AFRICAN TRAVELOGUE WITH a good dose of African sociology? Or is it a sociology of Africa with a good dose of travelogue? It is hard to know how to describe this book, since it attempts to strike a balance between an engrossingly personal account of wanderings in quest of African music and a penetrating sociological analysis of interpersonal relationships in Africa.
John Miller Chernoff, who spent 10 years studying African drumming, has a flair for descriptive writing, and his first-person narratives should be easily understood by any reader, while ringing unmistakably true for the reader who has also been to West Africa. However, while enjoying these stories of the social situations in which he found himself, one is brought up face to face, every other paragraph or so, with Chernoff's X-ray vision explanation of what he has been describing and forced to swithc from engaging entertainment to intense concentration. It is rather unnerving.
In the main, African Rhythm and African Sensibility is a scholarly book, containing accurate though brief descriptions and analyses of Ewe and Dagomba drumming, as well as insightful comments about the African approach to performance of music and dance. (The many footnotes, located at the back of the book, are best not ignored for they often run over a page or more and contain many points of interest.) What sets this book apart from the usual scholarly study is that Chernoff devotes considerable effort to taking the reader with him into the field experience. Consequently, his book can be enjoyed by anyone who wishes to better understand African culture and its music.
Chernoff's contention is that one of the best ways to grasp African culture is to study the interactions of musicians and dancers on both a personal and musicial level during performances. He supports this by first pointing out some of the principal differences between Western and African rhythmic organization, using clear examples in staff notation; he uses other examples to note some of the intricacies of interaction between parts in various Ghanaian drum ensembles. Chernoff brings the writing of many authors into this section, re-emphasizing points they have made or enlarging upon them slightly. The main argument is that African music requires interaction between contrasting parts -- it should be considered as a conversation between participants, dancers included -- and that the function of both repetition and improvisation is to bring out the individuality of each participant's part.
In comparing social encounters to musical texture, Chernoff notes:
"To maintain their poise in their social encounters, Africans bring the same flexibility which characterizes their participation in musical contexts: they expect dialogue, they anticipate movement, and most significantly, they stay very much open to influence. The many ways one can change a rhythm by cutting it with different rhythms is parallel to the many ways one can approach or interpret a situation or a conversation."
"In African music, as we know, respect for an established rhythmic framework provides the possibility for comprehensible improvisation, and in daily life as well, people adapt a highly mannered approach in their relationships so that they may act with clarity and relevance."
Many things are touched on in this book, though some questions that it seems a sociologist could answer are ignored. Why, for instance, are African funerals such marvelous spectacles, with seemingly joyous music and a festive atmosphere?
Two features that give this book special value are the author's extensive commentaries on the esthetic judgments made by Afican musicians, and the inclusion of one particularly long passage -- essentially a lecture, some 11 pages long -- on the nature of improvisation, by Chernoff's principal teacher on the hourglass drum. In general, Chernoff is careful to present African musical concepts in a form as close to the original as possible -- usually this means using the English wording given by his Arfican translator -- before he explains them in detail.
There is no questin that Chernoff's blending of personal experience with probing observation is the main strength of this book. It would be hard to imagine his points being made more effectively in some other way. But for the reader who is primarily interested in his observations and analyses, the blending is so through that it becomes frustrating to find the points. The four chapters, with extremely vague titles -- "The Study of Music in Africa," "Music in Africa," "Style in Africa," "Values in Africa" -- are very little differentiated in content or style, and have no subtitles or other guides for the reader. The book becomes one long rambling discourse, and can be tiring to read as a result.
Still, there is no denying the valuable content of African Rhythm and African Sensibility. With pencil handy to make subtitles and annotations, a reader should get much out of it.