A major misconception of the oral tradition is that it consists of and continues through words or (for the purpose of this essay) lyrics only. This misconception is defied every time a musician plays a note on his instrument. Along with words, vocalized tone and rhythm play an important role in the oral tradition. These two elements are just as important in oral communication as words because it allows for communication of a nonverbal nature, even subconsciously at times, in all languages. Bornman insists that “while the whole European tradition strives for regularity – of pitch, of time, of timbre, and of vibrato – the African tradition strives precisely for the negation of these elements.”
Traditionally African languages did not restrict a single word to having one particular definition; rather one had the freedom to speak freely using words at their own discretion with their own unique meanings in mind. Along with words came how the words were spoken. This was in fact the intention of the true oral tradition, made up of a person’s unique response to another’s oral statement.
Ben Sidran explains: “…all oral communication is a direct reflection of the immediate environment and of the way in which members of the oral community relate to that environment.” We now can draw the comparison to music with Bornman’s assertion that “In music, the same tendency toward obliquity and ellipsis is noticeable: no note is attacked straight; the voice or instrument always approaches it from above or below.”8 In large part, the complexity of this rhythmic approach is due to the value placed on spontaneity and the instinctively communal nature of oral improvisation.
This talent is a role of the larger oral approach toward time and the consequent emotional connection with events as they happen. By failing to label emotional content along the rigid lines of verbal definition, a result of the stress on vocalization, musicians have aided the survival of the oral tradition. They are able to do this effectively because they celebrate the feeling of any given moment as a unique experience, rather than as a part of some pre-written text book.
By separating every moment or significant experience they are able to improvise and create their own unique tune. The ability to experience and communicate emotional content on such a broad level is characteristic of the oral man’s failure to detach intellectually: to not categorize, specialize, or analyze. Ultimately, this is a necessity in the survival of the oral tradition. In some ways it has become much more a manner of presentation than a way of experiencing.
Abandoning strict rules of tonality came naturally to, internationally renowned South African pianist, Abdullah Ibrahim. He says in an interview before his 1996 concert celebrating Mandela’s inauguration, “Ever since I was a kid I was playing in that direction… And then it just got to a point in New York in the late ’60s with the avant-garde. What happened was that we just got to a state of such technical proficiency that we could execute anything.
Practically, though, it got to the point that we couldn’t eat. Really, nobody wanted to listen. From a technical perspective it was quite complex, and then I realized you can use very eloquent language to say something, but if people don’t understand what the hell your talking about… Using basic language you can get the same kind of message… but as for me it was not just a conscious decision to move away from it, it was natural.”9
What comes next is perhaps the crucial element in Ibrahim’s musical odyssey toward tonality, perhaps in his political and spiritual one as well. “I think maybe because of the involvement in the struggle in South Africa, in some ways we were just forced to deal with what people saw as normal, basic issues, you know. We had to deal with people, and so the music has to relate to people. And for us it was a blessing in disguise because that is how the music always related anyway, traditionally.” For all the Western influence in Ibrahim’s music, from Debussy to Duke Ellington, his music is distinctly African.
“Duke said it when he met us: ‘You are blessed because you come from the source.’ The challenge that we faced was that if you’re a jazz musician you have points of reference if you’re an aspiring musician. If you’re a saxophone player you listen to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. But with our traditional music there is no point of reference. There was no piano player… for us. We had to deal with creating a contemporary mind-set in terms of improvisation with a traditional music of our own.” That’s what gives Ibrahim such a distinct sound.
Viewing the film ‘A Brother with Perfect Timing’, I questioned Ibrahim’s assertion that today musicians are seen as entertainers, but rather they are healers who use their music as spiritual medication. Traditionally healers performed their duties either through the gift of speech or using plants directly. Through my experience with music, I now know what a profound affect a single song can have on a person’s day or life. Musicians are healers of a different breed and although still esoteric in nature, many people can and are healed everyday. In the Bafour tradition, a healer who wants to deepen his knowledge has to travel extensively in order to learn about the different methods and study with other masters of the subject. Musicians follow the same practice in mastering their craft.
The African of the savannah used to travel a great deal. The result was exchange and circulation of knowledge. This is why the collective historical memory of Africa is seldom limited to one territory. Instead it is connected by family ties or ethnic groups that have migrated across the continent. This explains why the traditional healer I speak of originates from the region of Mali while Ibrahim, who views himself as a healer in the same sense, is from South Africa.
Listening to Ibrahim speak of one of his mentors, Thelonius Monk, we get a glimpse of his tremendous admiration and respect for this man. He tells us that one day he happened to be thinking about Monk and decided to write a song in his honor entitled, For Monk. We can see on his face the excitement that came with composing such a work. He even asked his band to play the newly developed and not quite finished song at their concert a few days later. Ibrahim was compiling this incredible tribute to a man that had inspired him in so many ways not knowing that the day after he had written the song, Monk had been admitted to the hospital. For Monk had been written in honor of this legend and inspiration but now served as an inspiring piece for that same legend to fight through his illness. The song transpired more in the spirit of the training of a Bambara apprentice smith, than in the creation of a conservatory product.
I think the great Charlie Parker said it best: “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” As in imperial Mali, the musician’s song is a call to arms. Just as the griots of Sundjata energized the enthusiasm of the warriors of Mandï¿½, the musician of today must mobilize his audience for the collective tasks of nation-building. By singing the glories of the past, making it immediate and alive for his audience, the musician stimulates a remembrance of them; by urging sacrifice today for a greater tomorrow, he provides the expectation of a common future. Ibrahim explains to us at the end of his film that the words of Water from an Ancient Well not only represent the drought in Africa, the famine and the turmoil, but “it is asking for the water of wisdom so that we can face the future.” He smiles and gently utters “Very soon Africa will be green and blooming again.”
B, Hampat, Vol. I, “The Living Tradition,” General History of Africa/ UNESCO, 1981
Conrad, David C. & Barbara E. Frank, Status and Identity in West Afric: Nyamakalaw of Mande, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995
Hentoff, Nat & Albert McCarthy, eds., Jazz. New York: Rinehart, 1959
Knight, Roderic C., Vol. 30, No. 3 “Music out of Africa: Mande Jaliya in Paris,” The World of Music, 1991
Miller, Joseph C., The African past speaks: essays on oral tradition and history, Folkstone, England: Dawson/Archon, 1980
Niane, D. T., Sundiata: An epic of Old Mali, Essex, England: Longman, 1965