Culture Magazine

Three Against Two the Tambuka Way

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Western music is based on so-called duple rhythms, patterns of two or multiples of two. There are triple rhythms as well, the waltz for example, but they aren't as prominent. What Western rhythm rarely does is superimpose the two.
Not so in much of the third world, where three against two is a way of life. Here's a passage from Beethoven's Anvil (pp. 116-117) that describes a technique for learning three-against-two that is ascribed to an origin myth. Imagine that, a culture that makes rhythm part of it's origin myth.
* * * * *
The Tumbuka of Malawi, in southeastern Africa, have an origin myth that is coupled with a thigh slapping routine. The myth concerns Mupa, who discovered the rhythms used in vimbuza music, the music played for the trance dancing central to Tumbuka healing. Mupa discovered the rhythms while slapping his thighs. He began with a simple alternation—slap the right thigh with the right hand, left thigh with the left hand, in even alternating strokes—but that quickly grew boring. So he began figuring out more interesting ways to generate rhythms. I won’t recite the whole story—you can find it in Steven Friedson’s book, Dancing Prophets—but I will briefly describe the thigh-slapping routine that Mupa developed.
First, take a comfortable seat with your feet resting on the floor. Gently slap one thigh (say, the right thigh with the right hand) and then the other; do this repeatedly with an even rhythm at a comfortable tempo. Now, group your strokes into groups of three by slapping your knee on the first of each group of three. You will probably have to count to do this. You could use number names and say “one two three” but any three syllables will do. Just repeat the sequence over and over and slap your knee on the first syllable in the series. Not only is the physical gesture a little different from before, so is the sound. Notice that the initial stroke in your groups—set in bold type—will alternate between your right and left knees:
(1) R knee (2) L thigh (3) R thigh (1) L knee (2) R thigh (3) L thigh
A full cycle is thus six strokes long, divided into two groups marked by initial knee slaps. Emphasize the knee slaps so that they are just a little louder, thus strengthening the triple grouping. Practice this at a comfortable pace until you can do it with little or no thought. then you may want to pick up the pace and see how fast you can go.
Next we are going to superimpose THREE (two-stroke groupings) on the TWO groupings that consist of three strokes each. We will do this merely by thinking. Continue the same pattern but now concentrate on only one hand at a time, perhaps your right. I find it helps simply to look at the appropriate thigh. In the following representation the right strokes have been set in bold type while the initial strokes of the two groups of three have been set in italics:
(1) R knee (2) L thigh (3) R thigh (1) L knee (2) R thigh (3) L thigh
One could also choose to concentrate on the left-hand strokes:
(1) L knee (2) R thigh (3) L thigh (1) R Knee (2) L thigh (3) R thigh
Either way, get six beats in two different ways. When you use knee slaps as your marker, the six beats are divided into two groups or three beats each. When you use left or right side as your marker, they are divided into three groups of two beats each. Further, you can switch your concentration back and forth from the right-hand strokes to the left-hand ones.
If you are not already practiced in this sort of thing, you should be slow and deliberate. As you become comfortable, pick up the pace. You will reach a point where you no longer explicitly think in six, with overlays about how each stroke must be executed, and think instead in three/two.
The pattern of physical gestures you establish by practicing this exercise can then be applied to playing the ng’oma drum, the lead or master drum of Tumbuka music. The thigh stroke and knee stroke of the exercise become two different ways of striking the drum. But the basic pattern the Mupa left his people forms the core pattern of Tumbuka drumming; all other patterns derive from it.
* * * * *
See also: Three Against Two: Splitting the Mind in Two.

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