By Pat McLaughlin
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I spent a number of years studying with Gideon Alorwoyie, a master drummer and high priest of the Ewe tribe from Ghana, Africa. He has taught me a lot over the years and when I had the opportunity to travel to his village in the summer of 2007 I learned more than I ever expected about the Ewe tribe and gained a completely new perspective of music.

Gideon taught me the Ewe approach to percussion as well as the philosophies and views of music that the Ewe members value. Through this, he opened my eyes and taught me how to view rhythm as a true beauty of nature.

A book entitled “African Rhythm and African Sensibility” by the musicologist John Miller Chernoff dives deeply into this subject and offers a great deal of insight to the tribe’s values of music and rhythm.

There are two passages in the middle of the book that talk about the role of music in an event and the expectations of the listener as well as the performer. Here are two of the quotes that stuck with me:

“Africans who pay informed attention to the distinctive quality or style of a musical performance are concerned with the distinctive quality of its social setting, and they will even judge the music in terms of the success of the occasion. They expect the music to be responsive to the development of a situation, and they expect a musician to rely not only on his virtuosity but also on his mood and sense of appropriateness.”

In later paragraph he writes, “In an African musical event, everyone present plays a part, and from a musician’s standpoint, making music is never simply a matter of creating fresh improvisations but a matter of expressing the sense of an occasion, the appropriateness at that moment of the part the music is contributing to the rest.”

I believe these are beautiful observations and statements. While the musical events in an Ewe village are far different than those of any Western city, I believe the underlying message is universal but not always practiced.

As percussionists and drummers we need to ensure that our playing fits the music and that the music we’re playing fits the event we’re playing for.

Furthermore, I believe this philosophy boils down to style and the fact that percussionists and drummers must understand the style in which they are playing. While rock, jazz, funk, and Brazilian music can all be written with the same notation, there are nuances and subtleties that give each genre its own rhythmic sound and feel.

“…making music is never simply a matter of creating fresh improvisations but a matter of expressing the sense of an occasion…”

Learning about the history of a genre, the lifestyle and beliefs of the people who originally played it, and the influences the genre has received in modern times will help you better understand these nuances and thus make you a better and more versatile player.

The interpretation of rhythm is much more diverse than most assume. Separate yourself from the crowd by learning how and why styles are different from one another and make sure the music you’re playing enhances the event you’re playing for.

How can we apply this to our performance careers? Have you ever been in a situation where the music was clearly out of place, as a player or as an audience member? Tell us your ideas and share your stories in the comments.

Originally posted on DrumChattr on September 23, 2010.

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The photo in this post is used under the Creative Commons License: Attribution – NonCommercial – No Derivs 2.0 by L on Flickr.com.

Dave Gerhart

Dave Gerhart

Dr. Dave Gerhart, Product Manager, Percussion for Yamaha Corporation of America and Lecturer of Percussion at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at CSU, Long Beach, is a nationally recognized performer, composer, and educator. Dr. Gerhart, originally from Fairfield, California, holds a D.M.A. from the University of Southern California, M.M. in Percussion Performance and Instrumental Conducting and a B.M. in Music Education from California State University, Long Beach.
Dave Gerhart

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