Buzzing as an Abstract Aesthetic

The music of the mande culture leans heavily on the African tradition of buzzing, rattling, and jingling in an effort to create the fullest possible sound. As Wesleyan University Professor Eric Charry notes in his article on plucked lutes in West Africa “Most lutes have a removable buzzing or jingling device made of a flexible metal plaque with small metal rings attached to it, which is inserted into a slit in the far end of the neck. This kind of device is consistent with a widespread African practice rooted in an aesthetic that values a buzzing or jingling sound which frames the particular sound of the instrument.” (4) Djabara In fact this is not just true for Mande lutes but all four types of traditional Mande instruments: Harp (Kora), Drum (Djembe), Mallet (Balafon), and lutes as well (Ngoni). The instruments have relatively pure sounds without their respective buzzing accessories. In fact it would seem that the buzzing accessories added to these instrument attempts to emulate the standalone Mande rattles such as the Djabara (similar to the Shekere)

and the Sistrum (“Sistrum-like forked sticks strung with threaded pairs of calabash fragments have an important part in fertility and initiation rites among the Mande of West Africa”).

In the west this purer sound is valued, however in Mande music and many parts of Africa it is perceived as hollow. The accessories expand the sound of the instrument and give it a greater presence.

The Shona instrument the mbira (or thumb piano) also employs this buzzing aesthetic. describes the buzzing of the mbira as “A metal plate, to which of metal, bottle caps or shells are attached, is attached to the front of the sound board. These rattling pieces produce a buzzing sound when the keys are plucked which varies from a soft hiss to a tambourine-like sound. Unlike western music where a buzzing sound in considered distortion, and therefore undesirable, the mbira’s buzzing sound is an integral and necessary part of the music. For the listener, the buzz “tunes out” other stimuli and allows the listener to hear the mbira rhythms. The buzz adds depth and context to the clear tones of the mbira keys, and may be heard as whispering voices, singing, tapping, knocking, wind or rain.”

If we were to ask why this aesthetic is so distinctly African, we might take take a cue from this article and look to the surrounding sonic environment. We might first look at directly at the speech and language in Africa. A 2005 article from the New York Times discusses the induction of a new sound into the phonetic alphabet “The sound, a buzz sometimes capped by a faint pop, is present in more than 70 African languages. It is produced by the lower lip moving back and forward, flapping on the inside of the upper teeth.”

If this type of sound is an integral part of over 70 languages, the use of such sounds in music across the contintent starts to make more sense.

Similarly, though slightly more abstract, we may consider the natural sound of West Africa. We have talked in class about thee importance of the Tsetse fly in determining vegetation, settlement, and ultimately types of civilization throughout West Africa. This article “A Note on the Noise-Making Ability of the Tsetse-Fly, Glossina palpalis Rob.-Desv.
(Diptera, Glossinidae), while in Flight
” from the Journal of Parasitology discusses the distinctive sound of the fly, saying

“We quickly observed, however, that G. palpalis produced a very distinct and characteristic buzzing noise as the air temperature within the groves moved upwards. At first we were somewhat confused by the sounds of other flies, mainly muscids and tabanids. However, we very quickly became cognizant of the peculiar buzzing noise of G. palpalis while in flight and this sound turned out to be a very excellent warning.” . Not only does this further exemplify the pervasiveness of such sounds, but it also compounds their importance. The fly itself has a large influence upon the area, but the sound it makes is also extremely valuable in terms of understanding its migration and protecting oneself and livestock. Again the importance of such a sound may logically lead to its inclusion in the musical vocabulary of the area.

-Cameron H. Rowland

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