Today as a part of a brief overview of African music, I introduced my Introduction to African & African American Studies class to Ewe polyrhythm, and I think we're all the better for it.
When I was nineteen and living in southern Togo, I had no idea what polyrhythm was, or that the Ewe people of Togo and Ghana were famous for their sophisticated rhythmic structures. All I knew was that listening to an Ewe drumming ensemble there was so much going on at once that I could hardly take it all in--and that somehow, out of what felt like rhythmic chaos, my whole body seemed to reorganize itself and find peace and composure.
Even today, not for one moment would I claim to be an expert in Ewe or any other kind of music. But the performance lecture by C.K. Ladzekpo, a professor of music at UC Berkeley, certainly helps explain what I experienced in my youth and why it has never left me. In his telling, the foundational beat represents the persistent pulsing of one's life purpose, while the contrasting beat represents the tests and trials "that crash against it." There are moments of tension, and moments when everything comes together. What this musical structure teaches the Ewe from a tender age, he says, is to accept the good and the bad in life and always remain true to one's purpose.
My students really seemed to enjoy the performance lecture. I told them that if, like me, they found polyrhythm a bit overwhelming they should at least try to tap their foot with the unchanging base rhythm so they could start to feel it in their bodies. Professor Ladzekpo, a native of Ghana and noted performer in the United States for many years, is a gifted musician and teacher and makes a complex subject very inviting.
See what you think!
(Video is in four parts. Together they take about an hour to watch.)