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Society for Music Theory

In Search of Time in African Music

Author(s): Ruth M. Stone
Source: Music Theory Spectrum, Vol. 7, Time and Rhythm in Music (Spring, 1985), pp. 139-148
Published by: {oupl} on behalf of the Society for Music Theory
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Time, as manifest in musical rhythm, has riveted the attention of several generations of inquiring ethnomusicologists,
comparativemusicologists, and before them travelersof many
sorts. Father Denis de Carlion a journeythroughthe Congo in
1666-67 remarked, "Thisharmonyis gratefulat a distance,but
harsh and ungrateful near at hand, the beating of so many
Sticks causing a great Confusion."' Though Father de Carli
may not have admiredthe rhythm,other sojournerswere more
appreciative. One explorer noted that the Bushman "sings
while he dances, swayinghis body about in stricttime with the
music."2Another said of the Kafir,
Theirnotionof melodyis veryslight,whiletheirtimeis perfection
warsongsas if theywereanimatedby a singlespiritshowsthatthey
mustall keepthe mostexacttime.3
Today we recognize great variety in African musics. We also
stress here those musics without predominanceof Arabic and
The search for what makes African rhythmbeat has moved
on variouspaths, some provingmore popularthen others. The
quest began in earnest with the advent of the cylinderrecorder
'Michael Angelo and Denis de Carli, "A Curiousand Exact Account of a
Voyage to Congo in the Years 1666 and 1667," in A Collectionof Voyagesand
Travels,ed. A. and J. Churchill,4 vols. (London, 1704), 694.
2RichardWallaschek, PrimitiveMusic (London: Longmans, 1893), 1.
3Ibid., 4.

in the late nineteenth century, for now expeditionscould bring

back recordedsamples of the musicmuchlike the specimensof
the floraand fauna. The cylinderscapturedonly 2-3 minutesof
performanceat a time and consequentlyobscuredthe actualdurationin the field setting. The late KlausWachsmannnoted that
he planned to investigatetime and durationin Africanmusicin
the 1966EthnomusicologySeminarat UCLA but could not find
enough recordingsof complete performances.4
In manyof these explorations,researchersturnedtowardsolutions rooted in a unilinearbasis of time reckoning,in contrast
to what can be called mosaictime.5Merriam'ssummaryof African time reckoningpointed in the formerdirection,for he concluded that researchers have assumed an equal-pulse base
whichnot only impliesa steady musicalbeat but whichalso provides the frameworkupon which the rhythmis built. Where an
equal-pulsebase exists, there must also be a furtherelement of
chronometryor the quantitativemeasuringof that time. Merriam goes on to point out that given such complexity, a basic
organizingprinciplemust be present and beat "one" must exist.6
4Klaus P. Wachsmann, "Music," Journal of the Folklore Institute 6
5SeePaul Berliner, The Soul of Mbira(Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of CaliforniaPress, 1978).
6Alan P. Merriam, "Analysis of African Music Rhythm and Concepts of
Time Reckoning" (Paper presented at the Society for Ethnomusicologymeeting, Austin, Texas, 4 November 1977).

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Merriamis partiallyrightin assertingthat Westernersstudying African rhythmtake for grantedan equallyspacedunderlying pulse. That is, if we understandpulse as the smallest unit
that regularlyoccurs, then most researchershave made such an
assumption,at least implicitlyand at least as a way of measuring
what they have heard. Given the perspectiveof Westernmusic,
such a procedureis builton patternswith whichwe are familiar.
A crucialsubtlety, and one which Merriamdoes not mention,
develops at this point, however, for it does not follow that this
backgroundgrid of an equally spaced pulse must then determine that the beat constitutedof severalpulses at the next level
in the hierarchymust also be equallyspaced. It is preciselywith
the recognitionof unequalbeats composed of equalpulses that
ethnomusicologybegins to break out of a linearperspective.
Some Paths Taken
Additiverhythm.In African music then, in the midst of the
linear, a more mosaic approach breaks through in the literature. Additive rhythm, as described by Curt Sachs, is composed of beats that are not necessarily equal in length.7The
double-bell pattern of West Africa, which some researchers
have referredto as the timekeeper, can be analyzedas playing
beats of unequallength.
Figure1. Double-bell pattern
x * x *
double bell




2 + 2 + 3 +
x = struck * = restorsustained

CertainlyRose Brandel'swork, for example, has not assumed

that beats (she calls them conductorbeats) are equally spaced
even though the pulses may be.8
The evidence points toward a more multifacetedtime conception and one rooted in more than the sound product.Richard Waterman, in his explanation of metronome sense, proposes that the Africanparticipantslearnto supplya basicframework of beats that are equally spaced.9Though this part of his
scheme relies on a linearnotion and is unsupportedby African
field research, it more importantlynotes that not all beats are
aurallysounded, and the musicianfills in the unsoundedbeats
mentally. Waterman'stheory shouldbe recognizedfor the contributionit makes in simply assertingthat rhythmis more than
an auralimage, and that what happens in the mind of the listener, as performeror audience, is significant.
Offbeat.The linear/mosaicdilemmabecomes highlightedin
the idea of "offbeat,"whichis also knownas syncopation.0The
consequences of employing such terminologyare far-reaching
and need to be scrutinized.Offbeat phrasingand syncopation
imply that a steady, equally-spacedbeat underliesthe performance. Another part is then conceived in relationto that beat,
and as the two parts are conceived together the second is playing "off" the beat (even though a regularpatternmay develop)
and the firstpart is consideredto be "on"the beat. The distinction is importantbecause a questioncan be raisedas to whether,
in fact, the two parts might be more adequately analyzed as


7CurtSachs, Rhythmand Tempo(New York: W. W. Norton, 1953).

8Rose Brandel, "The African Hemiola Style," Ethnomusicology 3

(1959):106-17; The Music of CentralAfrica (The Hague: MartinusNijhoff,
9RichardWaterman,"AfricanInfluenceon the Musicof the Americas,"in
Acculturationin the Americas, ed. Sol Tax (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1952), 2:207-18.
'"DavidLocke, "The Music of Atsiagbeko" (Ph.D. diss., Wesleyan University, 1978), 349; John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythmand African Sensibility(Chicago:Universityof ChicagoPress, 1979), 47-48.

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InSearchof TimeinAfricanMusic 141

moving in rhythmswhere each maintainsits own beat, albeit

beats that do not coincide. This is no small problem for at the
base is the question of whether there are cooperatingbut independently conceived rhythmsor a single rhythm.
Arthur M. Jones, one of the most indefatigableresearchers
of African rhythm, maintainsthat a time backgroundis indeed
present. He locates it in the clap pattern, whether it was produced by handclappingor a pestle-beat, or somethinglike the
paddles in a canoe song.11He makes an importantpoint, however, when he says, "the African, while strictlyregardingit as a
metricalbackground,is not in the least using it to indicateany
accentualstressin the melody." He even calls it "a kind of metronome which exists behind the music."'2GerhardKubikalso
identifies notes that are played offbeat but makes a clear point
that these notes dragor anticipatethe pulse ratherthanstandon
any "definitepoint of divisionof the basicpulse."13
Hemiola. Rose Brandel, among others, argues that what
might be identified as syncopationor offbeat phrasingis better
describedas hemiola. For our purposes,what is conceivedfrom
a linearperspectiveshould better be seen fromthe mosaicpoint
of view. Following the lead of her mentorCurtSachsshe notes,
"The African hemiola style is based on the play of two and
three, which is much like the Middle Eastern additivestyle of
rhythm with its far greater diversityof durationalcontrast."'4
Pulses are groupedtogetherin unitsof two or three andthey can
exhibit the 2:3 ratio horizontallyover time or verticallybetween
parts.Figures2 and 3 show typicalrealizationsof horizontaland

Figure2. Horizontalhemiola

X *










Figure3. Verticalhemiola
X *



X *

X X*

X *X

3 +


*X ?

Such a conception allows the possibility of unequally spaced

beats without the implicationthat asymmetricalbeats are "off'
a centralbeat. Thus a flexibilityof interpretationintroducesthe
possibilitythat beats may be unequal in length without involving syncopation.
The interpretation of hemiola allows a more flexible approachto rhythm,perhapsone that is not as fundamentallylinear in its grounding, that is, in its single organizingbeat. John
Blackingcomments on a g rhythmicpattern.
Whenit is playedin Europeit is alwaysconceivedas theproductof a
single agent-with a very few possible exceptions. . . . In the African

contextthe rhythmexpressesthe perfectcooperationof two performerswhoneverthelesspreservetheirindividuality

"Arthur M. Jones, Studiesin African Music, 2 vols. (London: OxfordUniversity Press, 1959), 3.
'3Gerhard Kubik, "Transcriptionof Mangwilo Xylophone Music from
Film Strips,"African Music 3, no. 4(1965):41.
'4Brandel, The Music of CentralAfrica, 15.

Blacking's reference is much like the Kpelle chorus which favors individualsall singinginterlockingostinatopartsandwhich
15JohnBlacking, Process and Product in Human Society (Johannesburg:
WitwatersrandUniversity Press, 1969), 18.

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Mu,ic TheorySpectrum

gives each singer a differentpart, one whichfits into a seamless

whole that supportsthe soloist.
Cross and inherentrhythms. Though hemiola hints at the
mosaic conception, cross rhythmas articulatedby A. M. Jones
truly allows the coexistence of mosaic-linearpatterns. Cross
rhythmhe defines as follows:
Themelodybeingadditive,andtheclapsbeingdivisive,whenputtogether they result in a combinationof rhythmswhose inherent
stressesarecrossed.Thisis of theveryessenceof Africanmusic:thisis
whattheAfricanis after.He wantsto enjoya conflictof rhythms.16
Jones, in fact, incorporateselements of both Waterman'sand
Brandel'sapproach.He simplyfindsthat one partmay be divisive (Waterman)while another may be additive(Brandel). To
put it another way, the former is linearlyconceived, the latter
mosaic. Thus, Jones's crossingof rhythmssuggestsnot only different rhythms, but different principles of constructing
Mosaic time is also suggestedby GerhardKubik'sidea of inherent rhythms17and extended in Nissio Fiagbedzi'swork.18
The gestalt pattern for the listener is differentthan any one of
the several players'rhythms.Rhythmsresult as a consequence
of their juxtapositionin certainconfigurationsthat do not exist
in individualparts.
Standardpattern and timbre. All this talk of hemiola, offbeat, cross and inherent rhythmbecomes for some scholarsa
way of beating about the proverbialbush for it is the "standard
patter," a rhythmicphrase most characteristicallyin 2, that

16Jones,Studiesin African Music, 21-22.

17GerhardKubik, "The Phenomenon of Inherent Rhythms in East and
CentralAfrican InstrumentalMusic,"African Music 3, no. 1(1962):33-42.
'8NissioFiagbedzi, "A PreliminaryInquiryinto InherentRhythmsin Anlo
Dance Drumming,"Journalof the PerformingArts(Legon) 1, no. 1(1980):8399.

organizestime in the ensemble (see Fig. 1). The distinctiveness

of this pattern has inspired such titles as "time line,"19 "struc-

tural core,"20and "timekeeper,"for as KwabenaNketia comments, "The rhythmpatternis thereforea guidingprincipleand

it is in this sense that the gong may be referred to as timekeeper."21James Koetting, however, cautions that this relationship should not be overextendedwhen he says, "Whilethe
functionof the gong as a basic ensemble timingcentermust not
be questioned, it would be a mistaketo analyzeall the patterns
of a piece as though they had a primarytiming relationto the

The standardpattern, from what we now know, is not conceived by Africans throughcountingor quantitativemeans. Indeed, speech syllables qualitativelydifferentiatethe pattern,
syllables that duplicate the rhythmand convey timbralsubtleties. The crucial part played by timbre in rhythmis noted by
Roderic Knight:
Butin viewof the importanceof timbrein the drumming
abilitiesareat leastinpart
one mayconcludethathis[thedrummer's]
attributableto learningeach rhythmas a patternof timbresdifferenttimbresproducedby fourbasicstrokeson thedrum.23
Those four strokes in Lenjengo recreationaldancing in The
Gambia are played on the kutiridingo(a conical drum played
with one stick and one hand), as shown in Figure4.
19GerhardKubik, "Oral Notation of Some West and Central African
Time-Line Patterns," Reviewof Ethnology3, no. 22(1972):169-76.
20GerhardKubik, "The Emics of AfricanMusicalRhythm"(1983), unpublished MS.
21J.H. Kwabena Nketia, "TraditionalMusic of the Ga People," African
Music 2, no. 1(1958):21.
22JamesKoetting, "Analysis and Notation of West African Drum Ensemble Music," Selected Reports, Instituteof Ethnomusicology, UCLA 1, no.
23RodericKnight, "MandinkaDrumming,"AfricanArts 7(1974):29.

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InSearchof TimeinAfricanMusic 143

Figure4. Kutiridingostrokes24


Kum is played with an open hand that bounces off the head; ba
is a damped stroke producedwhen the fingershit the head and
press it to lessen the vibration.Din is an open-stickstroke, and
da is a damped-stick stroke. A range of timbral subtleties
emerge. This approachdoes not present the time line as nearly
linear as it might first appear when counted in a 2 configuration. Instead it can now become almost a pictureof contrasting
Motorpattern.As early as 1928ErichM. von Hornbostelasserted that motor patterns must be studied in order to understand the basis of African rhythms.25Though many disagree
with his conclusions, others have followed his lead in analyzing
body movement. GerhardKubikpoints to the need to consider
rhythm as consistingof not only acousticbut motor and visual
elements as well.26Moses Serwaddaand Hewitt Pantaleoni,for
example, show how drumming and dancing are inextricably
linked when they write, "In fact a drummerwill indicate the
dance motions sometimes as a way of explainingand teachinga
[drum] pattern."27In involving the motor, time becomes
25JohnBlacking, "Some Notes on a Theory of African RhythmAdvanced
by Erich von Hornbostel," African Music 1, no. 2(1955):12-20; Erich M. von
Hornbostel, "African Negro Music," Africa 1(1928):30-62.
26Kubik,"Mangwilo Xylophone Music," 35-41; GerhardKubik, "Transcription of African Music from Silent Film: Theory and Methods," African
Music 5, no. 1(1972):28-39; "Patterns of Body Movement in the Music of
Boys' Initiation in South-East Angola," in TheAnthropologyof the Body, ed.
John Blacking, ASA Monographs 15 (London: Academic Press, 1977), 25374.
27MosesSerwaddaand Hewitt Pantaleoni, "A Possible Notation for African Dance Drumming,"African Music4, no. 2(1968):52.

viewed as many elements moving together, a more mosaic and

Transaction. Perhaps it is interaction which most clearly
shows the predilectiontowardmosaic time. A numberof African peoples appearto stressthe primacyof transactionbetween
two performingparts. Kubik, for example, notes that two players of the Mangwiloxylophone in southeastAfrica sit opposite
one anotherand sharein playingthe same instrument.They are
referredto as opachera(the startingone) and wakulela(the responding one).28 Similarly, Paul Berliner demonstrates that
even with a solo instrumentlike the plucked idiophonicmbira
of Zimbabwe, the Shona people designate the first part as
kushaura(to lead the piece, to take the solo part) and the second part as the kutsihira(to exchangepartsof a song, to interweave a second interlockingmbira part).29The Shona people
praisethe mbirafor complexitysayingthat "Itsoundslike many
instrumentsbeing played at once."30
Kubik identifies what he calls "interlocking"style when in
Mangwiloxylophone music each playerfeels his own pulse and
the two mesh when heard as one into yet another unity.31The
rhythmsthen exist with both individualand corporateidentity.
If the transactionnotion is primary,then the searchfor a unifying beat by which all performersmeasureand plan their performance becomes less importantand less likely to provide an
answerto how Africansorganizetime in music.The contrasting
idea that drums,for example, conversein interactionis a prominent theme and can be conceived as a kind of call-responsepattern.32The call-responsepattern,as a formof transaction,exists
in all types of performances.
2Kubik, "MangwiloXylophone Music," 36.
29Berliner,Soul of Mbira, 73.
31Kubik,"MangwiloXylophone Music," 39.
32Chernoff,African Rhythm,53.

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For the Kpelle musicians of Liberia, transaction is constructedas a shiftingkind of layerednetwork. The soloist is always balancedby a respondingcounterpart(tomo-son-nuu).A
master drummerfinds his counterpartin the gbun-gbundrummer playing a cylindricaldrum. But in the fluidityof making
music, the chorusat anothertime is the counterpartor response
to the call of the soloist.33
Paul Berliner extends the transactionto include the instrument itself. A performancecannot be studied simplyfrom the
individualparts, for to the musician,
the musicreflectedbackto himby hisresonatoras he playsseemsto
be more complexthan that whichhis fingersaloneproduce.It is,
then,realmusicalfeedbackthatthemusicianreceivesfromhisinstrument.It maywellbe thatthisfeedbackis responsibleforsomemusiandits rolein themusic-making
John Blackinghighlightsthe notion of transactionas a value by
showingthat musiciansuse it, not out of necessity,but by choice
for aestheticpurposes:
Thus, performancesby combinationsof two or three playersof
rhythmsthatcan,in fact,be playedbyone arenotmusicalgimmicks:
in community,andof social,
they expressconceptsof individuality
foundin otherfeaturesof
Vendacultureandothertypesof Vendamusic.35
What we are observing for African music exists, according
to EdwardT. Hall, for all humanbeings, thoughin manyWestern cases it remainslargelyunnoticed.That is, body movement
stems not from individualisticimpulse but from response to,
33RuthM. Stone, Let theInside Be Sweet:TheInterpretationof MusicEvent
Among the Kpelle of Liberia (Bloomington: IndianaUniversity Press, 1982),
34Berliner,Soul of Mbira, 130.
35JohnBlacking, How MusicalIs Man? (Seattle: Universityof Washington
Press, 1973), 30.

and awarenessof, the movements of others.36WilliamCondon

and his associatesmaintainthat infantssynchronizetheirmovements to those of another person regardlessof the verbal language.37Thus, what occurs on an unconsciouslevel for all people is perhaps a very conscious and focused way of structuring
action and makingmusic in Africansocieties.
The Case of the Woi Epic
Our discussionof time up to this point has reflectedprimarconcern with the level of an individualsong. We can also
study performancesegment that includes more than a song
and considertime at a broaderlevel. To do so, let us begin with
a sung epic of the Kpelle of Liberia. The particularcase includes seventeen episodes, each with a distinctivesong sung as
a backgroundby the chorus. Against the choral backdrop, a
storyteller assisted by a questioner and two instrumentalists
formthe ensemble.
The episodes of the Woi epic, spinningon the adventuresof
a superhumanhero, are segmented by a formulaicphrasesung
by the soloist, "Dried millet, wese"[soundof breaking]and answeredby the chorus, "Wese." So thoughone mightexpect seventeen neatly delineated segments, following one after another, things are not quite that tidy and not quite that linear.
For as a man in the audience remarked, "The Woi epic never
finishes,we just keep bouncing."Firstof all, the endingsof segments are blurredby singingphrasesof a futureepisode before
the present episode is complete. Second, the teller, as often as
sentence to sentence, moves to various times, revealing the
action of the story. Finally, spiritsof deceased greatperformers
36EdwardT. Hall, Beyond Culture (Garden City, New York: Anchor,
1977), 71-84.
37WilliamS. Condon and L. W. Sander, "Neonate Movementis Synchronized with Adult Speech: InteractionalParticipationand LanguageAcquisition," Science 183 (1974):99-101.

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InSearchof TimeinAfricanMusic 145

are often invoked to enter the performanceand in doing so the

storytellermakes people of the past part of the present action.
The Woi epic, significantly,has no precise startingnor concluding episode. Unlike the Mwindo epic recorded by Daniel
Biebuyck and Kahombo Mateene among the Nyanga people,
the epic does not proceed from the birthof the hero throughhis
various lifetime adventures.38Rather, from all evidence, the
teller is free to begin at any point and end at any point. This,
accordingto the Kpelle, underscoresthe very continuityof the
The sense of linear time and causalconnectionso prominent
in Western plot development figuresvery little in this epic. If
we are looking for developmentof characterswe will not findit.
Such a concept is importantto stories developed in lineartime,
but time as developed in the Woi epic is more mosaicin character. Here coincidence rather than causationis paramount.By
this I mean that two incidentsare juxtaposedbecause they happen to reveal some similarity,not because one is the result of
the other. When Kulung, the narrator,performsthe episode of
Spider eating enormous amounts of food and being angrybecause he does not feel it is sufficient,Kulungdoes not explore
the root causes of the angeror its motivation. Ratherhe inserts
a series of proverbs to help the audience see similaritiesbetween the meanings and the spider'splight. When the narrator
cites the proverb, "The Poro [men's secret society] is on a person, the matter angers him," to describe Spider'sanger, anyone who is Kpelle knows the authoritarianfinalityof Poro decisions. With no debate and no negotiation, one acceptsthe Poro
authority. To mention this proverb in song is to strike a resonance with the audience, for each has poignantexperiencewith
this pervasive institution. Many can recall the hard anger that
knows no alternativeand must be borne knowingthere will be
no change.
38DanielBiebuyck and Kahombo C. Mateene, The Mwindo Epic (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Universityof CaliforniaPress, 1971).

In each of the episodes, the signaturechoralostinatohintsat

and, in a sense, is a capsule summaryof the episode. Subsequent imagery and action simply unfold what, encapsulatedin
the choral part, was presented in miniature.
The development is that of outward expansion like a seed
growing. Elsewhere I have referred to such time segments as
expandable moments.39 Such an approach recalls Georges
Gurvitch'sdefinitionof time as a "continuityof heterogeneous
moments"40and relates to Harold Scheub'sidea of the "expansible image" of the ntsomi, a musicaldramaticnarrativeof the
Xhosa of southernAfrica.41
Lest we assume a static quality in time through the use of
something like an expandablemoment, we must hasten to add
that the depictionof action and movementis key in a numberof
Africangroups. As one Kpelle persontold me, there are six different words to describe a tremblingmovement of a dancer.
Beyond this, performance is described not only in terms of
movement, but in carefullylocated and placed actionas people
say, "Raise the song," "Cutthe edge of the dance," "Drop the
song," or "Lower the performance."As Scheub concludesfor
the Xhosa narrative:
Movementis vitalto thetradition,actionis allimportant,andcharacbutthroughaction.Similarly,
teris revealednotbydescription
is revealed not by interpolationsor preachments,but through

The expansion of a moment depends heavily, in Africansocieties, upon the nature of audience-performerinteraction.
The length of any song or, for that matter, the entire event

39Stone,Let the Inside Be Sweet, 72.

40GeorgesGurvitch, The Spectrumof Social Time (Dordrecht:D. Riedel,
1964), 18.
41HaroldScheub, "The Techniques of the ExpansibleImage in Xhosa Ntsomi Performances,"Researchin African Literatures1, no. 2(1970):119-46.

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hangs on the quality of relationship that develops duringthe

performance. The Kpelle indicate this by the token gifts that
the audience bestows upon the performersat intervalsshowing
approvalof their efforts. Cigarettes, cane juice, palm wine, or
coins are given, often accompanied by a speech of carefully
shaped oratory. Without such audience feedback, Kpelle performersseek to terminatethe event at an early point. This call
and response on a broader level becomes an index of the rapport among participants.Pierre Bordieu calls such continuous
gift exchangein Algeria the "littlepresent"to "keepthe friendship going."43Duration in musicis very muchcontingentin this
kind of a performanceand depends upon the qualityof social
Some Paths of Inner Time
If music serves as a vehicle to transformaspects of an individual'sexperience, time can certainlybe one of these aspects.
In music events, Alfred Schutzmaintainsthat it is not the coordination of drumsone with another in outer time, the focus of
our categoriesup to now, that is the centralexperience.44While
such coordinationis certainlyprerequisite,the richnessof music arises from the inner time experience. Outer time, according to Schutz, contains homogeneous units and is measurable
by devices such as clocks and metronomes.Since Schutz'sexperience as an amateurmusicianand sociologist was confined to
the West, we may, from what we know of African music, suggest that his definitionneeds to be modified. Fromthe African
perspectiveouter time is that time throughwhichactionis coordinated, though it is not necessarily conceived in homogene-

43PierreBordieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice

(Cambridge:CambridgeUniversity Press, 1977), 7.
44ChristineA. Skarda, "Alfred Schutz'sPhenomenologyof Music,"Journal of MusicologicalResearch3(1979):75-132.

ous, quantifiableterms. Inner time, on the other hand, exists

for participantswithin the stream of consciousness and does
not, as Schutz suggests, contain homogeneous units of measure. It is "dependent upon retention, impression,and anticipation."45WilliamJames illustratesthe rhythmof innertime as
"flyingstretches and resting places in the streamof consciousness.46
The experience in inner time seems to affect our outer time
in retrospect as the two interact. Successful events are estimated as shorter, for as Robert Orstein comments,successful
experience is more organized in the human mind.47Conversely, an hour in a hospital waiting room may seem to us
much longer because of our inner time experience. As Charlie
Brown says to Linus, "Which do you think last longer in life,
the good thingsor the bad things?"Linusreplies, "Good things
last eight seconds .... Bad things last three weeks." Charlie
Brown asks, "What about in between?" Snoopy lying on the
top of the doghouse thinks, "In between you should take a
nap. 48

Though little literatureon Africanmusicdocumentsthe fascinating dimension of inner time, several ethnomusicologists
provide initial insights. Alan Boyd, working in the Muslim
communityof Lamu, Kenya, describesa visible interplayof inner and outer time in the maulidievents, musicalperformances
that include recitations from the Koran interspersed with
hymns. Participantsmove towardinner time by coordinatinga
unison swayingmotion.

45AlfredSchutz, CollectedPapersII: Studiesin Social Theory,Rpt., ed. M.

Natanson (The Hague: MartinusNijhoff, 1971), 170.
46AlfredSchutz and Thomas Luckmann, The Structuresof the Life World
(Evanston: NorthwesternUniversity Press, 1973), 119.
47RobertE. Ornstein, The Psychology of Consciousness(San Francisco:
W. H. Freeman, 1972), 86-87.
48CharlesSchulz, "Peanuts Cartoon," InternationalHerald Tribune, 17

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InSearchof TimeinAfricanMusic 147

the hymnaresteadyat first,but areinThe rhythmsaccompanying

creasedinintensityasthechorusis sungbyeveryone.As eachverseis
relaxthe pulse,butas soonas
begunby an individual,the drummers
the groupjoinsin theyincreasethevolume,thetempoandtheintensityof the beat. Duringthe repetitions,the tempobecomessteadily
the motionsof the dancers.49
While such activityfacilitatesmeditationand the vivid experiencing of inner time, certain circumstancesmay counteract
transformationin the audience awareness. Boyd gives an instance when outer time was the predominantfocus. An inexperienced frame-drumplayer was tolerated for some time by the
audience. But as group coordinationbecame more crucialtoward the end of the hymn, an older drummermoved in and replacedhim and, as Boyd reports,therewas an "audiblecommunal sigh."50
Paul Berliner, in his study of mbiraperformanceamong the
Shona of Zimbabwe, vividly describes aspects of what we are
here terminginner time though he does not label it as such. He
describes the scene one morning at sunrise following an allnight ceremony for ancestralspirits.People are exhaustedfrom
the effort spent and lack of sleep duringthe performance.Hakurotwo Mude, a mbiraplayer, looked in the distanceand quietly played his instrument,obliviousto his young son who put a
hand on his father's shoulder.
As Mudeplayedthe mbirahiseyesbecameclouded.Tearswelledup
andfell silentlydownhischeeks.It wassometimebeforeanyonenowalkedover
andkneltbeforehim.Carefulnot to interferewithhisplayingof the
out of hispocketandblotmbira,the old manpulleda handkerchief
ted up the tearsof Mude'scheeks.Tearsflowedso steadilythatthe
old mansawit wasto no avail.He stoodup andsilentlymotionedto

49AlanBoyd, "The Dimension of Time in the Definition of the Situation

with Reference to Maulidi"(1975), unpublishedMS, 8.

all the other villagersseated aroundto follow him into the large
kitchenwherethe birahadpreviouslybeenheld.So as notto embarrassMude,we left himto hismusicandhistears.51
The evidence is abundantthat Mudewas focusinghis awareness
in inner time where, throughmusic, his experiencemoved him
to tears. Though we can only infer our conclusion, Mude was
apparentlynot concentratingon the timing of his music or the
physicalact of creatingit for that seemed quite automatic.
In Conclusion
In some respects, scholarshave studiedAfricantime in music for an extended period. In other respects, the researchhas
just started for only recently have the views of the Africans
themselves been taken seriously. From a study of the past, we
can glean some directionsthat ideas are moving, directionsthat
are, at best, tentative and which will surely shift as more data
becomes available.
Timein Africanmusic is multidimensional.FollowingAlfred
Schutz'smodel, time in music moves in a series of coordinated
dimensions. Some of these dimensionsare of "outer time" or
those that serve primarilyto coordinatethe individualsmaking
and experiencing music together. Others come from "inner
time," the subjectivelyexperiencedtime. The essentialpoint is
that musicaltime cannot be reducedto a single dimension.Musical time must be the coordinationof a numberof simultaneously experiencedflows. Muchof past researchhas centeredon
the study of the outer time dimension,and conclusionshave assumed a linear progression.We are here suggestingthat a mosaic concept of outer time may be more powerfulin describing
muchAfrican music-making.Inner time is yet to be studied to
any degree.

51Berliner,Soul of Mbira, 132.

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Time in African music emphasizesqualitativeelements.Recent research stresses the essential concern demonstratedfor
timbralqualities by African musicians.Such attentionstresses
qualitativeaspects ratherthan the quantitativeaspectsso often
stressed in the Western orderingof time in music. Drummers
memorize mnemonic phrases that represent the subtleties of
timbre that they wish to produce rather than a numericalsequence of orderedpitches.
Time in African music emphasizesthe delineationof space.
Africanperformanceplaces considerablestresson qualitatively
distinguishingmusic by reference to space. Thus actionsoccur
in three-dimensionalspace and soundsoccurconceptually"under," "above," "outside," and "inside." In events such as
Kpelle epic performances, heroes characteristicallymove in
multipleplanes and spaces and are supportedby musicthatpeople think of in a spatial manner. Thus music in time assumesa
volume that contraststo Westernnotions of a more flat and linear progression.
Timein Africanmusicemphasizestheconceptof motion.African vocabulariesare rich in terms for describingeven slight
differencesin movement, and musiciansoften notice and comment on varieties of motion. Thus the idea of mosaic progression by no means implies a staticstate.
Thepast, in Africanmusic, is dynamicallymanipulatedin the
present. While the most is made of the present and music performancescenter on the present, the past is an equallyessential

element. Throughspiritsin performances,the pastprovidesauthorityand sanctionfor the presentand is constantlyreferredto

in order to create the presentmoment.
Time in African music is contingent.Those elements which
are partof the singer'srepertoiredo not includethe entirecomposition waitingto be reproduced.Ratherthe singer'sstock of
knowledge incorporatesphrases, patterns, and proverbsto be
woven and juxtaposed in light of the performanceevent's momentaryexigencies.
The uniquenessof Africanmusicaltime restson the particular stress on mosaic rhythmicstructure,qualitativeexpression,
the delineation of space, and a constant emphasison motion.
While these elements are not unique or unknownto Western
thought, the way they are emphasizedis distinctive.The nuance
of emphasisprovides a subtle yet strikingapproachto organizing music.
Perhapsthe subtletyof whatwe arepointingout is the reason
that it is easy to ignore. Perhapsthis is why Westernethnomusicologists can apply other grids without great problems. The
resultscan be viewed in other ways and these wayshave been of
value. But in the end, the differences do make a difference.
They show us how wispy are the conceptswe seek, how fragile
they seem as we move throughdata lookingfor the overwhelming and the powerful. Only throughequal attention to theory
and data and through careful readingof past texts will the nuances of African musicaltime emerge.

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