Decolonising the Jazz Curriculum Part II

You need to come to the Orbit curriculum debate on Sunday (October 30th; 6pm) Because the righteous demands, the vice-chancellors’ equivocations, the militarisation of campuses and the hail of rubber-coated steel bullets haven’t gone away. But amid the trauma, there are green shoots emerging. One is the growing solidarity between students and the communities of their parents: working-class people who remember ’76 and the ‘80s and can see the parallels – even if too many politicians still can’t. The other is the renewed energy in linking struggles for access to struggles for curriculum, institutional and societal change.

Curriculum decolonisation even made it into the headlines last week via a piece of rhetoric about how #Sciencemustfall. For the right-wing, and the unthinking, it was a good excuse to mock the movement – but rhetoric at a public debate is rarely where the real contestation of ideas happens. As Sarah Wild and Linda Nordling point out in a Daily Maverick editorial ( ) such sweeping outrage as that panelist expressed is easily provoked by the pervasive exclusion of African scientists and African scientific concerns from the dominant discourse.

Students are not, under the current curriculum, exposed to quite how many of the foundations of so-called “Western” science (starting with mathematics) actually emerged from the early Arab world. And many of the defenders of “Western” science don’t know that either – or realise that scientific progress (a word they love) isn’t quite what they think it is.

Far from a steady accretive process where one Great White Man builds on the work of his Great White Predecessors, scientific knowledge has constantly been convulsed by wild leaps and challenges to the paradigms of the prevailing establishment (often initially dismissed by the gatekeepers of the time as absurd). In that sense, there have been multiple ‘science must fall’ moments throughout the history of science, but they’ve taken place within the scientific community. If you doubt that, read Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ( ).

Since we’re talking about curriculum content this week, you might like to look at music scholar Mareli Stolp’s further thoughtful intervention at .

And then I received this, from Gerry Platt in London. He addressed it to our panellists for this weekend, but the wider community deserves to read and debate it too.It’s long, but though Gerry’s points are, in places, fairly technical, the essence is clear: there are far more ways than the dominant one of hearing, analysing and learning jazz. See you on Sunday…


Dear Dr Lindelwa Dalamba, Kevin Davidson, Ceri Moelwyn-Hughes Andre Petersen and Gwen Ansell.

This is a humble, and very incomplete, offering; an edit of what I’m working on. My interest in this issue has grown from an intuition: that what I read about jazz does not always represent what I hear!

I am in discussion with some musicians in South Africa with a view to initiating a cultural exchange programe.
I would be very grateful for any comments (recommended articles etc.) that would help me to further this interest.

Gerry Platt. London, October 2016

Gwen has suggested the focus on the ‘what?’, ‘how?’ and ‘why?’
Whilst I am intensely aware of the ‘how’ I’ve kept this to just two of these.


“Until everyone (Africans and non-Africans) acknowledges the importance and impact of African music on the dynamic quality and creativity of global culture, African mental emancipation will never come to pass”. 
Jacqueline Cordell Deja. pili, Musical Arts in Africa (UNISA, 2003)

. The variations of jazz and blues that we know today reflect centuries of colonial history, largely born during the times of slavery and after, within the African diaspora. As jazz has developed in her birthplace of North America there is a process of cultural cross-pollination. Traits, largely alien to European culture, arrive like seeds carried in the memories of people taken into slavery from many parts of the African continent; their cultures come together for the first time and in numerous ways adapt to each other to birth the new musics of the diaspora.

Blues and jazz are musics of the African diaspora; their elements were never put together in Africa. They come from diverse African cultures and meet in North America. 
At the risk of being provocative; Western traits were largely disruptions to an otherwise essential process of claiming a distinct African American identity that was not imposed by the slave ‘owners’. Such Western traits appear as a result of misinterpretation (by Westerners trained in interpreting music to written scores), by a belief in the superiority of European culture and by commercialisation.

An Afro-centric curriculum would not only enhance the way that jazz is learnt; it would also reveal the rich contribution that the continent has made to the music of the 20th century and beyond. 
(Identifying what might be the untainted authentic African contribution is only a stepping stone within a wider process. Ultimately cross-pollination of all cultural influences in music makes for the richness of our diverse world).

“It’s all just a racket. First I got to pay a guy to take down what I’m playing on guitar. He fool around three or four hours on a piano and make himself maybe ten or twenty dollars.See, he say I don’t play correctly chords, and he has to change um. Then I gotta call in another racketeer to make parts for the different instruments in the combo. Then comes rehearsal. I gotta pay for that too …… And I get to change my stuff to suit them. ….”
Big Bill Broonzy in his autobiography “Big Bill Blues”, 1964.


“There is an interesting distinction, however, between the type of call and response used in West African music and that used in European Music. Often the sound of the call is still in the air when the response begins. The two parts overlap. Sometimes the call begins again before the response is done, thereby overlapping once more”.
Mark C. Ridley: Jazz Styles. 1993.

In the many histories of jazz we see references to traits that are African in origin but the specific cultural source is rarely mentioned (eg: ‘Shining Trumpets’ by Rudi Blesh: 1946). One exception is the work of Gerhard Kubik, he is able to cite specific African examples of traits that have influenced the diaspora music from the blues through to Charlie Parker. Kubik’s work focuses largely on pitch tuning and harmony.
It is imperative that the source of many more traits, that appear in the diaspora, are located to specific cultural traditions in Africa.

A look at a ‘bebop’ chord book will quickly reveal how some African harmonics have been distorted to fit a Western method of interpretation.

The early blues, published in sheet form, were transcribed by people trained in western notation. This led to European folk chords being used to inaccurately describe music of African origin. This has contributed to the myth that jazz is based on African rhythm and European harmony, the western influence is accorded undue importance in the process.  

“It is, of course, natural for everyone to interpret a sound event in terms of the culture with which they are familiar. This is why Western-trained musicians will always detect European chord progressions in the blues, not only in those cases where their presence is obvious and intended, but also where there is evidently no such concept”.Gerhard Kubik. Africa and the Blues (1999).

Leaving aside the smooth FM radio jazz & the three chord pop blues, the most significant Western influence is the 12 tone equal temperament tuning of Western instruments, especially the piano. That Africa has over 2000 indigenous languages is expression of its vast diversity; there is no homogenous culture or musical style in Africa. In addition to this the music brought by enslaved people to America reflects the different colonial powers and their shipping routes. The contrasting West African rhythmic patterns in North America and the asymmetrical time-line patterns of Brazil are an example of this.

“The popular belief that jazz and blues all inherited European harmony is kindled by authors who proceed from classical music theory. Using Western harmonic concepts as a blanket explanation for all the harmonic qualities in the blues, they fail to explore how the Western schemes are converted. ….. In the jazz world the identification of harmonic sequences in Western terminology has been elevated to “jazz theory”, which is now required material for college students studying to be jazz musicians”.
Gerhard Kubik. Africa and the Blues (1999).

How would a jazz and blues curriculum differ from current ones if framed from an African perspective? Possible components to be included are the following: 
Is it best to break sound up into different aspects? If so; how?

It is important to acknowledge that the categories of ‘rhythm’, ‘harmony’ and ‘melody’ are culturally specific and have only a limited use when discussing non-Western music. If we are to look at the different elements of African music another breakdown may be appropriate.

Kofi Agawa comments “Erich Von Hornbostel’s seminal article of 1928 … exemplifies some of the comparative method. In its metalanguage (antiphony, part-singing, organum, scale, interval, harmony, tonality, ostinato, form, and the relationship between speech-tone and pure melody).”

 In ‘Representing African Music.’ (p 62-63) 2003 Kofi Agawu says “There is no single word for rhythm in the Ewe language (Togo, Ghana,) ……. related concepts of stress, duration and periodicity do in fact register in subtle ways in Ewe discourse”.
According to the author the same goes for the Tiv (Nigeria, Cameroon,) the Mandé (Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone) and the Vai (Liberia). 

With this in mind perhaps rhythm should be included in headings such as ‘timbré-melodic phrasing’?

Furthermore “the use of bar lines remains one of the most contested issues in transcriptions of African music”. (Kofi Agawu. Representing African Music, p.56. 2003).

How are scales formed and tuned? Numerous different scales (some giving rise to what have been called ‘blue notes’) from Africa were brought to North America including:
Seven tone and five tone equal temperament (ET).
Scales built on overtones. 
Scales with ambiguous, ‘elastic’ thirds.
17 tone Arabic scales.

Gerhard Kubik’s paper ‘The African Matrix in Jazz Harmonic Practices’, in: Black music research Journal. Vol. 25, No. 1/2 (Spring-Fall, 2005). maps how we can approach part of our learning.

“… in jazz history from the 1920s to the 1950s, different sets of African traits become prominent in succession. Heterophony and responsorial, functional polyphony were dominant in early New Orleans jazz … homophonic multipart structures set the tone of big-band jazz during the swing era of the 1930s, while equotonal melodic principles, clustered chords often based on remote partials, and what has been called the ‘pitch area concept’ Evans 1982, 24) staged a breakthrough in bebop in the 1940s”. p.169.

“There are five major principles of organisation and conceptualisation of tonal-harmonic elements in African music that seem to have continued and been creatively applied to jazz”:
(Kubik, p. 174):

To summarise, I paraphrase:

  • The span process: Players strike two keys on the xylophone that are separated by one key and then shift this bi-chord in parallel hand movement to lower or higher keys.
  • The experience of partials-derived systems: Overtones; developed from the recognition of partials of the natural harmonic series.
  • Blues tonality: (a) music with an ever present drone (bourdon), (b) intervals that included minor thirds and semitones, (c) a sorrowful, wailing song style, and (d) ornamental intonations.
  • The concept of flexible pitch areas: Kubik coined the term ‘elastic scales’ with reference to certain tonal systems in Africa. For example; there was considerable variation in the Zande harp tunings from musician to musician and even from day to day by the same musician.
  • Equiheptatonic concepts: In precolonial Africa, equiheptatonic (octave divided into seven equal intervals) tunings were developed in several distinct areas.

Elsewhere, Kubic comments: “In various kinds of African music there is a phenomenon of central interest ….. It is the so called inherent note patterns. … Inherent note patterns only exist as auditory images; they are non-existent as played images. They hide in the inner structure of a total composition, … I was first struck by this … when I began to play the xylophones called amadinda and akadinda in Luganda.”
Gerhard Kubic, ‘Subjective patterns in African music’, p.129-130 “Cross Rhythms 3”. edited by Domowitz, Eke and Mvula. 1989.


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