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]