Posts Tagged Meshell Ndegeocello

Orchestration in African Drumming

African music and dance go hand in hand.

Jazz, too, had its origins as dance music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As anyone who has performed with a symphony orchestra or chorus can attest, it is no fun having to count through multi-measure rests, only to play or sing a single phrase (or note), followed by more counting, more waiting. I suppose that, as with baseball, this kind of punctuated equilibrium might sharpen the senses and create a feeling of suspense. Still, I suspect most players would rather play more and count less. The problem, of course, is that in most Western classical music the ensemble parts function primarily to serve the aims of the composer. If that means a certain instrument or section waits patiently (or nervously) like a right fielder crouched and sweating in the midday heat, then so be it.

When I studied jazz composition and arranging in graduate school, the priorities were different. Writing for a jazz orchestra (i.e., big band), I was implored by Bob Brookmeyer to take into account the performer’s experience as well. “The trumpets have been out too long by this point,” he would say to me. “Give them something to do!”

This type of inclusiveness is also found in many West African drumming styles, where the entire ensemble typically plays throughout most, if not all, of a given piece. Good luck finding a single measure of rest among the ensemble parts, let alone fifty. This is also due to the fact that drummers are often accompanying dancers; playing together continuously in this manner helps to establish and maintain the groove. Interestingly, jazz, too, had its origins as dance music (see photo of Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, above). Although these days a jazz venue is the last place we would go to find a dance party (Meshell Ndegeocello and Jason Moran recently attempted to change this, with mixed results), it is nonetheless true that in many ways a jazz band’s original function was to lay down a strong, danceable groove. I suppose that’s Kanye’s job now?

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