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Idiophones Essay

Idiophones have a long-standing tradition in African music, and that tradition is an interesting one. Trumpets, flutes and other wind instruments provide an intriguing case study because of their existence in a host of sub-Saharan African cultures. They have always been a part of not only music in those areas, but also the culture of those areas. This history dates back hundreds of years, and the instruments have seen some changes over the centuries.

As the book indicates, the different variations of idiophones are inherently African in nature, and the cultures that brought them about have given these wind instruments their characteristic sound that is now commonplace in many different societies. As African Musicology indicates, instruments like the trumpet and the flute are a part of a characteristic musical phenomenon arising in sub-Saharan nations dating back to the fifteenth century.

Instead of having individual performers and instruments take entire parts of various works, the musical tradition during that time saw individual performers play their own notes, each of which was combined to create the musical production in whatever social setting might have taken place. The book reads, “Musical ensembles of this kind or of a similar structure, in which the players may produce two to three notes on their flutes or trumpets, can be found in many African cultures south of the Sahara.

The interlocking playing technique of this ensembles is characteristically African: the single parts individually cannot stand alone; their composition, however, is ingenious. It is the group, not the individual, that counts” (Nketia, 183). In this way, it is easy to see that idiophones were considered for what they produced as a whole, rather than what they produced individually. This is important to note as one studies the development of such instruments, since it is likely that any new implementations were designed to work alongside some other new or established instrument.

When taken out of that context, new implementations might have been viewed differently from their intention. When musical styles are being discussed, it is common to compare one culture with another for the purpose of finding any commonalities or discussing differences. The book goes to great lengths to discuss the distinctiveness of African music, and points out the fact that much of traditional African music was designed to stand alone and retain its strong cultural ties. Particularly of interest is the “hocket” technique, which is discussed at length in chapter six.

In the International Folk Music Journal, J. H. Kwabena Nketia discusses this technique and how it relates to music in places such as Ghana. She writes, “Closely allied to these procedures it the hockey-technique – the technique whereby constituent notes of a tune, a rhythm, or a tone pattern, or the constituent notes of a supporting ground-accompaniment, are played at the exactly appropriate point in time by those particular instruments that include them within their compass, or by those particular instruments that provide the required contrasts.

This technique, discussed subsequently with particular reference to examples recorded in Ghana, shows itself in its clearest form in the music of flute ensembles, and trumpet (or ‘horn’) ensembles” (Nkeita, 1962). The book takes this to another level, noting how the music played in some African cultures is distinctive in its own right, and though it shares some similarities in name to the European style of “hoquetus”, the two styles were not born of each other. The book reads, “It becomes clear that the so-called ‘hocket’ technique in African music is not equivalent to the ‘hoquetus’ in European medieval music.

Further, within these composition techniques, there is no complete uniformity to be found in South, Central, West, and East Africa” (184). From this, one can see that the wind instruments across Africa were used structurally in very different ways, with each particular culture coming up with its own rhythms based upon preference, equipment, and cultural needs. One of the issues facing musical research of wind instrument styles in Africa is that not enough solid research has been published to document the different styles.

A lot of the analysis consists of speculation, since the large number of cultures across Africa made it difficult to compile information on techniques, pitch, instrument variations, and style. To this effect, the book reads, “Ethnomusicological research in this area has to be characterized as merely marginal, and little research on this topic has been published to date” (188). For that reason, it is difficult to know exactly how the Berta, Ingessana, and Gumuz people interacted from a musical standpoint. One work on the history of African music even suggests that such a study would be impractical.

According to a book by Samuel A. Floyd, the fact that African nations have such diverse and vibrant religious traditions and cultural preferences, studying African music as a whole lends very little information that can be used. Instead, it must be studied individually, to be understand how these cultures developed their own uses for certain instruments, including idiophones. In The Power of Black Music, he writes, “Since African cultures are many and diverse, there is no single concept in African religion, and thus a study of them all would not be productive” (Floyd, 14).

One of the things that has long characterized idiophones in African music has been the creativity of certain cultures. Many cultures have not been afraid to look beyond the traditional construct of music to find great instrument ideas and also ideas on how to most effectively play those instruments. From that, the world has been given some of its favorite types of music. An example of this type of resourcefulness can be seen in a study done by Dumisani Maraire. He writes, “Stamped sticks and stamped tubes also form another category of idiophones (in this case concussion idiophones).

These sticks and tubes are held in the player’s hand and performed by being held at an angle and striking the ground or a slab of stone at an angle. On occasion three tubes are played at the same time each of which is playing a different rhythm” (Maraire). This is an important part of the African tradition that cannot be ignored if one seeks to truly understand the role of various instruments. The chapter itself did a nice job of explaining some of the important historical details about the pitch, tone, and rhythm of some of the most traditional of the African instruments.

It did an especially good job of explaining the development of these musical traditions in African culture. Since so many cultures existed, musical traditions often developed individually, with each culture becoming very resourceful in the development and implementation of different styles. The isolated nature of African also comes into play, and that was explained well in the chapter. Much of the music and the musical techniques that were born in Africa over time as completely their own, since many of these areas had little contact with outsiders. This helped to increase diversity in music for all.


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