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An African Understanding of African Music

Agawu, V. Kofi (Victor Kofi)

Research in African Literatures, Volume 32, Number 2, Summer 2001,

pp. 187-194 (Article)
Published by Indiana University Press
DOI: 10.1353/ral.2001.0038

For additional information about this article


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An African Understanding of
African Music
Kofi Agawu
Ukom: A Study of African Music Craftsmanship, by Joshua Uzoigwe.
Okigwe, Nigeria: Fasmen Educational and Research Publications, 1998.
161 pp.
African Music: Theoretical Content and Creative Continuum: The Culture
Exponents Definitions, by Meki Nzewi. Oldershausen, Germany: Institut
fr Didaktik populrer Musik. 84 pp.

oshua Uzoigwe and Meki Nzewi are distinguished African musicians

from Nigeria. A trained ethnomusicologist, pianist, and drummer,
Uzoigwe is widely regarded as a leading exponent of art music in
Nigeria. This study of ukom originated in a PhD thesis presented to the
Queens University of Belfast, and is his most extended ethnomusicological publication to date. Nzewi is a multitalented artist and intellectual.
Composer, master drummer, dramatist, choreographer, and ethnomusicologist, he is also active as a creative writer. Specialists will know his writings on the Igbo varieties of African music, and will be aware of the
important reorientation represented by his concept of melorhythm, a term
designed to sensitize users to the melodic and rhythmic aspects of drumming and to undermine Western overemphasis on the percussive or nonpitched aspects (Melorhythm Essence and Hot Rhythm in Nigerian Folk
Music). This new book is neither his most ambitious nor his most extensive (there are pedagogical works awaiting publication, an earlier volume
on musical practice and creativity, and another on Ese musicsee list of
publications on p. 94 of the present work). Nevertheless, it represents his
most direct, comprehensive, and provocative statement about African
music scholarship and creativity.
Providing joint notice of these publications in this journal should not
imply the existence of deeper parallels. It is true that both musicians studied with the legendary John Blacking in Belfast, that they have made their
professional careers on the African continent, and that, like others in various African universities, they have had to wear many hats in order to meet
local demands for training students in music. There is a less elevated reason for this joint notice, however. Uzoigwes book, published in Nigeria,
would have remained unknown in North America had the author not
brought copies of it himself to a 1999 conference in the USA. Nzewis
book, published in Germany, is available to a handful of scholars who have
been lucky to receive personal copies from the author. None of the official
ethnomusicological channels has given notice to these books. To say this is
Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer 2001

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not to insinuate a conspiracy against African voices in ethnomusicology

although, reading Nzewis preface, one cannot help but entertain such a
suspicionbut to remind us of practical difficulties in the dissemination
of knowledge produced in Africa. Yet, as I hope this review will make clear,
both authors have facts and opinions that should command our attention.
And their ways of proceeding should engender reflection on the situatedness of our own scholarly agendas. There is no greater threat to the life
and vitality of African music scholarship than the universalizing of North
American concerns and habits of thought.
Ukom, the subject of Uzoigwes book, is a type of instrumental (as
opposed to vocal) music performed in certain Igbo communities. A typical ukom ensemble consists of a set of ten tuned drums played by two
master musicians, a leader and a receiver. Two other drums, a membrane
drum whose function is to establish the pulse and a slit drum that serves a
metronomic function, complete the four-person ensemble. Although it is
performed by men, ukom music is associated primarily with okwukwu
nwanyi womens funeral ceremony. Each phase of this highly ritualized rite
is marked or constituted by music.
Chapter 2 outlines the musical and extramusical factors that constrain
creativity. Noteworthy here is the distinction between nkwa, which refers to
the structured sound phenomenon, and egwu, a generic name for all artistic human endeavors such as recreation, music, story-telling, and drama
(18). The existence of the former term suggests that musics materiality is
not unacknowledged in indigenous metalanguages, while the latter term
indicates musics irretrievable connectedness. Also of interest is the principle of union of opposites (42) that Uzoigwe finds at the heart of ensemble music. Throughout this second chapter, Uzoigwe is guided by the
teaching of his ukom musician-mentors and makes intelligent use of
their words.
Chapter 3 takes us to the heart of the music itself, explaining scale
structure and concepts of harmony. Ukom drums are tuned to two similar
five-note scales, EGACD and EGABC in adjacent octaves. Pentatonicism in
turn provides the conditions of possibility for various vertical groupings,
notably, thirds, fourths, and triads. Uzoigwes explanations or justifications
of procedure often include interesting perceptions. For example, tonal
distinctions are measured in terms of height and figured oppositionally as
male/female, the male being the higher sound, the female the lower one.
Also, the idea that there is apparently no abstract understanding of octave
equivalence by ukom musicians suggests a degree of registral sensitivity not
found among musicians of traditions in which the octave rules.
Chapter 5, a companion to 3 (it could easily have taken the place of
the current chapter 4), identifies variation as the central principle of musical organization. Uzoigwe recognizes four main categories of variation:
perpetual variation; limited variation; ostinato variation; and chainsong
variation. The first and last of these are illustrated by extended transcriptions. Brief comments on other aspects of ukom touch on rhythm, meter,
and tempo. Between chapters 3 and 5, then, we obtain a solid introduction
to the structural aspects of ukom repertoire.

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Chapter 4, entitled The Drumtext, explores the underlying textual

conception through an assembly of texts associated with the three different compartments of ukom. This chapter is rich in texts and cultural
analysis. Finally, Chapter 6 provides a summary of the books findings. The
bibliography lists close to a hundred titles, but their relation to Uzoigwes
project is not always clear. The book lacks an index.
Three aspects of Uzoigwes work stand out to me. First, he is an instinctive theorist. No action is described for which a reason is not adduced. In
other words, why is a frequently asked question, not just what. From
this point of view, Uzoigwe justifies his initial claim that he intends this
book to be a contribution to African music theory. Secondly, Uzoigwes
whys often lead him to the social. There is clearly a strong influence of
his mentor, Blacking, in this aspect of the work, for it was one of Blackings
chief preoccupations to link the social with the musical (How Musical is
Man?; see also Agawu, John Blacking and the Study of African Music).
Uzoigwes own pursuit of this connection is, however, sanctioned by the
musicians with whom he worked:
In the course of my musical apprenticeship with ukom musicians
I was struck by the manner in which they linked every aspect of
ukom performance into a long chain of related ideas and events.
That is, they had the tendency to illuminate their points on any
specific topic of ukom composition, such as the textual implication
of a piece, by tracing the origin of its composition to its final
source. Through this method of explanation the musicians were
able to reveal to me the several underlying social concepts which
often determined peoples action and behavior towards one
another in the Igbo community. And among the concepts which
they emphasize most with regards to ukom, were those concerning
life and death. (38)
Some readers may wonder whether the exegetical pressure here is not a
bit excessive, whether the embedding of ukom in webs of extramusical significance does not beg a number of questions. For as long as it assumes
musical form, ukom exhibits some degree of autonomy.
Uzoigwes resistance to autonomy comes across in some of his less
secure statements, as for example his characterization of nineteenth- and
twentieth-century European composers as autonomous in contrast to his
ukom musicians. Given the thoroughly interdisciplinary culture of nineteenth-century Europe, a time when musicians read literature and philosophy, visited the opera house frequently, and consumed a range of criticism,
it is difficult to support the designation autonomy for the musical products of this era (see Subotnik, Romantic Music as Post-Kantian Critique).
We need a more nuanced delineation of the social (as for example,
Adorno, Introduction to the Sociology of Music, though it might be asking too
much to expect Adornos writings to be available to our colleagues on the
Third, there is a depth of understanding of Igbo culture here that is
rarely reached by outsiders studying Igbo music. Uzoigwe is alert to various

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shades of linguistic meaning, and he has drawn on the descriptions and

evaluations of his mentors not in a heavy handed way, nor as an end in
itself, but on a flexible and ad hoc basis, to illuminate particular aspects of
music-making. With focused studies like this, the library of African music
theory is enriched.
Theory, broadly conceived, is also a central concern of Meki Nzewis,
but where Uzoigwe focuses on a single genre of Igbo music, Nzewi ranges
widely, extending his discussion into a metatheoretical realm. His aim is to
attain what might be called an African understanding of African music.
Carrying out such an ambitious, ideologically explicit project requires that
existing thought be critiqued. As usual with Nzewi, no one is above the law.
Thus, Africanpoliticians come in for a certain amount of bashing. (In one
formulation, policy makers are said to be suffering from mental AIDS
79). African intellectuals are accused of collaborating with politicians to
promote mental-cultural despoliation of their own people through wrong
educational contents and orientation (12). Ethnomusicologists are criticized for introducing romance terms like cross rhythm, polyrhythm, and
polymeter into the theory of African music. Some composers of art music
are described as Africans writing modern music rather than as composers
of modern African music. And performers who have lost touch with the
spiritual and linguistic bases of singing and drumming are chastised
accordingly. Only the so-called culture bearers, the traditional musicians
who make music and dance as part of daily life and ritual, are exempt from
this sweeping critique.
The story of the origin of this booklet (as the author calls it) may
shed light on the vehemence of Nzewis position. Nzewi was invited to
present his ideas at a conference in Michigan in 1993 on New
DirectionsThe West African Voice in Ethnomusicology. Subsequently
his paper, alongside two others by Ghanaian scholars Kwabena Nketia and
Willie Anku, was accepted for publication in the Black Music Research
Journal. Inexplicably, however, the paper was withdrawn from publication at the last minute. (Attendees at the April 2000 conference on African
music held in Ann Arbor, Michigan, will see that it is fast becoming Nzewis
fate to be withdrawn from such events!) But he was determined to find
an audience for his ideas, hence this booklet, which some German friends
and colleagues helped to publish.
This is not perhaps the place to discuss the politics of publication,
although the subject ought to concern anyone who advocates ethical
scholarship. But Nzewis embattled tone, his pugnacious, no-nonsense
style cannot be fully appreciated outside a context in which his ideas, some
of them quite unconventionalor, at least, presented as if they were
unconventionalare said to have been systematically suppressed by
unnamed senior colleagues. No doubt Nzewis song would change if he
were assured that there is, in fact, a community of scholars who share his
concerns about the state of music education in Africa, who have independently arrived at similar viewpoints in their research into African materials,
and who are as passionate as he is about forging an African understanding
of African musicAfrican-thinking Africans, as he calls them (13). Or

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would it? It is possible that Nzewis song will not be much affected by such
assurances. In conceiving of himself as an articulate, modern, native actor
in the traditional music arena in Africa [who has] the mandate of tradition
to propagate the truth about the African musical-mental civilisation (14),
Nzewi may find it impossible to proceed without erecting elaborate oppositional forces against which he can then kick hard.
African Music: Theoretical Content and Creative Continuum is a book about
knowledge construction, about the order of knowledge about African
music. The orientation is not historicalwhich orientation may have
helped to clarify the origins of certain ideas and practices. Nor is it systematic. Rather, Nzewi comes at his subject with a generalized set of presuppositions, collapsing all knowledge into a single African music. Those
hardest hit by his critiquewho, incidentally, and despite the homogenizing tendency of the text, will not have a hard time recognizing themselves
in itmay seek to oppose the project on the grounds that its citations are
skimpy. But those who see the advantage of leaving out names (or rather,
supplying the relevant names based on Nzewis not always obscure hints)
will welcome this way of naming without naming. In the end, then, this is
not a book for people who are new to African music. It is rather a book
for insiders, those who have followed trends in the construction of knowledge about African music and who are moved to reflect upon its politics
and ideology.
What has been said so far should indicate that no simple summary of
Nzewis argument is possible. Still, there are several recurring themes
among which Id like to single out two. The first is the paradoxical
formulationagain strongly reminiscent of Blackingthat music is at
once imbricated in other semiotic systems while retaining a level of autonomy in its material and ideational organization:
[T]he philosophical foundations of the African musical environment and phonofacts are not always music-specific. Deriving from
a more holistic philosophy of life and the cosmos, autochthonous
African musical productions are abstract configurations which
demonstrate the fairly common fundamental creative principle of
mediating the physical and metaphysical worlds. (13)
In technical terms, this translates in part as follows:
The same principles and rationalisations of repetition, syncopation, relational tension, complementarity and lineal circularity are
given synaesthetic manifestations in music, dance, visual arts and
dramatic theatre. (14)
The implied coherence of the Igbo notion of egwu at a deep conceptual
level, this coincidence of backgrounds, is sometimes remarked, but few
scholars have pursued the implications of that insight into specific materials (a magnificent exception, not mentioned by Nzewi, is Robert Farris
Thompsons Flash of Spirit).
Nzewi draws on the nonmusical origins of musical gestures to reposition a number of ethnomusicologys concepts. In the third chapter,

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Theoretical Content, to my mind the richest in the book, he argues that

cross rhythm, polymeter, and polyrhythm are not tenable as descriptions of
African rhythmic practice. This is a radical claim, one that will likely be
resisted (at least initially) by those for whom the self-evident complexity
and unparalleled elaboration of rhythm in African music justify the use of
such terms. Cross-rhythm, according to Nzewi,
is antithetical to African social and, therefore, ensemble philosophy. A community/family/team does not work together at cross
purposes. This musical structure, which has depth essence, derives
from the African philosophy of inter dependence in human
relationships. (36)
He goes on to provide an analogy with visual art, citing paint-drawing patterns on mud walls said to be typical of Helen Obiora and other Igbo
artists, and explaining that
[m]otive as well as emotive suspense is generated when two moving
entities which are at the point of colliding with each other unexpectedly veer off. A bounce-off affect is generated. The entities in
missed-collision retain their individuality as well as motive or emotive energies/directions. (37, 39)
In this way we understand cross rhythm as a musical manifestation of
a deeper societal impulse, expressible not only aurally but visually and
There is a danger in this kind of exercise, however, for although it
does not deny the nontranslatability of semiotic systems, it encourages a
fuzzy equating of deep structures, a facile postulation of homologies, and
perhaps an impoverished construal of the nature of primal impulses. An
example of such associationism may be found in Peter Bischoffs film
African Cross Rhythm as Seen Through Ghanaian Music, where John Collins
announces that African music is multidimensional [. . .]. Africans generally do things in multiples. [. . .T]hey are polytheistic, they have many gods
and goddesses, they speak many languages, have multiple wives. Thus
polytheism, polyglottism, and polygamy are drawn into a circle alongside
polymeter, polyrhythm, polyphony, etc., all of them ostensibly springing
from the same source.
Can such claims be formulated so as to yield genuine insight? Without
secure ethnographic characterization, without precise definitions, and
without some skepticism towards the impulse to mystify African musical
realities, it is difficult to see how we can associate polymeter and polygamy,
say. The very desire to plot such deep-level convergences needs to be interrogated. Perhaps what obtains in Africa, as indeed elsewhere, is an incidence of divided, tension-filled deep structures devoid of any invariant
A second, related theme stems from Nzewis belief in the self-sufficiency of African music as system:
African traditional music contains all that are needed in philosophy, theoretical content and principles of practice for culturally

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meaningful and independent modern music education of any

disciplinary specialisation at any level in Africa and perhaps,
elsewhere. (11)
This claim speaks to Nzewis concerns about the great musical miseducation of modern Africans. Limited acquaintance with notational systems,
the privileging of pitch as a parameter, the confinement of harmonic
thought to that which can be accommodated within a Soprano-Alto-TenorBass texture, the teaching of composition without a concomitant stress on
the composers social mission, the shunning of traditional instruments:
these are among the shortcomings of modern music education in Africa.
We need to sweep away the half truths about African (and European)
music and initiate a new beginning that is rooted in adequate (i. e., Africacentered) cultural understanding of performance, composition and
theory. We are yet to see a systematic and aggressive assault on the falsification of traditional African ways of teaching and understanding in our
universities. Perhaps readers of Nzewis book will be moved to begin this
challenging task.
Nzewi, then, is concerned with theory as well as practice. He does not
preach in the abstract but provides concrete suggestions in his final chapter about how to reorient performance, composition and scholarship. The
book as a whole includes a number of interesting ideas, ideas that should
stimulate debate among musicologists. For example, like A. M. Jones and
others before him, Nzewi maintains the unity of traditional African music:
Incontrovertibly, there is an African field of musical sound (31). He thus
questions the contemporary tendency to stress heterogeneity over homogeneity, to speak of African musics rather than African music.
Elsewhere, Nzewi notes that the bell pattern of West African ensemble
music, popularly referred to as a time line, is no more than a phrasing
referent (35). It provides a statistical measure in ensemble music but is
not the structural fundamental (35). Again, on the question of form,
Nzewi identifies the philosophical motivation for form creation in African
music as a circular futurity (43). He even ventures into essentialist constructions of European, African, and American personhood in order to
celebrate the humaneness of African musical practices (61).
Students of cultural studies and postcolonial theory may well find that
the kinds of issues broached by Meki Nzewi occupy a by now unmarked
position in their own discourses. Their relative markedness in African
musicology is due to a long-standing reticence among scholars to confront
one anothers theories and viewpoints (see Agawu, Representing African
Music). Put more strongly, African musicology, as currently constituted,
lacks a communal critical practice. (Scherzingers Musical Formalism as
Radical Political Critique, however, signals a reversal.) While it is in the
interest of show-and-tell ethnomusicologists to keep things that way, it is
not in the interest of African scholars. The two books reviewed here are
worthwhile contributions to debate about, and enhanced understanding
of, Africas extraordinarily rich musical heritage.

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Adorno, Theodor. Introduction to the Sociology of Music. 1962. Trans. E. B. Ashton.
New York: Seabury, 1976.
Agawu, Kofi. Representing African Music. Critical Inquiry 18.2 (1992): 245-66.
Blacking, John. How Musical Is Man? Seattle: U of Washington P, 1973.
Bischoff, Peter. African Cross RhythmsAs Seen through Ghanaian Music. VHS
Format. 52 minutes. Denmark: Loke Film, 1994.
Nzewi, Meki. Melorhythm Essence and Hot Rhythm in Nigerian Folk Music. The
Black Perspective in Music 2.1 (1974): 23-28.
Scherzinger, Martin Rudolf. Musical Formalism as Radical Political Critique: From
European Modernism to African Spirit Possession. Diss. Columbia U, 2000.
Subotnik, Rose Rosengard. Romantic Music as Post-Kantian Critique: Classicism,
Romanticism, and the concept of the Semiotic Universe. On Criticizing Music:
Five Philosophical Perspectives. Ed. Kinsley Price. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP,
1981. 87-95.
Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and
Philosophy. New York: Vintage , 1987.