African Traditional Music and Suprasl, Orthodox Mosaic

Robert Reigle

[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]

Auvidis is re-issuing at mid-price the excellent sounding and well documented UNESCO Collection LPs of traditional music from around the world that originally appeared in the 1970s and 1980s. The discs now come in slipcovers (without adding, however, any new information or photographs). In addition to his famous recordings from the Central African Republic, Banda Polyphony (Auvidis D-8043) and Anthologie de la Musique des Pygmees Aka (Ocora C-559-012/13), the great ethnomusicologist Simha Arom recorded all three of the discs reviewed below. Contact: Distribution:

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC 1999/1983. Auvidis/UNESCO D-8020. Recordings and commentary by Simha Arom. Ethnic groups: Banda-Linda, Aka Pygmy, Gbaya, Dendi, Nzakara, Banda-Dakpa, Ngbaka.

Perhaps more so in Africa than in America, music heightens experience over the course of one’s life. Thus Simha Arom arranged these fifteen tracks not according to the seven ethnic groups who created the music, but following the order of key events in an imagined life. A lullaby follows the call and response between a mother and female chorus, sung to win the favor of the potentially dangerous newborn twins. Next we hear a round, a musical bow using a hole in the ground as a resonator, and a counting song, all performed by children. The transitional initiation dance combines the singing of young boys with the playing of xylophones and slit drums by adults.

Moving on to the adult world, Arom presents two versions of a Banda-Linda orchestral song: First we hear “Ganza kongo ngo” played on ten bamboo flutes, then on sixteen trumpets made of antelope horn or wood, each instrument playing a single pitch. The flute version is remarkable for the way the listener’s perspective changes throughout the piece. Composers such as Ives, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Nono, and Chowning have devised some rather complex ways to create a changing spatial perspective for the stationary listener. The Banda-Linda panorama, however, comes about through the elegant and simple technique of having the orchestra walk in a circle, allowing listeners to focus-in on different components of the musical fabric over the course of the performance. Arom’s recording beautifully captures this shifting perspective.

After the rather loud sounds of the orchestras, followed by a polyphonic war chant, two quiet songs provide repose in the CDs life-trajectory. Two Gbaya men accompanying themselves on sanza thumb pianos perform a “thinking song” (for an in-depth audition of this genre, hear the two discs on Ocora devoted to it, Gbaya Music: Songs for Reflection, Vol. 1 and 2). Another duet follows; this time the men accompany themselves with a ten-string arched harp and a double bell. The album’s imaginary life cycle closes with a drummed message calling a villager back home because a child has just been born.

NIGER / NORTHERN BENIN: Music of the Fulani 1999/1975. Auvidis/UNESCO D-8006. Recordings and commentary by Simha Arom.

Arom recorded this album in two different nations, Niger and Benin, and according to the liner notes, some of the six million Fulani also live in Senegal, Cameroun, and Nigeria. At the time of these recordings (1972/1974), the Fulani were nomadic herdsmen, mostly Muslim, who spoke “dialects which derive from a common linguistic stock.” Arom states that gallantry and beauty characterize the subject matter of Fulani songs. The former may be illustrated with the flagellation songs, of which five examples are included here. Men endure flagellation to demonstrate courage and develop friendship among people of the same age group. The songs are short and the singer on these recordings uses subtle embellishments on some of the notes, rapidly inserting a minute appoggiatura similar to a vibrato, but used with enough control so as to insert single fluctuations at will. The texts of the songs (only two are included in the notes) hint at the gallantry Arom mentions: “Are you listening to me? I remember Matimanga on the occasion of the festival of the girls. You were beautiful and strong like a police constable, an official, a medical orderly, and a veterinary surgeon. It is a grim thing to be flagellated! Are you listening to me? I remember Matimanga, the day when he did well as a flagellator, he let everyone see it.” (track 13.d.)

The poetry in both men’s and women’s songs often refers to beauty. Even in the soothing lullaby sung by a woman accompanied by a small women’s choir (track 10), the text describes the good looks of the boys: “Gbani, you look magnificent with that European necklace.” In addition to the three beautiful songs for female voice and choir and the solo-voice flagellation songs, the disc includes a number of flute songs, a lute song, a reed clarinet piece, a jew’s harp demonstration, and millet-pounding rhythms.

BENIN: BARIBA AND SOMBA MUSIC 1999/1976. Auvidis/UNESCO D-8057. Recordings and commentary by Simha Arom.

According to Arom’s liner notes, northern Benin was a crossroads for salt and cola nuts, as well as for the spread of Islam. In addition to Fulani and Yoruba settlements, Benin is the home of the Bariba, numbering some 200,000 in 1976, who may have arrived in Benin around the time of Muhammad, and the Somba, population 100,000, who probably arrived in the 18th century.

The highlight of this disc is the six-minute “Music in Praise of Oru Suru,” performed on four kakaki trumpets accompanied by four drums. In earlier times, trumpets “were a privilege of principalities of high standing.” Although Arom does not provide a photograph, his description of the kakaki as “telescopic metal trumpets about 2.20 m. in length” suggests a physical similarity with Tibetan Buddhist trumpets. The instrument used by the leader of the trumpet ensemble is probably larger than those played by the remaining three trumpeters, who repeat the leader’s phrases a semi-tone higher. The ensemble reproduces the pitches and rhythms of the spoken language in order to “speak.” The Bariba also use an hourglass drum to send messages, as illustrated by a proverb “spoken” on this drum (Track 6). Unfortunately, the proverb’s text is not included in the liner notes. Responsorial songs, ocarina and whistle solos, a flute duet, duets for grinding millet and nuts, and a funeral lament sung by a woman round out this 43-minute disc.


Heirmologion of the Suprasl’ monastery, Poland. Russian Patriarchate Choir, directed by Anatoly Grindenko. 1999. Paris: Opus 111. OPS-30-229. Email: Distributed by Harmonia Mundi,

Visual imagery takes on greater importance in many religious music traditions than it does in secular music. Buddhist mandalas, for example, may blueprint the cosmos, and serve as a map to focus the mind’s journey. In the case of Christian Orthodox music, icons provide a conduit linking mortals to the divine. When listening to the sublime music from Suprasl’ monastery, images such as “The Angel of the Evangelist Matthew,” beautifully reproduced on the back cover of the CD booklet, help make sense out of the recordings. The sounds alone are indeed beautiful in themselves, but their purpose lies in producing a “kind of meditative concentration which fosters a state of prayer,” according to Anatoly Konotop’s well-written liner notes.

It works. The melodies unfold at moderate tempos, but the ison drones can hold forth for minutes at a time without changing, adding a layer of extreme non-hurriedness that bears comparison with some Korean court music, LaMonte Young, a number of post-1960 minimalists, and few other musics in the world. Not all of the drones, however, remain unchanging throughout their duration. Sometimes after holding a very long note, they may go up one step to complement a syllable of the melody, only to immediately return to the original stasis. The ison may appear either above or below the melody, and the melody sometimes skirts around the drone.

Konotop states that the heirmologion (“a collection of Orthodox liturgical chants”) from Suprasl’ consists of 1130 pages, and was compiled between 1598 and 1601 in what is now Poland. The Suprasl’ heirmologion is the oldest surviving manuscript written in the staff notation that replaced the znamenny neumes. What distinguishes this music from other Orthodox chant is the uniquemixture of influences that shaped it. Suprasl’ took in monks from Mount Athos (Greece) and Kiev (Ukraine), and the manuscript refers to chant from Russia, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Romania. Most of the music, however, was “composed at the monastery itself, thus giving rise to the term ’Suprasl’ chant’ to characterize [its] style.”

I did some comparisons in order to determine whether I could distinguish the Suprasl’ style from music that influenced it. Although Greek, Bulgarian, and Russian chant does sound different, it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what those differences are. The combination of extended melisma with drone, for example, exists not only at Suprasl’, but also in the work of composers like Koukouzelis (hear the amazing 33-minute work by him on Ioannis Koukouzelis: Le Maistor Byzantin, Jade C-129/Harmonia Mundi France). Furthermore, both Koukouzelis and the Suprasl’ composers used a lot of “meaningless syllables” in their works, which, according to Greek music scholar Lycourgos Angelopoulos, may signify the incomprehensibility of the godhead.

As a companion to Suprasl: Orthodox Mosaic, I would highly recommend Divine Harmony: The Music and Icons of Early Russia, a book+CD also published by Opus 111, and sold in record stores. The latter includes two tracks from Suprasl, excerpts from several other discs, and essays by Russian Patriarchate Choir director Anatoly Grindenko and icon specialist Adolf Nikolaevich Ovchinnikov.


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