Perhaps you have listened to marimba band music and wondered why there is a lot of repetition going on. Perhaps you keep hearing the same tune over and over, and to be honest, you’re a bit bored. Essentially, this kind of music takes its cue from a structural principle that occurs widely across Africa, but is by no means the only one. Cyclic music is based on a repeating cycle and it contrasts Western music which is linear. Western music is linear insofar as there is a clear starting point… then stuff happens… then there may be a change or two…or several different sections… then it comes to an unambiguous end. Movement from one section to another, and within sections relies on different kinds of cadences. If the music stops unexpectedly, listeners might think something has gone wrong. The music just does not work if it stops at a random point. Even the popular device of fading out at the end is a clear marker of finality, even without a closing cadence. In linear music, the beginning and the end are very clear (even if some of us might get lost in the middle). Most of the time, we know where we are in the music, how far into it we are and how close to the end. You could say that we know where we are in time.
Cyclic music does not have obvious starting and end points. In this way, time is suspended for a while, as the music plays. Cyclic music has had plenty of time to infiltrate musics around the world: it lies at the root of the blues progression, many popular styles of the last century, and is particularly apparent in the I-IV-V harmonic progression underlying much Southern African music. (Both the blues and the Southern African I-IV-V cycle culminate in cadences that give a sense of closure in Western harmony). Rather than harmonic progressions, Philip Tagg calls these chord loops. Referring to chord loops in popular modern styles, Tagg writes:
“Although such chord loops often change from one section of a song to another, their main
function is to provide a fitting tonal dimension to underlying patterns of rhythm, metre and periodicity. Their function is not to provide long‐term harmonic direction but to generate an immediate or continuous sense of ongoing tonal movement and to act as tonally appropriate accompanimental motor. They are, so to speak, the tonal aspect of groove.” (See reference below)
So, the point here, is groove. And groove is the result of musical cooperation, and it invites participation. Here’s the key – cyclic music is for joining in. The repeating cycles allow listeners to become familiar with the musical material in and contribute if they want to. They don’t have to learn it all before they can join in. They can try out a fragment, and if they don’t get it all, they can stick to the simple stuff, and progress toward fluency. Learners can take on a limited chunk of musical material and get comfortable with it. They can stick with something easy or try out something else. Improvisation and variation are very much part of the aesthetic. This means that individuality rather than conformity to a central idea is important. Considered from this angle, cyclic music is not repetitive, because it can change all the time! You just need to have a go.
Have a listen to these two tracks from opposite ends of Africa – Sona Jobarteh’s fabulous Kora playing in the song Jarabi and Sipho Hotstix Mabuse’s Rumba Mama. Both songs are built on a basic cycle, a chordal loop, but the variation, improvisation and ingenuity of both show the creative potential that lies in the cyclic principle.
These principles can be transferred to marimba band arrangements. A chordal loop is the canvas, or foundation, to which many different layers, melodic, rhythmic, dynamic and timbral, can be added. For inexperienced players, this can be kept simple, for example parts can be added or dropped for different sections, or there can be big changes in the volume of different sections. I love Rumba Mama for the way the different instruments play short riffs – they bring so much colour and texture to the song. They don’t all play all the time, but just listen to how they come and go, keeping the listener interested. It is a good idea to use a chordal loop as the basis for improvisation sessions. Start simply with a two chord loop. You can give the students guidance as to which notes to use (limitations can helpful) and encourage them to experiment and see what happens – to be playful. Some of these improvised fragments can become the basis of riffs, just like the ones we hear in Rumba Mama. In both Rumba Mama and Jarabi, I get the feeling that time is suspended. It’s as if the music is holding us in time and it may not ever end.
Experimenting with improvisation like this illustrates the power of cyclic music. It is enabling, inclusive, and meditative. And when you listen from the inside, and free your ears from just one interpretation, you experience the richness within. Repetitive? – Never.
Pic: Mike Sibanda running a marimba workshop for teachers in October 2022. Credit: Amy van Aswegen
I recommend Philip Tagg’s book, which you can download for FREE. Quote taken from page 275.
Tagg, Philip. 2014. Everyday Tonality II (towards a tonal theory of what most people hear) New York & Huddersfield: The Mass Media Music Scholars’ Press. e‐book version 2.5.2, 2014‐09‐25, 600 pages, ISBN 978‐0‐9908068‐0‐6