African Polyphonic Singing

May 13, 2010

Hello hello! Yann here, aka The Amazing Rolo, aka Mr. Cocoringo’s Younger Brother. Very pleased to be here, thanks for coming, let’s go.

It was with great interest that I recently read this article by Miller S Puckette (original designer of Max/MSP) about the state of contemporary academic music. One of the things he discusses is the issue “complexity”:

Although our music is complex to the point that few people can listen to it, we certainly do not offer the world’s most complex music, merely the world’s most unlistenable music. To compare our music to that of north India by asking which is the more complex is simply ludicrous. However, ours somehow sounds too complex. This may lie more in qualitative aspects of our music than quantitative ones; we might have a different kind of complexity (or perhaps it’s just plain obfuscation) from that of other musics.

This really hit the nail on the head for me, particularly since I have been listening to a lot of polyphonic African vocal music lately…

This type of singing is known as Yelli, and is sung by Baka women from Gbiné, in southeastern Cameroon. The polyphonic complexity is stunning…one website I found theorized that this stems from the heightened hearing necessary to survive in the forest:

The sense of hearing is very important when living in the forest. It is rare to be able to see further than 50 metres when walking in the forest so the Baka navigate by “listening to the Forest”. By recognising the different sounds made by different streams or rivers, by different camps, or even by different trees, and by talking to each other across surprisingly long distances in the forest, they are able to know exactly where they are in the thickest undergrowth.

This need to hear well coupled with the absense [sic] of background noise of cars, radios and machines that people in industrialised countries have to contend with, has meant that the Baka have developed an incredibly keen sense of hearing. Whereas in the cacophany of modern life in the West we learn to filter out unwanted “noise”, the Baka learn to hear all sounds since they are all produced by the forest and are therefore all potentially important to their survival. This is shown in their music where they will listen very well to each other and can pick up new melodies very quickly.

I’m not really sure about that theory, to be honest, it seems a bit R. Murray Schafer-esque, but what is certain is that Baka vocal music incorporates an astonishing array of compositional techniques that western music has only begun to understand. And when placed in context with Miller S. Puckette’s quote above, it’s pretty amazing how listenable it is too. Somehow it is arguably more complex, yet easier to digest than Xenakis or Nancarrow (though I do love them both).

Infuriatingly, I can’t seem to find many examples outside of YouTube! This one is perhaps even better than the first video posted above, but unfortunately is only audio:

Another fascinating element of Baka musical tradition is Water Drumming:

A group of them will stand in water up to their waists and with cupped hands hit the surface of the water. Each of them will play a different rhythmic pattern which together form a more complex synchopated [sic] rhythm. The sound of this drumming coupled with their laughter carries across the forest.

Unfortunately the only example of this I can find is in RealAudio (shudder). Does anyone know of any good CDs of Baka music?

A final example of this often-overlooked aspect of African music can be found on one of my absolutely favorite albums ever, “Zaïre: Polyphonies Mongo”. If you can get your hands on a copy I highly recommend it. Here’s a track from that CD, “Wakelele 2”.

Wakelele 2

Anyone else have any suggestions for good albums with polyphonic African singing?

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2 Responses to “African Polyphonic Singing”


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Yann Seznec. Yann Seznec said: Just finished a guest post on my brother's blog about African polyphonic singing: http://is.gd/c7lZL […]

  2. jf seznec Says:

    I agree that modern “classical” is by and large unimaginative and their sounds often more pompous than intelligent. Hence, it is truly a pleasure to see Yann’s and Cory’s entries on the blog. Much more euphonic and just as sophisticated sounds seem to come from outside the “conservatoire” or the pedantic works of so many modern western composers.


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