This was a musical analysis of a non-western song done for my undergraduate Non-Western Musical Traditions class. I include at the bottom the required breakdown of song structure, and a ‘works cited’. I am not nor have I ever been “into” Afropop, but I guess it was a song I had close at hand. The year was 2001. “Subordinate contrapuntal motif”? It almost sounds like I know what I’m talking about.
Popular artists have a difficult choice between preserving the musical traditions of their cultures or expanding into concepts that will be more popular with the younger generations. The popularity of Afropop has allowed many new artists to retain the heritage of their predecessors by incorporating traditional instruments with more standard popular ones. Conversely, Afropop allows musicians of the old school to continue reaching younger ears through the use of popular instruments, textures, and attitudes. Dorothy Masuka’s “Nhingirikiri” is a textbook example of Afropop in that the combination of traditional and modern musical elements is so expertly placed, the listener is unable to tell the artist’s starting mindset. Regardless, the music is fun to listen to, and it provides interesting glimpses into the Zimbabwe of the past and of today.
Dorothy Masuka is one of Zimbabwe’s most respected artists. For more than fifty years she has continued to make music that is undeniably alive and African (Sun Times). In her own words,
‘It’s like an incurable disease, For me, to be alive means I have to sing. I have to sing to kill a pain in me. When I sing or listen to good music, the pain goes away, like I’ve taken a tablet or had an injection…’ (Sun Times)
Her drive for music and life is very evident in “Nhingirikiri”. Her voice is clear and solidly on top of the pitch, and an unmistakable feeling of joy surrounds her music, but she is careful not to be so swept up in good feelings that the music is left lacking.
Compositionally, this piece entrances the listener because of its high energy that does not dissipate even during the usually-awkward entrances. While the drawn-out staggered entrances and exits would seem a Western convention taken from fugues and canons, they allow a listener not familiar with the dense structures of traditional African music to identify each part and its contributions to the piece as a whole. During the two cleverly placed tacit sections, the melodic structure of the piece is removed and we are presented with the rhythmic skeletons that push the song forward with that typical Afropop joyous anxiety. Each time Masuka enters over these skeletons with her principal ostinato, her crystalline pitch-sense throws the isolated percussion into perfect relief. Richer musical colors emerge as the guitars support her harmonic choices and we hear Masuka’s voice backing herself up with a subordinate contrapuntal motif. Of course, she also sounds fantastic during sections like one minute twenty-eight seconds and four minutes forty-eight seconds when everything is happening at once, and the full swing of the song hits the listener. But because of her extremely self-assured tone color and pitch, her strengths as a musician are most apparent when she sings over a bare minimum of instruments. In these cases (like twenty-seven seconds, three minutes eleven seconds, and three minutes fifty-eight seconds), she is able to create an acoustic tension between her sweet melody on top and the low atonal sounds of the percussion. When this tension is resolved (the best example is the first time at fifty-eight seconds), the result is a wash of positive energy and an instant appreciation of the control Dorothy Masuka wields in her beautiful voice.
The percussion ostinatos found in the introduction and the main break at three minutes four seconds are characteristic of much Sub-Saharan polyrythmic musics. The insistent triple time pushed by the bass drum gives the piece the energy typical of popular musics. However, at twenty seconds and three minutes four seconds, we are presented with a polymeter in the form of a cowbell (or similar low metal bell) that forces a three-against-two lilt into the piece. This feeling is very typical of sub-Saharan rhythmic structures, although it doesn’t last long in this piece. The hosho part that is heard throughout the piece exemplifies its traditional role in Zimbabwe classical music as a cohesive aural texture that permeates the piece with its raspy timbre that is markedly different from that of any other instrument represented. It also serves to remind the non-African listener of the true roots of this song’s distinct feel. As in all African musics, the percussion in this song performs a crucial role in character creation, emotional manipulation, and the establishing of rhythmic textures that are unmistakably African and awe-inspiring.
The guitar parts in this song form a fascinating echo of Shona mbira playing, which also originated in Zimbabwe (Nettl 168). In this setting three instruments are required to perform the typical mbira function: electric bass, rhythm guitar and lead guitar. The bass simulates the low tones of an mbira while the guitars share, through hocketing, the main line that counterpoints Masuka’s main melody. Another level of complication arises when one notes that typical mbira songs are usually played on more than one mbira, and the combinations of their melodies actually constitute the song. In “Nhingirikiri”, the bass and guitars simulate at least two mbiras, using three instruments. The lead guitar plays single notes that are similar to a kushaura mbira part, while the rhythm guitar plays a subordinate note combination that occasionally involves simple harmonies and thus takes the kutsinhira role (Nettl 172). The bass also helps to create pillar tones around which the chord progression is built. The differing timbres of these instruments help to guide the listener through the complex contrapuntal structures found in music from Zimbabwe, but the active listening element remains an essential ingredient to the enjoyment of the piece. Masuka’s band still manages to generate a varying rhythmic and melodic wilderness from which the listener takes something different every time it’s heard.
Another cultural point-of-interest in “Nhingirikiri” is the use of guitars. Nettl mentions that the concept of a chordophone with a resonator is common throughout many African villages (189). These instruments were spread throughout industrialized nations during the slave trade and were adopted by many musicians in those countries. When the west learned how to electrify sound and instruments they applied their knowledge to the progeny of traditional African chordophones such as the kora and the kontingo. The presence of electric resonating chordophones in the popular urban musics of Africa “…complet[es] yet another circuit in the complex to and fro of contemporary African music” (Collins 32-33).
“Nhingiriki” is a perfect example of the combination of traditional and popular musics in the African Diaspora. High energy playing, clever composition, and Dorothy Masuka’s knowledge of tone and tension make this piece incredibly fun to hear. Because of its cultural overtones of past-meets-future and a progressive Africa, this song provides a fascinating ethnomusicological study that yields insights into the relationship of music and culture in Zimbabwe. “Nhingirikiri” also presents one experienced artist’s interpretation of the fine line between the popular and the traditional.
0:00 Beginning; Meter 1 by shakers, pitched drum, hosho
0:08 Bass drum enters; Meter 2 is introduced on cowbell
0:20 Meter 2 backs off and is joined by synth claps
0:27 Vocalist enters singing lyrics
0:34 Electric bass plays through the full chord progression
0:42 Synth drum set joins
0:50 More lyrics
0:58 Guitars enter with their interlocking countermelody
1:19 Melody begins to vary; back-up vocalists counterpoint the melody
1:28 Refrain; melody with variations; same melody with different words
2:30 Refrain again
2:41 Lead guitar solo
2:58 Fade out of all but percussion
3:04 Meter 2 reappears among meter 2 percussion
3:11 Occasional lyrics by vocalist
3:19 All instruments rejoin and build back to high point of emotional texture
3:31 Vocalist reintroduces principal contrapuntal ostinato
3:58 All tacit except Vocalist, bass drum, bell
4:09 Back-up vocals join
4:13 Bass joins
4:23 Timbale accents
4:26 Guitars enter gently
4:39 Lead guitar solo
4:48 All present and repeating ostinatos
4:56 Lead guitar fill
5:04 Ending announced by five rhythm guitar accents
Collins, John. West African Pop Roots. Philadelphia: 1992, Temple University Press.
Nettle, Bruno, et al. Excursions in World Music. Upper Saddle River, NJ: 2001, Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Mofokeng, Leslie. Sunday Times – 25 July 1999. <http://www.suntimes.co.za/1999/07/25/arts/gauteng/ aneg12.htm>.