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Re-configuring tradition
West African music is famed for its complexity, but can such sonic physics hold the key to further societal development?
Last Modified: 09 Sep 2010 14:21
Femi Kuti may well be a master on the stage, however is there more to the complex rhythms that define his and other West African music? [Getty] 

Anyone with a passing knowledge of African drumming knows how complex the rhythms are. However when you literally sit in the middle of a group of traditional drummers and musicians while they interact with the dancers who lead the music, the level of complexity moves into quantum dimensions. It's as if the group is a giant atom, with the the musicians moving at sometimes blinding speed like electrons around the nucleus of the master drummer and and clave (or bell) players. Like a musical embodiment of the Heisenberg principle, it's often impossible to know precisely where the individual musicians are in the beat (although they do), as they constantly engage in micro-shifts of their rhythms in response to each other and the dancers.

On top of that, the traditional instruments such as the kogiri, or wooden xylophone, gonji, or horse-hair violin, and dondo, or talking drum, neither have set pitches nor are tuned to one common pitch. This allows for an incredible variety of tonal combinations between them, leaving a Western musician playing a fretted guitar (in this case, me) constantly groping to fit tonally as well as rhythmically into the music.

I mention this not merely to celebrate the virtuosity of Ghanaian musicians or dancers; but because it provides important clues and perspective about the endemic problems haunting Ghana and Sub-Saharan Africa more broadly. It may no longer be legitimate in polite company to talk about Africans as less intelligent than Europeans or Westerners more broadly, but that is precisely the implication behind claims that most if not all the region's problems are 'homegrown.'

Yet against the assumption that Africans aren't as rational or developed intellectually as 'we' are is that the reality that the average, ostensibly poorly uneducated musician or dancer speaks at least three or four languages and plays five or six instruments, and can effortlessly negotiate the ever-changing rhythms, melodies and body movements that comprise African music while bearing in mind the deeply symbolic implications of the music and dance he or she is engaged in.

Such a feat requires a level of intellectual sophistication and rationality that is the equal of the most complex technical or scientific rationality of the West. In fact, as Professor John Collins, one of Ghana's most celebrated musicologists explains it, "African music is not just about roots and the past. Its natural relationship to quantum physics makes it about the future and the present." The problem is that few people really know how to listen to it, and a local and global economic system that for centuries has been based on extreme exploitation of African people and resources has made it hard for the average Ghanaian to translate these skills into sustainable and equitable economic development.

Tradition and Progress Together

Equally important, as opposed to traditionalists from President Ahmedinejad to Glenn Beck, the artists I've met are very attuned to the fact that tradition can never be static; it will not survive preserved in cultural or political formaldehyde. Without progress and reinterpretation tradition quickly becomes stale and potentially toxic.

This is something political and religious conservatives in the West or Muslim world have yet to learn. As high life legend George Darko urged the audience at a recent festival outside of Accra, "We have to preserve and transform tradition at the same time."

These words are a mantra of advocates of sustainable globalisation, although the global economic elite continues to run from the idea because of what it would cost them in the ensuing redistribution of wealth and power. Of course, Globalisation has long been considered a primarily economic affair. However Africa, like the "third world" in general, has always been structurally marginalised from its economic benefits. On the other hand, cultural globalisation has always been crucial to the development of African cultures.

In the modern era, the evolution of local musical styles like high life (one of the worlds most elegant and uplifting musics of the world), was the result of a ping-ponging of musical crossings-from Africa to the Caribbean with the salve trade, and back across to Ghana with the stationing of West Indian army bands in its territory in the 1870s and then back and forth several more times in the next half century. Eventually producing offshoots like Afrorock and the kind of Afrofunk or Afrobeat made famous again with the success of the Broadway musical celebrating the life of Fela Kuti.

We shouldn't romanticise Ghanaian music as the solution to the country's problems, even if the government and foreign donors wisely invest relatively significant funds into arts education and preservation. Indeed, at least one of the country's major arts troupes has largely stopped travelling overseas because too many of its members disappear while on tour, choosing to be taxi drivers in New York or London rather than artists back home.

However the sophistication and power of Ghanaian cultural production, like that of so many of its neighbouring and even poorer countries, points to the promise and talents within these societies, despite decades if not centuries of violence, exploitation and abuse. It would be highly progressive if those who hold the countries' futures in their hands, both in and outside the region, could learn and act upon what their artistic and wider cultural traditions have to teach them. The reality, sadly, is that there might well be peace between Israelis and Palestinians before that happens.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy

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