Simha Arom: Time Organization in African Music

Simha Arom, prominent French expert on African music, is a researcher at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique, Paris

Time organization in Central African Music is based on a strictly periodic structure. The period is internally organized on two levels: by the pulse and by the minimal operational values. Rhythm consists in the imposition of cyclic figures with or without variations on an underlying period. The dominant rhythmic feature in Central Africa is a contrametric relationship to the pulse, which creates an antagonism between the rhythmical events and their metrical framework. Polyrhythmic music results from the interaction of two or more superposed rhythmic figures, which may vary in dimensions but have periods standing in simple ratios, and its dominant feature is the interweaving of accents, tone colors and/or attacks of the simultaneously performed figures. This gives rise to a conflict between rhythm and rhythm, which is coupled with the antagonism between rhythm and meter characterizing each individual figure. Many of the phenomena described in this paper are current over a much wider area of sub-Saharan Africa.

About Simha Arom:
Professor Arom is most widely known for a prize-winning series of recordings of the musics of the Aka pygmies and other Central African groups made in the 1960s to the 1980s, which have exerted a lasting influence on musicians as diverse and prominent as Madonna, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, and contemporary composers Gyorgy Ligeti and Steve Reich. Mr. Arom’s landmark book African Polyphony and Polyrhythm, published in French (1986) and English (1991), is an undisputed classic in the field of musical ethnography, and was awarded the prestigious ASCAP Deems Taylor Award in 1992. Arom received the Silver Medal of the C.N.R.S. in 1984 for his deve¬lopment of methods of analysis of traditional, unwritten polyphonic music. With his book, and in general as a researcher, thinker and writer about music, Mr. Arom’s work has touched generations of students.