Folk & Traditional Music of the Western Continents

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The fact that many kinds of polyphony are present in Africa— and that this also seems to be the case elsewhere in the world where polyphony is found—strengthens our belief that polyphony is a uni­fied concept. When a culture discovers or learns to perform polyph­ony it seems to learn several different kinds. There are cultures with no polyphony at all, but there are few, if any, that use, say, only parallel fifths but nothing else.
Most African polyphony belongs to two types: 1) that in which all of the voices use the same melodic material, or 2) that which comes about through the peculiarities of the instruments. In the former category we find, of course, parallelism. There are parallel thirds, fourths, fifths, and occasionally sixths, but other intervals seem to be rare. In the case of parallel thirds, alternation between major and minor thirds is usual and is made necessary by the diatonic seven-tone scales which, as we have said, are common in Africa. Parallel fourths and fifths seem to be more common in East Africa, while thirds and sixths seem to dominate in the Congo and Guinea Coast areas. Parallelism is rarely completely exact, for the tendency to im­provise seems to militate against slavish following of one voice by-another. Example 7-6 illustrates parallelism among the Thonga of South Africa. A chorus of men and women is led by a female soloist and accompanied by a musical bow, which also plays interludes be­tween the stanzas.
The player of the musical bow, which is evidently limited to the tones D, E, and F, plays the melody along with the soloist and with the second part of the chorus, but switches to an approximation of the highest part of the chorus when his range requires it.
African music also possesses rounds, which often seem to have come about through antiphonal or responsorial singing. If leader and chorus use the same tune, the chorus may become overanxious and fail to wait for the leader to finish his turn; thus a round of sorts is born. The fact that many African rounds do have the entrance of the second voice near the end of the first voice's rendition of a tune points to this manner of origin; so also does the fact that most known African rounds have only two voices. Also resulting from the antiph­onal technique is the kind of polyphony in which one voice sus­tains a tone, perhaps the final tone of its phrase, while the other voice performs a more rapidly moving melody, at the end of which it, in turn, holds a long note while the first voice performs its moving part.

E-Book - An Annotated Compendium of Old Time American Songs by James Alverson III