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African Music and Dance in Print
Part 1 of 7: Griots, Jalys and Ayans
By Doris Green
(more articles from this author)
2003-05-29
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When the keepers of African oral traditions die, be they a Griot, Jaly or Ayan, they literally take libraries of African music and dance to the grave with them where it is entombed and lost to the world forever. Since the music and dance of Africa is largely an oral tradition that is passed from generation to the next by a mouth to ear process, sheet music is not available. Any system that is entirely dependent upon oral communication for its transmission is doomed to partial failure because of the breakdown of the human memory and outside interpretation. The elders hope that their young will carry on in their place, but often the younger generations of Africans no longer practice or know the traditional music and dance of their ancestors.

Asadata Dafora an African from Sierra Leone was the first to bring African dance to the concert stage of New York. His major work was Kykunkor. Asadata Dafora died in 1965. This major work was not preserved and is now lost. Pearl Primus a pioneer in African dance went to Africa and brought back the dance Fanga. Dr. Pearl Primus passed away in 1994. Professor Albert Mawere Opoku, creator of the Ghana Dance Ensemble, a pioneer in African dance passed away in 2001. Each of these people took their work to the grave. There is no written documentation of any of these works. Today African music and dance is subject of many thesis and dissertation, consequently these aspiring graduates are having considerable difficulty in trying to reconstruct the works of these pioneers through the oral process.

In 1975, at the invitation of the Ghana National Music Committee, the Third African Music Rostrum was held in Accra Ghana. The International Music Council, in collaboration with UNESCO organized this project. The theme of the conference was the preservation and presentation of traditional African music and dance. Recognizing the difficulties in notating African music wherein it could be communicated to one another and to the world regardless of the numerous languages spoken on the continent, the committee recommended the appointment of a working committee to study the problems of notating African music. This system would have to safeguard the authenticity of African music and dance expression as well preserve the vast and diverse percussion instruments. This system would have to notate more aspects of the culture; namely that dance is an inseparable part of music. . To date this most definitive recommendation has not been fully addressed.

In an attempt to notate African music, researchers have delved into notating using a variety of renditions of the Time Unit Box System, more commonly known as TUBS. Although TUBS has been applied to a number of membranophones, there is less evidence of its application to other instruments, such as melodic and aqua-percussions. There is absolutely no evidence of the inclusion of dance. Other researchers have applied the western system of notation to African music and they have witnessed its shortcomings. A quarter note does not tell an African drummer whether the drum was struck with the half hand, whole hand or if the stick bounced off the drumhead or remained in contact with the drumhead. What was needed was a method that could notate the vast and diverse percussion instruments, and all the nuances associated with them. Because dance in Africa does not occur without some form of music, the notation system would have to maintain the conterminous relationship of dance and music. This paper is written to demonstrate notation that effectively honors the recommendation of the 3rd African Music Rostrum. In actuality two systems of notation, Greenotation and Labanotation are enjoined to represent the music (Greenotation) and dance (Labanotation) in a single integrated score.


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