Rhythmic Cycles & Polyrhythms – Part 2

An African drumming rhythm is typically composed of several parts, played on different drums and other percussion instruments. All these individual parts, when put together make up what we call, “The rhythm”.

In order to fully understand the rhythm and play it correctly and with confidence, we need to first learn each part separately, and then know how to put these parts together.

Each part of the rhythm is played individually by a drummer who is a member of the drumming ensemble. The ensemble is led by a master drummer who directs the ensemble using their drum only. Phrases or ‘calls’ are played by the leader on their African drum, which tell the rest of the group when to start, when to stop, when to change and also what tempo to play.

Each member of the ensemble needs to know what these phrases mean and respond accordingly when the phrase is played by the lead drummer.

In a previous article I talked about hearing the pulse or the down beat. This is the first thing we need to identify. The first thing we need to know. Where is the pulse or the down beat?

Once we have identified the pulse or the down beat, we then need to know how the rhythmic cycle and the individual parts fit over these beats and over how many of these beats. 

In 4/4 rhythms we have 4 pulses to a bar, or for those of you who don’t know what that is, you can consider a bar to be a section of music played over 4 beats or pulses. The individual parts of a rhythm then go over either one or more than 4 beats or pulses. In other words, an individual rhythm can go over 1 bar or more than 1 bar.

We also need to identify the difference between the start of a rhythmic cycle and the start of an individual rhythm.

If we count 1,2,3,4 beats to a bar, we can define the start of a cycle as being the first beat. Call it the 1. Typically, calls will start on the 1 and set the tempo and the point of entry of the individual parts. However, these individual parts of the rhythm may not all start on the same point of the rhythm cycle, and they may not even start on the 1 which we have defined to be the start of the cycle. Some might start on the 4, others on the offbeat of the 3 and so on.

Therefore, it is important for us to know the relationship between the start of an individual rhythm and the start of a cycle which is the 1. We need to learn how to hear the rhythm correctly and not mistake the start of the rhythm as the start of the cycle. The start of the rhythm may be an off beat that leads into the 1. Recognising this is an important step in understanding how to hear rhythms correctly.

Here is an example: Say we had 4 beats and called them 1,2,3,4. We then decide to clap on two of these beats, the 1 and the 4 but we start on the 4. So, we clap 4 and then 1. Just because we start on the 4 that does not mean the rhythmic cycle starts on the 4. The start of the cycle is still the 1 even though the individual rhythm we have just clapped starts on the 4. So, we need to hear the cycle as starting on our second clap. (The 1 not the 4)

Once we have identified the start of each part and its relationship to the rhythmic cycle, we then need to hear how these parts fit together

I always try to hear the parts of a rhythm as a conversation. In other words, each member of the ensemble is talking to each other. We need to learn how to hear where the different parts intersect and how they relate to each other. How do they fit together? Can we hear the combination of two or more parts? If we can hear this, then we start hearing the rhythm differently. We start hearing the rhythm in its entirety. We start hearing the rhythm as the sum of its parts, not each individual part.

This becomes more difficult and more difficult if more parts are involved, and also if the parts are more complex. However, we need to train ourselves to hear this. Once we can hear how the key parts, if not all parts, fit together, we can then play freely and also move a step closer to playing solo phrases without going out of time and losing our place in the rhythm.  As we get more experienced, we can play more complicated solo phrases. This is a skill that will take time to develop and cannot be fast tracked. The more experienced we are, the more sophisticated we can become in the choice of what to play.

If we don’t fully understand the difference between the start of a rhythmic cycle and the start or point of entry of each individual part that comprises the rhythm, we will never be able to hear the rhythm correctly and will only be able to regurgitate the parts mechanically without fully understanding how they relate to each other.

I have tried to explain this idea as simply as possible without using too much musical jargon, so that anyone who reads this can understand it.

Let me know if I have succeeded.

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