Like all African music, sub-Saharan African music is traditionally functional in nature. Performances can get very long and usually involve the audience participating in it.
There are many different kinds of work songs; songs accompanying childbirth, marriage, hunting, and political activities; music to ward off evil spirits and to pay respects to good spirits, the dead, and the ancestors.
None of these is performed outside its intended social context and much of it is associated with a particular dance. Some of it is sacral music or ceremonial and courtly music performed by professional musicians at royal courts.
The shared rhythmic principles of sub-Saharan music traditions constitute one main system. Similarly, the sub-Saharan African rhythmic principles have a profound homogeneity. The sub-Saharan rhythm is characterized by cross-rhythm and key patterns.
The joining of two or more rhythms is called polyrhythm. The regular and systematic superimposition of cross-beats over main beats creates a specific sub-set of polyrhythm called cross-rhythm. The technique of cross-rhythm is a simultaneous use of contrasting rhythmic patterns within the same scheme of accents or meter.
The main beat scheme cannot be separated from the secondary beat scheme. The cross-rhythm three-over-two (3:2), hemiola, is the most significant rhythm ratio found in sub-Saharan rhythm. Cross-rhythm is the basis for much of the music of the Niger-Congo peoples, the largest linguistic group in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. Cross-rhythm pervades southern Ewe music.
Key patterns epitomize the complete rhythmic matrix and are typically clapped or played on idiophones like a bell, a piece of bamboo, or wooden claves. In some ensembles, such as “iyesa” and “bata” drums, a key pattern may be played on a high-pitched drumhead.
The most commonly used key pattern in sub-Saharan Africa is the seven-stroke figure known on ethnomusicology as the standard pattern. It is expressed in both a triple-pulse (12/8 or 6/8) and duple-pulse (4/4 or 2/2) structure.
Traditions may coincide entirely, partially, or not at all with geographic, political, linguistic or cultural boundaries. African folk music traditions, including sub-Saharan African music, overlap in varying degrees with each other.
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