African Heartbeats
by
Eero Koivistoinen

Venancio Mbande, Eero Kovistoinen
Venancio Mbande, Eero Kovistoinen               Joao Carlos Schwalbach©2006

When African rhythms and sound aesthetics met with European influences, a great many fascinating new forms of music were born. This is how North and South America and the Caribbean Islands got their distinctive musical characteristics. The development of new music forms is linked with the gloomy days when Western and Arab nations were engaged in the slave trade. These new forms of music slowly traveled to Europe, eventually reaching Finland. Some of these forms of music made their way back to Africa, and have become fairly popular there, too.

Like any other jazz musician, I was familiar with the fact that the rhythmics of jazz music is based on the African tradition. While studying classical music in the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki, the capital of Finland, I had my first encounter with various African traditions through records: North African music with Arab influences, to the music of the Pygmies, Nigerian Juju and the traditions of Gabon and Niger, and others. When studying the grammar of jazz, I got interested in many other African influenced music styles, such as rhythm & blues, soul, funk, and the rhythms of the Caribbean and South America. Eventually, my meeting with the genuine African tradition closed the circle, and I felt I was at home on the rhythmical soil.

I think all music genres are equal, and Duke Ellington struck the right note when saying "there are only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” The complexity of music appears in many forms. European classical music may be very complicated in its structure, harmony and form. The complexity of African musical tradition most often shows in its rhythms.

I studied in the Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA, in the seventies. There was also an old South African musician who entertained students by speaking Xhosa, a language with excitingly snapping click sounds. At that time I had no idea that later in the future I would produce a choir recording in South Africa. Many of the songs were sung in the Xhosa language.

My group, Eero Koivistoinen and Senegalese Drums, had its beginnings in 1998, and it was my first African influenced ensemble. It included me on the saxophone, a keyboard player and four Senegalese drummers who had immigrated to Finland. We gave several performances and released one record. African rhythms started to open up to me when I was working with my Senegalese Drums ensemble. Senegal is the melting pot of African music traditions. In the 1970s, Cuban music became very popular there. Clave based rhythms have their origin in West Africa and the connection with Cuban music is strong. The Yoruba people had taken these rhythms outside Africa during the days of slavery. All over Africa, the 6/8 or 12/8 rhythms where you can find the familiar 6 over 4 are common. After the Cuban period, mbalax, which is based on old tradition and reformed to suit electric instruments, became prominent in Senegal.

A few years later, I worked in Villa Karo, a Finnish-African Cultural Institute located in the fishing village of Gran Popo, Benin, between Nigeria and Togo. Benin is a stronghold of voodoo culture, in the musical sense it is connected with other West African trends.

Tufo Musicians of Grupo Madrassa AloJadida
Tufo Musicians of Grupo Madrassa AloJadida           Eero Koivistoinen©2006

In my opinion, the greatest similarities between jazz and African music are in their rhythms, the use of improvisation, and the tendency towards individual sound and vocal expression. The esthetics of blues can also be found in Africa, although the 12-bar blues form was born in the US. That form is not necessarily self-evident to all African musicians. The drive created by an African drummers' group can be incredibly intensive and its rhythmic accuracy is unique. African music often involves conversational, rhythmical counterpoint of instruments.

Often African rhythms form a combination of several bars. In the language of jazz, it could be called a vamp. The African music analysis uses the term "rhythmic cycles." which expresses the musical character and way of thinking more accurately. The multiform compositions of large drum orchestras may have several layers, and the Western capacity to perceive rhythmic complexity can be put to a test. In a rhythmic sense, we Western people live in developing countries; we often lack rhythmic intelligence.

Each instrument has its own role, and together they make a texture that can sometimes be extremely complex. It may symbolize the strongly developed feeling of togetherness of society. The worst thing that can happen to an African is to be rejected by his community. The repetition of short motives in African music is, in my mind, connected to the different sense of time. Minimalism was born in Africa, and Western
Minimalism often turns pale in comparison. Africa has given a vigorous rhythmic pulse to the world. It is the whole world's heartbeat pulsating in various forms also outside the African continent. The Western world dances to the rhythms born out of the African tradition; this also influences our way of moving.

The picture that the media often offer us on Africa is hopeless: war, hunger, disease, corruption… There certainly are problems. But there are also fine and positive things that do not make the news. Our picture on Africa is unfortunately too often too one-sided and full of clichés.

Mozambique - Once Again

Maestro Uarila
Students of Venancio Mbande                                Eero Koivistoinen©2006

My very first trip to black Africa took place in 1998. It was to Mozambique, and had been organized by PAND, an artists' movement for peace. Later, I traveled to South Africa, Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Senegal. To my surprise, Africa has become a significant place of work to me. One project has led to another and at the same time I have made new friends and lived through fascinating experiences while getting acquainted with African culture on the spot. Africa amazes me every time with its force and complexity. This is my seventh trip to Mozambique.

It was in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, that I met Eduardo Durao for the first time. Eduardo was the conductor of the National Ballet. With his help I had the opportunity to make acquaintance with the secrets of timbila music. The timbila (mbila) is the Mozambican version of the marimba; the sophisticated music culture of the Chopi people is linked with it. I got interested in the timbila and asked Eduardo to build me one. At the same time I had the opportunity of seeing the birth of an instrument from a pile of wood in his backyard. Later the timbila was sent to Finland by air.

In the year 2000 I was going to produce the recording of Eduardo Durao’s and Venancio Mbande’s timbila music for the Naxos World label. Due to the civil war, Mozambican folklore had not been widely recorded and the newly established label was interested in it. The beginning of the production was complicated because Naxos World operated in Hong Kong. Via e-mail, I negotiated with Andrew Sun of Naxos World. All the preparations had been made and the flight tickets were ready. Just before the planned journey I was in Germany, conducting the radio big band of Frankfurt. While watching the news on TV in my hotel room I started to get worried about the growing flooding disaster in Mozambique. I sent new e-mails to Andrew Sun and we came up with an idea of a charity record with various Mozambican artists. I contacted Joao Carlos Schwalbach of the Ghorwane band and he helped with preliminary production. With Joao, a good friend who later became an important co-partner, I have realized several projects, the most important of them being the Music Library of Eduardo Mondlane University.

I returned to Africa in October 2006, landing in Johannesburg. A friend and co-player, the bassist Concord Nkabinde is there to meet me. I had met Concord for the first time in Helsinki when he gave a concert. Since then, we have played together several times in Finland, Estonia and South Africa. Concord has started his solo career and released two successful solo albums where he also performs as a vocalist. I settle down near the airport and we go to have a snack in the only place offering something to eat. It turns out to be a noisy combination of a pool room and bar.

The next day I take an hour's flight to Maputo, Mozambique.

Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony. After gaining independence, Mozambique, like so many other African countries, experimented with Marxism-Leninism in different forms and their contacts with former Communist countries were strong. As a memory of those times, Maputo, formerly known as Laurence Marques, had such street names as Avenida Vladimir Lenin, Avenida Karl Marx and Avenida Ho Chi Minh. Today Mozambique is a republic and the main parties are Frelimo and its opposition party Renamo.

All African states have a history as colonies and former colonial masters have left their cultural marks. There is one positive thing in it: there is a common language that different ethnic groups can understand. Africa has a huge variety of languages that are not necessarily related to each other. Otherwise colonial times bring no credit to Western nations governing Africa. They were motivated by their own interests and economic exploitation. Artificial borders, sometimes drawn with the help of a ruler, still easily create tensions.

Timbila

Venancio Mbande
Venancio Mbande, foreground                               Eero Koivistoinen©2006

When rehearsing with African musicians, we Westerners partly resort to written notes whereas Africans most often take music in by the ear. Recording rehearsals and other material on a tape proved to be a good means to save training time. When I interviewed the Mozambican timbila maestro Venancio Mbande, he said: "You Western people have the great advantage of knowing how to read and write music. With great pain, we have to learn everything by heart." “Ngodo,” the classic timbila composition, lasts for about one hour; it has many parts and quite a lot of skillfully composed music.

The orchestral suite of “Ngodo” is usually renewed about every two years; the topics of the lyrics often deal with current issues. They tell about things that are important to local inhabitants, such as heavy taxation, abuses of the authorities, experiences of ill-doings, natural phenomena, or they depict various personalities. It is also common to take a moral stand. In earlier times the orchestras naturally praised the village chiefs, who maintained them. It was also customary to boast about the skills of the orchestra and the villagers' ability to defend the village. In Africa, tradition is still greatly passed in an oral form, either recited or sung, and the vocal parts of an “Ngodo” orchestral suite are some kind of annals of the village. The person who gets picked out by a poet has to withstand criticism for quite a long time in front of all the villagers. It certainly is an efficient lesson! “Ngodo” starts with an introduction by a solo timbila. When it gives a sign, the whole orchestra joins in as one. The members of the orchestra know the music so well that even a big ensemble need no visual sign. There are musical codes to move on to different sequences of the composition.

The timbila uses heptatonic tuning, which means that an octave is divided into seven roughly equal intervals. Today the original tuning system is approaching the Western Mixolydic mode. You can often find a pure fifth in timbila tuning. The third and the seventh probably differ most from the Western system. In his studies in the 1940s, Hugh Tracey noticed that the Chopi tuning was almost identical with that of Njari, the thumb piano of the Karanga tribe. The Chopis and the Karangas were separated some 500 years ago, but their heritage is genetically the same.

Eduardo Durao Ensemble
Eduardo Durao Ensemble                                     Eero Koivistoinen©2006

Here is a theory that these marimba-type instruments would have found their way to Africa along the trade routes from Indonesia, where they have an old Gamelan tradition. The sitting order and the placement of dancers are also similar. The big island of Madagascar off the coast of Mozambique has its own marimba tradition, too.

The African tuning systems would require a chapter of their own. The pentatonic scale is also common, and it has a link to the roots of blues. I remember vividly a rehearsal with the Zambian vocalist Bina Nkwazi. When singing Western melodies, the tuning was occidental. But when she was singing a folk song she had learnt as a child, Bina's tuning suddenly became African, the thirds and fifths were not the same as in Western countries. Tuning has its own African identity; it is connected with their culture. African aesthetics may include styles where certain notes are left a little below the Western tuning standard; the aesthetics of blues has similar features. When playing with the timbila orchestra of Eduardo Durao, we Westerners had to adapt ourselves to a different tuning system. It was easier with the saxophone but the synthesizer player had to find new timbres to suit the situation.

> continue reading African Heartbeats

> back to contents