1. Main musical traditions.
(i) Pygmy and Kele music.
The music of the ‘pygmies’ has features in common with that of other hunter-food-gatherer peoples in Africa. These include the use of a pentatonic tonal system incorporating tetratonic forms; the use of alternately ascending and descending intervals of 5ths, 6ths, 4ths and 7ths in songs that combine a yodelling technique with polyphonic imitation; musical development based on a series of distinct melodic and rhythmic cycles, in a kind of canon particularly suited to the resonances of the forest canopy; and a constant use of polyrhythm within ternary structures. The ‘pygmies’ of northern Gabon conclude each polyphonic sequence with a sustained solo note that turns into a glissando, imperceptible at first. This is amplified by the maximum vocal resonance, and accompanied by a specific gesture that consists of folding back the lobe of the ear by passing the opposite arm over the top of the head.
The Kele were settled in Gabon before the final waves of Bantu migration. They are now dispersed throughout the country where they live in symbiosis with other groups so that the original features of their music are difficult to identify. The first explorers, however, noted their use of an eight-string harp with a brick-shaped box resonator and an extension carved in the shape of a 7. As far as is known, this instrument is unique to Gabon where it is widespread.
(ii) The music of the Tsogho, Miene and related peoples.
The Miene-speaking peoples settled on the lakes and on the northern coast in about the 13th century; but the Kande, the Pindji, the Evya and the Tsogho went down the southern tributaries of the Ogooué and settled in the central mountain massif. A civilization that is now typical of the Gabon forest because of its cultural dominance developed among the Tsogho. It is notable for its various initiatory societies, the most famous being the male brotherhood of the Bwete, which give secret instruction through liturgical ceremonies based on music and dance. These comprise a succession of processional choirs, harp music that has a specific initiatory meaning and that accompanies the lyrical improvisations of a principal cantor, the recitation of the myths of origin accompanied by a musical bow, and dances with masks that are staged with skilful lighting. Almost the total inventory of musical instruments in their functional and symbolic hierarchy is presented in these ceremonies. The liturgical orchestra is based on the ngombi, an eight-string harp, and the bake, a wooden percussion beam, which rests on two supports and is struck by two players. This ensemble is supplemented by a mouth-resonated musical bow (fig.1); ensembles of vertical drums including the ndungu (with laced skin) and the mosumba (with nailed skin), which accompany the masked dances; the soke, a ritual rattle (formed from two vegetable shells filled with dried seeds and attached to a handle) used by the principal officiant who recites the myths; and various rattles made of vegetable matter and metal, as well as groups of pellet-bells and jingles. The sound of the ghebomba, a signal horn, marks the beginning and the end of the ceremonies.
The music of the Miene-speaking Mpongwe, Rungu, Nkomi and Galoa shows certain similarities to that of the Tsogho. It is characterized by a sophistication of the melodic line, especially in women’s singing, which although based on a hexatonic scale has a strong D-mode flavour. The singers also use long vocalizations of beautiful liquidity which result from the sonorities of the Miene language, especially its open vowels. A further characteristic is the fullness of the choral ensembles (ex.1), which use harmonies based on the notes of the two overlapping common chords with minor or neutral 3rds, tuned to the harp. Harp playing among both the Miene and the Tsogho is sometimes reminiscent of Iberian improvisation on instruments of the guitar type, and this might imply an early Portuguese influence. The tuning of an Nkomi harp is given in ex.2.
2. External influences.
(i) From the south.
Another wave of settlement, this time from the south and south-east, took place as a result of the territorial expansion of the former kingdoms of Kongo and Loango. Their influence was felt well before the 16th century as far as Cape Lopez. The migration from the south introduced two types of pluriarc, each with five strings. The tsambi of the Lumbu, the Vili and the Shira of the plains and lagoons of the south-west is small and carefully made and is also found in Loango and in Bas-Zaïre. The other (shown in fig.2) is large and more crudely made and is called ngwomi by the Teke, or Tegue, of the eastern plateau. The term ngwomi is a linguistic transformation of ngombi, the name by which the peoples of the interior of Oabon know the eight-string harp. The Teke of the Congo generally call this instrument lukombe, and it may have originated in the region of the River Kwango and Kasai.
The sanza is a lamellophone used for intimate and meditative secular music. It is known in Gabon and the Congo region as sandza, sandji and esandji and is widespread in the south and south-east of the country. The Gabonese instrument, which has metal keys, corresponds generally with the River Congo type. Some instruments are, however, built on two small boards and are similar to instruments found in the River Kwango and Kasai region. To achieve the greatest possible complexity of timbres, the subtle plucked sounds of the pluriarcs and the sanza are systematically prolonged by a continuous buzzing, obtained on the pluriarcs by the addition of metal plates with rattling rings round their edges, and on the sanza by trade beads threaded on its keys.
Teke music is particularly original: ensembles of two or three sanza with a common tuning are used; polyphonic structures based on different vocal timbres occur in great successive waves in response to a soloist’s call-phrase, sometimes sung falsetto. The vocal sound quality, reminiscent of yodelling although produced quite differently, can on occasion induce possession, the possession dances of women’s societies being controlled by a soothsayer. The natural singing voice is remarkably soft despite its high register, a combination that sometimes leads to the expressive strangling of particularly high notes, especially characteristic of the Punu.
(ii) From the north.
The last of the great migrations produced the present settlements in the north. In the early 19th century, at the time of the first major colonial explorations, the Fang (Faŋ) tribes began to lead a massive exodus of peoples from central Cameroon and from the Ubangi region towards the banks of the Ogooué and the estuary of the Gabon. They were called the Pangwe by the bank-dwellers, and also occupied Equatorial Guinea (Rio Muni) and south Cameroon. They appeared to have something in common with the Zande and introduced instruments of an Ubangl type, such as large wooden lamellophones (which Laurenty termed the pahouin type after the Pangwe peoples) called nkola or tamatama, found also in Cameroon; and xylophones, which were previously unknown in Gabon.
The xylophones are of two types: the medzang m’biang (fig.3), a log xylophone whose keys rest on two banana trunks, is reserved for the Melane ancestor cult, and is used in pairs with 15 and 8 keys on each instrument; the second type is portative, its keys being suspended over a frame of light wood beneath which several gourd resonators are fitted. Each of these resonators has a small hole which is covered with a fine membrane to form a mirliton. The keys are struck with two rubber-padded sticks. The portative xylophones are used in groups of five to accompany girls’ dances. Each instrument has its own name and range and the instruments are ordered from the highest to the lowest according to the number of keys (9, 9, 8, 6, 2). Xylophone music is like an iridescent carillon of timbres, pitches and note-lengths, based on a major hexatonic scale with no seventh degree. The keys are arranged in the order of the scale in such a way that the alternate or simultaneous use of the sticks produces intervals of 3rds and 4ths.
The Fang are particularly distinguished by their oral epic tradition, which is largely concerned with superhuman struggles. Bards accompany themselves on the Mvet, a harp-zither with notched bridge (fig.4), while reciting vehement prose, which is ordered in regular metrical periods against a rigorous isochronous background supplied by pairs of concussion sticks. Each episode in the narrative ends with a raucously sung melodic ‘flight’ in which intervals of diminished 5ths are curiously interposed; the recitation can last for a whole night.
The harp-zither is also used by the Kota and by the Teke, who combine it with one of their ubiquitous jingles. The Fang formerly used an eight-string harp in their funeral ceremonies, now used exclusively by the syncretic cults in the capital. The resonators of some of these harps are given magnificently carved anthropomorphous extensions in the style of ancestral statues and suggest a relationship with those of the Ngbaka of the Central African Republic.
The music of the Fang is sober and remarkably disciplined; it can also be rough and virile, characterized by grandiose accents. The great group dances are sustained by the steady rhythm of two mbejn, vertical drums with slightly conical bodies, and they are controlled by the signals of the nkul, a large slit-drum. The drummer on the nkul uses different pitches and rhythms to indicate the dance movements and to determine the musical periods which start and end in perfect ensemble. The great choral ensembles produce imposing homophony based on sequences of 4ths and 3rds which appear episodically. They are responsorial in structure with, however, one peculiarity: the choral response is in each case established by a long-held unison note which is either the final note of each solo melodic phrase or a degree higher than the final note.
Part of the Kota tradition is associated with the Mungala, mythical protector of fecundity and redresser of ills who presides at the initiation of young boys into manhood. The wearing of masks induces all sorts of sounds, including strange voices which are distorted by a high falsetto, cavernous rumblings, raucous growls from the throat produced after drinking an irritant, and by the use of a mouth or nose mirliton. In addition, dull sounds that seem to come from the earth are obtained by beating a plank resting over a pit. It is dangerous to speak to the Mungala without the magic protection of the kendo (an iron bell with bent handle and clapper), which an ‘interpreter’ continuously shakes. The songs relating to twinhood or circumcision are dedicated to the Mungala. The elementary antiphonal structure of these songs is also found in the fable-songs belonging to the domestic oral tradition of stories and games. The Kota, the Ndzabi and the Fang sing guessing games that are based on such oppositions as heaven and earth, bush and village, male and female, and the animal and human worlds. The player is offered a series of choices, and the answers are guided by the particular inflections, negative or positive, of the instrumental ostinato of a musical bow.
3. Musicians and instruments.
Strictly speaking, there is no musical professionalism in Gabon since musical specialization is not the prerogative of any one social caste. Music is common to all and artists engage in the same daily occupations as other members of a village. The talent of an individual is, however, always potentially linked with sorcery and must be approved by a special initiation, where it is assigned a role in the initiatory hierarchy that prevails over every other form of social hierarchy in the traditional organization of the tribe. After a ‘revelation’ or ‘vision’, an individual might follow the career of a harpist; the suppleness of the fingers is reputedly increased after incisions have been made at the base of the thumb and on the wrist.
Among the Fang, however, the mvet player is semi-professional and is invited by families to play and sing on evenings that have been arranged for important occasions. Some mvet players are much sought after and travel long distances in response to these invitations; they are generally paid in money and in kind. The initiation of a mvet player is carried out under the sponsorship of a master and takes the form of physical, moral and intellectual tests, including personal sacrifices, the drinking of burning syrups, the eating of the heads of birds captured by a lure and finally the rapid and faultless recitation of complex and lengthy genealogies.
The musical bow is generally considered the primeval instrument and the ancestor of other chordophones. Its stretched string symbolizes the mediation between heaven and earth, and the sounds of its vibrations connect to the ‘word’ of the first ancestor. String instruments are considered to be of common descent. Thus the harmonics given out by the single string of the musical bow give birth to the eight strings of the harp, and the feminine body of the harp in turn gives birth to sounds and multiplies their vibrations.
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