African Ritual Funeral Music (Dogon Culture: Three Snapshots)

The subject of African ritual music as applied to funeral celebrations and ritual burial is a complex subject that is consistent with the composite nature of African creativity. This is so because to really penetrate into the inner reality of this subject one must first confront the nature of given non-western cultural aesthetics and/or value system tendencies that define what a given experience means culturally and individually and also what this phenomenon means in seeking to gain relevant insight into the deeper sensibilities of a given people and/or culture. A change in perceptual alignment is needed to understand the role of creative music in African ritual music because the composite hierarchic aesthetic that ‘allows for meaning’ in African culture does not recognize the principal divisions that underlie  western assumptions of ‘aesthetic-intergration’ and/or perceptual involvement or fulfillment. Because the subject of African ritual music is not seen by African’s as a separate subject that can be isolated from the composite event it takes place in- that is, that the essence of a given creative postulation in African creativity is a composite experience that allows for a multiplex of ‘occurrences’ to happen that reflects on the total nature and experience of both the individual and composite group/community. The nature of this aesthetic difference is profound and totally connected with the role of creativity and cultural life perception and experience. In seeking to understand some aspect of this subject we are given an opportunity to view cultural vibrational dynamics ( and human affinity dynamics) as a genesis construct model that establishes a hint about the aesthetic reality of African ritual music. My interest in this subject is directed towards gaining some sense of what a composite aesthetic ritual allows for in the ‘active space’ of the creative experiensor. The essence of African ritual structure seems to hint at a completely different model of cultural organization and ‘vibrational sensibility’ as well as interaction forms and gesture. It is this aspect of ritual burial ceremony which interest me.

The subject of African ritual music for this paper thus involves some attempt to gain insight into the ‘community’ of the music and the role of creativity as part of the ‘glue’ that makes culture and individual life meaningful. To really understand the role of music in this context as intertwined into composite culture is to be confronted with 1) postulation and/or improvisation as a major component of the ‘time-field’ action of a given ‘participation’ ( and/or ceremony) 2) the concept of musical organization 3) music and language and 4) aesthetics and style 5) general concepts about music and 6) music as a component in social organization . In the first category, the phenomenon of African ritual music must be viewed as one composite time-space experience that contains a nucleus micro/macro structure that sheds insight into the ‘experience-nature’ of African music. To understand this point is to understand that the ritual structure of a given occasion serves as the outline structure that serves to elaborate the composite uniqueness of a given occasion. This relationship mirrors the actual experience reality in African music in the sense that the working compositional materials of a given ceremony establishes a context of ‘operatives’ that serves to highlight the ritual backdrop of the occasion rather than the concept of structure as a fix sequence that must be exucuted in one way. Structure used in this manner serves as a mediating platform that allows for the fullest expression of both the community and the individual. It is in understanding the nature of this relationship where one can better understand the ‘real time’ actualization of the ritual experience because in seeking to understand African music both individual and group ‘intention’ comes into play. The structural formal reality then of African music is a flexible form-state that is ‘allowed to breath’ through the shifting vibrational balances that connects and allows for personal and group interaction. There are —- aspects of this phenomena that can be sited that are relevant to the study of the ritual musics a) the phenomenon of time and b) the phenomenon of rhythm and c) the use of musical organization. In the first example, the consideration of time in African music is a tri-centric phenomenon that cannot be reduced to any one function but rather gives insight into the ‘operational reality’ of ‘African music and the African sensibility. The consideration of time in this context involves the use of ‘all-time’ perceptual constructs that direct ‘vibrational attention’ to the composite ‘summation’ event of the ritual. Time in this context is not perceived as a single linear sequence of moments but rather as a multiple layer of independent ‘actualizing-experiences’ that transcends any one rhythmic strata or metric linear constructs. What this means in the actual ‘isness’ of African ritual drama is that the composite experience celebrates ‘real time’ experiences in a way that is not separate from composite life (ie. where many events are always taking place at any given moment; some of which might involve a given person, some of which might have nothing to do with a given individual- that is, individual event, local events and the composite ritual purpose of the occasion). The consideration of musical organization then is connected to what aspect of cultural life is being celebrated, but the nature of that organization is consistent with the aesthetic nature of a cultural community.

The category of African musical language involves a recognition of the ‘aesthetic floor’ of African ritual music. This is so because the nature of African ritual music is not separate from the composite aesthetic nature of active creative participation in a given ceremony. The challenge of African creative language, as it relates to symbolic participation in this context involves 1) the use of musical language as a composite phenomenon that is ‘trans-idomatic’ 2) the use of musical ‘signals’ 3) the use of ritual ‘possession’ and 4) the mythological backdrop that defined the ‘myth-relationships’ that are reenacted in a given ceremony. In the first context, the use of musical language in African music must be viewed in its own right- having nothing to do with European notions of rationality and/or pitch recognition categories. Musical language in African music is connected with the actual speaking language in a way where in many cases it is one and the same as the actual talking language´´ . To understand this aspect of African music is to understand that the dynamic flow of a given African ritual performance allows for a kind of actual ‘talking’ inside the music. That is, the language and formal character of the music is used as an actual language that can be written of as the ‘second language’ of a given cultural group. In the actual moment of performance (ie. experience) the musicians have an inner communication between themselves that can be written of as kind of like ‘having a conversation’ between themselves (or between themselves and the other celebrates of the festival occasion). This aspect of musical language cannot be over emphasized because the heart of African creativity is not seeded from the type of intellectual and/or existential reality that we in the west take for granted.

The category of signal strategies continues to extend the tri-centric nature of African ritual music. With this consideration it is possible to comment on the internal mechanisms of African ritual music. By the term signal strategies in this context I am referring to the use of internal signal phrases that serve as a point of ‘involvement’ that marks (or recognizes) some aspect of African extended form. What this means is that the internal ‘experience-floor’ of African ritual music contains a dynamic multiple context of experiences that are ‘manipulated’ in a way that is consistent with the formal shape of the ritual occasion. Signal strategies are used to change from one rhythmic-logic to the next sequence or pattern, or to react to the particulars of a given dance or soloist. The nature of this operating feature moves to produce a fixed and mutable ritual experience that ‘affirms’ its ritual occasion while at the same time demonstrating a ‘flex-time’ structural feature that places emphasis on the ‘actualness of the moment’. The phenomenon of signal strategies in the inner-reality of the ceremony is not limited to only the musicians reacting to one another but rather involves the nature of the total inter-relationships inside the social community . The use of signal percussion in this context involves the use of a) signal cues b) sectioning devices c) calls (or dramatic vocalizations) d) markers (structural and/or gestural) and e) the use of introductory cadential material. In confronting the spectacle of a given ritual presentation we are looking at the same microcosm components of composite culture.

In African ritual music the dynamics of aesthetics and style allow for a completely original ‘event-state’ experience that has nothing to do with western concepts of presentation and/or ‘event-image’ perception. In seeking to experience a given ritual occasion of this nature it is important that the composite environment experience is taken into account. There are two aspects of this phenomenon that relates to the subject of this paper, that being:  a) the use of  composite sound-field occurrences and b) the use of continous sound-field occurrences. By the term composite sound-field occurrences I am referring to the use of a wide range of musical instruments as well as sound devices that emphasize the use of ‘pure sound’. In this category can be found the use of buzzers and noise makers or the use of metal rings that go outside of tempered concepts of sound organization. This is an example of an ornamentive logic construct that is consistent with the aesthetic of African music. The combination of ‘so-called’ musical sounds and the use of noise devices makes for a unique timbre state that transcends any one notion of pitch recognition and points instead to the challenge of the composite environment. The experience of African ritual becomes blurred into the reality fabric of actual life- where the essence of the experience has nothing to do with glorifying a ‘fixed-position’ but rather seeks to celebrate the inherit (and ‘exherit’) ways of the ‘cosmics’. In the second category, the use of an continuous sound field gives insight into a notion of form that goes outside of a specified time-field experience and instead gives hint of multi-dimensional experiences that allow for unique experiences and formal (ritual) experiences to co-exist. This aspect of ritual form should not be taken lightly, for the heart of these strategies allow for a kind of interaction theater of events of occur that takes in the people of its given community. Including the use of trance music strategies that take ceremony outside of small scale time durations and set sequential event-progressionalism.

There are six categories of conceptualizing ( and zones of reception) that can be sited as relevant to the inter-event/action space of African ritual music, that being; 1) music as narrative structure 2) music as a processional component 3) music as a political component and 4) music as a functional particular component  5) particular musics for ritual functions and 6) music for transformation. In the first example the concept of narrative logics in African music involves understanding the experiences of the particular individual and the role of ritual in ‘fulfilling’ (maintaining) culture. Narrative logics in this context then is the phenomenon of ‘action-reaction’ that informs the essence of human and cultural experience. There are two aspects to this quality, a) experience as a context to transfer concepts (historical and/or specific encounters) and experience as manifested in the mythology of the culture. It is in understanding this phenomenon where we can begin to gain insight into the essence of intention as a genesis component axiom of African music that lies at the heart of its postulation dynamics (ie. affinity nature). Narrative musics experiences document everything in African culture in song form structure and acts as a kind of assessorial educational component that attends to the business of cultural life. The extended realization of this area of African music is the use of narrative postulation strategies as an integral component in the use of possessional and shamanic musics (and this relationship is directly connected to the aesthetic basis of the funeral musics- that being; the taking on of the ancestor spirits and the use of ‘talking in tongues or the fulfillment of the connection between the living and the dead through the development of strategies that involve bringing the dead back to life (ie. zombies).

The use of music as a processional component in African music gives insight into the use of extended form in African ritual music. In seeking to understand this subject we are forced to look at the role of political and social dynamics as inter-active factors that affect the ‘balances’ of the composite society. The event-sequence nature of African ritual funeral ceremonies in this context involve the experiences of 1) isolated individuals 2) particular groups or local events and 3) trans-sector events that extend pass designated area-structures that mark off political area-space or royal governance sectors (turfs). In the first category the effective-operating space of the individual does not depend on any one factor but rather this aesthetic position allows for personal expression to be part of the component lining of ritual creativity. It is in looking at the individual where we are suddenly made aware of the insistence of creativity and the total acceptance of uniqueness – even when applied to the use of costumes and decorative ornaments of individual dress. The reality of African ritual structure presents the community with the use of 1) ‘tracing’ strategies that seek to retrace the path-particulars (structure/architecture) of the composite community’s land area-shape and/or ritual mythology and 2) connecting strategies that allow for recognition of group action and solidarity. By the term tracing strategy I am referring to the use of strategies that retrace the path a given individual and/or group has taken ( or traveled) as a means to have a formal shape construct that serves as a genesis model for the sequence of the ritual. The concept of processional musics that developed in Africa is consistent with the composite nature of the African sensibility. The emphasis tends to fall on strategies that rely on every sector in the society- manifested in a parade like ceremonial structure that allows for both the king or royal family as well as the various inner independent social sectors to move throughout the space/environment of the composite culture. That is; the phenomenon of the African ritual parade is a connecting logic structure that brings together the composite community. The backside of this formal states reveals a kind of ‘awareness of historical complexities’ that wants to avoid the danger that takes place when composite order breaks down. The phenomenon of acceptance in this context sheds light on a kind of feminine something that seeks to ‘keep the family together’ and that also knows the ‘experience’ of inter-war between families and/or different parts of the tribal community. The form of the ritual occasions are ‘individual to community forms’  that transcend any given musical construct and instead gives insight into the social-pychological dimensions of ritual ceremony and of African culture.

The political reality of African ritual structure can also be viewed as an expression of a particular aesthetic nature that is also expressed in its use of ritual ceremony. By political reality in this context I am referring to the use of ritual structure as a means to maintain cultural harmony and balance as well as ritual structure as a genesis basis to pass on cultural belief. This phenomenon is part of the ‘checks and balances’ of the African aesthetic. The concept of ritual structure that Africa evolved acknowledges the diverse energies of a community as a positive and dangerous factor that must be considered and attended to.

The category of music as a functional particular component in itself can be used to examine the moment to moment event-experiences that take place in African ritual music. It is through this category where one can begin to 1) examine the use of gesture-response logics that characterizes the kinds of inter-action dynamics that takes place between a) the musicians interactions between themselves b the interaction between the musicians and also the movement of principle and secondary individuals in the ritual drama being worked out and c) the consideration of ‘intention’ as practiced through character role enactment and the role of mythology. In the first example the use of gesture-response logics is the term I give to the use of music as part of ritual theater and character provocation. African ritual music in this context find the principle master musician(s) as an actor in the action of the drama of the ritual. First he is listening to the praises of the diseased then he is egging some sector of the community-playing one sector off the other. In seeking to understand this accompanying role-playing we are able to better sense the inner-comraderie of the experience. Music in this context cannot really be talked of as separate from the composite lining of the ritual event. The ability to operate in trans-domain environments lies at the essence of African ritual music. There is the individual musician working and playing music in council with his given ensemble, there is the same musician as an individual having his own separate experience ( involving his own separate experiences in his inner-self as well as the particulars of given individual encounters with other individuals and/or groups (ie. targets and/or particulars) inside of the experience of functioning inside of the ensemble). The second degree of this zone of experiences involve the inter-reality experiences of a given musical ensemble to other musical ensembles in the summation space of the ritual. This is so because the operating theater of African ritual music is not a one dimensional environment that houses only one ensemble in the way Westerners think of ‘designated instrumental specifics’ but rather a given ceremony might have from two to twenty different musical ensembles playing in the ‘active-space’ of the ceremony. The net effect of this phenomenon is the arrival of a multi-dimensional sonic experience that allows for tri-centric experiences. ‘It and the Other becomes the same!” The concept of a trans-domain environment then can be viewed as the ‘community of formal’ experience. That is , the form and the participation is both fixed and mutable where everyone experiences the same context but different actual individual experiences. This is a community that utilizes drama ‘for symbolic intention’.


The example I have included for this paper contains a recorded example of funeral rites of the Dogon people from the southern-central region of Africa. The form of this material is: song, recitation. trumpet call, and bull-roarers. In the first example it is possible to hear someone talk about the life of the diseased. This example is that of an African Giot singing the praises of the dead man in way that is totally consistent with what we have learned in class in Hercowitz’s writings. This cassette selection is a perfect example of an increased sonic-spectrum music that transcends western concepts of fixed pitch and ‘sonic attraction’. The example also reveals the use of call and response music strategies that balances the ‘vibrational flow’ of the experience from the speaker to the larger group. The ‘screams’ coming from the background in the middle and end of the music can be looked at as ‘interjections’ that are part of the event.In the second example the use of the staccato trumpet ‘reflective like’ statements gives insight into sequential forming strategies in a medium velocity time-field that is unique and interesting. Notice how closely the trumpet instruments sound like human voices in the second recorded example. This is a very different concept of instrumental timbre. The use of repetition in this example shows a multi-linear ‘postulation’ that is not seeded in any one time and/or rhythmic gravity. In the third example, the use of ‘bull-roarers’ brings a repetitive gradient sound strategy that sounds like some kind of ‘lulla hoop’ or something. I like the added dimension of having the dogs included in the example. All of these experiences derive meaning from real life. Its almost as if the ‘bull-roarer’ horns are trying to ward off evil spirits and even the dogs seem frighten. In every example, note the multi-linear event-nature of the music- that being, the various levels of multi-experiences that ‘reflects and recast’ the ‘presence’ of the events.