Improvisation: Musicians and Scholars Speak
Afropop Wordwide’s Hip Deep series on The Art of Improvisation draws on interviews with a broad spectrum of artists and scholars. This feature presents excerpts from the interviews used in Part 1 of our series. These interviews concentrate on the basic nature of improvisation in West African traditions, in Arabic music, and in jazz. We start with Abraham Adzenyah, adjunct professor of music at Wesleyan University and master drummer from Ghana. Banning Eyre, February 7, 2005
When dealing with indigenous African music, drumming, singing, and dancing are inseparable. They are three entities together. All the scholars, Ghanaian scholars or African scholars, use the term ‘music,’ and music consists of drumming, singing, and dancing. In my language, in the Akan language or in any Ghanaian language, there is no one word for music. It doesn’t exist. Because when you’re talking about music, you are talking about these three element. The closest word in my language would be agoro, literally meaning ‘play.’ So considering that, any time you play, you are playing for dancers and singers. What the drum ensemble does underlines the various dance movements. In some cases, the lead drum directs the dancers. ‘Turn around.’ They must turn around. ‘Jump.’ They must jump. And because they have lived in this society since they were born, it is part and parcel of their daily lives. It’s in their body, in their blood. They know the language of the drum and they can interact with the various rhythms of the drum by dancing. But if you ask any drummer, any good drummer or any good musician, they will tell you, ‘Yes, there is room for improvisation.’ But how does it work? That’s my question. How do you improvise?
People should understand that these societies, or these tribes, are very conscious about their music, because that’s the backbone–that’s the cornerstone of the culture. Without the music, there is no culture. Therefore, they don’t want anybody to, you know, while you are playing, you make your own. You add something to whatever rhythm you are playing. No. They would not allow that. They would throw you out. They would tell you that you are ridiculing the culture. All the rhythms that I have been teaching here [at Wesleyan] are from so many generations ago. And I have maintained that.
But what happens is that we borrow rhythms within the same state, where the artists among us may find it very inspiring. So you borrow that rhythm in addition to the old one that you are playing, and that changes the feeling, a little bit. So to be slightly different, they say, ‘Oh, they have a new rhythm, a new style.’ It is the same musical type, recreational musical. The two rhythms together are so exciting. So, okay, let me borrow just this one, in addition to the old one, and then you add to it. It’s allowable. Yes, you can do that. That’s when people hear, and they say, ‘Oh, he is improvising.’ No, it is part of the rhythm, but because he switched from his basic rhythm, to respond to that rhythm, the Westerners say, ‘Oh, it’s an improvisation.’ No. It’s something that is within the system. It’s just like a dictionary. You have so many vocabularies, so many words. And you refer to whatever words you want to.
Banning: What about a situation where it’s recreational music, and the lead drummer is directing the dance? Is he making decisions as he goes, improvising in that sense?
A.A.: He sets the order the way he feels. At the moment. And the dancers, because they’ve been dancing for a very long time, they know when he switches, he changes the style, they will be there with him. They will respond. They will react because they know these dances.
Banning: Is that improvising?
A.A.: No. He just changes the sequence; it’s not an improvisation…. The lead drummer doesn’t have as much freedom as people may think. Because one way or the other, he is always directing the dance, responding to the dance movement. Sometimes, he engages the supporting drummers in a dialogue. They talk with each other, call and response. But he doesn’t have that much freedom. If he played anything, it could be a proverb, quoting an appropriate proverb. If you hear that he is off within the tempo, then he is quoting a proverb, or congratulating the dancer, or congratulating the drummers, or congratulating the singer, or asking for a drink from the person who is presiding over that occasion. That happens. You can call that an improvisation.
Banning: What would you call improvising in the traditional setting?
A.A.: In the Akan area, among the Fantes and some other ethnic groups, when a woman gives birth to twins, as soon as the to children arrive, the women within that locality around them, you will see them getting together and playing an old hoe blade, and celebrating because the community has increased with two kids, instead of one. Naturally, the people would have one kid at a time. But if there are two, you see them singing, dancing, and within the twinkle of an eye, the whole area would be filled with women celebrating the arrival of these twins. That’s spontaneous. And that is improvisation.
The situation or the occasion determines what to play. That’s the bottom line. One time, the Lagon postal workers were canceling letters, and they made music out of it. I have the recording. It’s spontaneous. They are using their work. They are making music with their work. The way they’re canceling letters is making music. That’s improvisation.
Banning: What do you make of the fact that the music African Americans created, blues and jazz in particular, put such a big emphasis on improvising?
A.A.: Talking about improvisation, the African Americans were brought into another world, with a new environment, where they were denied even their own language. If people realized that two of us could speak the same language, they would separate us. You go somewhere else, so that we cannot communicate with one another. But it’s in our blood. A woman nursing her child in Africa will singing lullabies. Children sing game songs. It’s spontaneous music. And because it’s in their blood and in their system, the only way they could bring that out, re-create that, or revive that, was in the church.
Let me give you an example. For instance, you were working, and you have so much work. So you are stressed out. As soon as you get somebody to share that with, you are relieved. You have been able to express what was bothering you, and you are relieved. That’s how improvisation in America started. Because music is emotional, spiritual, and psychological. They felt it in their bodies, so whatever came out, they try to relieve it to nature, lifestyle, experiences. That’s how they started. You may sing about love, your livestock, the history, the attitude of people, the behavior, nature. That’s how it started. And blues. Talking about blues, the same thing. How they talk about nature, and then you have something to deal with. You have the harmonic instrument, and that is your accompaniment.
Banning: Living here in the U.S., you must have had lots of opportunities to play in jazz contexts. How do you approach improvisation then?
A.A.: If I am playing with jazz musicians, as I said, it’s just like a dictionary. I may take one rhythm from here, and then play where I see it fits with that set, and then I will play that along with them. Therefore, I am using the source. I’m using the rhythm from the grassroots to play with other people. I played with a Smitty Smith, a jazz drum player. We used the traditional rhythms, and he played the drum set. He did his improvisation on top of that, but I maintained those rhythms traditionally. I played some variations on top of that. That was really exciting.
What I would call improvisation is spontaneous music. One can create, re-creating, what they know on top of the old rhythm, while you were playing with other musicians, within a different context. You can have the freedom to do that. When I played with Dizzy Gillespie, I maintained the basic rhythm. When I improvised, I added my own, because I’m reaching out. I’m stepping out of my shell and re-creating my music with another person. I am re-creating the traditional elements in this new system. It’s creativity. So I’m creating.
Banning: It is interesting that different concepts of improvisation can work together. Smitty Smith is just playing free, listening and responding. You are always drawing from your dictionary, and yet one can say that both of you are improvising.
A.A.: We have so many beliefs in our culture. Having been here for a very long time, those things play a part in my life. Although I am not in Ghana, it plays a part in my life. Any time I’m really, really playing, I can feel my ancestors spirits behind me, playing the music, and with that, I can’t afford to make any mistakes. Or to say, ‘Oh, I am making my own rhythm here and there.’ No.
Banning: You must struggle with students who play jazz and are used to just making music up on the spot.
A.A.: Yes, but I make them understand from the word go that this is a very serious music. The title of this class is communication. We are going to communicate with one another, and you need to be ready. You need to be well informed before we start. When we were performing, one guy was so tempted, so to the simple rhythm, he added one note. And I said, ‘No, you can’t do that. You can’t do that. It’s never done.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it’s so tempting.’ And I said I know. It is very tempting. You would like to add your own to it. But it is not allowable. I have to remind them constantly.
Banning: I know that hip hop is big in Ghana, as everywhere in Africa now. I imagine there’s a kind of improvising at work there.
A.A.: Exactly. That’s verbal improvisation. Although you are airing out your differences, what ever you are talking about, you are improvising. You are making on your own. You develop it, and you are using it verbally on different kinds of rhythms that are not restricted. Traditional, indigenous music is restricted. If you play or perform in the music, if you create a new music, it has to be approved by the old musicians, and plus, ahead of that town, or the chief of that city. If they don’t approve it, you cannot perform it. Maybe the meaning of the lyrics may be threatening to the bylaws of that town, and the elders, they don’t want to hear that. Or maybe the dance movement is obscene. They will tell you cannot perform this music. They will ban the music.
Banning: I bet hip hoppers have problems there. We’ll come back to that subject another time.
Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng
Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng is also a drummer from Ghana, but he comes from a younger generation than Abraham Adzenyah, and he is more immersed in the New York jazz scene. His ideas about improvising were a little different.
Well, it all depends who’s telling the story, what history books you read. I have also been bombarding myself with the same questions over and over because according to our own history, the African history, there was some improvisation going on. There was always time for fun. There was also a time for rules and regulations, and so improvisation in music I would say, when the chief or the king hasn’t arrived yet, the kids can all play around and joke around. When the king and the chief show up, everybody is in order. When the chief for the king leaves, the floor is open. I’m sure that’s when improvisation happened. It could be at the marketplace too. You go to the market, and there’s so much going on, many different things in the air, whether it’s a blacksmith, or kids playing with little homemade toys. If you look at it that way, I think improvisation is everywhere.
In Africa, yes, drummers play for dancers, but when a dancer is coming onto the stage, you can play something for that dancer, just to prep that dancer to get ready. Now, when you find a dancer is ready to get down with their favorite style of movement, yes, the drummer should know what rhythm goes with that particular movement. You have that, but let’s take for instance the dancer is done. He or she is leaving the platform, the circle. Somebody else is coming in. That’s when the drummer can practice their own style, add their own little licks in. But when the dancer is onstage, or in the middle of the circle, you have to have a dialogue with the dancer. It’s like that in many traditions. In rumba in Cuba, for instance, the dancer and the conga player are one. The drummer and the dancer are one in tap. You find this all through African-American and African cultures, and all through the Diaspora.
Banning: What has been your experience as a West African musician, growing up in tradition, and then coming to America and playing jazz?
K.K.O.: Well, growing up in Ghana, we were fortunate to have so many jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong visiting Ghana in the early times of independence. I’m talking about the 50s, and 60s. There were a lot of festivals that brought African American musicians to us. When I was introduced to jazz, here in the Americas, in the late eighties, I thought it was the same kind of music that I heard in Ghana.
[Musicians had brought the African traditions into jazz.] Chano Pozo is one of them, coming from Cuba, bringing the tradition, again, a dancer. When he came in, Chano Pozo was playing only one drum. He would strap the drum on his shoulder and when he played, he has got lyrics to go with those rhythms, and those are all dance movements, and dance rhythms that he was actually playing during his solos. That created an evolution in American jazz today, where Art Blakey and all those guys, our elders I must say, have really incorporated a lot of the Caribbean rhythms. Stan Getz brought The Girl from Ipanema and Brazil into jazz.
Even those who don’t play drums, those who play saxophone and keyboards and those kinds of things, they also heard drums. And they also experienced the tradition of Africa, which is always drums, dancing, organization and group call-and-response. So those things are also being transformed into the saxophone, transformed into the piano–Cecil Taylor, so many other great musicians who adapted the African tradition, or embraced the African tradition when they were growing up in the Americas. And when you listen to those artists, you can still hear the improvisation in their music. They are not just playing something that they just heard out of the blue. They actually play something that they grew up listening to, and you can hear that.
Banning: That’s interesting. What you’re saying is that a lot of the tradition that has been passed down through the ages creeps into jazz through all these different contexts.
K.K.O.: Oh, yeah. Talking about the African American tradition, if you go back and listen to things like ringshout, for instance, you hear a single beat. You can hear that slaves were not even allowed to dance and cross their legs. When they were able to do that, the rhythm changed. They were clapping their hands. If two people are clapping, you can hear improvisation going around. And then you hear people getting excited. It changes as you go along. One day you say, ‘Oh, yeah, I feel good today.’ You don’t say those words every day, because you don’t feel good everyday. But today you are able to say that as an improvisation in your day. That makes your day different. And so I think in our traditions, those things are always there in the African-American tradition, in Cuba, Brazil. So those things are also in jazz, because the jazz musicians are also learning about this culture.
You and I know so many people who are making trips to Africa, to find the rhythms that they’ve heard on records, to be able to see it live. And I know it changes their lives after they come back from that trip. It has changed my life being here in this country. My music has changed. If you listen to any of my recordings, you can hear the African elements and also the new elements that are going on today. Because I love culture, so I am always going to incorporate something that I heard somewhere that really entices me too. That’s been going on for generations.
The words that we use every day [also become part of] the music. In Ghana, where I grew up, we used the talking drum as a message sender, a telephone, and all that stuff we know today. The famous word that everyone knows is “Ohinininiba.” If someone tells you, “Ohinininiba,” it means, “The chief is coming. Clear the way.” Now, it could be said through the drums. So we are sending messages through the drums. Ohinininiba. Now, if I take the same word, Ohinininiba, I can make a song out of it. [SINGS] Here’s a song already, by using the same word. Now I believe that through all these cultural elements that crossed the ocean and made their way to the Americas, are still present in us today.
Look at the clavé rhythm. Everybody knows about the clavé [in Cuban music]. But if you put the clave on guitar, like Bo Diddley did, you create a new world. That has led to a whole new genre in rock-and-roll today. It was played on wood, but put that on guitar and it’s the same rhythm, but we’re using it in a different context. I think that’s improvisation. Imagine you play that rhythm on a piano, using that rhythm on your left hand, and you’re improvising on your right hand, it’s going to create a whole different element.
For me, jazz is everywhere. If you go to the marketplace, that’s jazz for me. If you go to Grand Central Station, think about how many people are walking back and forth. Now, if you look at everybody, and you play a rhythm to everybody’s movement, and that becomes improvisation. That’s the marketplace. You go there, and you shop. So these things are around us all the time.
Banning: So how does all this play out when you work with jazz musicians?
K.K.O.: My work incorporating with jazz, is I’m maintaining the African rhythms in jazz, and the free world. I keep finding ways to imply the same traditional rhythms. I can give you a few examples, like Leo Smith’s new CD called Lake Biwa. I was surprised when he encouraged me, ‘Come and play with us.’ I said, ‘Oh, you know, but I’m a hand drummer. I’m from Ghana. I didn’t study these kinds of technical things, all these notes and numbers and all those things.’ And he said, “Oh, no, there’s the in time and the outside time.’
If you listen to my drum set style, I’m incorporating the hand drum rhythms on to the drum set, and it’s the same thing. I’m not playing anything new. On the hand drum, the texture feels different, but with the modern drum set, it’s multiple melodic. You have more freedom. You have snare drum. You have some tom-toms, you have floor toms. You have cymbals. So you are able to combine more. You are less restricted on the drum set that on hand drums.
For me, jazz is a different world. I love jazz, and I love improvisation music, but I’ve never been offered to do any work at that high-end level. Leo is one of the heavy trumpet players out there in creative music. I happened to play the drums set on the title cut, which I’m pleased about. I found myself playing processional rhythms, which like all the drum parts, is verbal. It’s a ceremonial kind of music. You find that in New Orleans, processional is going to the cemetery, going to celebrate, going to worship, going to church. Processional music comes in so many ways. But this music is only played for the Chiefs when they are walking from one place to another. Now it could be 50 yards. You still need those musicians. And so, all these things are part of things that I use in my free improvisational music.
Eric Charry has a unique perspective on improvising in West African music and jazz. As the author of “Mande Music” ( Chicago University Press: 2000), Charry is an authority on a genre of West African music that put a premium on the art of improvisation. The Mande people are widely dispersed throughout West Africa, especially Mali, Guinea, and Gambia. In recent years, Charry has been working on a book on jazz. We spoke at Wesleyan University where Charry is an associate professor of music. We began with the question: What is the role of improvising in Mande music?
It’s crucial. It’s built into the music. When a kora player or balafon player is playing, every piece of music has built-in variations. Some are personal, and some are passed down, known to large communities at musicians. It’s expected that musicians will exercise these variations. One thing that was frustrating as a student studying there, on kora for example, when my teacher would play a piece, he would continue to vary it, so it would be so hard to pick up what the actual piece was. So there’s a resistance to playing something the same way over and over. Just by nature, the music demands variation.”
Banning: To what extent is the Mande improviser inventing new music and to what extent is he recycling things, similar to the “dictionary” that Abraham Adzenyah spoke about?
E.C.: There are some personal things that Mande musicians do that are just their own inventions. There are some things that may be passed down from parents or relatives, and then there are general things that they may pick up from the community of musicians. There is a high price on personal style, but there are limits to the extent they can innovate in the music. There are different levels of variations in improvisation styles. There are some system-wide things you find in Mande areas, and then there are things unique to a certain area, like the town of Kita. So we can talk about African music, about Mande music, about Malian music, and then within Mali, Kita, and then certain families, or certain instruments within certain families. All of those things could affect the options that a particular improviser has.
This is one of the things that often slips by foreigners and people who are not that familiar with the music. But those who are in the thick of things can immediately recognize what family you are from, what country, or what part of the country you are from, or even what instruments you have learned. So for example, guitar players who have studied balafon, you can tell. They are playing the guitar in a balafon style. In Mali, they often play the guitar in an ngoni style, the ngoni being a traditional lute. So it’s amazing the network influences that can affect a musician, and the complexities.
Here, the comparison with jazz is similar. For saxophonists for example, tenor saxophonists, it is really hard to get away from the influence of John Coltrane after 1960, or Charlie Parker if you’re an alto saxophonist. And so musicians can often say, he’s playing Parker licks or Coltrane licks, or he sounds a little bit like Dexter Gordon combined with Sonny Rollins. So there are personal styles that are readily identifiable, and musicians can pick them off of recordings, and then also, depending on the creativity of a musician. A musician may just be recombining music of previous musicians, or there may be recombining in innovative ways, or they could be rejecting that and moving on to new styles. So that’s typical in jazz, and you have that to a certain extent in Mande music also.
One of the difficulties in talking about Mande music in comparison to jazz is that in the jazz world, there are just so many recordings, and we are so familiar with them over here in the US. We can talk about it with a familiarity, and a certain degree of authority. When you talk about Mande music, there aren’t that many recordings comparatively speaking. There is much less familiarity about the music, and the musicians themselves don’t talk about it that much. So it’s quite difficult to make those kinds of comparisons, in terms of licks and personal styles. I know they are going on, and musicians referred to those personal styles, but the actual specifics, it’s a little hard to pin down in most of Africa, and among Mande musicians. There is not the degree of precision that you can talk about Mande musicians in those terms, as you can in jazz. And largely, because they’re a lot of people who have been working on jazz for a long time, studying it and writing about it, and talking about it and analyzing it. That hasn’t yet happened for much of Africa.
More recently, I would say, those who have recorded more often have probably exerted more influence, and Toumani Diabate is probably one of the prime examples. He’s got a bunch of recordings out since the late eighties, and he’s achieved a great degree of success, so I think his style has probably been very influential, at least among kora players in Mali.
Banning: How would you describe Toumani’s style? What is original in it?
E.C.: He’s an amazing mix. His father, Sidiki Diabate, was one of Africa’s most celebrated kora players. So Toumani inherited that directly. And Toumani, like many Africans of his generation– he was born in the mid-60s– he had his ears open to the radio. So in the 70s and 80s, they were listening to music from the outside world, including France and the United States. So I think, to a certain extent, the way he tunes his kora sounds very familiar to Western ears. If you hear older kora players who have not been so influenced, their tuning often sounds out of tune to Americans.
Also there’s the way he moves up and down the kora. Traditionally, throughout much of Africa, a lot of the single-line, melodic improvisation starts up high and then descends down low. It’s often believed to reflect the way tonal languages work. In tonal languages in Africa, they start up high and then gradually, at the end of a sentence or a few sentences, end up at a much lower pitch. So on the balafon, you can see them starting up high, and then you can literally see them ending up lower and lower on the instrument. Same with kora. One of Toumani’s innovations is that he has developed some melodic lines where he actually moves upward on kora. It sounds like a fairly simple thing to do, and you wonder why people wouldn’t have done it before. It just wasn’t part of their aesthetic, but occasionally he adds these lines that move upward, and it adds a nice little flair that you don’t normally find in Malian music.
Banning: What about quoting. I remember hearing Mande players quote obvious things like that flute melody from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, or “Frère Jacques.” But what about less obvious quotes, things only insiders would catch?
E.C.: There are things ingrained in the fingers. As a student, you practice them, and once they’re under your fingers, you can just interject them in any kind of piece. These would be called ‘licks’ in jazz terminology, or sometimes clichés, if you overuse them. In jazz, there is sometimes a fine line between playing licks and playing something of your own. It depends on the creativity of the musician. A lick can sound tired if you overuse it, or if you place it in just the right place, it can just lift up a piece and take it to a new realm.
Banning: I was always impressed with the way Malian guitarist Djelimady Tounkara could analyze what he was playing, saying what guitarist or kora player was responsible for this riff or vamp as opposed to that one, or where things came from geographically. But I guess his fluency in discussing the music that way was unusual, wasn’t it?
E.C.: I agree. It’s not often that a [Mande] musician would articulate to someone else where these various influences come from. Part of it is just secrecy, trying to guard your personal style, and not wanting others to grab onto it. I think you may find this with musicians all around the world. It’s in their interest to build up a degree of mystique around their personal style. So it’s rare that you’ll find a musician that tells you I learned this from this person and that from that person, identifying various strands in their style. It’s often their student, or observers, who will say that it appears that this part of their song they got from theirs parents, or their grandfather, or their uncle, or they got this style off a recording. So it’s rare that you find a [Mande] musician who is willing to talk about their own style, about the influences that have gone into it, with any degree of specificity.
Also there is not much of a vocabulary to talk about the technical aspects of music. They can hear it but actually verbalizing it may not be so important.
Banning: Why is improvising so prominent in Mande music, as compared with other African genres?
E.C.: It helps to view Mande music as a classical system in the sense that music from India or jazz is a classical system. That would help to understand the amount of sophistication, and the primacy put on innovation and virtuosity. This goes back to their social system and their history. There is a class of musicians that dates back, according to oral traditions, to the time of Sunjata in the 13th century. This class of musicians is known as jelis or griots. And their job, and their role in life, is to be the oral historians, musicians, and singers. So when you have a class that is patronized as such, and they spend all their time doing it, then they are apt to build a fairly sophisticated system. When you compare the social system among Mande musicians, you see similar things in other parts of the world in classical systems, and you can compare it to the patronage system in Europe. They had royal courts and they employed musicians to be musicians, and so they developed a fairly sophisticated tradition. The same thing happened among the Mande. You don’t find that in many other parts of Africa. There are places where you do, but it demands a class system, and wealth also. The Mande had wealth in gold, which enabled them to have a class of rulers, and classes of artists. Each class or social strata was responsible for certain things. So when you have a class of musicians, then they are going to cultivate music.
Banning: Let’s talk about the singers, as opposed to the instrumentalists in Mande music. Do they improvise?
E.C.: In live performances, the vocalists are really in charge. And in terms of how they get paid, typically it is in the course of a performance. Sometimes they may agree on a set fee, but during the course of a performance, the vocalist would praise the various people there, and those patrons that are their would give money in thanks to the singer as the performances going on. So the singer needs to maintain a storehouse of oral history and information about various families. As they are praising various persons at an event, they must know their general family history. If they know certain things about that person the particular, all the better, and so they are improvising within boundaries. They are pulling history out of their head, and then delivering it vocally. They are not making up history. That’s pretty much public knowledge, but in terms of how they deliver it vocally, there is improvisation involved. In terms of visibility and earning income, it boils down to the amount of power that someone has, and it is usually the female jelis who wield that power. They are the ones who publicly deliver this history and can help make the reputation of someone present, or help them save face if there has been a problem in their family.
If you look at the top three singers, female singers from the 80s and 90s, Tata Bamba Kouyate, Kandia Kouyate, and Ami Koita, they had very powerful delivery styles, and they had to have a certain storehouse of knowledge from when they were relatively young in order to achieve their reputations. On the other hand, there are older male jelis and female jelis who have a whole lot of knowledge, but may not have achieved such a degree of public recognition. So there is a distinction between powerful delivery styles and deep knowledge. And if someone can combine the two, then you’re in really good shape. I think in general that these three women who I just mentioned, they were able to combine the two.
The general history is known throughout the community, but it’s the way that one deliver said. There is a way to just recite history that is not terribly dramatic, but I think when you have music going on behind you, whether it’s a kora or electric guitar, and you reveal these things one by one, dramatically, I think that’s where these female jelis excel. They create a degree of suspense, line by line, and finally come out with the punch line on how great a family this person’s father is. Again, it’s not necessarily esoteric knowledge; it’s in the way it is delivered.”
Also, at a wedding with maybe a hundred or hundred and 50 people in attendance, there may be 5, 10 or 15 people that the singers are going to target. They need to pace themselves throughout the evening, so if they know is going to be at two- or three-hour performance, they are going to pace themselves spending a few minutes on each patron. If that patron happens to be forthcoming with cash or gifts, they may spend a longer time. But it can make for quite a long evening at some of these events, just working your way around the crowd, praising the various lineages. There is a lot going on in their head organizing these events. So it’s not just singing and delivering knowledge. They need to work their way around the community, build a sense of community, not to overpraise somebody at the detriment of somebody else.
Banning: That in itself is quite an elaborate act of improvisation isn’t it?
E.C.: Absolutely. They are not looking at their watches. I’m sure they’re not thinking in their head, ‘I’m going to spend five minutes on this person and five minutes on that person.’ They gradually work their way around the crowd, and there are laws of civility. They approach a person and they greet them, and there are various formulas that they would use to praise that family, and then just depending on the situation, they can dig into that person’s history further and further. It’s difficult from a Westerner’s perspective to understand the concept of cash being handed over to a performer in the heat of performance. But this is typical in Mali and in much of Africa, and that’s part of the excitement of the evening. If a singer is praising someone, and that person is giving cash rather freely, they will spend more time on that person, and dig deeper and deeper into the glorious aspects of their history. By all means, they are shaping the event while in performance. This is a classic case of improvisation, creating a sense of drama, telling a story.
Banning: I want to come back to the comparison between Mande music and jazz. We’ve talked about ways in which they similar. But how do they differ?
E.C.: It helps to talk about jazz in terms of eras or time periods, and once you get to the late 1950s and sixties, innovation moves in a different direction. The term jazz becomes ineffective to describe the music. The music has outgrown that label. Up until the sixties, the idea of swing, or a steady beat, a particular kind of jazz rhythm, was one of the defining features of jazz. In the 1960s, musicians such as Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman redefined the idea of swing. To a certain extent, they were banished outside the realm of jazz. Those kinds of innovations are prized within African American music, to a certain extent. They had a hard time making a living when they originally did their innovations, but now they are viewed as grand masters in their older age.
In Mande music, there are more constraints that would prevent that kind of thing from happening. There are innovations, but not to the drastic, radical extent that you have in jazz. For example, with the kora, you were constrained by the tuning system. The 21 strings are tuned to different scales. The most radical innovation I can think of, is tuning to kora to a piano, which sounds similar, but it is a different tuning system. So to Western ears, it makes the music sound very familiar. To African ears, it may make the music sound less familiar. So I from an African perspective, that may be viewed as a radical innovation.
Keletigui Diabate, the elder statesman of Malian music, plays on two balafons, tuned to a piano so he can play the sharps and flats. Normally, a balafon has just seven notes in an octave. But he has added a second balafon that can play what are essentially the black keys, the sharps and flats, on a piano, so he can play all 12 notes within a scale. That was a great innovation in Malian music, because it allowed the balafon to be fully integrated within a guitar band. What is amazing about Keletigui is that he is a multi-instrumentalist. He might be playing balafon, and then he pick up a trombone to play a solo, so he’s got this incredible background as a guitarist, a trombonist, balafon player, and violinist with Les Ambassadeurs. The degree of freshness and creativity that Keletigui has is just incredible, and this from a 70-year-old man.
One of the things that you will not find in African music is the kind of avant-garde movements that you find in the Western world. Avant-garde movements typically demand a bourgeois class, something to rebel against, and also patrons for that. In the United States, avant-garde movements have been going on since the early 1900s. A lot of it has to do with rebelling against bourgeois values. In Africa, those things don’t yet make sense in Africa. Those kinds of things don’t make sense in Africa given their social system. The idea of an avant-garde, totally rejecting the past is not part of their tradition. They have a great respect for the past, and rejecting it is not part of their aesthetic.
Abdoulaye Alhassane traces his family lineage to Gao, center for the Songhai Empire of Mali. But he was born and grew up in Niamy, Niger, where in 1995, he co-founded the roots band Mamar Kassey. Alhassane is an extremely versatile musician, proficient in ancient and modern music of the Songhai, Hausa, Fula, Zerma and other ethnic groups. He spoke about improvisation beginning with an example drawn from the dance music, “takamba.” This music is accompanied by the kurubu lute and calabash percussion.
Improvised music, I think that it has existed in Songhai music, and in sub-Saharan African music generally, but in another form. I say in another form because when I listen to the takamba that is played in our ceremonies, there’s an original melody that is played by the kurubu. The player should know this melody. But when the energy rises between two players and the dancers, something happens. The calabash player also has a regular rhythm, but when the feeling reach is a certain point, the kurubu player leaves his melody. He improvises. He follows his heart. He is encouraging the dancer to go more strongly into the spirit of the music. The kurubu player and the dancer always work together, every time. That’s what shows me that improvisation exists in a certain manner in our music.
But if you tell that kurubu player to work with a modern orchestra, with violinists, and to improvise, you have to explain to them what it means to improvise. You have to tell them that they need to make up their own notes, that they have to follow their own spirit in the moment. But that does exist in their music already when they play. They do not have an understanding music that says, ‘This is the time when you play the theme, and this is the time when you do the break, and this is the time when you improvise.’ They have no notion of that.
Now, with the evolution, musicians have changed. In the context of rhythm, it is the same thing. They play, they play, and when he plays a solo, he doesn’t do it within the context of a discipline of improvisation. He does it with his feeling. In Bambara music, it’s more or less the same thing. With balafon players for example, it’s the same.
Of course, after independence, people discovered Western music. Radio arrived in different countries, disseminating the music of the world. That gave a different spirit to musicians. People said, ‘Wait, it’s not only the kurubu and the calabash that can play. We can add the goje [fiddle].’ Beyond that, Ministers of Youth and Culture in these countries, Mali, Niger, other African countries, began to create music festivals, for traditional music, for youth. Or in other countries, they call days the national Biennalle. And this helped musicians to know that there is a structural element in music called improvisation, where a musician can express himself in the context of the music that he plays.
In Niger, the center for the teaching of music helped us a lot. Students learned scales, music theory, improvisation. They learned to play the blues. There was a time when I criticized this, that young African musicians should learn this old African American music. Will that really help them? Then I said, wait, a musician who knows only Do Re Mi, etc, who knows nothing about improvising in jazz where you must respect the harmonic progression, I think that is not good. I know a goje player named Ousmane, or Yacouba [of Mamar Kassey] with his flute, even if they don’t know if it’s an F7, or G7, or C7, they play their melodies. They don’t need to know the chord changes to play something good. In their way, they may come closer to the real sense of jazz, which is an improvised music. When you start to know about the harmony, you become afraid to play. Is this note in the harmony? And then you see a musician who knows nothing about that, and they play with their feeling and somehow get there just by chance.
Banning: Eric Charry talked to me about the court tradition among the Mande, how the job of praising people helped to develop a sense of virtuosity and also improvisation among a class of musicians? Is there anything like that in Songhai culture?
A.A.: The origin, the root of all this, from centuries back, and what has to they understood about the Songhai and Mande people is that the instrument is there to give pleasure to great individuals, the warriors. The great hero goes to war, he comes back with his instrument. He plays and he says, ‘That is my melody.’ From then on, he says to the griots in his entourage, ‘Play my melody.’ But if the hero has not made his own melody, he comes from the battle and calls together all the griots in the village. Each hero wants his own melody, his own personal theme, and they have to create that. Many great melodies were born in this way. Like “Bakary Djan.” He is a great hero, and the griots and musicians still play his melody. The melody carries his name, Bakary Djan, a great hero. This is the real story of the pure music of this region. These songs were created by griots to glorify and encourage heroes.
Even the creation of the instrument, like the kurubu, is an improvisation. Someone had a dream that he played an instrument that needed a part of a tree, strings from a certain source. And then he made that instrument he saw in a dream. There’s a lot of mystery surrounding this music.
Finally, professor of music at UCLA and master improviser on the ney (flute) and buzuk (long-necked lute) A.J. Racy spoke to us about improvising in the very different context of Arab music. Racy is the author of “Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab.”
If we look at the musical landscape of the Arab world, the art of improvising, or making music on the spot, has been valued. It has played a central role one can trace back for several centuries. If we look at manuscripts that describe performance practice, we hear of a poem being delivered musically on the spot, or about an instrumentalist bringing his instrument and being inspired by the audience to perform something, again on the spot. In recent history, the art of improvising developed into something of a trademark of a good musician. If you are good musician, you can create something. So the good musician is somebody who has the ability to deliver on the spot, but also somebody who knows the craft very well. And the craft also implies the theory.
Performance practice is a skill that musicians learn partly from other musicians. When I was growing up, a number of times we sat together as teenagers and played, and I remember the father of one of the musicians, an old-timer, would say, ‘Improvise.’ And then he would play the connoisseur, giving us pointers and responding with certain expressions when we did something good. So that was one subtle, indirect way of teaching us what is good and what is not so good in improvising.
The theorists today, and certain traditional books, also place a premium on good improvisation, and they really emphasize that a good improviser must be original and creative. It’s important to be traditional, but also to bring something new, to bring yourself, your individuality to the tradition.
Banning: Has the art of improvising in this music changed over time?
A.J.R.: The status of improvisation today is rather complex. Three dynamics are in play. One is the status quo of the tradition, the legacy that we live with. The second thing is the modernism that has influenced different parts of the world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. That has created a climate that has, generally speaking, favored innovations inspired by the Western model–music that is more fixed, suited to big orchestras, and music that follows notation. Although even in that case, the notes were just a clue, and the musicians would still have to provide their own subtleties, their own nuances to the melody as represented by the score. So a climate of Westernization, to some extent, made the path of improvisation rather more limited, and many conservatories did not teach it, left it to the realm of intuition or personal assimilation.
The third dynamic I would say is globalization. Globalization has done several different things. Contact between countries, in this case popular culture, has encouraged alternative expressions in many countries, including the Arab world. But at the same time, it has inspired a certain ethnic, local consciousness. Some scholars call this “glocalization”–in the face of globalization, there is a sort of local renaissance. People want to go back and study traditional instruments, and many are favoring solo recitals on instruments such as the oud and the ney and the violin, and improvisation certainly plays a prominent role in these solo performances.
Banning: When did this trend of Westernization you mention get started?
A.J.R.: Typically, scholars think of the 1930s in Egypt, with the film and then the radio and the enlargement of the ensemble, but possibly even before that. Sometimes we speak of the cult of the composer, the idea of the composer as lying behind the musical process, and being the most important figure in the making of the music. That created a separation between those who create the music and those who deliver it, so that too is part of that complex.
These days, the rhetoric has changed to some extent. There is still the old modernist rhetoric of we have to develop our music. We have to make the ensembles bigger. We have to bring harmony to our music. Such things were typical of the modernists. But I think with globalization, many of the young musicians are not necessarily arguing these things anymore, and often you see them developing interest in their own cultures, in the local character. What they play is not necessarily going back literally to the tradition; there is a process of translation. But one could look at it as going back to some kind of local identity.
Banning: What is taqsim?
A.J.R.: Taqsim is in Arabic term that means instrumental improvisation. To play a taqsim, one would be really operating on two levels. One level is sort of a shared grammar, a shared knowledge among musicians and between the performer and the listener. That grammar is something that we assimilate from the times when we are young, when we heard other musicians play. This modal legacy can be described in terms of shared, mental, cognitive rules if you will. They are kind of subliminally in our mind–things like intervals, distances between notes that are organized by modes. One thing that accounts for the identity of Arabic music is the microtone. Microtones are intermediary notes. If you look at the piano keys, you have the black keys and white keys. To play Arabic music, you have to imagine that there are extra keys in between the black keys and the white keys. They will sound out of tune if you play European and American music using them, but in Arabic music you need them in some cases.
You play certain phrases when you are doing the taqsim, and pauses. Phrases and pauses really form the basic structure of an improvisation. A phrase ends with a cadence, a stylized ending, and you pauses briefly after that. Now that cadence, if it is well done, arouses so much feeling. The audience will be thrilled or excited if it’s well done. It’s almost like a release of tension.
All that I call the subliminal grammar. But the theory is not as comprehensive as the mind in terms of incorporating so many different vignettes and scenarios for what can be done. There is also this second level, the level of intuition. Because if you have played something very powerful, very emotionally charged, that too will reflect positively on your improvisation.
Now, I would like to say something about how the cerebral and the intuitive interact. People ask me often, ‘When you improvise, how much are you really thinking about it? How much are you anticipating what you are doing? Or do you just let go?’ I think the answer is a little bit of both. Whenever I think too much about what I’m doing, somehow, the improvisation turns out to be a bit too contrived, too thought-out, too structured. It might be thinking that it would be nice to add this accidental note. Maybe I will impress them if I include a little bit of a chromatic turn here, or something like that. On the contrary, if I just let go totally, without any thinking, I may get wonderful intuition, but I may be missing on a few little strategies here and there. So it’s really an interaction between the cerebral and intuitive, and I must say in my case at least, the intuitive takes over quite often.
It seems to me an improviser is like an ice skater at the Olympics. The ice-skater must attempt to do things that are really spectacular, and if they don’t do them, they stay with something common and expected, and they don’t get good points. But if they attempt things that are spectacular, there’s always the risk of falling. If you find the happy medium, or the happy combination of doing something very proper and correct, and yet also very new and exciting, then that will be rewarded and admired.
In improvising, there are so many elusive things that happen. Personally, I’m always looking for the happy medium between overstating and understating, the balance between control and intuition.”
Banning: Talk a little about your experience as a player, improvising in this tradition.
A.J.R.: When I came to study at the graduate program at the University of Illinois, in Champaign Urbana, one of my professors was Bruno Nettl, a very well-known ethnomusicologist and someone who has really done a great deal to de-mystify the whole issue of improvisation. At that time, he and a colleague the late Ronald Riddle, actually did research on me. My task was to play one improvisation the day, and to record a hundred improvisations, provided I didn’t listen to what I did the day before. Then they analyzed my recordings. The quest was to find out to what extent I was repeating myself, and to what extent I was introducing new things. And the conclusion was very interesting. They found that a considerable part of what improvisers do, at least in the tradition that I come from, is based on certain things that do occur quite a bit. There are certain motifs, typical modulations, perhaps just ways of beginning, ending, certain motifs. There is really a repertoire of tools, building blocks they called them, that improvisers reuse.
At the same time, they found that there are certain domains in which musicians shows more unpredictability, things like the length of the improvisation, the structuring, the number of modulations, and so on.
Some people ask, ‘How do you feel when you improvise?’ We often talk about the symbolism involved, the meaning and structure of the improvisation. But why do we improvise? I personally am faced with this question: why do I spend so much time at it? Every day when I come home, I pick up the ney, or buzuk, or oud, and spend an hour or two or more improvising. Why do I do that? The answer turned out to be simpler than I thought. I was waiting for some profound ideas, but in simple terms, it just puts you in a different world altogether. It gives an immense feeling of gratification, and although the process entails some cerebral pre-calculation, I feel that my musical intuition has taken over. My intuition has set its own psychic path, if you will, of creation and recreation. It’s an aesthetically liberating experience. It allows some interesting music to come out, musical ideas that become the source for potential compositions, not just the improvisation itself. In that sense, I am really composing. That is one of Bruno Nettl’s conclusions, that really, composition and improvisation are not categorically different, but rather they involve the same kind of dynamic in the musician.
Banning: Finally, a little on the comparison with jazz and other improvising traditions. In jazz, part of the established material improvisers draw upon is the prior work of other improvisers. Sometimes players channel or quote other players as a way of honoring them, and extending beyond what they did. Is there anything like that in Arab music improvising?
A.J.R.: I would imagine that it’s different. The [Arab] improviser prides himself on not imitating anybody, although there are certainly many clichés. Imitation happens without knowing sometimes, unintentionally. You find that a cadence, or a little progression, or a modulation, reminds you of someone else. But I think the value is on the musician who could say that my improvisation is mine. It shows that I know my stuff, but also that it’s me. At the same time there is this positive ambivalence. Improvisation is the most eloquent expression of the tradition. That is because it really follows the modes very directly. If you look at the instrumental improvisation, for example, it takes the form of what I call “tuneless” music. Tuneless music in the sense that what you do is almost like narrative, music that is not really preset to anything. It doesn’t have a meter. It’s not metric, which is very interesting.
In Indian music, we know the alap also has that kind of flow. Nobody has composed a tune over it, although in some ways improvisation is a composition. So improvisation becomes a very good representation of how the mode goes, how musicians listen to the music, and so on. On the other hand, it also gives the musician a chance to be himself or herself. Again, this kind of duality.
Most times, improvisers express themselves in stylistic terms that are very traditional. Other times, they may incorporate things that are imported into the tradition. For example, maybe a motive from European, or maybe Spanish guitar tradition, from flamenco. These are not uncommon, actually. If you, for example, listen to a taqsim by the well-known composer from Egypt, Riad al Sumbati, you could hear that.
When we talk about improvisation, I would imagine that there would be a continuum. Perhaps one extreme would be something very highly structured and based on models. perhaps the Persian radif. And maybe towards the other extreme would be free jazz, or free improvisation. It seems to me that the Arabic taqsim is somewhere in the middle. There is the intuition, and there’s the repertoire of mental vignettes, and directives and so on. It is free in many ways, but in the same time it has some rules, and that’s what makes it a challenge to teach it. It’s very hard to teach improvisation. It is an art that seems so free, yet it has so many hidden rules, and how to handle those two together? This is the challenge and paradox of teaching improvisation.
More to come in The Art of Improvisation: Part 2, in Spring 2005.