Origins of Popular Music

Posted in: Pop by Agent Noo on February 26th, 2009 | 0 Comments

A brief look at how popular music originated.

‘Talking drums’ are an early form of African drum designed to convey messages from village to village via expert use of the contrivance. Shaped like that of an hour glass, with two faces usually designed from either goat, iguana, or fish skin. It also involves a rhythm stick which is used to beat a ‘message’ while at the same time manipulating the sound and pitch of the drum by squeezing it and contorting the body of the drum itself under the upper arm, much like that of the bag on a set of bag pipes in a more evolved form of instrument from another tribal system in a foreign hemisphere.

Due to separate tribes and villages slowly evolving culturally over the years in various locations throughout areas of Africa, different versions of the same theme developed, such as the ‘Tama’ of the Wolof and Mandinka people which, due to a smaller head diameter, produces a higher pitched tone than other talking drums, such as the ‘Luuna’ and ‘Dundun’, which are larger. It is likely the variety of tribal tones between various villages’ drums generated a kind of ‘regional accent’ that was easily recognisable to the trained ear, as is the variance of playing styles. For example, places in Senegal, Gambia and Guinea have fast rolls and short bursts between the stick holding hand and the free hand. Further East, however, in places like Burkina Faso, Ghana and Niger the rhythm focuses more on long and sustained notes played with the stick-holding hand, where the free hand is used to dampen and change tone.

The ‘talking drums’ then, were an early evolution in musical development, that originally served as mostly a communication system, but soon led to further incarnations of the same concept that were different in dimension and sound. The most modern interpretation of this as mankind’s technology has advanced over millennia is the electric-pad drum, which although little used now, (in part due to its arguably inferior quality of sound and unfashionable reputation), did make it into pop hits during the 80’s. The most common modern ancestor and obvious incarnation of the early tribal prototype, is the rock and roll drum ensemble.

The West African societies such as the Yoruba, the Akan and the Ibo like to make music of multiple layers of rhythms, known as ‘polyrhythmic’ (e.g. the ‘Takada’ style of the ‘Eve’ people). This is in contrast to the development of European music which tended to involve complex harmonies from string and wind instruments, (although the timpani section is clearly of the same family as the African drum with its’ stretched skin over a wooden base). During the American slave trade, this cultural tradition was exported to America and developed in a variety of ways depending on what seemed to find favour with artists and crowds as people experimented in the ‘land of the free’. Jazz, rhythm and blues, disco, funk, ragtime, hip-hop and rock and roll, amongst others, all owe much of their origins to the African diaspora-by-force. A leading example of the cross over between international influences might be, to take one example from many, Eric Clapton’s early appreciation of the blues and his subsequent rise to fame as an electric guitarist with bands such as ‘the Yardbirds’ and ‘Cream’ and as a solo artist. There were and still are many musicians who followed this cultural lineage of learning a root form of musicianship, and then skewing it with a new twist to generate a synthesis of form.

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