West African percussion skills in global conversations

The basis of many musical genres in Africa is language. In order to fully understand African music, Ghanaian musicologist Kofi Agawu and many of his colleagues claim, one has to understand its linguistic principles. The exhibition “Talking with drums” at the Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zürich, takes this statement as its premise. With reference to musical genres from Ghana and Nigeria, it shows how West African drummers and musicians make their voices heard in local and global discourses.

West African drum music has commanded the attention of European travellers and scientists for many years. In the early twentieth century musicologists in the colonies tried to understand the rhythms of drums by applying the rules of European musicology. But often the skills of West African musicians could not be captured with the principles of the Western knowledge system. According to Kofi Agawu, foreign scientists often made the mistake of analyzing musical rhythmic expression in isolation from other forms of rhythmic experience in everyday life. Their analyses therefore remained fragmentary. In addition, some scientists used their knowledge of some local communities’ specific musical repertoires to make statements about “African music” – a generalization that unduly summarizes thousands of distinct musical cultures on the continent in one term.

These problems of understanding have often led to simplified comparisons of “our” and “their” music. Such constructions of a radically different “Other” live on in the subtly racist idea held by many non-Africans that Africans, as opposed to themselves, have an innate propensity for rhythm.

In reality, many West African rhythms result from a complex interplay of cognitive and corporeal skills that master drummers practice and refine over the course of a lifetime. Their music is often not merely for entertainment – in many social, political and religious events drummers are commentators and masters of ceremony. They recite oral histories, praise songs and prayers on their drums and thus mediate between the actuality of the moment and the communities’ cultural memories.

West African musicians have significantly shaped global musical history. Blues and Jazz, Reggae, Hip Hop and much of today’s popular music is based on musical principles derived from West African musical forms of expression. Often created as a form of resistance to injustices of slavery, racism and systematic oppression, these musical genres today resonate with the experiences and imaginations of people all over the world.

On these pages, an interdisciplinary team of scientists from Ghana, Nigeria, Germany and Switzerland shows how drummers and musicians in Nigeria and Ghana – and in the transatlantic diaspora of Brazil – take up their position and make their voices be heard globally.