John Miller Chernoff, a man with many hats, has been a sociologist, African drummer, and cultural anthropologist. His seminal book, African Rhythm, African Sensibility,
remains required reading for anyone interested in the connections between traditional drumming and culture in West Africa. With Master Fiddlers of Dagbon,
he assumes a role as documentary historian. Chernoff recorded a traditional fiddle performance by master musicians from Dagbon, a traditional state in northern Ghana. The disc comes with incredibly informative liner notes, which bear almost as much interest as the music itself. (And it's a welcome third part in Rounder's series on the master musicians of Dagbon.)
You may wonder what relevance African string music shares with jazz. But just consider those bleak four centuries of the African-American slave trade, and the commonly asserted view that jazz is an African-American art form. Musical traditions preserved over six centuries of paternally-inherited chieftancy in Dagbon have very deep roots and are not easily forgotten. The master musicians of Dagbon also inherit their position from their fathers. Dagbamba drummers use the "talking drum" to perform aural histories documenting several generations of ancestry.
The tunes on Master Fiddlers predominantly feature the one-string bowed lute called the goonji in Dagbon. Compared to the American fiddle, there's a world of difference; but one key feature shared by both is that they are not even-tempered instruments. (That means they offer notes "between the notes.") The fiddlers in this ritual performance play repeated short motifs, often in unisoninterspersed with vocals, shaker polyrhythms, and other sounds. An emphatic sense of call-and-response predominates everywhere. Otherwise, the music organizes itself largely around texture. Many simultaneous layers flow in parallel, and any changes in these musical strata appear deliberately in response to gestures by other players or vocalists. Improvisation plays an important role here, though it's much more gradual and deliberate than what we expect in jazz. Changes in the pattern of themes, the juxtaposition of instruments, and vocal progressions occur over time in a very dynamic sense.
Some listeners might find this music repetitive, inflexible, or primitive; but those unfortunate few must not have paid close attention to the earthy but sophisticated forms of musical communication that predominate in this document of Dagbamba musical culture. Provided you're willing to listen, and in a sense, get involved, Chernoff's Master Fiddlers offer a tremendous depth of emotion, a wonderfully interactive pattern of musical exposition, and a profound sense of intoxication. One feels strains of the African musical traditions which have permeated the musics of the Western Hemisphere, most palpably felt in the roots music of Haiti and Cuba. But also in jazz, too.
Personnel: Leader: Mahama Braimah. Goonji and voice: Alhassan Braimah, Masahudu Mahama, Inusah Seidu. Zaabia: Abdulsamed Mahama and Yamba Mahama. Recorded July 28, 1991, by John Chernoff in Tamale, Ghana.