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Issue 11, Fall 2007: West African Bell Pattern

Welcome to the World Rhythms News, an infrequent newsletter dedicated to world music education. This issue covers West African bell pattern rhythms. To subscribe, use the form below. Follow instructions thereafter, and make sure to check "World Music Education" in the "Interests" section of the sign up process.

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In this issue:

West African Rhythm Picture of Djembe Drum

In West Africa, societies such as the Yoruba, the Eve, the Akan and the Ibo possess a music rich in rhythmic vitality. It is a music of multiple layers of rhythms. While European classical music has developed complex harmonies of tones, African music has developed a complex interweaving of contrasting rhythmic patterns. The African musician often strives for the occurrence of at least two different rhythms at once, and it is precisely this juxtaposition of opposing rhythms that creates the vital spark of African music.

Ewe Bell Pattern with Clap

The Ewe people of West Africa often use what could be called nonsense syllables for lack of better words to remember a resultant rhythm. Here, the syllable dzi (pronounced "jee") is used for the four hand claps, and the syllable GO (pronounced "ga") is used for the bell. Where both parts coincide, the syllable is that of the clap. The Ewe think of the resultant rhythm as ending on the first beat of the bell and therefore starting in the second note of the bell pattern. This brings up a principle in African music, which is the tendency for a second pattern to regard the first note of a background pattern as the place to end a phrase rather than to begin one. The African musician unifies his time with the last beat he plays rather than the first. This exercise was adapted for this newsletter from the book, Ancient Traditions -- Future Possibilities:by Matthew Montfort. , Exercise V B-2, page 33.


bell:        |:  GO  *   GO  *    GO  GO  *   GO  *   GO  *   GO  :| GO
clap: |: dzi * * dzi * * dzi * * dzi * * :| dzi
resultant: |: (dzi)* GO dzi GO GO dzi GO * dzi * GO :| dzi

In the above example, "*" stands for an eighth-note rest in 12/8 time, the syllables "GO" and "dzi" each stand for an eighth note, "|" stands for a bar line, and "|:" and ":|" are repeat signs.

A resultant is the sound created when two different rhythmic parts are played together. A musician must keep in mind this resultant rhythm while playing, to insure that the parts interlock properly. The first "dzi" of the resultant pattern is left out of the first cycle, shown in the notation by in parenthesis. The resultant phrase does not start until the syllable "GO," ending on the first beat of the cycle, as follows:

GO dzi GO GO dzi GO * dzi * GO |dzi

Tap the bell part with the right hand while tapping the clap part with the left hand, and simultaneously recite the syllables, alternating between the syllables for the bell part, clap and resultant. The following chart may be helpful in visualizing your hand alternation:

   R * R * R R * R * R * R
   L * * L * * L * * L * *

Drum Head Audio Icon Ewe Bell Pattern MIDI File. This MIDI file is a performance of the bell pattern against the clap. Listen for each part separately.

Drum Head Audio Icon Resultant Pattern MIDI File. This MIDI file is a performance of the resultant pattern created by the bell pattern and clap. Therefore, it does not start on the first beat of the cycle, for the reasons stated above.

Further Study

World Beat Workshop at Esalen.

NOTE: This workshop will be repeated March 20-22, 2009!

For further study of West African rhythm, along with Balinese and Indian rhythms, this workshop is a great introduction. Taught by Matthew Montfort of Ancient Future, from his book Ancient Traditions -- Future Possibilities: Rhythmic Training Through the Traditions of Africa, Bali and India. Getting your timing skills in order is a great way to end the year so you can begin 2008 with better rhythm skills, and Esalen Institute is a beautiful place to do it!

December 28-30, 2007, 8:30 PM 12/28/07 through 11:30 AM 12/30/07, World Rhythms Workshop, Esalen Institute, Highway 1, Big Sur, CA 93920. Cost: Workshop alone: Regular Rate- $370. Friends of Esalen Rate- $320. With Bunk Bed Room: Regular Rate- $515. Friends of Esalen Rate- $465. With standard accommodations: Friends of Esalen Rate- $605. Regular Rate-$655. Standard accommodations is shared housing with two or three persons per room. Contact Esalen for other options. Reservations: 831-667-3005, Registration Form: Fax: 831-667-2724. Email:

The Book

For home study of West African rhythm, a good resource is the book “Ancient Traditions--Future Possibilities: Rhythmic Training Through the Traditions of Africa, Bali, and India.” The above rhythms are from the audio guide tracks to this "world beat bible" by Matthew Montfort, leader of the popular world fusion music ensemble, Ancient Future. The book takes the student on a musical voyage through the traditions of Africa, Bali, and India with a series of exercises that require no instruments to perform. A must-have for all students of world music:

Ancient Traditions -- Future Possibilities: Rhythmic Training Through the Traditions of Africa, Bali and India. By Matthew Montfort. Kentfield: Ancient Future Music, 1985. ISBN 0-937879-00-2. Comb Bound Book, $33.95 (SALE! Normally $46.95): Add 1 to Cart. Buy 1 Now. Book/Enhanced 2 Audio CD Set with MIDI Soundfiles: $53.95 (SALE! Normally $74.95): Add 1 to Cart. Buy 1 Now.

The exercises are now also available in a companion audio format to supplement the book for those who don't read music well:

Ancient Rhythms--Future Grooves: MIDI Percussion Groove Tracks from the Traditions of Africa, Bali, and India PLUS Complete 2 CD Set of Audio Guide Tracks . By Matthew Montfort. Ancient Future Music (2005). Companion 2 Volume Enhanced Audio CD set with MIDI Soundfiles, 28.95 (SALE! Normally $39.95): Add 1 to Cart. Buy 1 Now. A complete 2 CD set of audio guide tracks PLUS a CD-ROM presentation of MIDI files based on the book Ancient Traditions--Future Possibilities.

This two CD/CD-ROM set of audio tracks and MIDI files helps reinforce the material in the book and insures practicing correctly and in rhythm. Volume I and covers the exercises in the West Africa and Bali chapters of the book. Volume II covers the exercises in the India and Future Possibilities chapters. The General MIDI sound files of the exercises in the book can be used with a web browser for playback, or can be loaded into a MIDI sequencer for greater control. The CD-ROM even includes MIDI maps of West African, Balinese, and Indian percussion sound assignments enable custom re-mapping to your patches and instructions to turn your sequencer into a tabla machine using VSTi plug-ins and included tabla samples.

All compositions, recordings, video, and text in this article © 2007 Ancient Future Music. All rights reserved.