Afriqua Presents Principles of Black Music: Polyrhythms
Part Four of a Five Part Series
It’s much harder to hear hecklers in a nightclub than at a comedy club, but trust me, they exist. Of my fortunately rare - or perhaps rarely audible - encounters with them during my #djlife, there’s been none that threw me off as much as hearing a drunk punter repeatedly yell “it all sounds the [redacted] same!”. I pride myself on being, if anything, inadequately self-reflective once I’m in a flow, but that feedback sent me into a tailspin, a full blown philosophical crisis in front of 1,000 people in a Budapest techno bunker. I mean, after all, when you think about it like that, it does all sound the same, doesn’t it? Boom, boom, boom, boom, snares and hats, a few sexy seventh chords, maybe a nice vocal every so often, and some sound effects. Is that what music is all about? Is this what my life is all about? How am I getting paid to do this? Why didn’t I study economics?
But after a few good blends, some whoops and smiles from the folks in front, and some therapeutic sips of whiskey, I’m back in the pocket. The crowd’s on my side, hips are moving, the energy picks up, and the guy in the Man U jersey shouting obscenities quickly fades into the subconscious realm of potential future essay references. Groove, as ever, saves the day.
Groove is the nuclear power of Black Music. It’s that ever so slight rhythmic nuance that can instantly bring a group of thousands into sync. Hell, according to George Clinton, it was powerful enough to unify a whole nation. But what is it? It’s nearly impossible to write down, and even a lifetime of practice might not give it to you, but when present, it’s absolutely undeniable. The hypnotic rhythm of African percussion becoming more transcendent with each repetition, the unexpected pain in your neck after hearing a seemingly simple boom-bap beat from DJ Premier, the moment an entire party gets loose as the DJ nudges a record back into time; these are all examples of that ever-elusive groove in action… or rather in interaction. Because what’s so hard to pin down about groove is that it’s not coming from one source, or one line, but from the interplay of many. It’s about the wildly contrasting voices and instruments of that African ensemble locking into a stable flow, about Clyde Stubblefield’s drums, a 60s psych-rock guitarist, and an 80s Hip-Hop vocal, somehow coming together under Primo’s magic spell, and about those two tracks that just shouldn’t work together, but perfectly do, taking the energy of the dancefloor ten minutes closer to sunrise. Those rhythmic interactions, and all of the different Polyrhythms which result, are the key to the unique rhythmic impact of Black Music.
Polyrhythms are the more complex rhythms that emerge from the combination of simpler ones, producing new rhythms greater than the sum of their parts. If Blue Notes are the “notes in between the notes”, then polyrhythms could be thought about in terms of the rhythms between the rhythms. The simplest and most common example is a 3 against 2 polyrhythm, which is a superimposition of a 3 note rhythmic sequence onto a 2 note rhythmic sequence of the same duration. Imagine repeating “Go Tell It” and “Mountain” at the same time, with the first syllable of each hitting simultaneously at each repetition. With the phrase “Go Tell It” having three syllables, and the word “Mountain” two, the second (“-tain”) syllable of “Mountain” would hit between the “Tell” and “It” of each cycle. Now take it one level of abstraction further, forget the words, and think of their syllables as metronome ticks. Now you’re left with two identical, constant, and purely rhythmic sounds beating at different times, perhaps one at 120 BPM and the other at 80, or one at 150 and the other 100. If you stop one metronome, you’re left with the sound of a metronome endlessly ticking away, without origin or destination. You might count “1,2,3,4” to give that lone ticking sound some meaning in your mind, but it could just as easily be a sequence of any length. The moment you resume the other, these stoic clicks resume a musical form. Those moments that the clicks coincide give them both a place in time and space. Even in the most stripped down form, with no timbre, pitch, or words, the interaction of these two soulless clicks starts to sound like music. They start grooving.
The same process described above between the triple and duple rhythms of 3 against 2 can happen with rhythms of all different lengths. You could set one metronome to 160 BPM and one to 120 BPM to end up with a slightly more complex, but almost equally common, polyrhythm, 4 against 3. You could carry this process to whatever extent your imagination could conceive - 5 against 4, 13 against 5, 27 against 8 - but at a certain point of nerdiness, your ear will be disoriented enough to stop detecting a pattern, and instead hear a cacophony of random metronome clicks; noise. Black Music utilizes the polyrhythms on the groovier end of the spectrum, the ones simple enough to be immediately graspable and complex enough to be immediately impactful. Other types of music might have passing polyrhythmic moments - the leading voice singing an ornamental triplet over a duple instrumental accompaniment, for instance - but the isolation and repetitive use of those polyrhythms in Black Music is unique. It’s what creates everything from the unmistakable rhythmic drive of African drumming to the infectious sway of Salsa. Polyrhythms allow repetition to be interesting, and the simple to become complex. Those rhythms in between rhythms allow music which sounds “exactly the same” to be infinitely varied and expressive.
It’s tempting to dive deeper into increasingly complex polyrhythms from a mathematical perspective, but this often misses the point, which is just how much nuance and expressive potential the simplest ones have. Take that seemingly simple 3 against 2 Polyrhythm that’s still ticking away in your head from a few paragraphs ago. It’s so endemic to African music that you’ll start sensing the presence of distant African ancestors after 5 seconds of tapping it on a table, even if you’re Swedish. It’s the heartbeat of African music, and has persisted through every successive musical chapter of the diaspora. African music featured distinctive bell patterns which acted as the rhythmic backbone, and continued to serve the same role in the music of African slaves across the Atlantic. These patterns are unique in their functioning both in a duple or triple context, embodying and encouraging 3 against 2 feel and play. The most immediately recognizable example of one such pattern is what’s referred to as the Son Clave in Afro-Caribbean music, or the hambone rhythm in an African-American context. It’s a two bar pattern perfectly balanced by one bar in three and a second in two. It’s also called the “Bo Diddley'' rhythm after the eponymously titled track that first applied the hambone groove to a rock song, but I have to admit the most effective example, even for me, is still the opening riff of “Faith” by George Michael. But as striking as the influence of Sub-Saharan bell patterns was on former Wham! members, their significance to music of the Caribbean and Latin American music remains unmatched.
The Son Clave and other Clave - key, in Spanish - rhythms are the keys to unlocking the musical genres of the region. For Afro-Cuban styles like Rumba, Congo, Mambo, and Salsa, the Son and closely related Rumba Clave rhythms are the most definitive characteristics. It’s beautiful to consider the fact that these rhythmically rich dance music genres are defined more by the keys of their rhythms than that of their melodies. The same type of traditional 2 against 3 Clave rhythms are the rhythmic keys to genres as diverse as Brazilian Bossa Nova, Jamaican Dancehall, and modern Reggaeton from Puerto Rico. While the polyrhythmic basis is most strongly expressed in the context of these genres, I’d go one step further and say the quality of having rhythmic “keys” defines the entire tradition of Black Music to some extent. Couldn’t the omnipresent four on the floor kick, clap on 2 and 4, and off beat hi-hat be considered the House Clave? If someone were to ask you what Jungle or Hip-Hop is, I imagine you’d sooner beatbox than sing a melody.
Even in the less explicitly polyrhythmic Black Music genres like House, Techno, and Hip-Hop, the huge importance of “swing” and “groove” still reflect a deep, although more subtly expressed, connection to the polyrhythmic African roots. In the end, those often mystified qualities come down to deciding where each sound sits on the spectrum between a duple and triple feel, and how they interact with one another. But I guess you could say that about all Black Music. It does “all sound the same”, after all.
Check out this Spotify playlist for a selection of Black Music using Polyrhythms:
Text: Adam Longman Parker
Read Part Five of Principles of Black Music on Improvisation.
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