Cultures of improvisation (2)

griotImprovisation is a fundamental feature of much of the music from the world’s diverse cultures. Jazz is perhaps the best known contemporary example, reflecting African traditions of improvisation. In the Manding culture of West Africa (a society spread throughout Mali, Senegal, and coastal countries such as Sierra Leone and Liberia), praise singers known as griots (or jalis) are hired by patrons. The singing is divided into two sections: a pre-composed choral refrain and an improvisation praising the family surname and reciting the ancestors. Singers accompany themselves on the kora, a large string instrument.

In East Africa, improvisation plays a key role in Shona mbira music (the mbira is a hand-held metallophone instrument played with the thumbs). Improvisation takes the form of subtle changes in melody and rhythm, structured around a common theme.

Latin American music styles — especially those of the Caribbean and Brazil, where there is a strong connection to African music traditions — incorporate improvisation. Especially noteworthy are the jazz-influenced styles of Cuba and Brazil. Among indigenous cultures of the Americas, Native American flute players employ considerable improvisation. R. Carlos Nakai, of Navajo-Ute heritage, is perhaps the foremost performer, known for his many cross-cultural collaborations.

Bengali sitarist Ravi Shankar says that as much as 90% of Indian classical music may be improvised; the musician must breath life into each raga as it is unfolded and expanded. The performer utilizes a raga as the foundation for improvisation. First the raga is introduced with a note or group of notes, and then the improvisation progresses to a more melodically and rhythmically complex form.

In Arabic art music, a maqaam is “a technique of improvisation” that defines the pitches, patterns, and development of a piece of music. The art of instrumental improvisation, or taksim, following the rules of the maqaam, is a key feature of Arabic, Turkish and Persian music.

Around the world, musicians coming out of a variety of traditional styles — Chinese pipa, Native American flute, Japanese shakuhachi, African mbanza, Appalachian bluegrass — turn to improvisation both in recreating traditional compositions and creating new music.

There is a misconception that improvisation was not a fundamental feature of the European classical music tradition. For a discussion of that issue, see the article Cultures of improvisation (1).

[Photo: Mandinka griot Al-Haji Papa Susso performing songs from the oral tradition of the Gambia on the kora – courtesy of David Oaks, Wikipedia]

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