Rhythm is in the Gaps

A diminished[1] contribution towards an African Musicology

By Larissa Johnson

The place of rhythm in African music studies[2], in the realms of both theory and practice is a theme that fills my head on a more than regular basis. Rhythm is an unarguably fundamental formal element to all music making yet somehow a narrative has been built that it is most fundamental in African musics where it is too often posited as the only element, or at least the only one worth studying in African musics. So how do we talk about rhythm in an authentic way as fundamentally important to African musics without falling into the hole of over one hundred years of oversimplified, white-gazed literature that today is still central to academic discussions of African musics? Can we do this successfully within the academy? Is it significant work to undertake?

I can only attempt some answers. Though I think there is room for massive overhaul of what is available within the academy, I think the more important contributions towards and African Musicology (and of course by extension to conceptualising rhythm in African musics) lie in the experiences of music making on the African continent and in the diaspora.

And so I would like to share a part of mine.

Almost two years ago I started on the wonderful journey of learning two new instruments, Umrhubhe (not discussed here) and Uhadi in the tradition of my teacher Dizu Plaatjies and his teachers Mantombi Matotiyana and Madosini Latozi Mpahleni which is focused on expert manipulation and clear execution of overtones[3]. It is here that my interest lies because although Uhadi is on the surface a percussive instrument with rhythm as its primary function, all master players are concerned with the melodic and harmonic potential of the instrument. In this case, rather than being the ultimate product of striking the string, rhythm becomes a process for successfully producing and controlling harmonics.

My practise towards master playing is based on the realisation (or idea since I’m sure many others before me, on a range of instruments, have come to this point in their practise) that rhythm lies in the gaps, in the spaces between each striking of the string and more importantly in each movement of the right hand and arm that repositions the calabash and changes the harmonic. It is all these moments – between each striking of the string, between the string being open or closed by thumb and index finger, between the calabash being closed against the breast and each position towards fully open – that we execute the physical actions that are rhythm.  Rhythm is in the precise mental anticipation of the next move – a process that can only take place in the gaps.

Playing in the gaps, that is, being more concerned with the process of producing a series of sounds than with the sounds themselves extends beyond practice. For me, it is located in being in a state of trust – trusting the space, trusting the instrument, trusting whichever of the Gods are invested in the process, and most importantly trusting myself. Not trusting my abilities or that I have practiced for however many necessary hours but really myself. And I think this is really the point in investing in the rhythmic practice I’m advocating for: to do it to the point of simultaneously heightening self-awareness and non-attachment to the outcome. When I do this, rhythm (the process of playing in the gaps) becomes cathartic, healing, an investment in myself. And then I think what I ultimately produce becomes inevitably authentic, deep and something that people can easily connect with.


[1] This is a (probably not funny) music joke – a diminished interval is smaller than a minor one which is already quite small.

[2] I use this term and the term African musics to talk about the study of the musics practised on the African continent and in the diaspora in all the many forms and developments through history, and as a way of trying to move away from homogenising all of these thousands of musics. It’s not the best term though, I’m working on it.

[3] Super quick acoustics lesson: Uhadi has one string that can produce two notes by striking the string with a reed. Every note on every instrument has a whole load of partial tones that make it up. They are called overtones or partials or harmonics (although this last one has a bunch of other implications). Uhadi’s magic lies in the calabash that allows the player to isolate these overtones so they are audible apart from each other. And from these, master players are able to construct scale patterns and chords that are the building blocks of melody and harmony.

About the writer and artist: 

Larissa Johnson is a final year BMus student specialising in Musicology and isiXhosa musical bows at the South African College of Music, University of Cape Town. She is concerned with practises of decolonisation in musical interactions, with a particular interest in community based re-curating of musical archives.