Issue 40 / 2021

From the Lone Composer to the Dynamics of Motion. Pan-African Insights through an Encounter in Zimbabwe

Lukas Ligeti

Since the mid-1990s, I have spent significant time in various regions of Africa working on collaborative creative projects with musicians, performing, studying, and teaching. Having grown up in Austria, I did not have much early exposure to African culture despite attending international schools. It was only after high school that I decided to learn to play and compose music, and not long after commencing my studies at what is now the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna, when my skills in the idioms of western art music were not yet highly developed, I came across African music through a variety of sources: exchanges of cassette tapes with my father, personal acquaintances, and perhaps most seminally, lectures by the ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik, whose work remains a great influence on me and whom I will mention several times in this article.

My first reaction to African music – specifically the court music of the Kingdom of Buganda in Uganda presented by Kubik – was one of great interest and fascination, but it did not alter my sense of purpose as a musician: I was primarily interested in creating something original and innovative. It was important to me to learn traditional craft, but only as an exercise or knowledge base that would enable me to build something new. And so, upon my first contacts with music from Africa and having recognized that here were musical approaches that differed strongly from anything I had previously heard, I asked myself: What new, independent ideas might I be able to arrive at based on insights gained from listening to this music and hearing and reading Kubik’s analyses (and the work of other ethnomusicologists)? More than 30 years later, I am still developing a wide range of answers to this question, and inevitably, these answers lead to an ever-multiplying number of new questions and inquiries. And in the meantime, these pursuits, originally focused exclusively on composition and improvisation, have expanded to include new pedagogies and research into areas such as music technology and cultural theory.

After several years, spanning the period of my studies in Vienna during which I attempted to incorporate ideas inspired by African traditions into the structural fabric of my music, I finally set foot on the continent for the first time in 1994, an opportunity I owe to the Goethe Institute. I was invited to conduct a workshop[1] with traditional musicians residing in Côte d’Ivoire, not a country with whose music I was particularly familiar. As part of my experimentation in this first collaboration, I sought to bring musical ideas from other parts of Africa – say Uganda or Malawi – into the creative discussion. In an inchoate, unsystematic way, I was also asking to what extent conceptual commonalities exist between different music traditions across the continent. The incredible cultural diversity of Africa is obvious, but are common musical elements found interregionally, especially between different linguistic groups? And how similar or different were the musical practices I encountered through my collaboration with my West African colleagues from the methods I was introduced to in my studies of Occidental music?

My work on the ground in Africa began in the continent’s western part and expanded over the years to eastern and southern Africa, but I have to this day not spent significant stretches of time in what could be referred to as south-central Africa. Yet that region’s music has an indisputable conceptual influence on my work, perhaps because some of the ethnomusicologists and other researchers whose works I have read extensively – Kubik, Paul Berliner, Paulus Gerdes, etc. – did fieldwork there, but also because a trip to Zimbabwe in 1997, while not nearly as productive creatively as my residencies in Côte d’Ivoire around the same time, proved to be highly significant to the evolution of my intercultural thinking.

Africa presents a multifaceted cultural mosaic; not only are musics and instruments far from standardized, they can differ significantly even across the shortest distances. And yet, just as Europe in all its cultural diversity also has a nearly intangible but nonetheless characteristic underlying atmosphere, during my travels across sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal to Kenya to Mozambique (and to some lesser extent even Ethiopia), I have, once again, observed certain atmospheric commonalities. To say that Europe feels European and African feels African seems trivial, but once one has actually felt the contrast, one begins to appreciate that Europe rarely feels authentically African or vice versa. Meki Nzewi stated that “Incontrovertibly, there is an African field of sound”[2], and Bruno Nettl observed, “There is no conceptualization or definition of music that is shared by all or perhaps even many cultures”[3]. Weighing these factors, the approach of “experimental intercultural collaboration” I have developed over the years attempts to build on commonalities as well as on differences, making an effort never to overstate one at the expense of the other.

Undoubtedly, different parts of Africa harbor many common musical traits. For example, many forms of music across sub-Saharan Africa are constructed using a rapid underlying pulse, giving rise to what Richard Waterman referred to as “metronome sense”[4] . And in popular music in the last 80 years, certain stylistic traits have become widely shared, pan-African phenomena. The rumba rhythm from the Caribbean, for instance, itself an offspring of rhythmic patterns that had traveled from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean only to be “reimported” to the motherland, went on to dominate urban Congolese dance music, and from there it conquered the rest of the continent: in slightly altered and adapted guises, it remains ubiquitous in African pop until today. But less widely known similarities also exist, sometimes giving rise to intriguing questions about migration patterns and information flow. Gerhard Kubik writes,

As a result of migration and the exchange of musical fashions both within Africa and with foreign cultures, specific traits of African music often show a puzzling distribution. Extremely distant areas in Africa may have similar, even identical, traits, while adjacent areas may have quite different styles. The multipart singing style in triads within an equiheptatonic tone system of the Baule of Côte d’Ivoire […] is so close, if not identical, to the part-singing style of Ngangela-, Chokwe-, and Luvale-speaking peoples in eastern Angola that the similarity is immediately recognized by informants from both cultures. Why this is so is a riddle. […] Another historical riddle is the presence of practically identical xylophone playing styles and instruments among Makonde- and Makua-speaking peoples of northern Mozambique and among certain peoples of Côte d’Ivoire, notably the Baule and the Kru. The jomolo of the Baule and the log xylophones of northern Mozambique – for example, the dimbila of the Makonde or the mangwilo of the Shirima – are virtually identical instruments.[5]

Thus, while south-central African musical concepts have greatly inspired me, many of these concepts are not unique to that region. Given my experiences elsewhere on the continent, it could be said that the region has been for me something akin to a “control group”, confirming, advancing, or contrasting experiences I made in other parts of Africa or, indeed, the world.

In 1997, I participated in an exchange project between cultural initiatives from Austria and Zimbabwe. As part of a delegation of Austrian composers, I visited the village of Siachilaba, near Binga in Matabeleland North. The inhabitants of the village were Batonga, members of Zimbabwe’s third-largest ethnic group, a people consistently marginalized by the Shona-centric Mugabe government in Harare. The so-called Valley Tonga, who used to live on the banks of the Zambezi river (in Zambia to the west Zimbabwe to the east), had been resettled to higher ground as their traditional habitat was flooded by Lake Kariba, a result of the construction of the Kariba Dam in the late 1950s, and now found themselves farming less fertile soil. But displacement and poverty did not prevent them from cultivating their traditions, among them an enigmatic genre of music called ngoma buntibe. Performed by a large ensemble of horns playing only one note each (and some percussion), the music is intricately arranged, making use of complex hocketing techniques to enable the emergence of rhythmic-melodic patterns as a result of the careful coordination of the various horns. Ensemble interplay based on complex hocketing patterns is found in an extensive swath of central Africa and its adjoining regions and is practiced mostly by Bantu-speaking peoples (such as the Tonga), but not exclusively: for example, the Banda-Linda, whose polyphonic horn ensemble music was analyzed in great detail by Simha Arom[6] , are not Bantu.

I did not interact with the Tonga villagers long or deeply enough to gain any appreciable understanding of the structure of their music, and as far as I’m aware, ngoma buntibe remains little documented, represented only on a scant few tracks of a scant few commercially available recordings, and is yet awaiting thorough analysis by an ethnomusicologist, be they local or foreign. But nonetheless, my brief sojourn in Siachilaba provided me with several valuable insights, or perhaps I should say, epiphanies.

Common knowledge has it that music in Africa is a generally communal undertaking, which is often cited as a significant difference from Europe and its outposts, where music is said to be master-planned by individual artists working in what is sometimes referred to as the “ivory tower”. But can all music in Europe be traced to individual creative minds? Europe has its indigenous peoples just like any other part of the world, and these peoples have their folk traditions, never pure or bereft of influences from other cultures, but nevertheless ancient, and in these cases the attribution of a certain folk tune to a certain composer can be difficult. And yet, in European culture, it is implicitly assumed that an individual – even if unknown or anonymous – is at the source, whereas in a similar situation in Africa, this is not given much thought as creativity is ostensibly communal. Given that much research and writing on Africa is done by intellectuals educated in a western academic setting where western cultural paradigms are implicitly assumed to be the norm by default, the idea that African traditions are deprived the presumption of individual authorship appears to me somewhat patronizing even if the primacy of communal creativity is promoted by many researchers who are from Africa themselves.

That is not to say that communal music-making, and quite possibly even communal composition, is not highly relevant in African culture. The question of individual versus collective creativity in African music is often addressed in the context of discussions of the notion and ownership of intellectual property in non-western cultural environments, and here it is often forgotten that orally transmitted musical works in African traditions may also have been created by individuals whose names have gradually faded from collective memory, making it difficult to discern what aspects of the creation were done individually, and what parts communally. Kofi Agawu writes,

For the longest time, composers of traditional music remained anonymous. Although a song or drumming style was obviously conceived or realized by an individual or group of individuals in what George Dor has appropriately called communal composition[7] , such individuals were not always named as composers; nor were the works understood as autonomous works. It was of no particular significance that the tune and words of a crying song originated in the mind of an individual […] Songs and dances emerged as part of the community’s way of being in the world; they retained their generic identities but were cut off from their first composers.[8]

Is this a uniquely African phenomenon; was the situation always different in the west? It is instructive to remember that 13 years earlier, the same author wrote that

beyond local inflections deriving from culture-bound linguistic, historical, and materially inflected expressive preferences, there is ultimately no difference between European knowledge and African knowledge. All talk of an insider’s point of view, a native point of view, a distinct African mode of hearing, or of knowledge organization is a lie, and a wicked one at that.[9]

In Siachilaba, I was introduced to an elderly gentleman known as Siankwede, or Bokotela Mudenda by his birth name. He was introduced to me as the village composer, creating music in the tradition of ngoma buntibe. Clearly, the village community included a professional composer whose responsibility it was to create new musical works in this traditional style; apparently, this composer spent most of his time in his hut, arriving at his musical ideas in a physical space that was not communal; and clearly, the villagers were aware that the music they performed was composed by this artist. Unfortunately, I was not able to communicate easily with Siankwede: he barely spoke English and I speak no Chitonga, and no translator was available, so I had to rely on information given indirectly to me in broken English by younger villagers such as Jossam, Sialwindi Munkuli by his legal name, the “keeper of the horns” of Simonga, Siachilaba’s ngoma buntibe ensemble. The website, a repository of information on Tonga culture, contains a page about Simonga, which includes the following passage:

The Valley Tonga have a tradition of composers, those who invent music speficially [sic] for the buntibe. Siachilaba’s most distinguished composer in recent years was Siankwede Bokotela Mudenda. Siankwede once explained that both the words and the music for his compositions came to him in dreams and were passed on to him bz [sic] the masabe (ancestral spirits).[10]

Meeting Siankwede, who alas passed away in 1999, was crucial to me because it demonstrated that a village in remote, rural Africa can have a resident composer, creating as an individual works within an African music tradition that seemed to have incorporated relatively few outside influences. Since that time, I have questioned whether the purported lack of interest in the question of individual authorship in African traditional contexts might stem from a projection of researchers’ biases on their subjects more than from actual practice on the ground. Further inquiry is necessary here. August Schmidhofer opens a paper on individuality in music of Madagascar (an island whose culture is closely related to that of the African mainland though possibly even more to Austronesia) with the following passage:

The imagination of collective musical creation and collective ownership of music in “tribal” societies is still widespread today. This is, for instance, revealed by the fact that liner notes of recordings with traditional music of extra-European peoples rarely cite the names of composers or performers […] Ethnomusicology, too, has neglected the musical individual.[11]

Schmidhofer goes on to describe how he met people of a wide range of musical aptitude during his field research in Madagascar, and how informants repeatedly pointed him towards more competent musical specialists. He writes,

The distinction according to musical abilities coincides with the right to [musical] property, which is accorded to him/her who has invented a song or instrumental piece or has lent its rendition a personal touch through creative interpretation.[12]

The meeting with Siankwede was not the only moment of insight I experienced during my visit to Siachilaba. Equally important for my development as a musician was the observation that the villagers – those performing as members of Simonga as well as onlookers – danced to ngoma buntibe, while the structure of the music remained entirely opaque to me even on repeated listening.

This music obviously was highly organized. To me as an adventurous and omnivorous listener, but unfamiliar with this musical genre, ngoma buntibe sounded almost random – a dense, intriguing web of hocketing melodies whose internal logic remained intractably difficult to grasp. I was able to imitate some of the patterns played by the drums, but could not figure out how they related to the horn parts. While the horn players, each contributing one note to the totality of the aural image, knew exactly how to time their entrances relative to both the drums and one another, I listened for hours, unable to sort through what I heard. I was not alone: the Zimbabwean composer Keith Goddard (1960-2009), who remained just as daunted even after much more extensive listening, told me that the great ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey had described ngoma buntibe as ‘raucous noise’, unworthy of further attention. Yet, somehow, this music was danceable. The villagers knew what to listen for in the music and how to locate a beat with which to coordinate their movements. Even the hornists were dancing as they played.

Gerhard Kubik describes the inextricable link between music and dance in Africa:

The western differentiation between two categories, music and dance, is often irrelevant for African cultures and is barely helpful in understanding them. Identical motional patterns connect both of the fields that are presented as separate in the west.[13]

Composer Steve Reich has frequently stated[14] that his main takeaway from his time studying music in Ghana was ‘confirmation’ of the abiding potential of acoustic instruments versus electronics in the production of satisfying timbres, especially by means of percussion. Watching the Tonga musicians dance while playing or listening to ngoma buntibe made of me another composer receiving confirmation in Africa, in this case of my hunch that the relationship between playing music and dancing is even deeper and more multifaceted than Kubik described. I consider them different sides of the same coin, a reversal of cause and effect. In dance, sound triggers motion; in music performance, motion triggers sound. Any performed music is a dance, because in order for the music to be heard, musicians must execute deliberate, coordinated movements on their instruments. Thus, in a way, all music is danceable provided one knows the “secret code”, the formula by which the sound-motion relationship reveals itself. In some musics, for example much European scored music of the second half of the 20th century, this might only be possible for the performers themselves, who choreograph this music’s hermetic dances based on instructions in the score so as to render it audible. In some other musics, such as most popular music, even someone only vaguely familiar with the genre will easily locate a rhythmic backbone to guide their dancing, resulting in steps not identical to any musician’s movements, but closely related to them. A music such as ngoma buntibe is somewhere in between: once one comprehends how this music asks to be listened to, and once this skilled listening reveals the music’s architecture, the dance falls into place.

And so it appears once again that African and western approaches are – as per Agawu – anything but diametrically opposed: by some means, motion, dance, is inscribed into music. The exact ways in which this is done may differ, but they also differ among genres within Europe or Africa. To me this is yet another indication that the urge to draw fundamental contrasts between western and African paradigms of dancing and musicking[15] – an urge colonialist thinkers and adherents of postcolonialism often seem to share – should perhaps be reconsidered.

The investigation of the relationship between the musician’s movements on the instrument and the resulting audible image has become a pursuit of great interest to me. I am particularly intrigued by the possibility of decoupling motion from sound as a way to explore methods of memorizing and varying musical structures. In most cultures, musicians are trained to have an audible outcome in mind and to execute movements on the instrument that are expected to lead to said result. But some African music pedagogy points to a different possibility: the conception of music performance as a motion-focused process. Kubik illustrates this using examples from Cameroon and south-central Africa:

[…] the motional aspect of playing is often emphasizzed in African music pedagogy. For a player of the mendzan, a xylophone from southern Cameroon, it is crucial to learn when to strike which key (explanation by an informant from Batouri, Cameroon, December 1969) [.…] In Moçzambique and Malawi, it is normal for players of xylophones such as the mangwilo of the Shirima and the mangolongondo of the Yao to reconfigure the placement of the five to nine keys of these xylophones depending on the pieces to be performed. The keys are not always arranged in a scale. Then it can happen that the exact same motion patterns are applied to a new configuration of the keys. The result is a new piece.[16]

Long before I knew about such pedagogies, the inspiration I gained from music of the Ugandan Kingdom of Buganda led me in the late 1980s to a novel polymetric drumming technique, allowing me to perform repetitive, cyclical patterns of extreme length. Today, while further developing this technique, I investigate the decoupling of sound and motion using electronic instruments that can produce any sound or pitch in reaction to a musician’s movements, depending on how they are programmed. This makes possible the exploration of new relationships between music cognition and coordinated movement.

Such investigations are often concerned with mathematical relationships of meter or tempo, tuning or formal proportions. Their location in the realm of digital technology might promote a mathematical undertone, and that is not inappropriate in an African context given the importance of ratios, proportions, and superimpositions of patterns in the music of the continent, where repetitive segments with different lengths and accent distributions are often interlocked or elaborated upon. Sometimes such mathematical allusions are easier to understand when represented visually. African music is generally not notated, and standard western music notation is not always conducive to an intuitive understanding of pattern-based musical constructs. Remaining in south-central Africa, it might be interesting to consult an intriguing tradition of storytelling through complex visual patterns, the tusona ideographs of the Luchazi (and related) people of eastern Angola, northwestern Zambia, and southwestern Congo (DRC). In this nearly-extinct art form, graphic patterns are etched into the sand by first constructing a dot matrix, followed by one or several lines curving around between the dots. The drawings are somewhat abstract, but they carry meaning: not entirely unlike written Chinese, they may depict an object, an animal, a relationship, etc., which in this case may stand for a story that is then told or at least implied through the drawing. Kubik[17] describes this tradition in detail, while the ethnomathematician Paulus Gerdes[18] provides extensive geometric analyses of tusona, demonstrating that these drawings contain highly sophisticated uses of symmetry and other geometric phenomena. Might such traditions deliver valuable input for the creation of new notation systems or modes of spatial organization for music or dance, particularly given how African music and visual art often feature analogous treatments of repetition and pattern architecture? Once again, further experimentation seems warranted.

I hope that this short tour of some of the conceptual inspirations I have received from the cultures of south-central Africa provides a glimpse of the many ways in which these cultures might be a site for innovation in music and other art forms. It is a region whose cultural depth and complexity only seems to grow in my eyes with the multitude of new questions that open themselves up for artistic investigation with each previous question that has, perhaps, been answered, even if only tentatively.



  1. The experimental intercultural ensemble Beta Foly, with members from 6 African and 2 European countries, was founded at the end of this workshop and remained a central component of my compositional and performance activities until 1999.
  2. Meki Nzewi, African Music: Theoretical Content and Creative Continuum. The Culture Exponent’s Definitions (Oldershausen: Institut für Didaktik populärer Musik, 1997), 31.
  3. Bruno Nettle, The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-Three Discussions (Third Edition). (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 20.
  4. Richard Waterman, “African Influence in the Americas,” in Acculturation in the Americas (S. Tax, editor) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 207-208.
  5. Gerhard Kubik and David K. Rycroft, “History”, in the section of “Music”, in the entry on “African Arts” in The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 13 (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1998), 133.
  6. Simha Arom, African Polyphony and Polyrhythm (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., 1991).
  7. George Dor, “Communal Creativity and Song Ownership in Anlo-Ewe Musical Practice: The Case of Havolu” in Ethnomusicology, Vol. 48: 26-51, 2004.
  8. Kofi Agawu, The African Imagination in Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 316.
  9. Kofi Agawu, “How Not to Analyze African Music” in Ibid., Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions (New York: Routledge, 2003), 180.
  11. “Die Vorstellung von kollektivem Musikschaffen und kollektivem Musikbestiz in ‘tribalen’ Gesellschaften ist noch heute verbreitet. Dies zeigt sich etwa darin, daß in Beitexten zu Schallplatten mit traditioneller Musik außereuropäischer Völker selten die Namen von Komponisten und Ausführenden genannt werden […] Auch die Musikethnologie hat das musikalische Individuum vernachlässigt.” (My translation from German.) August Schmidhofer, “Zur Individualität der Musikgestaltung in Madagaskar am Beispiel des Zithervitruosen Mahia Andriasy” in Musicologica Austriaca, Vol. 17: 109-116, 109.
  12. “Die Differenzierung nach musikalischen Fähigkeiten geht einher mit dem Recht auf Eigentum, welches dem zukommt, der ein Lied oder Instrumentalstück erfunden hat bzw. durch kreative Gestaltung dem Vortrag eine persönliche Note verleiht.” (My translation from German.) ibid
  13. “Die westliche Unterscheidung zweier Kategorien, Musik und Tanz, ist für afrikanische Kulturen oft irrelevant und hilft kaum zu ihrem Verständnis. Identische Bewegungsmuster verbinden beide im Westen voneinander getrennt vorgestellten Bereiche.” (My translation from German.) Gerhard Kubik, “Kognitive Grundlagen afrikanischer Musik” in Musik in Afrika (A. Simon, editor): 327-400. Berlin: Museum für Völkerkunde.
  14. Steve Reich, Writings on Music, 1965-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 65.
  15. The term “musicking” was coined by Christopher Small in Musicking (Hanover NH and London: University Press of New England/Wesleyan University Press, 1998).
  16. “[Es] wird in Lehrsituationen der Musik Schwarzafrikas der bewegungsmäßige Produktionsvorgang betont. Für den Spieler eines mendzan (Tragbügelxylophons) in Süd-Kamerun ist es wesentlich zu erlernen wann er welche Taste schlagen soll (Formulierung eines Informanten aus Batouri, Kamerun, Dezember 1969). […] In Moçambique und Malawi ist es unter Spielern von Holmxylophonen (mangwilo bei den Shirima, mangolongondo bei den Yao) üblich, die Anordnung der fünf bis neun Tasten dieser Xylophone je nach den zu spielenden Stücken zu verändern. Nicht immer ist die Anordnung in Form einer Skala. Dann kann es sein, daß dieselben Bewegungsformeln auf die neue Tastenanordnung übertragen werden. Das Ergebnis ist ein neues Stück.” (My translation from German.) G. Kubik “Kognitive Grundlagen afrikanischer Musik” in Musik in Afrika (A. Simon, editor): 327-400. Berlin: Museum für Völkerkunde, 339
  17. G. Kubik, Tusona – Luchazi Ideographs: A Graphic Tradition of West-Central Africa (Vienna: LIT-Verlag, 2006).
  18. Paulus Gerdes, Ethnomathematik – dargestellt am Beispiel der Sona Geometrie (Heidelberg: Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, 1997).