Rhythm and Culture

Apart from the oral tradition, the main similarities between traditional Native American and African musical styles are the use of vocals and the types of instruments utilized. The primary instrument group used in both types of music is percussion. Drums, bells, and rattles can be found in both groups of musical styles. The core characteristics of the two groups of music can truly be understood when focusing on the differences.


The primary distinction to be seen between between Native American and African music is the use of rhythm. Whereas with Native American music, the rhythm is more of a ballast by which the vocals are given a sturdy structure for catalyzing expression, in the context of African music, the rhythm is in many ways the the main showcase. This difference lies in the level of complexity is the percussion.

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The percussion in Native American music tends to be very straightforward and emphasizes a strong downbeat the guides the vocal aspects of the music along. It doesn’t always maintain a steady meter, but the drums tend to follow the tempo of the vocals. This highlights the main focus of traditional Native American music: vocals.


Much to the contrary, African music is creates its own form of rhythmic counterpoint through the use of layered polyrhythms. While European composers, most notably in the music of Bach, utilized melodic counterpoint, African music applied this type of thinking to rhythms. This rhythmic complexity is seen throughout all of their instruments, from the more traditional kora up to modern instruments such as the electric guitar. In many ways, this adds to the African tradition of participation in the context of their music. Everybody is welcomed to add in their own unique rhythm.


In addition to the use of complex rhythms, another major difference is the use of call and response. This is even more notable when considering how modern American music still shows vestige of its African roots. The tradition of a lead singer singing or yelling out a statement in the anticipation of a response from either the audience or fellow band members can be seen in blues as well as rock music to name just two examples, while rhythmic complexity can be seen in Hip Hop, and even more saliently in the various forms of electronic music.


Much in the same vein of how African music was developed by utilizing whatever materials could be found within their environment, the development of Hip Hop was catalyzed by reimagining how turntables could be used. Instead of letting records follow the laws of physics, early DJ’s interfered with these laws and manipulating these records play for specific intervals. These intervals came to be known as “breakbeats”. While the breakbeats themselves can often be simple in the context of Hip Hop, the rhythmic complexities most notable in the context of rapping. As Hip Hop slowly evolved in the underground scene contained within the boroughs of New York, the rhythms and rhyme schemes of rap grew increasingly complex. In the same way that African music expresses its culture through the rhythms of its music, Hip Hop has helped express the various cultures, through which its influence has created a sort of diaspora, through the use of each of their own complex rhythms. Everywhere that Hip Hop exists, the culture influences its rhythms and rhymes, which is why no form of Hip Hop music s truly the same.


Many of the different forms of electronic music took the concept of a breakbeat and created a whole universe within which to explore. The most notable example would be in the realm of IDM (Intelligent Dance Music). Many notable IDM producers, such as Aphex Twin and Squarepusher, will maintain simplistic melodic structures while utilizing computer generated rhythms that are impossible for a human being to create within the limited capacities of the human body. So, while Hip Hop has maintained these rhythms within the temporal world, IDM artists are taking these same rhythms and launching them into space.

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