As if mastering any African rhythm isn’t tricky enough, one of the most exciting elements of African music has to do with the way several different rhythms intersect when played at the same time. “Polyrhythm” (also sometimes known as “cross-rhythm”) means the simultaneous performing of two different rhythms. For example, look at this animated video and you’ll see two rhythms at play at the same time — 5/4 and 4/4. Or try 5/4 and 3/4. Think that’s complicated? Then this will drive you bonkers. Or, on actual human drums, you can take a look at multiple rhythms crossing each other at once.
Polyrhythms are most prominent in West Africa, and are especially essential to the music of the Ewe people of Ghana An Ewe drumming ensemble usually consists of a sogo or other master drum, gankgogui bells, an axatse (pronounced ah-ha-chay) and any number of secondary drums. Ewe drum sessions are often several hour-long, communal affairs in which drums converse and even tell long, narrative tales using multiple intricate cross-rhythms.
In class we’re going to drum out some “polyrhythms” and maybe also try some “polymeter.” What’s the difference? In a polyrhythm, different rhythms happen at the same time but share the same “one.” Note in the 5/4 and 3/4 example from above how one animated drumstick counts five beats and the other counts three in the same amount of time. The beats are different lengths because different numbers of them have to fit into the same measure.
In a “polymeter” combining 3/4 and 5/4 (two different “meters”) the five and three counts may start at the same time, but if each beat is the same length, the drumstick counting 3 will get back to one before the drumstick counting 5. That means the “one” will appear at different points for each drumstick. (Hard to explain, easier to do. Try it with two people and you’ll see.)
An introduction to Ewe drumming | About Ewe music and culture | Learn polyrhythms with Akoli’s Dan Gorlin | By the way, check out this cool cow-bell tour of African and Afro-Cuban bell patterns