West African drumming groups are typically comprised of djembes, which have the lead roles and are struck with the hands, and dunduns, which serve as more stable rhythmic backing, are struck with sticks, and come in three sizes, timbres, pitch ranges: the kenkeni is the smallest and highest, the doundounba is the largest and deepest-sounding, and the sangba comes in between them.
These drums present different “voices” of beats, with each playing a distinct rhythmic line. The resulting overall sound is often polyrhythmic (or, more specifically, simultaneously polymetric). A set unit of time can be subdivided in multiple different ways simultaneously: one drummer may be playing beats that divide the unit of time into multiples of two while another may be playing on multiples of three, and, in addition to the contrasting meters, a pervasive and fluid sense of syncopation is present throughout the performance. These rhythms shift and interact with one another in multifaceted and communicative ways (a Maninkan word for playing an instrument, fò, translates roughly as “to say” [source]). Non-African musicologists have attempted to define and delineate the complex counterpoint of West African rhythms to make sense of them in “European” terms (a contested and controversial attempt). In his article, African Rhythm: a Reassessment, Robert Kauffman lays “theories” to explain all of Africa’s rhythms (with the word “theories” suggesting that these rhythms are something not understood – their meanings yet to be “discovered” – which discounts the fact that they have, in fact, been well understood for quite some time by an entire continent of people). Still, beyond the murky morality and success of explaining West African rhythms in European terms, something must be said in favor of sincere attempts to understand and learn more about the intricacies and power of these rhythms.
There are dozens of established rhythmic pieces in the region of Senegal, the Gambia, Mali, and Guinea, each with corresponding activities, events, regions, social groups, and histories. The Tansole rhythm, for example, is from the Bambouk mountainous region of Mali and is performed in association with a transfer of social power between women. A video of the Tansole rhythm can be seen below.
And can you pick out any rhythms in this exciting video?: