by Dr. Eugene Novotney

Almost all research agrees upon the fundamental importance of rhythm in African musics, but the explanations of its foundation are as varied as the continent itself. Scholars and non-scholars alike have been seduced by the mystery of rhythm in African musics, and many theories have been advanced to detail its structure and organization. Rhythm seems to be simultaneously the most studied aspect of African music as well as the most confused.

Much discussion has been devoted to the debate over the validity of generality and specificity in analyzing African musics. The very size and scope of Africa leads to its musics being complex and diverse phenomena. The views expressed in my analysis will not be meant to constitute a universal axiom for all African musics. Instead, they will be offered as insights into basic rhythmic principles upon which many West African musics have been built.

My study will be based on the premise that the 3:2 relationship is the foundation of rhythmic structure in West African music. I will first establish a terminology for often misused terms - such as polyrhythm, cross-rhythm, syncopation, beat, and pulse - and I will examine the use of these terms by scholars and performers. In fact, this analysis of terminology will be extensive and thorough, and will comprise a major portion of my study.

Second, I will detail the foundation and the construction of timelines and rhythmic structures in West African musics, based on aspects of the 3:2 relationship. I will propose a system for analyzing West African rhythmic structures and demonstrate how the elements of this system function together to create dense and complex textures based in cross-rhythmic relationships.

Next, I will present a thorough examination of the phenomena of the 3:2 relationship as manifested in nature and as as a model of structure in mathematics, architecture, and music. I will relate the 3:2 foundation of West African musics to the structural significance of the 3:2 relationship in other models. I will examine the 3:2 harmonic foundation in the theory of common practice tonal music. And I will examine the 3:2 relationship as the foundation of musics of the African diaspora: namely, as it manifests itself through the concept of “clave.”

I will use the conventional Western notational system to represent all of my musical examples. In all cases, I will stress the importance of understanding this complex rhythmic system as an integration of its components, not merely as groupings of its elements. Above all, I will draw conclusions based on thorough analysis and practice, approaching my topic through the eyes of a performer.