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Shaping Time and Rhythm in African Music: Continuing Concerns and Emergent Issues in Motion and Motor Action

Ruth M. Stone


Key words: Motion and Motor Action; Rythm in African music; Kpelle in Pepper Coast of West Africa (Liberia and Guinea); Pêle; Womi; Hornbostel, Blacking, R.Fauffman, Kubik, Keil, Agawu.

Proponiendo el “motor” o movimiento como foco de aproximación a la manera de entender el ritmo en la música africana, Ruth M.Stone hace un recorrido por los principales autores que, pese a las diferentes orientaciones teóricas, han concebido el movimiento (motion) como la clave de acceso a los ritmos africanos: Hornbostel, Blacking, Kubik, Agawu, son mencionados entre otros, para acabar enlazándolo con su propia experiencia entre los Kpelle de Liberia. Bajo la perspectiva de la fenomenología social, Stone busca enfatizar la importancia del movimiento y gesto (motion and action) en el pêle, acto musical que comprende canto, danza, música, sorpresa y, evidentemente, motion and action.

Palabras clave: movimiento y acción motora; Música y ritmo africanos; Kpelle en Pepper Coast de Africa Occidental (Liberia y Guinea); Pêle; Womi; Hornbostel, Blacking, R.Fauffman, Kubik, Keil, Agawu.

Rhythm in music has attracted attention over the generations. One early adventurer in southern Africa reported:

            Their notion of melody is very slight, while their time is perfection itself, and the very fact that several hundred men will sing the various war songs as if they were animated by a single spirit shows that they must keep the most exact time. (Wallaschek 1893: 1, as quoted in Stone 1985: 139)

Ethnomusicologists have energetically engaged in explanations as well. The keys to understanding rhythm in African music have been identified in various ways: the beat of the big drum proposed by William E. Ward (1932a, 1932b, 1932c), the metronome sense suggested by Richard Waterman (1948), hemiola offered by Rose Brandel (1959), or the standard pattern, attributed to Desmond K. Tay who worked with Arthur Morris Jones (1954). Kwabena Nketia has described the timeline, a variation on the standard pattern (1974).

Among all of the paths to explaining rhythm, I propose to focus on one: the motor, identified by Robert Kauffman in his 1980 survey article as one of the explanatory routes for African rhythm. “Motor” means motion, whether it is created by the human body as in a drummer striking a drum or by a dancer moving her feet. Motion can also be defined as conceptual, that is “one who or something which imparts motion” (Oxford English Dictionary [OED ] 1986: 699).

Different theoretical orientations have been associated with motor explanations for African rhythm at different points in history. Some approaches are clearly more powerful in offering analyses of time in African music though each, it seems to me, illuminates some aspect of the issue.

Erich M. von Hornbostel, quite early in the twentieth century—1928 to be exact—said in a now famous quote,

            African rhythm is ultimately founded on drumming. Drumming can be replaced by hand-clapping or by the xylophone, what really matters is the act of beating; and only from this point can African rhythms be understood. Each single beating movement is again two-fold: the muscles are strained and released, the hand is lifted and dropped. Only the second phase is stressed acoustically; but the first inaudible one has the motor accent, as it were, which consists in the straining of the muscles. This implies an essential contrast between our rhythmic conception and the Africans’ we proceed from hearing, they from motion . . . (1928: 52-53, italics mine)

One key phrase of this statement is, “What really matters is the act of beating.” Another key expression is “We proceed from hearing, they from motion.” Hornbostel asserted a motor basis for rhythm, emphasizing not just the acoustic sound as part of the analysis, but the physical movement as well. I would point out that Hornbostel was working in an intellectual climate of cultural evolutionism, and the assumptions of this paradigm are evident, if not explicitly stated here. According to cultural evolutionism, Africans were held to be less culturally evolved than Western Europeans and were referred to by Hornbostel as “so-called primitive man” (1928: 59). From the oft quoted phrase, “We proceed from hearing, they from motion,” one can infer that Hornbostel is imputing a higher level of cognitive functioning to people who proceed from “hearing” rather than those who proceed from “motion.” Body movement may be conceived as more instinctual and less rational. Hornbostel goes on to say, “They rely ultimately on psycho-physical conditions. Bodily motion is freed from effort by repetitions. It is moulded into a precise shape, and proceeds in accordance with its own laws and seemingly by itself” (Hornbostel 1928: 59).

It would be easy to dismiss this idea from Hornbostel as outmoded, ill-informed, or simply not worthy of consideration. The reason to follow it, however, is that for more than half a century ethnomusicologists have engaged with the idea of a motor basis for rhythm even as they have changed the theoretical orientations from which they have investigated it.

John Blacking in 1955 , some twenty-five years after the original assertion, addressed Hornbostel’s idea and found some aspects to be worthy of notice. He says,

            I witnessed some of the most striking evidence in support of Hornbostel’s theory... in Bulawayo...All the Choirs had to sing set pieces of European composed music... These songs were conducted by the African teachers who coaches the choirs: I was astonished to see that several of them gave vigorous up-beats on all the strong beats where I should have given a down-beat...I discussed the matter with some of the African teachers afterwards, and they said that they definitely felt the up-beat to be the strong beat. (Blacking 1955: 19)

Blacking went on to say that he felt that the full significance of the motor concept had not been appreciated (1955: 20). His ethnographic inquiry in this case was likely based on structural-functionalism as well as phenomenological sociology. He had observed a phenomena —a downbeat on what he considered a weak beat— that jarred his sensibility and he then proceeded to ask questions of the teachers who were conducting in a particular manner. What is important here is that Blacking, in his research, was looking at a concept similar to the one Hornbostel was investigating. But he was doing so from quite a different theoretical orientation.

Several years later, Gerhard Kubik analyzed motor patterns, noting, “Motor images are of primary importance in much of Africa’s instrumental music. I believe the research student should attempt to understand them first, and then their inter-related acoustic images” (1965: 35). His work has been supplemented by slow motion analysis of film of an Ngbaka musical bow performance filmed by Gilbert Rouget (1971) and also of a dance suite from Dahomey filmed by Rouget and Jean Rouch (1969).

Gerhard Kubik drew his analysis of Mangwilo xylophone music in Northern Mozambique recorded in 1962. First, he took 8 millimeter silent film, counting frames during the upswing of the hand and then again during the downswing in order to quantify the relative lengths of the upswing and downswing. Because there were 24 frames of film moving per second, Kubik maintained that one could get quite a detailed measurement of the upswing or downswing, which moves about 320 M.M. per quarter note or 640 per eighth note (1965: 45), and he proceeded to show not only the audible beats or impact points but the “silent” ones as well. An extension of this study involved Kubik’s analysis of the length of the upswing and downswing. He studied European students playing Ugandan akadinda xylophone. He found that their impact rhythm or sound was correct, but they lifted their sticks in a different way between impact points compared to expert Ugandan players. Ugandan players took two-thirds of the time between impact points to reach the vertex or high point of their swing and one-third of the time to bring it to the xylophone for the next impact. European players, Kubik studied, tended to divide the time between impact points equally; half of the time to reach the vertex and half of the time to bring the stick down. Kubik found the same ratio of upswing held for backcloth beating, millet pounding and pumping of blacksmiths’ bellows (Kubik 1972 as quoted in Stone 1978).

Kubik explored related motor aspects when he identified “inherent rhythms” in East and Central African instrumental music. These were rhythms heard by the listener but not produced by any of individual musicians. He noted, “The image as it is heard and the image as it is played are often different from each other in African instrumental music” (1962: 33). Thus Kubik was focusing on the complex relationship of motor and acoustic patterns.

His theoretical orientation to psychology is hinted at in his comment that “This gestalt-psychological element plays a great part in listening to and composing some kinds of African instrumental music” (1962: 33). “There is not one but a number of ways of perception. From moment to moment the notes may form different groups, because they can be associated in more than one direction” (1962: 42).

The discussion of motor-related concepts moved from evolutionism where Hornbostel implied a kind of automatic body motion in rhythm, to Gestalt psychology where Gerhard Kubik explored minute perceptual issues located in the mind. Yet both Hornbostel and Kubik were concerned with motor aspects of rhythm.

Hewitt Pantaleoni and Moses Serwadda in 1968 addressed motor issues when they said, “The African learns the whole simultaneously with the parts... the African taps his foot to mime the motion of the dancers, or any other part of the ensemble he wishes to add particularly strongly to his own (1968: 52).

John Chernoff has described some details of motor aspects of the rhythm when he says, “The musicians themselves maintain an additional beat, as has often been observed, by moving some part of their body while they play, not in the rhapsodic manner of a violinist but in a solid regular way. Those people who have said that drummers dance while they play were right in the sense that the drummers keep the beat in this way so that their off-beat drumming will be precise” (Chernoff 1979: 50).

Charles Keil turned to yet another dimension of motor concepts when he described the “feel,” the “groove,” in the 1960s. In the late 1980s labeled this as “participatory discrepancies.” What he was attempting to understand related once again to motor basis of rhythm. Keil, like Kubik, noted that musicians often deliberately and in particular stylization played ahead of or behind the beat. In the 1990s he comments, “Could it be that in many cultures children learn to listen while they learn to dance? Watching an African father support his infant while it pumps its legs up and down to the ‘highlife’ coming over the radio, one is tempted to think so. The nervous system is all of one piece and so is the learning, remembering expressive person” (Keil and Feld 1994: 56). Keil picks up the conversation on motor issues as he comments on both Hornbostel’s ideas and Blacking’s response, seconding Blacking’s idea that a body-based aesthetic be created (1994: 57). Keil’s theoretical orientation ranges widely though he specifically cites Freudian psychology in his discussion of feeling (1994: 76).

Kofi Agawu in 1995 proposed a model for northern Ewe rhythm in Ghana which, relating to generative structural linguistic models, begins with gesture, characterized by free speech rhythm, and ends in stylized gesture, characterized by stylized speech rhythm. He comments, “. . . just as the model simulates motion through a temporal spectrum, so it suggests movement through geographical space” (1995: 29-30).

My own research has emphasized the importance of motion and action. Studied primarily from the perspective of sociological phenomenology, a number of issues have emerged over the years.

Motion and action are central, related concepts that are fundamental to Kpelle aesthetic ideas. For the Kpelle, who live in Liberia and Guinea, on what is known as the Pepper Coast of West Africa, these ideas occur both as very small and particular concepts and as much larger-scale patterns. Movement of a dancer as well as of a traveler will be of concern as we explore how the characterization of motion and action has deep implication for the way we value and analyze music performance in Kpelle and perhaps other African communities.

The centrality of motion and action in Kpelle musicmaking indicates more than aesthetic principles. In the first place, action, particularly that which is ever changing in character, may be associated with agency as well as intention. The musician may demonstrate an “innovative mind that explores new ways of looking at things or which opens up new horizons” (See Abbeele 1992: xiii). This would contrast with much stereotypical knowledge about music performance in Africa that emphasizes stasis or repetitive action or motion (Stone 1994: 257).

One of the earliest and most vivid impressions I developed in the course of fieldwork among the Kpelle of Liberia was the pervasiveness of metaphors for motion and action as ways of describing music sound and dance. Subtle verbs described movements of dancers ranging from trembling to sharp, thrusting arm or leg motions. One drummer described his improvisation in playing the goblet drum as “Kwa woo tono siye, ku bene, pene” (We take one sound and turn it, turn it). A singer such as Feme Neni-kole layered metaphors of motion and action as she sang, “Ngei ya e Pu gata, gata yee gbai gbang su gbai” (My tears fell gata, gata like corn from an old corn farm). Here onomatopoeia conveyed aspects of the motion and the song of that motion— the tears were large and could be heard to fall with the poignancy of dried corn dropping to the ground. An epic performer, Kulung, depicted the jealous wife of the superhero, Woi, who is forced to live off the profit of bowls she carves with her voice. The visual-kinesthetic action of this wife carving was portrayed by onomatopoeic words—each conveying a different kind of action and a different resultant appearance.

            Bongkai, kpolong, kpolong, kpolong
            Mono, mono, fee laa.
            Kalu fee laa, kalu mono, mono.

Bongkai depicts the sound of carving a bowl with a large inside; kpolong portrays small adze strokes; mono, mono is the sound of shiny blackness; fee laa illustrates a flat bowl. Each word depicted a qualitatively different motion and the bowl took shape with all of these actions of carving a bowl of such distinctive features.

We then have a rich array of performance contexts where motion and action are essential components on a small scale. They are associated with individual gestures and sounds in performance.

The dominance of motion and action on a smaller as well as broader scale is more than just an attempt to describe surface features of performance. There are major implications for our interpretations of performance in Africa and the metaphors that have been used in the various analyses of it in all of its manifestations. Motion and action on a small scale can be read alternatively as either characteristic of change—often subtle and improvisational or repetitive and non-creative. As Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow have told us in The Africa that Never Was: Four Centuries of British Writing About Africa, “A major stereotype, and one whose longevity and perseverance seem able to override any contradiction, is that Africa is static, unchanged since the Stone Age, because Africans have neither the creativity nor desire to bring about any change” (Hammond and Jablow 1992: 15). Yet, if the evidence from Kpelle performance is to be taken seriously, creativity and change is everywhere noticed, appreciated, valued, and articulated. And if we are to take what Kpelle musicians express in their discussion about performance we must place it front and center stage in any analysis. Of course we confirm such data with inferences we make from face-to-face observation and sometimes performance.

The colonial literature works against such a view for it provides us with a view of the people who came to Africa during the colonial period as the travelers, the leaders, and the innovators. Thus is was the Germans, French, and Americans who came to Liberia in growing numbers during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who are so often depicted as capable of planning and carrying out motion and action whether it be in music, art, or everyday governance. And much of that ability is attributed to technological developments of German, French, and American culture.

Social scientific theories such as evolutionism (Blacking 1973: 55 -56) and functionalism have contributed to our hesitancy to embrace the idea of motion and action as hallmarks of Kpelle as well as other African performance. Social evolutionism ascribed limited development to African societies, while European societies were more evolved and more fully developed. And functionalism, a theoretical orientation that was used to describe a number of societies in Africa, emphasized basic assumptions about societies as systems where each of the parts, whether they by music or religion contributed to maintaining stasis.

Some of our techniques for recording sound have contributed to these ideas of movement as well as stasis, concepts suggested in Mary Louise Pratt’s discussion of larger colonial encounters in her book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (1992). For in recording, whether it is on a cylinder phonograph or a digital tape recorder, many scholars have isolated and crystallized the performance. “In subtle and often out-of-awareness ways, their techniques served to simultaneously open new horizons, while sequestering certain aspects of the sound and visual images” (Stone 1994: 259).

In ways that we hardly noticed, we isolated song from dance, theater from instrument playing to fit our ideas of what musicmaking should be. Beyond that we often failed to recognize the ubiquitous motion and action that fueled the constant drive for change in performance.

Colonial Accounts

We find the earliest colonial accounts of Kpelle music from the 19th century travelers as well as from missionaries and scholars. These sources are filled with descriptions of instruments that concentrate on physical features (Büttifoker 1890; Westermann 1921: 34; Strong 1930: 64-66). D.W. Whitehurst offers rich detail from an event he encountered on a journey to Bopolu in 1835:

            The beating of the war drum is effected by the open hand, and requires great effort to accomplish it. The body of the drum resembles a mortar neatly fashioned, with places for the insertion of pieces of iron resembling a quiver, to which are attached rings of the same metal; the concussion of the drum head gives them a tremulous motion, which by bringing them into contact with the upright produces a jingling noise. (Whitehurst 1836: 278)

Kpelle musicians and ritual practitioners with whom I have worked present their own perspectives on motion within the domain of performance, which can be referred to as pêle, a domain that embodies a tight bundle of singing, dancing, instrumental playing as well as playfulness, surprise and as I’ve emphasized here, motion and action.

Motion in Dance Movement

Kpelle performers integrate bodily and visual motion into pêle. Dance is considered by many musicians to be both fundamental and essential to musicmaking. As Kao, a superb master drummer, who tried to impress this point upon me explained, if a dancer hears a drum playing, she will feel compelled to move. And that dancing is routine to the performance. More than that, the dancers is supported and reflected through the channel of sound by the drummer and sometimes gourd rattle player who carefully synchronize with her movement. The performance may involve a variety of rhythms played in sonic underscore, counterpoint, or echo to the dancer. As Kao commented, “Núui a ké mãlai, berei a goo siye lai, í ké ngale ti” (When a person is dancing, the way he/she raises his/her feet, you play it that way) (Stone 1982: 64).

These dance movements indicate with precision the nature of the movement. If a dancer does the dance step loking pili (throwing loking), the dancer moves straight forward, thrusting her feet diagonally out from her body first left and then right very rapidly. On the other hand if she dances sokokpa, she “cuts” it and makes circular movements with her feet as well as her whole body first to one side and then to the other. And when she is about to pause her dancing, she would mãla ńga tee (cut the edge of the dance) (Stone 1882: 68-71). Verbal precision designates the quality of the motion.

Motion in Musical Sound

While the movement of dance is visually apparent, music sound, whether it be singing or instrumental playing also shows motion and action. Common Kpelle phrases that refer to music sound illustrate the concern with and attention to aspects of motion and action:

• Ngule siye. (Raise the song.)

• Íwoo té yelêi. (Raise your voice to the sky, which means, increase the dynamic level, pitch, or tempo.) Movement upward indicates increased energy that can be achieved through greater loudness, higher pitch, or faster speed.

• Ka fáa ngulei mu. (Respond underneath the song, which means, sing in response to the soloist.) The chorus acts “underneath” the song both as a support and as a counterbalance to the soloist who conceptually exists in conjunction with and as part of a larger group.

• Ngulei tóo. (Drop the song, which means, sing the song.) (Stone 1982: 68-69.) The dropping action illustrates the unfolding performance as the singer begins to sing the song.

Kpelle performers employ other images of motion as they speak of singers or players moving down a road as they perform. When the performers are appropriately synchronized, they are moving down the road together. When the performance is out of synchrony, then they are moving, the performers say, down different roads.

Once synchrony is achieved and the performance is meshing appropriately, performance or audience members may comment, “Goo a pilang” (The foot has dropped down.) This means that a distinctive phase has been reached beyond the tuning-in phase as the parts come in by staggered entry, and people begin to fit in with other performers.

Beyond the foot-dropping-down stage, another more critical phrase appears in terms of the aesthetic aspects of the performance. The very heart of performing is the area in the song where the singer displays ever more daring acts of improvisation and begins inserting proverbial texts that are illusive, beautiful, and referential. To describe that section of the performance singers often alert their audience by communicating that they are about to approach that section:

            Ku baráa, ka ka wólí tóo ndoo wûle mâ,
            Our fellows listen to my singing song,
            Nga kè doôi, ngé ma yórong bo.
            When I’m singing it, I open its net. (Stone 1982: 73)

The singer is the repository of knowledge and skills to create song. She keeps her treasure hidden till the moment when she chooses to reveal bits and pieces just like a woman who has been fishing with a net and then opens it up so that all can see what she has within that net. As she exhorts the audience to listen, her phrase literally translates, “let your ears stand to my singing song.” The very act of singing reveals at the right moments what has been hidden and guarded. (In a parallel way, people performing ritual are said to “open the fence.”) The aspect of surprise is important, as for her audience eagerly waits to be surprised by what the singer is about to do and how she will do it in composing her song.

Large Scale Movement and Action

Movements can also be considered at a much broader scale. Song and epic texts are dominated with ideas of traveling down a path. The Woni group—Kpelle performers who were influenced by popular music from East Africa— sang of going down a path and meeting various people—most importantly about the lovers that they encountered.

The Woi epic demonstrates the primacy of motion and action on many levels (Stone 1988). This supergenre centers on the hero Woi moving his house and his entire household from one place to another. Choral ostinato patterns depict the movement of the house, which in one episode morphs into the movement of a jumbo jet that carries Woi’s family. The constant sound of the house movement provides the audience with the impression of everpresent motion.

For many Kpelle people, the Woi epic is also about another kind of movement. They believe that the epic metaphorically portrays the larger migration of the Kpelle people from the grasslands Mande area to the coastal rainforest region several hundred years ago. Their ancestors met enemies and fought small scale battles as they kept moving to better land where they could thrive. Woi symbolically stands for the Kpelle people and he and his family meet enemies all the time, just like the Kpelle people met over the long migration southeast.

Myths about Action and Change

The Kpelle people narrate many myths about the origin of song. One of those myths clearly illustrates that action and change are highly valued in Kpelle music performance. The myth tells of a young, argumentative boy who doubted what his elders were telling him, that the Mandingo traders who came to the local market had tails. He didn’t believe them when they further elaborated that the reason the Mandingos came to the market in the morning before anyone else was so that they could sit down and hide their tails. The Mandingos were among the last to leave the market in the evening because they didn’t want anyone seeing their tails when they stood up to leave. The feisty young boy decided to see for himself. He arrived at the market and climbed a píli tree in order to get a good view of the traders. As they began packing up their goods at the end of the day, the young boy saw their tails and couldn’t help shouting in astonishment. Looking up and seeing the rude boy in the tree, one of the Mandingos snapped his fingers and thereby cast a spell that kept the boy attached to the tree from that day forward.

But the boy could express himself in songs that came forth whenever a leaf fell from the tree. The number of leaves that fell in a particular year represented the number of new songs that were created each year (Stone 1982: 80). And people who narrate that story say that Kpelle people expect new songs to come all the time. Some songs are created and performed for only a short time. Others are readily adopted from neighboring communities as people borrow, change and perpetuate the songs, adding their own elaborations of melody, rhythm, and text.

Evidence abounds in Kpelle practice, ideas, and philosophy that motion, action, and change are valued aesthetic principles in music performance. And this discussion asserts how once again the conversation by Hornbostel is expanded under quite a different theoretical orientation. Thus the motor basis of African music can take myriad forms and emphasize different accents on the body and the mind which are held in interesting tensions with one another. The research may draw from cultural evolutionism, psychology, phenomenology all in the effort to understand the motor as one basis among many for African rhythm.


  • [1] This article has benefited from the comments offered during the conference by various attendees. I would like to acknowledge the value of that discussion in preparing the final version of this paper.


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