Friday, June 30, 2006

False Cognates

During the summer of 1992, I spent four months in Northwestern Ghana studying the Lobi xylophone with Ngmen Baaru and Richard Na-Ile. The small village of Lawra was located in the northern corner of the Upper West Region, a two-day bus ride from the capital city Accra. In that part of the country the borders were porous; folks crossed to and from the ‘French Side’ (Burkina Faso), which was only a few miles away. I had a fellowship which allowed me to pursue an ‘independent study’ over the summer; the cash was just enough to get me to West Africa and back.

Having fallen in love with the sound of Malian music, especially the kora – a West African harp – I had originally intended to travel to Bamako. Unfortunately, Mali was in the throes of a civil war, so I decided that Ghana was a wiser choice. I called the magnificent percussionist Valerie Naranjo, who gave me Na-Ile’s address at the Lawra Ministry of Culture. Ministry of Culture? An African village may have dirt roads, mud huts, and no electricity or running water, but you can bet that it will have a healthy bureaucracy, thanks to its rich colonial history.

The Daghati people are split between three countries: Ghana, Burkina-Faso and Côte-d'Ivoire. Their main instrument, the ‘gyil’, is an ancestor of the Western marimba, and is ubiquitous in the society; it is played inside and outside, at festivals, funerals, ceremonies, and church services. Several times during my stay Baaru traveled on foot to a nearby river; there he gathered materials, which he later hand-crafted into xylophones with his nephews Kuulinsu and Maanibe.

The gyil has fourteen- (or eighteen-) keys and is constructed from tuned slabs of carefully carved mahogany wood, bound with animal hide to a sturdy wooden frame. Each gyil key has its own gourd resonator; crushed and flattened spider-webs are seared with rubber over holes carved in the gourd, creating a buzzing membrane as the keys are struck. The process of making a xylophone takes several months, because the wood needs to be “cooked” and dried. Matching gourds must be found for each key; they could be up to a foot in length.

In performance practice, two xylophonists play along with a drummer, and it is not uncommon for a gyil player to sing and play the same song for over an hour; phrases might be repeated twenty or thirty or a hundred times. The harmony is pentatonic, without octave equivalence, and with several of the notes falling "in-between" pitches of the Western chromatic scale. Throughout the piece a “dance beat” often surfaces in the high register of the xylophone, revealing a strong tie to the bell pattern and to the movements of the dancers. The link between dance and music is absolute; the two genres are inextricable, musicians cueing dancers and dancers signaling to musicians, back and forth.

The virtuosity of the players (and the dancers) is staggering, and their sheer stamina is extraordinary. In one of the most distinctive and challenging rhythmic techniques I learned from Kuulinsu and Maanibe, one gyil player mirrors the other's melodic improvisations one sixteenth pulse behind. Try it at home some time!

It took quite a while to get accustomed to their way of learning. I would bring my cassette recorder to lessons, then retreat for several hours to a hut to practice passages slowly on the xylophone, continually checking to the tapes. The gyil players in Lawra – most of whom were farmers during the day – found my “loner” approach amusing; they would stop by to watch as I practiced in solitude, fascinated to observe me learning in this bizarre way.

For them, learning was a communal activity and therefore took place in a social environment. In contrast with our TV-saturated generation, aspiring xylophone players in Lawra, Tumu, and other towns where I stayed – some as young as four – would quietly sit watching older musicians for hours. Only after the adults were finished playing would the kids reverently approach the gyil, tentatively grasping the thick, rubber-wound sticks. Instead of practicing specific licks slowly, determinedly, and in solitude – as I did – these young players stripped a melody down to its core, recreating simple, skeletal versions of the tunes, usually in strict tempo.

Learning the gyil was alternately inspiring and frustrating; misunderstandings abounded, as in any cross-cultural scenario. When I first heard the funeral song “Kukur Gandaa Bie, Kuora Gandaa Bie” I felt sure it was in 4/4 time, with occasional half-note triplets thrown in here and there. But one day, while practicing the tune on the xylophone, I noticed – out of the corner of my eye – one of Baaru’s wives dancing to the music; she was dancing in 3/4! This fleeting experience forced me to reconsider the building blocks of the music and to adjust my rhythmic orientation; what I had perceived as a broad triplet rhythm was actually the basic pulse.

Most of my initial mistakes stemmed from hearing the music as dependent on bass motion, when in fact the structure was rooted in the bell pattern. I was often seduced by hearing shifts in harmonic rhythm, a Western sensibility of hearing from the bottom up that was very difficult to shake. Because our ‘functional’ hearing is so grounded in tonality, it is hard to fully grasp music that is grounded on bell patterns. Those who like Salsa music might argue that Latin music is also based on cascára, but its Afro-European hybrid nature allows Westerners to hear its tonal grounding as primal. In a funny way, most of us probably hear Latin music 'wrong'.

West African music is most certainly bell-oriented, and on the xylophone those bell patterns manifest themselves as short melodies played and embellished in the upper register. If I had been more attuned to the bell pattern, I would have had an easier time intuiting the correct architecture of the music. For example, when I first began to learn “Luba Pog Nung Wa Da Bin Kobo” (“The Lobi Woman Bought Feces for One Penny [at the market, thinking it was food]”), I had no doubt that the melody began in the middle of the bar. Weeks later I realized suddenly that it started at the beginning of the bar. Once again, my sensibility became flipped on its head.

One day I sat down to play a string of songs in ‘Bewa’ style (including one of my favorites, ‘The White Man Cannot Eat the Green Leaf Soup’, the awful truth of which was revealed to me after several nights with a roiling stomach). After I finished playing, Na-Ile said to me: “You have done well. But, if you play more low notes, the people will enjoy the music more, and they will dance.”

I was confused; Na-Ile’s statement seemed to contradict what I knew about building energy in gyil music; from what I understood, higher pitches - outlining the bell pattern – were used to ramp up the intensity of the musicians and dancers. Perhaps I was wrong. “Can you show me?” I asked.

Richard sat down at the xylo to demonstrate, and played for about ten minutes (a short excerpt often lasted at least that long, which is why I requested demonstrations only when I had a burning question). I listened closely, but aside from the fact that he sounded much more fluid, Richard was playing much like I had. In fact, it seemed as if he was hitting more high notes – not low ones – than I had. I still felt puzzled as he handed the sticks back to me.

“More low notes, you say?” I confirmed uneasily, taking my seat on the tiny stool.

“Correct,” he said.

I began to play, adding abundant low notes. As I understood the Lobi aesthetic, low notes were generally employed to demonstrate virtuosity (rather like flourishes in the upper register in virtuosic passages by Chopin or Ysayë). “I can say that a master xylophone player shows his strong left hand,” the local truckdriver and consummate gyil player Borre had once remarked, commenting on Baaru’s mellifluous playing style, “He demonstrates his skill on the xylophone by the fine elaborations he makes with his left.”

So I laid off the top keys a bit and concentrated on adding more variations in the left hand, ornamenting bass patterns on the bottom several keys. Na-Ile listened politely, waiting until I had finished. He did not look convinced. “Let me show you again,” he said calmly, moving toward the xylophone. You are playing some nice melodies, but the people will not dance….”

“Then maybe instead of those bass notes, I should play the dance beat up on the high keys instead…?”

“Yes, play the dance beat, but play it low. Always low.”

I was flummoxed. “Low? I don’t understand. You taught me to play the dance beat with my right hand.”

“Yes, of course, you should play with the right, but always low!” he exclaimed.

“You mean you want me to cross my hands?” I asked confusedly. I had never seen anyone play like this, though I supposed it was possible.

“No, let me demonstrate,” and he played for another ten or fifteen minutes, the last few minutes looking at me intently while strongly accenting the dance notes in his right hand.

I fidgeted until he finished, feeling immensely impatient. “But you’re playing the high notes, with your right hand! I don’t understand. You’re not playing low notes.”

“But Mr. Derek, of course I am showing you the low notes! I can even say that I play them with more presence!”

“No, you were playing them high, up here…” and I pointed to the upper notes of the xylophone.”

He glanced where I was pointing, then back at me, smiling. “You say ‘high’, but you are pointing to the low notes!” he insisted, smiling, a hint of annoyance creeping into his voice.

“Low? You call these…these notes…low? But these are the highest notes on the xylophone…” I was dumbfounded.

“Of course we call them low! How else can we call them?”

Then what do you call these notes?” I pointed towards the bottom few notes of the xylophone.

“Look at the xylophone!” He stared at me in exasperation, and a moment of complete incomprehension passed between us. “Those notes are not low. They are high. And deep,” he added.

“High…and deep?” I muttered, eyeing the gyil's wooden frame. The hugest keys, all the way on the left side, needed bigger gourd resonators, so the large gourds were congregated near the ‘deeper’ notes. The keys and frame of the xylophone therefore curved upward to accommodate the gourds, making the 'deepest' notes farther from the ground, or…higher.

I laughed. Of course. Our use of the word “high” is a description from physics, meaning (more exactly) “a higher frequency of sound wave cycles per second.” This association had trumped all my other possible descriptions of how a pitch might manifest itself as “low” or “high.” Na-Ile’s was a clear representation of height, in inches off the ground.

It all depends what your definition of “is” is. Perhaps if I played cello or bass, the high/low mix-up would have been clear from the start. Several cellist friends of mine have remarked that adult students generally encounter great difficulty with the downward direction of the hand’s motion as the pitch moves higher on the string, and vice-versa. Young children, less sensitized to the “high-low” verbal cue, make the leap with little problem.

When we consider how divergent vocabularies can be, it is no wonder that great discord exists in the world. So much basic comprehension is subjective and so many so-called ‘universals’ are culturally determined. It can be eerie to contemplate how terminology programs and transforms the fundamental facets of perception. In that sense we are prisoners of our cultural context and vocabulary.

Yet viewed through a different prism we are also transmitters of a unique cultural perspective, avatars of our own language in a particular place and time. That uniqueness is something to treasure and nurture. And in those rare moments of epiphany, when a wide chasm has been bridged, I have felt an overwhelming joy as a mysterious and evasive truth was suddenly, dramatically, revealed.