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West African Drumming
The drum is perhaps the oldest instrument in the world and has a place in the cultures, histories and societies of every continent. It has a particularly powerful role amongst the people of Africa, where it can be considered the most important musical instrument.
There are many kinds of drum in Africa, made from wood, metal, earthenware or large gourds, which are hard-rinded fruit. Drums fashioned from gourds, or calabash, are most often seen in the Savannah Belt of West Africa.
In recent years traditional materials are sometimes replaced with a variety of modern hollow vessels such as tins, light oil drums and discarded trash. Drums for children can be made from hard fruit shells or tins, but the popular instrument for West African drumming workshops and drum circles is the djembe.
The djembe originates in West Africa. Its early history is associated with the Mandinka caste of blacksmiths, known as Numu. The wide dispersion of this type of drum throughout West Africa may be due to Numu migrations during the first millennium AD. The distribution of the djembe is linked to the Mali Empire, which was the dominant political unit in West Africa from 1230 ACE.
The djembe is a goblet-shaped drum, carved from a single piece of hardwood and covered with a goatskin. Played with the hands, it produces three distinct tones or notes and is valued for its versatile, expressive voice.
The three sounds are the bass (low), tone (medium) and slap (high). The bass tone is played in the middle of the drum with the whole hand (flat fingers together with palm) hitting the drum and rebounding. The tone is played with flat fingers together and the edge of the palm rebounding close to the edge of the drum. There are several different ways to play the slap, although the sound is always made at the edge of the drum. It can be played either with just the finger-tips and edge of palm rebounding, or with fingers spread and kept on the drum.
The mark of a skilled drummer among the West African people is ‘one who can make the drum talk.’
Traditionally the djembe was used by storytellers called griots, who were the historians, poets and musicians of West Africa. The griots accompanied their tales with music.
The djembe was also used by healers as an instrument of reconciliation in disputes within the community, and for dancing for social occasions such as births, marriages, coming of age, funerals and even the planting and harvesting of crops, all of which ceremonies had their own songs, dances and rhythms.
According to the Bamana people of Mali, the djembe gets its name from the saying, “Anke dje, anke be,” which translates as, “Everyone gather together in peace.” Dje translates to gather, and be translates to peace.
Drumming in Africa is traditionally a male dominated activity, but there are also women-only drum circles, and many children view drumming as a rite of passage. Becoming an accomplished drummer is a sign of maturity in many African cultures.
The sounds and energies created by the African drum are powerful. There is an ancient African proverb that says:
"God is dumb, until the drum speaks.”
And Guyanese writer Sir Theodore Wilson Harris is quoted as stating:
“The drum encloses a womb of space in which silence and identity will emerge out of the darkness and the void.”
It is clear that learning and playing the djembe is a direct link to the ancient cultural traditions of West Africa. It is also very beneficial in ways that may not be immediately obvious.
Drumming increases wellbeing…
Playing the djembe is known to increase heart rate and blood flow. Apart from the physical effort of hitting the drum and the sense of the vibration pulsating through the body, there is a certain tempo at which the heart rate accelerates.
This happens once the beat is faster than 120bpm (two beats per second). The increased heart rate means that blood flows around the body faster, giving a great internal workout. Slower rhythms create a calming effect and can help relieve stress.
Drumming is great for teamwork…
When people drum together, forming one unified sound, they form an energy greater than the sum of the individual players. Each person’s contribution is important as the group works together towards a common goal.
This can be useful in balancing a group dynamic. Those less used to taking charge gain a sense of empowerment, and the more confident members learn to take a step back and see the value of everyone in the group.
Drumming teaches listening…
Drumming is taught by listening, in the same way music and storytelling have been passed on for centuries. There is no music reading. Learning any music in this way teaches listening in a deep way, particularly within a group. Drumming helps develop the ability to listen to more than one thing at once, and to listen to other people.
Drumming builds confidence…
Trying something new, particularly something like drumming which gives instant results, is deeply satisfying and great for self-esteem. Drumming uses the same parts of the brain used to compose speech. It is in itself an extrovert, joyous activity and can therefore be a liberating experience for anyone who is usually shy in a group situation. It can even help with skills such as public speaking.
The Blues developed towards the end of the 19th Century. It was first heard among the African-American communities who farmed the plantations of the Delta, a flat plain between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, an area so characteristic of the Deep South that it has been called The Most Southern Place on Earth.
In the mid 1800s the area had been one of the richest for cotton growing in the United States, attracting many speculative farmers who were dependent for labour on black slaves. Many people, both black and white, migrated to the Delta, working to clear land and sell timber, buying their own land from the proceeds. By the end of the 19th century, black farmers made up two thirds of the independent farmers in the Mississippi Delta, but in 1890, legislation was passed by the predominantly white government, effectively robbing them of their land.
Where did Blues come from?
Blues music grew from African music, influenced by the folk music of white European settlers. The term African music is very vague – there are at least as many kinds of music in Africa as there are in Europe, but the majority of slaves traded with the Americas came from West Africa.
Music in Africa developed very differently from European music too. Where the key element of European music was melody, embellished with counterpoint and set to rhythm, West African music focused on rhythmic counterpoint and timbre – in a sense both being extensions of the languages of the people.
Under the confines of slavery, this music changed and grew into new forms. By the mid 1700s, slavery required a justification, and conversion of slaves to Christianity became popular, even compulsory in some places. Hence, alongside the work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants, and simple narrative ballads, there also developed spirituals.
The social and economic reasons for the appearance of the Blues are unclear. Its origins are often dated to between 1870 and 1900, after the Emancipation Act of 1863. During this period, people were moving from slavery to sharecropping, small-scale agricultural production, and the expansion of railroads in the southern United States created new possibilities.
The Blues, which has its roots in the work songs and spirituals, shows a move from group performances to a more individual style, perhaps associated with the newly acquired freedom of an enslaved people.
What are the characteristics of Blues music?
Key aspects of the Blues form are call-and-response, the blues scale and traditional chord progressions. The most common format is the Twelve bar Blues. The blue notes, where pitch is altered, often flattened, are also an important part of the sound.
Where European music uses the diatonic scale, West African music uses a pentatonic scale that contains only the first, second, third, fifth, and sixth tones of the diatonic scale. As the music of Europe and Africa merged, two new scales developed, the deviant pentatonic scale of Spiritual music and the expanded diatonic scale of Blues music. All of black music in America, and ultimately western pop music, subsequently grew out of these two scales.
The lyrics of early traditional Blues verses consisted of a single phrase repeated four times. In the early 20th Century this developed into an AAB pattern made up of one line sung over the four first bars, its repetition over the next four, and then a second, longer line of lyrics over the last bars. Often the theme of the lyrics focused around troubles or problems, which is perhaps where the name Blues came from.
The Blues is now defined in terms of chord structures and lyrical form, but it was originally much more general. It was simply the music of the rural south. Black and white musicians shared the same song repertoire, though these were still the days of segregation so audiences were often all white. The notion of the Blues as a genre in its own right really arose during the migration of black communities from the countryside to urban areas during the 1920s. The recording industry was booming – the development of the coin-operated phonograph gave rise to jukebox arcades where people would go to dance and socialise after work – and many Blues songs were recorded to answer growing demand from black listeners.
The Twelve Bar Blues
The simplest form of Blues is the Twelve-bar Blues. It is usually a piece in 4/4 time and consists of 3 chords – chord I, IV and V.
I I I I
IV IV I I
V IV I I
So in the key of C major, the chords would be:
C C C C
F F C C
G F C C
A good way to explore the sound of the Blues is to practice singing the chord progression, starting with singing the root or tonic of each chord, then repeating adding the third, then adding the fifth.
Blues often use the blues scale, which is based on the pentatonic scale but with an additional blues passing note. In the key of C the blues scales would be the fifth mode of the Eb pentatonic:
C Eb F F# G Bb C
This sequence of notes can be played in any order over any of the chords in the C twelve-bar blues.
The influence of the Blues…
The styles, forms (12-bar-blues), melodies and scales of the Blues have had a huge influence on modern rock and roll, jazz and popular music.
Prominent 20th century jazz, folk and rock performers, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Bob Dylan were known for performing Blues, but it also influenced musicians including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, who between them had an explosive influence on the entire history of pop.
And not only is the blues scale used in popular songs, it has even made its way into orchestral works such as George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
One of the most famous Blues songs is Saint Louis Blues by W. C. Hardy, published in 1914 (one of the very first songs to be printed).
Early Rock and Roll songs such as Johnny B. Goode and Blue Suede Shoes clearly show the influence of the Blues, as does much R&B Music.
But perhaps the most prominent celebration of Blues came in 1980 in the film The Blues Brothers. The film brought together many of the biggest living influencers of the rhythm and blues genre, including James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker. In 1998, the sequel, Blues Brothers 2000, featured artists such as Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Erykah Badu and Jimmie Vaughan, and in 2003, Martin Scorsese created a documentary film called The Blues for PBS for which he enlisted the help of directors Clint Eastwood and Wim Wenders.
There’s loads more information about the blues here:
You should now have plenty of ideas for listening and viewing to get a real taste of the Blues, but if you have any questions or would like to talk to the MWC team about booking one of our Blues workshops, get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.
Body percussion is a brilliant way to warm up for a music workshop, and a useful tool for creating music in a group. It is incredibly accessible; the human body is an instrument every participant possesses. It is also valuable for internalising fundamental musical concepts including rhythm, beat and tempo.
How is body percussion used?
As a group warm-up activity, body percussion stimulates circulation and creates an energy in which it is impossible to feel self-conscious. As a musicianship tool, it provides strategies to equip students with a collective sense of pulse, memory for different rhythms and the opportunity to full engage with the musical material.
In composition it provides an inspiring way to explore sound, rhythm and the physical relationship with music.
It is also an engaging way to explore the music of World cultures. The folk traditions of many countries include the use of body percussion. The Juba, or hambone dance from West Africa became a traditional dance among African-American slaves in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Slaves were forbidden from owning rhythm instruments for fear of secret codes hidden in the drumming. Instead they created music using body percussion, stamping the feet, slapping and patting the arms, legs, chest, and cheeks. This percussive dance, originally known as “Pattin’ Juba,” would be used to keep time for other dances. Steps had incredibly descriptive names such as “Yaller Cat,” “Pigeon Wing” and “Blow That Candle Out.”
Other traditions that use body percussion include the palmas, or intricate hand claps in Spanish Flamenco music, tap dancing and Ethiopian armpit music.
“I love Body Percussion because it’s a high energy, very accessible art-form. Seeing the amazing ideas that workshop participants come up with is brilliant, as is the reaction when they see what is possible when making beats on your body!” Ollie Tunmer, Body Percussion specialist and MWC Workshop Leader
How does it work?
Body percussion works on the same basis as any percussion instrument, but uses the body to create the different vibrations and sounds. These can include:
Stamping the feet on the floor
Patting the thighs with open palms
Clicking the fingers
Clapping the hands
Patting or knocking the chest
Slapping the cheeks with an open mouth
Clicking the tongue
Inhaling and exhaling air, and various vocal noises including grunting and whistling can add to the repertoire of tones, and sounds can be adapted to create different effects. For example, clapping the hands in different positions will change the pitch and resonance.
Body percussion can be performed solo, but it is exhilarating as an ensemble activity, both to performers and audience members. The well-known percussion group Stomp use a combination of non-traditional, junk percussion instruments and body percussion in their performances.
Who is it for?
Body percussion has many possibilities. It can be adapted for any age and ability. It can be introduced into a diverse range of workshops, from African Drumming or African Songs, to Composition workshops. It can be used as a warm-up, an icebreaker or a full workshop.
You can use existing games and ideas or create your own.
Here are some simple ideas to get you started…
This can be done seated or standing.
Start with a copying activity. Start with four beats to establish a beat. Clap a rhythm that fits into a four – beat bar. Keeping to time the group should repeat the rhythm.
Gradually make the rhythms more complex. If the group doesn’t quite catch one of the rhythms, repeat it once or twice. Don’t comment on whether the repetition was correct or not, just repeat it.
Keep talking and instructions to a minimum, but make eye contact with every member of the group.
Start to add other body sounds; knee slap, click, stamp, chest…
Vary the dynamics, but keep the pulse the same throughout.
This warm up can be developed by getting participants to create their own rhythms for everyone to copy. Either ask for volunteers or working round the group.
Try making up a call and response vocal activity using speech and percussive vocal sounds. Words with hard consonants are good for this for example "boots" and "cats".
Participants can take it in turn to lead this game, and it can be varied using different tempi and dynamics, or by adding more physical sounds such as stamping the feet and clapping hands.
Body Percussion Patterns
Begin to build up a body percussion piece by setting up an eight beat pattern, such as this:
This can be developed in a number of ways, for example as an ensemble piece using similar ideas to Reich’s Clapping Piece.
Watch some body percussion performers and use your imagination to create your own rhythms, sounds and games.
For example - Stomp Live
You can even develop ways to notate your piece, deciding on symbols for each sound and rhythmic pattern, and finding creative ways to write them down in your group.
Contact the Music Workshop Company to book your Body Percussion Workshop and begin your exploration of musical possibility!
There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of types of drum. They differ in sound, playing technique and materials, but also in their cultural and musical significance. Some drums have developed for dancing or performance music, others are vehicles for group experiences, meditative, celebratory and even military use.
What is a drum?
A drum is a member of the percussion family of instruments. It is classed as a membranophone, which is a great word that sounds like a species of dinosaur!
What it actually means is that a drum consists of a membrane or skin stretched over a shell or vessel.
Drums can be made from anything – wood, metal, ceramic, plastic or even plants such as gourds. Junk percussion has become popular too, with instruments made from discarded and recycled materials. Sound is produced by hitting the membrane either with the hands, or with beaters or drumsticks.
Most drums are classified as non-tuned percussion. This means they are of indefinite pitch, they don’t play any particular notes. But some drums are tuned to definite pitches. Orchestral kettledrums, (timpani) are always scored to have specific notes, and Indian tabla drums are not just tuned, they play different pitches depending on the technique used to strike them. As the sound decays, the player applies pressure with the heel of the hand, which changes the pitch.
When the tabla is practised as a solo instrument it will not necessarily be tuned, but when used as an accompanying instrument it will be tuned to specific notes, normally the first note of the octave, known as sadja or sa in Indian music (the tonic). The range of notes is fairly limited, so depending on the key of the music, the drum may be tuned to the fifth (pa) or fourth (ma).
The drum is tuned using wooden pegs called gattas. These are used to increase and decrease the tension of the skin. Pulling the gattas down increases the pitch as the skin becomes tighter, just like winding up a violin string will make its pitch higher. Pulling them up decreases the pitch. This mechanism is common in tuned drums – orchestral kettledrums have a modernised but similar system.
Where do drums come from?
Drums are found throughout the world and in all world music. Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe all have their own drum music, and each has a huge variety of percussion instruments.
Early evidence of drums include an image of a man-sized bass drum on a Sumerian vase which dates from around 3000 years BCE, and at least four sizes of drums were used in ancient Mesopotamia. Instruments from Ancient Egypt dating to around 1800 BCE have been discovered, and drums are mentioned in one of the earliest Chinese poems dating from 1135 BCE.
Drums seem to have reached Europe during the Crusading Era in the 12th century, where often they were played with a stick in one hand while the musician played a small pipe at the same time. This combination was often used for accompanying dance. Much more significant to the orchestral world was the arrival of the Arabian naker or naqqarah in the 13th Century, a small kettledrum, a modern version of which is now found in most symphony orchestras.
What are drums used for?
When most of us think of drums, the first thing that springs to mind is the drum kit (or drum set, as the American’s call it). A typical drum kit includes a snare drum, tom-toms, bass drum and cymbals such as hi-hat and ride. No pop or rock band is complete without one.
Drums are played in so many other musical groups too. Brazilian samba is music for dancing, played in ensembles of many percussion instruments. Samba is an energetic music that immediately creates a positive, carnival atmosphere, and it’s a great way in to ensemble playing. It’s also a proactive way to start a workshop with participants who may not be confident instrumentalists.
One popular way to play drums is in a drumming circle, where the djembe, a hand-drum from West Africa, is used. The djembe was originally used by storytellers and healers, as well as for ceremonial occasions. It is interesting to note that the power of musical vibration was considered significant for much more than entertainment purposes in so many ancient cultures – a holistic view that is once again becoming integrated into our awareness.
If you would like to find out more about drums and drumming, or to book one of our workshops in African Drumming, Samba, Junk Percussion or other drumming techniques, please contact us. We’d love to hear from you!
English Folk Music
English folk music is a particularly rich genre that can be really pertinent to a particular local identity as its regional traditions are strong – for example, the music of Northumberland is very different to that of the West Country. Although there has been some interchange with the music of Ireland and Scotland, the regional distinctiveness of this music remains strong, linked to local history, folk tails, industry, instrumentation and even landscape.
Here at the Music Workshop Company we thrive on introducing participants to an enjoyment and understanding of music. But all our workshops have a deeper purpose and significance too. We look at music from World cultures, and support curriculum topics with team building work, communication skills and experiential learning which builds confidence and facilitates creativity.
In looking at everything that music can bring to education, it is interesting to think about the value of studying the historic culture of the country where we live. Awareness and understanding of British tradition is an important part of relating across cultural lines, as well as direct way to link to your local area and community.
What is folk music?
Folk music is historically the music of the people; the lower orders of society. It is very different from the Court music that gave rise to what we know as classical music. Its earliest record in English history is about 400CE. This music was passed on aurally from one generation to the next, taught by ear not written down. These days, tunes or songs might be learned from books or recordings, but often the practice of learning by ear continues. Its main form is in music for dancing and in songs and ballads. Ballads are songs that tell stories – often of heroic deeds and local heroes such as Robin Hood. The songs, like those of Ireland and Scotland, have their roots in ancient ballads, popular songs, songs from music halls and songs composed by the person who sang them. There are many rural songs that are of unknown authorship and are considered traditional, but English folk song is drawn from many sources.
English folk music has its own set of instruments too. There are the common traditional instruments such as the fiddle and accordion, but instruments specific to England also exist. The English Concertina, a small, hand-held, bellows-driven reed instrument, was patented by the scientist and inventor Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1829. It has a light, flute-like sound and is a common accompanying instrument in English folk dancing.
Northumberland has its own pipes, the Northumbrian smallpipes, which are driven by bellows held under the right elbow. The pipes have a completely closed end and a tight, keyed fingering style. They have a melancholy and beautiful sound, which is extremely evocative of the wild hills of the area. One traditional band in Northumberland was a group called The Three Shepherds. They were, as you would expect, three shepherds. One played smallpipes, one harmonica and the other fiddle. The fiddle player, Willie Taylor had lost the top joint of his left index finger in a turnip-chopping machine as a boy. The Shepherds often performed Taylor’s own compositions, reels and rants which were all written so it is possible to play them on the fiddle with only three fingers.
Today the Northumbrian smallpipes are the instrument of Kathryn Tickell, who was artistic director of the Folkworks programme at the Sage, Gateshead until 2013. She has carried on the tradition, extending the range and complexity of the instrument and its repertoire and adding the unique sound to recordings with Sting.
The relevance of English traditional music to understanding our past is clear. Much of the music came from industrial, agricultural, community and even military settings, each of which differs from region to region.
The music has been preserved by various avid collectors, the most prolific of whom was Cecil Sharpe, whose collections are kept by the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) at Cecil Sharpe House in London. The society has been working to build a huge digital archive http://www.efdss.org/efdss-the-full-english of tunes and songs which is available for free on their website, along with a resource bank of free online materials for teachers.
There are strong connections in the music and history with related traditions in the rest of the British Isles, Europe, America and even further afield. Understanding the music also gives a window into some of the most popular works of English classical composers. The composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger were also keen collectors. Vaughan-Williams’ compositions include many references to traditional tunes, including an English Folk-Song Suite, and Grainger, who made wax recordings of traditional singers, used their songs for choral settings. Frederick Delius used the same songs, having been inspired by Grainger’s arrangements.
If you would like to discover your regional culture and history, learn about English folk music, or explore the potential of using traditional music in composition, contact the Music Workshop Company about a bespoke workshop.
North African Percussion
North Africa has always been a region of diverse cultures, ethnicities and religions. Its recorded history stretches back to the Phoenician sea traders, Carthaginians and Greeks, and the area was under Roman control from around 200 BC to 300 AD. Subsequent Arab-Islamic conquests continued until the 16th century when the Ottoman Turks conquered Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. Morocco was ruled by successive Arab-Berber Muslim dynasties until the 19th century, and many regions of North Africa were under the colonial control of France and Italy during the 19th and 20th centuries.
There has not been much detailed study of the early musical history of North Africa, with most historical information focusing on music from no further back than the 20th century. However, the music of the region dates back many thousands of years. In the period of ancient Egyptian history known as the Old Kingdom, which spanned from 2686-2181 BC, harps, flutes and double clarinets were commonly played, and are depicted in many paintings found in ancient burial chambers. The music developed to include percussion instruments, lutes and lyres during the Middle Kingdom, which was from 2050 to 1650 BC. This was more than 300 years before the reign of Tutankhamen.
The North African region West of Egypt, is known as the Maghreb, a term which originates from the Arabic gharb, meaning west, and maghrib, meaning sunset. The Maghreb area includes Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and has an extensive tradition of folk music with ancient roots in the cultures of the Berbers, Sephardic Jews, Tuaregs and Nubians.
At MWC we use a North African goblet drum to explore these traditions in our workshops. The darbuka or darabouka drum, also known as the doumbek or derbeki, is a single headed membraphone hand drum, which was played in ancient Babylonia and Sumeria as early as 1100 BC. The name darbuka comes from the Arabic word darba, meaning to strike. The drum is played under the arm, or resting on the player’s leg. The technique requires a much lighter touch than other hand drums such as the West African djembe, and strokes include rolls and quick rhythms, which are articulated with the fingertips.
There are two main types of goblet drum. The Egyptian style has rounded edges around the head of the drum, and the Turkish style has straight edges. The exposed edge of the Turkish drum allows closer access to the head, facilitating the finger-snapping techniques, whereas the rounded edge of the Egyptian drum makes it possible to perform rapid finger rolls.
The drum is played lightly with the fingertips and palm to produce a low, resonant sound. A hand can be placed in the bell of the drum and moved in and out to alter the tone, but the drumming technique consists of three main sounds:
1. The doum: A deep bass sound produced by striking the head near the centre of the head with the palm and fingers. The fingers are held together and straight, and the hand is allowed to bounce off the drum immediately.
2. The tek: A rim-stroke produced by hitting the edge of the drum-head with the fingertips of the middle and ring fingers. This creates a higher-pitched sound which can also be struck with the secondary hand making a sound called a ka.
3. The pa: A closed slap sound. The hand is rested on the drum head rapidly hand on the head to not permit an open sound. Fingers are looser than for the bass sound and remain on the drum skin.
There are also several more complex techniques which include snaps, slaps, pops and rolls. These variations, along with hand-clapping and making sounds by hitting the side of the drum, can all be used to ornament the basic rhythms.
Another common North African instrument is the tambourine, called the tar or the duff. The head of the tambourine is made from goat skin or fish skin. The duff is usually a bigger instrument with a shallower frame and has 5 pairs of cymbals. This is used to accompany female dancers.
Crotals or cymbals also come in variety of sizes and are used both in ensembles and by dancers.
Contact the Music Workshop Company today to enquire about our North African Percussion Workshops.
Samba is the most typical, important and recognisable music of Brazil. It is common throughout Brazil, but is most frequently associated with urban Rio de Janeiro, where it developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. It is celebratory music, frequently identified with Carnival and the exotic, feathered dance outfits.
The music and dance of samba originates in Africa, with its roots in the religious traditions of Angola, the Congo and Cape Verde, brought to South America via the West African slave trade. The Africans trafficked to Brazil belonged to two major groups: the West African and the Bantu people.
In the mid 19th century, the word samba defined various types of music and dance made by African slaves. This music was from different kinds of batuque – African music and dance originally performed for specific social and ceremonial occasions. But samba assumed different characteristics in each Brazilian state depending on the cultural heritage of the Africans in that region.
Early styles of samba, in particular samba de roda, can be traced back to the Recôncavo region of Bahia where religious ceremonies were followed by informal dancing. But it was in Rio that the music and dance practiced by former slaves who migrated from Bahia became integrated with other musical genres: the polka, the maxixe, the lundu and the xote.
Modern samba developed only at the end of the 1920s, and as it consolidated as an urban and modern expression, it found a place on radio stations, spreading across hills and neighbourhoods to the affluent southern areas of Rio de Janeiro.
Initially viewed unfavourably by the middle classes because it had roots in African music, the samba, with its hypnotic rhythms, melodic intonations and playful lyrics, became hugely popular, and in turn led to the development of new genres such as bossa nova.
Black women from Bahia were seen as free, bold women. They created something of a cultural revolution in Rio, and so samba acquired its own unique character and the samba schools were born.
Samba schools are large organisations of up to 5,000 people. They compete annually in the Carnival with thematic floats, elaborate costumes, and original music. The schools have a strong community basis and are traditionally associated with a particular neighbourhood. In Rio de Janeiro, the schools are often linked with particular shanty-towns.
The schools focus around various events, the most important of which is the annual carnival parade. During Carnival, samba boosts the Brazilian economy by around 500 million US dollars and creates approximately 300 thousand jobs in Rio alone.
Each school spends many months designing its theme, choosing the song, building a float and rehearsing. Fourteen of the top samba schools in Rio use a specially designed warehouse complex called Samba City to build and house their elaborate floats. Samba City, or Cidade do Samba, is the size of ten football pitches!
A Samba band, or Bateria, normally consists of a selection of lightweight percussion instruments. These include tamborims which are small, hand held drums, snare drums or caixas, agogô bells which are hand held double bells with a cowbell sound, played with a wooden stick, surdos, the large, aluminium framed bass drums which are often carried with a strap across the shoulders, and ganzas, or shakers. The band will also have a leader who directs call and response, brings in and stops instruments, calls breaks in the rhythm and directs changes in the tempo. This is done using hand signals and a high-pitched drum called a repenique, or, more frequently, a whistle called an apito.
Samba is made up of different sections of music that move flowingly from one to another. Generally the music will begin with a call and response, with the leader calling and the group repeating back the rhythm. There will often be a rehearsed element of call and response, the rhythm of which will become the groove or main rhythm of the piece
In the main body of the piece, each instrument has a particular rhythm to play. This is repeated many times, creating a polyrhythmic sound from the many drums of different pitches, and a huge buzz of energy for the players.
The piece ends by returning to the call and response ideas, with a pre-rehearsed ending, or just by stopping.
The main groove becomes more complex and exciting with the addition of breaks, which are shown by the leader. These are points where instruments may play different rhythms or all the players play the same rhythm, where certain instruments may play on their own or there may be a vocal break or even a silent break. Each break then leads back into the main groove. The leader’s job is to ensure that everyone changes at the same time, which is done with hand signals and a clear count given on the whistle.
Scottish Music and Dance
Scotland is internationally renowned for its traditional music and dance, in particular the unmistakable sound of the highland bagpipes. But the pipes are only one aspect of Scottish music: They are often used to accompany solo and competition dancing, but music for social dancing is more likely to be performed on instruments including the accordion, fiddle and flute.
The folk music of Scotland, like that of other cultures, centres predominantly around songs or ballads and dancing.
Traditional dance in Scotland has a more formal history than that of England, which is reflected in the strict conventions of Scottish reeling. Just as the music of Scotland was heavily influenced by art music from other countries, and fiddlers aspired to the same technical expertise as violinists such as Paganini, dance was, to some extent defined by the upper classes as much as by the working people.
There are four main categories of Scottish Dance:
The Country Dance
Scottish Country Dancing is mostly used at social gatherings, although it is also sometimes performed. Dancers complete each dance in sets of three, four or five couples, arranged either in two lines with the men facing the ladies, or in a square. During the course of the dance, the dancers complete a series of figures enough times to bring them back to their opening positions.
In England, the idea of the formal country dance is thought to have derived from the French contra danse, where couples dance opposite each other in a square, round or longwise set. This originated in England during the 17th century, although its roots go back as far as the Court of Elizabeth I. In 1651, John Playford, a bookseller to the Inns of Court in London, published a collection of country dances, the tunes for which were predominantly Irish and Scottish. By 1728 the book had run to its 18th print, and it is still available in various editions today!
During the 18th century, the Scottish city of Edinburgh rose in status. Formal balls became an important part of society life. Formal dance styles were also developing in the French court, and these were held by the English and Scots to be the highest form of the art in formality, gentility and style. The French dance style called the contredanse or cotillon formed the basis of the quadrille, which superseded the country dance in 19th century England. It is also considered to be the root of some styles of ceilidh dance.
The Scots, inspired by influences from Europe, began to modify the country dances, introducing more intricate steps. This precision of character and virtuosic footwork and figure became the hallmark of the many Dancing Masters in Scotland at the time.
Dancing Masters were travelling teachers who taught all of the current forms of dance; country dance, minuet, highland reels and highland dancing, which was known as ‘high’ dance. They would work in grand houses, instructing both the upper class residents and the servants.
The Dancing Masters of 19th century Scotland were professional dancers who had generally studied ballet in either London or Paris. They would create their own dances or dance steps, often dedicated to a wealthy patron. They introduced the five ballet foot positions into both the country dance and the high dances, creating the pointed feet and straight legged positions familiar to anyone who has watched Highland Dancing.
Highland Dancing is a solo style of dance. It is very flamboyant and colourful and has become a very competitive art. Here is a performance of the Highland Fling:
Cape Breton Step Dancing
Another form of solo dance, Cape Breton dancing is mainly used for stage performances. It almost completely died out in Scotland, but was preserved in Nova Scotia by Scottish emigrants. Cape Breton is a hard-shoe dance similar to those danced in Ireland.
Scottish Dance has remained popular in England, though it went out of fashion towards the end of the 19th century and during the First World War. It’s slide into extinction was to some extent prevented by the determination of Mrs. Stewart of Fasnacloich and Miss Jean Milligan, who set about collecting the dances, and formed what was the become the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS). The dancing has since seen a huge resurgence thanks to the popularity of the ceilidh and various reeling societies.
Ceilidh dances are easy to learn and often look more difficult than they actually are. Musicians and fellow dancers are always happy to help beginners, and the dance is normally led by a caller who teaches the steps before it is danced. Ceilidhs are great social events and have become a popular choice of entertainment at weddings. The dances themselves are similar to those of the country dances, but less formal. They are distinct from the organised reeling balls in that they are suitable for total novices. At reeling balls, dancers are expected to have learned the dance and mastered the steps. The refinement of the art of reeling was such that clubs still exist in schools such as Eton.
Some examples of popular ceilidh dances:
The Gay Gordons
Formation: Dancers form couples in a circle , facing anti-clockwise with ladies on the right and gentlemen on the left.
Music: Tunes including The Gay Gordons or Scotland the Brave, march time (2/4 or 4/4)
With right hands joined over the lady’s shoulder (the man’s arm behind her back) and left hands joined in front, walk forward four steps, starting on the right foot
Continuing in the same direction, without letting go of the hands, pivot on the spot and take four steps backwards
Repeat in the opposite direction, four steps forward, four steps backwards
Dropping the left hands, raise the right hand above the lady’s head. She pivots or spins on the spot
Join hands in a ballroom hold and polka around the room
Reform the circle in your couples and start again
The Flying Scotsman
Formation: Longways sets of four or more couples, men on the right and ladies on the left as viewed from the band. Couples number from nearest the band
Music: A 32 bar reel
The first lady, followed by the second and third ladies, dances across the top of the set weaving behind the first man, in front of the second man, behind the third man and across the bottom of the set back to her place
The same pattern is repeated by the men starting with the first man
The first couple join hands and gallop (slip step) down the room for four bars, then gallop up to finish at the bottom of the set
All couples join hands and gallop down the room, coming back to arrive in order 2, 3, 4, 1 when the dance starts again with couple number 2 now in the top place
The music for different dances includes a variety of reels, strathspeys, hornpipes and jigs.
Reels, strathspeys and most hornpipes are counted in four, that is, they have four beats to a bar. Jigs and waltzes are in three, although the speed, style and dance for a jig is completely different to a waltz. The sound of the strathspey is very different to that of the reel or hornpipe.
Reels are played quickly, with all the fast notes having the same rhythm. Hornpipes and strathspeys are usually slower. The main feature of a hornpipe is it’s dotted rhythm where the strathspey uses the Scotch snap, a clipped short/long dotted rhythm. Sections of the music will be repeated and the tune structured to fit the number of bars required to make the dance work. The name of the dance is often the same as the name of the tune, for example, The Dashing White Sergeant is both the name of the dance and the tune that accompanies it. This tune, a reel, will be played at the top of the dance and then followed by other reels of a similar structure, sometimes coming back to finish with the first tune within the strict structure of bars.
If you would like to talk to us about booking one of our Scottish Dance Workshops, please contact the Music Workshop Team.
You may think that spoons are just cutlery, part of the normal place setting at any mealtime, but did you know they are also idiophones?
An idiophone is a musical instrument that makes its sound purely by vibrating. Castanets are idiophones, so is the triangle, singing bowl, wood block and marimba.
Spoons have historically been used as a makeshift percussion instrument, in the same way two bones such as sheep’s’ ribs would be rattled together to make rhythms in the earliest music that existed. Although they have an association with improvised music making in the roughest sense, spoons can become a complex rhythm instrument, the sound of which compliments certain types of music. They are not an easy option, but they are an accessible way to discover virtuosic percussion playing.
Prehistoric rock drawings and pottery from as early as the fourth millennium show dancing figures holding curved blades or bones, and spoons themselves are one of the most ancient tools in existence, with archeological findings placing some of the ornamental and religious spoons as far back as 1000 years BCE. In Medieval Europe, spoons were made from cow horns, wood, brass and pewter, but by the 15th Century, wooden eating spoons were being replaced with more durable metal variants in higher circles of society.
In Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt, people played instruments called rattle bones, or rhythm bones, which preceded the spoons. Rhythm bones were essentially a pair or set of three bones, usually sheep or cattle bones, placed in the hand parallel to the palm with the convex sides facing each other. The bones were held between each finger with one finger being used like a hinge. The player moved the wrist in such a way that the bones hit each other, creating the vibration and the rhythmic sounds. The bones were sometimes played as instruments of war, and during the battle marches of the Crusades, the clicking of bones signified the approach of the Pagan enemy.
More recently, the spoons have been played in the traditional music of many cultures. Irish, French-Canadian, American, Turkish, Vietnamese and Russian folk music all feature the spoons.
Russian folk music typically features three or more wooden spoons. The convex surfaces of the spoon bowls are struck together in different ways. One technique is to hold two spoons by their handles in the left hand, with the third in the right hand being used to hit the two spoons in the left hand. Another is to hold three spoons in the left hand and put a fourth in the pocket. A fifth spoon is then held in the right hand and used to hit the other four.
Irish and British folk music more frequently uses metal spoons, giving a distinctive percussive sound that adds a great texture and rhythm to dance music.
Musicians famous for their spoon playing include Duncan Campbell, brother of lead singer of UB40, Ali Campbell, who was for a while the only registered spoons player with the Musicians’ Union in the UK, and former Russian president Boris Yeltsin was known to enjoy performing with wooden spoons among his officials!
The spoons are the perfect low-budget instrument. How do you play them?
• Find two spoons the same size and thickness. Metal spoons are the best: Plastic spoons won’t work.
• Hold the spoons back to back. The back of the spoon bowls should be touching. You can bend the spoons so they fit together if it makes things easier.
• Place your first finger below where the spoon meets the handle, between the two handles.
• Place your thumb on the outside of the spoons, using your other fingers to grip the spoons. Hold the spoons loosely enough that you won’t grip and tightly enough that you won’t drop them.
• You can play the spoons by hitting them on the top of your thigh or knee. The hand that is not holding the spoons should be held a few inches above your knee. Hit the spoons back and forth between your leg and hand. You can create all sorts of rhythms and beats by hitting your leg then hand alternately.
Jo is a professional percussionist who runs a Spoons workshop for the Music Workshop Company. Here’s why she loves the spoons…
“I first became interested in playing the spoons whilst playing in a folk band. We were learning a song, and I’m not sure why, but it really felt as if it was calling out for spoons. I found a tuition video by a fantastic American musician and historian called David Holt. I learnt some of the basics and went on from there.
There are spoon-playing traditions in many different countries around the world, including Ireland, America, Turkey and Russia. I think it’s a tradition that’s been dying out recently in this country but there are still plenty of spoon players around and I’m really keen to encourage more people to play. Often when I’m running workshops people will say, “Hey! My grandad/uncle/great grandma used to play the spoons.”
Spoons are great fun to play and obviously we have them in our homes, so they’re very accessible and very portable too.
I started just using ordinary stainless steel spoons from the kitchen but I love experimenting with different types of spoons now. I’ve built up a collection from rummaging around in junk shops, hardware shops and kitchen shops, as well as searching for spoons that have been made specifically for playing. In workshops, I have an assortment of spoons for participants to try out:
• Ordinary stainless steel ones
• Assorted wooden ones carved especially for playing (some with finger grooves)
• Aluminium ones made from de-activated bombs in Laos
• A few different sized/coloured plastic measuring spoons recently acquired from rooting around a kitchen shop… (the largest ones make great bass spoons!)
• A selection of smaller wooden and metal spoons for smaller fingers
• An assortment of joined-up spoons for younger children and anyone who has difficulty with the grip
I usually run my Spoon Workshops with accompaniment from a guitarist or fiddler. It’s brilliant to have a tune to work with. I also run sessions without accompaniment, and they usually involve more singing. I teach some basic techniques and we usually work on a little routine to go with a tune or song; maybe a folk song, a well-known tune or an old-time music hall song. And it’s always great to end the day with a performance from some of the participants.
I find that spoon playing is brilliant for co-ordination, particularly fine motor skills. I often try to involve movement and singing too, stamping your feet, singing and moving in time with the music whilst playing the spoons is a lot to think about. It’s also great for improving rhythm, teamwork, creativity, listening, performance, confidence and focus.
Most of all, spoon playing is fun and really open to anyone. Many children go home and show their families how to play, which is brilliant. There’s no need to go out and buy expensive, large instruments, just head to the cutlery drawer.”
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