when drummers beat out rhythms such as agbadza […] a person felt inspired to dance,” (Geurts, 2002, p. 52). therefore the music as a whole can be seen as a celebration of individualism and community at the same time. The differences between people are given a voice, but the unity of the people is achieved through rhythm and dance.
In fact, the differences between people is not only necessary but desirable because it gives the community more dimension. The same can be said for the Agbadza music, which invites individuals to join in ana overall communal sound-scape, largely based on unique, yet completely orchestrated, rhythms. The use of the percussion parts therefore strikes a perfect balance between total freedom and complete submission to the group. In many ways, the use of the percussion instruments seems like a symbolic reminder of how societies are supposed to work in ideal terms.
The way that the music is notated in Western culture shows something else that is interesting about the percussion parts, in that they involve sophisticated playing techniques. when the parts are written out, “The different drum strokes that occur on each pulse are then represented by symbols derived from the figure of a drum stick, the area of the drum head hit by the stick, and the type of stroke: that is, whether it is open, free, damped, or muted. (Nketia, 1986, p. 236). Many people are probably unaware of how complex the actual playing techniques are for the percussion instruments in this music.
Playing the rattle, for example, sounds like an easy task. However, playing the rattle requires specific movements and pasture: “”The rattle, axatse, is played in a sitting position, and is struck downward on the thigh and then upward against the open palm or closed fist of the other hand held above it” (Reich, 2002, p. 59). The variance in the way the percussion instruments are played helps to accentuate the way the numerous instruments interact throughout the music as a whole. The rattle and kagan each required specific techniques to be played effectively. The surface level of the music appears to be wild and untamed rhythm but in actuality is carefully studied and controlled.
Geurts, K. L. (2002). Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Mowoe, I. J., & Bjornson, R. (Eds.). (1986). Africa and the West: The Legacies of Empire. New York: Greenwood Press.
Reich, S. (2002). Writings on Music, 1965-2000 (P. Hillier, Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.