The Transcription of African Music: Is it a Way to Value Local Music?

Traditionally, African music is passed on orally down the generations, with children learning to play by listening and watching. By Music Crossroads Intern, Joanne van Spyk.

  • about 1 month ago

When I started my internship with Music Crossroads in October last year, I came across a project component called Transcribing African Music. I was curious to know what it was. Through an interesting exchange with Will Ramsay from the Global Music Academy, I learnt about the initiative to capture an oral music tradition in writing so that it could be taught in different environments.

Transcribing music means the reduction of recorded sound to standard Western music notation. Ethnomusicologists have discussed widely to what extent it is possible to write down folk music or if it is possible at all. Basically, a transcript can provide some useful information to a local musician, who knows the style but cannot capture all aspects for an outsider to understand the music fully.

Traditionally, African music is passed on orally from one generation to the next. Children grow up hearing music in their local communities and learn to play the songs by listening and watching, and eventually participating in the performance, which usually includes dance. Through imitation, musicians develop a strong ability to memorize entire songs including melodies, harmonies and instrumentation. Traditional songs are then kept within the community for future generations.

Unfortunately, as is happening in many parts of the world, village communities in Southern Africa are disappearing. The valuable tradition of orally transmitted music is in danger of facing the same fate. This is true for many African music traditions, one possible cause being mass migrations to cities where the practice of traditional music becomes rare. Musicians turning their backs on traditional music and orienting themselves in Western music further accelerate the process of losing local traditions. Therefore, valuing these traditions by, for example, recording them in written form is a very important work.

Recently, Music Crossroads started a transcription project in the village of Chiweshe in Zimbabwe. The drum traditions of this village are very particular and therefore aroused Music Crossroads student Mangoma’s interest. After receiving the village head’s permission, a small team from Music Crossroads and the Global Music Academy travelled to the remote village of Chiweshe. Through a performance by villagers they got a first-hand experience of the unique drumming practice. Mangoma will return to the village and, with the help of the traditional players, begin the process of transcribing the drum patterns. This work will contribute to a growing corpus of traditional music.

Music Crossroads started the process of transcribing local music because there was no curriculum for teaching traditional music. It was clear that in order to be able to teach local music genres and particular African rhythmic concepts to students, transcripts had to be created. The music transcribed by Music Crossroads teachers are chosen because they are representative of local genres - like Jit, Chimurenga, Kwela or Marabenta - a rhythmic idea or a particular African mode or scale. Through the collection of these traditional songs, students get the chance to learn more about African music and music history. Additionally, students also acquire the useful skills of reading and writing music, which is especially important when collaborating internationally.

In my opinion, getting involved with one’s own local music is a very important part of studying. The transcripts are one way of keeping local traditions alive and to transform them into something new. It is an important and interesting work, which values the rich local traditions. Since in many African traditions music and dance are deeply connected, I hope that collaborations with dancers will emerge in the future and enrich the Academies work even further.

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