Symmetry in Afrobeat

Many things are to be said about Fela’s work, and I won’t try to tackle them here, but something I think gets very little attention is how beautifully orchestrated his afrobeat is. And not just in terms of instrumentation, or form, or melodic call and response. Afrobeat is full of lengthy solo’s and political rants, but what makes this sort of long-form structure is the solid foundation underneath all of this soloing — the micro-level interactions between instrumental voices.

Like a freight train, the Africa 70 rhythm section provided a meticulously put together set of poly-rhythms that drive the beat. While he rarely draws directly from traditional Yoruba oriki rhythms, his music maintains the multi-vocal quality of traditional ensembles. The aggregate result of these is a wonderful rhythmic texture, but within this is a network of micro-musical conversations that makes it so irresistible and danceable.

Because explaining this is so cumbersome I’ll show you a chart. While Fela has quite a few magnificent compositions, one that represents this the best is “Colonial Mentality”, from the Black President album. It’s in TUBS notation (click on the link for an explanation) but its really just a graphical way of representing the basic rhythmic structure of the song. First, let’s take a look at the drumset part.

Colonial Mentality Drumset

Take a look at how the Hi-hat, bass drum, and snare parts fit together like puzzle pieces. The groups of three in the bass drum provide a very strong emphasis on sub-divisions 1&3 of each beat that is answered by the snare. The asymmetry of the snare gives it a gait (or clear beginning and end), but as you can see it’s really just a difference of one sub-division. The hi-hat, which serves as a “connector” between the bass and snare, also gives the drumset part a clear beginning and end. That third fast hi-hat note can also be played open.

The percussion heavily reinforces the first sub-division, but what really gives it the “lope” is the space right before the downbeat. On sub-divisions 8 and 16, nothing is played. Not only does this leave room for other instruments to accent here, but it places the quietest beat directly before the heavily emphasized downbeat.

Soft –> Strong   Soft –> Strong   Soft –> Strong   Soft –> Strong

This extreme level of contrast within on sub-division creates a horse like gallop; and a groovy ass beat. But look what happens with the guitar parts:

Colonial Mentality Rhythm Section

This one is a bit more confusing, but it’s really not very complicated. True to his Yoruba roots Fela composed the guitar and base parts as tri-tone melodies, mimicking the three tones prevalent in the Yoruba language and by extension Yoruba drumming styles.

You can see from this arrangement are the ways the guitar rhythms interact with the percussion and drum parts, much like support drums would interact with a lead drum. If you look at Guitar 1, it reinforces the bass-drum groups of three on beats 1 & 3. This line is answered by the bass-guitar part on beats 2 & 4, which in turn reinforces the snare part. More importantly, the A-flats in the bass part occupy that formerly empty space in the drumset, highlighting its downward cadence to the root note on the downbeat. This jump from A-flat –> C on the fourth and first sub-divisions further reinforces the galloping rhythm.

If this explanation sounded confusing, the major idea here is that the different voices in the drumset and rhythm guitar form a composite rhythm that emphasizes the last and first subdivision of each beat through dynamic contrast and the way in which the bass phrase connects naturally draws the groove towards those beats.

Unlike nearly every other afrobeat in which the claves and congas reinforce the third and fourth sub-divisions, the implied cadence in this song lands on the downbeat. This creates a loping quality that makes you want to strongly emphasize the downbeats when dancing or even soloing. Perhaps this is why this song stands out among his repertoire. While the parts might sound very similar to other songs, the way in which they fit together creates a very different texture and feel to the song. It feels urgent but relaxed; bitter but playful. The ways in which this rhythmic texture complements the lyrics makes it a truly powerful song.

In my next post I’ll bring in the horn lines to show how this sort of call and response between parts is present in the longer melodic lines.


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Paradiddle Phrases for Drumset

The paradiddle is among the most basic and essential rudiments in a drummer’s repertoire, but for many drummers it remains simply that–a rudiment you play while warming up. While the basic paradiddle is a wonderful way to practice articulation and consistency, this well-ingrained hand pattern can also be an deceptively simple way to create new melodic patterns on the drumset. If you are like me and have trouble buckling down and hammering out rudiments on a practice pad, incorporating that sort of muscle memory training into your drumset playing can be an excellent way to practice the basics while also building new repertoire for grooves and fills. I have created a few different exercises that I think illustrate this — using minor variations to completely alter the emphasis of the phrases, challenging both you coordination and your ability to step to hear variations within the rhythm. The exercises are written in TUBS notation, with each box representing a 1/16-note sub-division. Click here for a more detailed description of TUBS notation. Comments on the exercises are in blue underneath the charts.

This is the most basic variation, placing the emphasis on the 1/4 notes. The tom notes should be accented, with the snare notes at a much lower intensity. The snare should be played do that the hand pattern is not evident just from listening.
This variation incorporates both feet, accenting the 1/4 notes. The quarter notes are again emphasized in this rhythm, with the RH accenting the snare on beats 1 and 3. The rhythm naturally leads into these beats.

This variation plays around with syncopated voicings. All of the accents should be on the tom notes, with the snare hits as ghost notes.  


       This variation accents the second sub-division. Simple but deceptively hard to play evenly. Try going back and forth between this and variation 2. The concept is simple–shift the tom notes by one sub-division. You can shift the emphasis this way on all of the sub-divisions to get a feel for the syncopated patterns that are possible with this rhythm.


This variation experiments with the doubles that are very easy to play with the paradiddle pattern. Notice the large X’s are accented snare notes on sub-beats 1 and 13. It also incorporates a variation in the feet, adding another layer of doubles that complements the hands. This also addresses some coordination issues when playing alternating hand-strokes with a double RF.


Each of these exercises is a framework to be messed around with. The concept for each of them is simple — change the patterns of drums emphasized to unlock embedded phrases that would be hard to play using another sticking pattern. You can do this systematically or just try to things out to see what sounds good, but arranging these simple variations in an artistic way can lead to some really slick fills or even the start to a nice solo. Not to mention clear some of those cobwebs in your brain.

For more variety try playing the foot pattern twice as fast, or doubling them up instead of alternating ( RF RF LF LF ).

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