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Improvisation in the African soundworld

In African music, dance, rhythm and improvisation are all closely related


DANCING IS A WAY of physically representing rhythm through movement: rhythm made manifest. And as you dance, you become an extra player, using your body to improvise your own rhythmic patterns alongside the music.

‘Get Boogie’

Follow the beat in this modern South African Kwaito (house track). As you listen, create your own beat inside the music, dance against the beat.

What you've just done is to create your own beat alongside the music, as a dancer. For Africans this act is very important in their soundworld. Africans believe that each person needs to add their own individual value of time to life. In music, this means improvisation, where at every stage there is freshness and newness – everyone improvising is adding their own individual value of time.

Many people wonder why African music sometimes sounds so repetitive. It’s because the major focus in the music is the tiny deviations from the basic pattern, or the variations on a basic theme.

Without an organising principle of repetition, true creative improvisation in African music would be impossible, since an improviser relies upon the on-going beat.


Try to hear the improvisations within this drumming and percussion track from eastern Nigeria.


Or in this modern track from Mali by Adama Yalombo.

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