“Yoruba”sically the beginning

During my senior year of high school, I spent a substantial amount of time listening to West African traditional drum music. I am not talking about the type of “African music” you pick up in the World music section of Best Buy. It’s not the “African music” that Shakira recorded for the 2010 FIFA World Cup or even the “African music” played by white, dreadlocked “Deadheads” in the U.S. It’s probably not even the music that Africans listen to on a daily basis.

No. The record that got the most plays was called “Yoruba Drums from Benin, West Africa,” released on the Smithsonian Folkways imprint in 1996, which consists of 19 recordings of genuine traditional drum ensembles from around the titular region. To describe the music devoid of a certain perspective is difficult. To most Western ears, it is hard to listen to. The recordings are entirely drum based, devoid of vocals, and thus it’s “boring.” It’s “arrhythmic” and “discordant.” Most of all, to the unaccustomed listener (which, I may add, describes most of the people I was showing this music to), the music is weird, and it is weird that I would want to listen to it.

African traditional life is grounded wholly in community. Every event or social function attempts to allow individuals to express themselves, while retaining a framework where a group identity is preserved. This practice is evident in funerals, religious ceremonies, meals and, of course, the performance of music. In the Yoruba drum rituals, for example, each individual maintains their own rhythm and improvises as they see fit, but ultimately, they each contribute to the overarching structure of the performance, creating a “polyrhythmic” quality often perplexing to the Western ear.

So where we hear discord, to the Yoruba, it is harmony. Where we perceive disorganization, the Yoruba perceive togetherness. To our ears, the sound of the numerous contradictory drum rhythms is merely unpleasant. From another angle, the sound represents the reconciliation of difference, the resolution of conflict. When one recognizes this idea for what it is, the listening becomes immediately less foreign. Embedded within this music, within the structural properties of the waves entering your ears, is the way of life of an entire people. To understand the music is to understand the people themselves, and from knowing this, it is nearly impossible to resist entrancement.

The standard use of the term “weird,” in relation to music, has an equivalent in the term “foreign” or “unfamiliar.” Most take for granted their own ways of living, their own practices, as the norm, rarely acknowledging other practices as equally viable. This of course leads most to write off the “weird” and the “foreign” far too easily.

But whenever I encounter something that is strange and unfamiliar, and thus, unappealing to me, I think back to the music of the Yoruba and remind myself of this notion: anything we see as “weird,” is also probably somebody’s “normal.” All music has that symbolic expression of the time and place it was created and the way that the players live their lives embedded deep within. It may be hidden, encoded or minute. But it’s there, and it’s up to us to find it.


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