“The main focus in music from Europe is on harmony, in music from Asia on melody, and in music from Africa on rhythm”.
Of course it is terribly simplified (and therefore not totally “true”), and I recall that the book in which I read this statement already had more nuance in separate chapters. Harmony plays a role in African music (though in some parts of Africa more than others) as does melody, for instance. In fact harmony, melody, and rhythm play – to differing degrees – roles in traditional music from all continents (Africa, Asia, Europe, and also America and Oceania for that matter).
The different “emphasis” in music per continent still holds overall true, though. This different emphasis still kept intriguing me: especially when considering it broader in a philosophical sense. Music should be seen – I think – as an essential part of any culture: it is never separate from a culture. Moreover: as culture, music is an essential part of life, of how people live their lives. That is ALL people. Not just the few musicians doing it for a living, or the music fans or listeners. I see it as more than a separate and specialized recreational form, like, say, snooker, chess, or mountain climbing. Those activities require artifice, a deliberate effort to fabricate. Music is there in every human.. with our heart beat, from birth. The Wikipedia article (English) on Rhythm states as much.
EUROPE AND ASIA
As music thus reflects basic culture and life, it makes the different emphasis in different parts all the more interesting. What does the fact that European music focuses relatively more on harmony - specifically with what is called “homophony” - say about its culture? That can be seen as positive and negative. While “harmony” for many has a (seemingly) positive meaning, to harmonize however also means to “structure”: read: to dominate/control. Not just oneself, but also others. Musical homophony and chords typical in European music exist by not tolerating dissonance or independence of sounds from a common harmonic base. You can say it is therefore more “intolerant” of difference and freedom.
Then within European music there are differences. I also remember having read earlier in my life, something I also still remember (for some reason): Italian classical/traditional music is characterized relatively more by melody, German/Austrian classical/traditional music by harmony, and Spanish classical/traditional music more by rhythm. Being half-Italian (on my father’s side) and half-Spanish (on my mother’s side) I found this remarkable as well.
Why Italians tend a bit more to an “Asian” melody focus, and Spaniards more to an “African” rhythm focus is not that self-evident, but can maybe be explained. Pure geographically: Spain almost borders Africa. There must have even been some cultural and/or genetic interchange with Africa since ancient (pre)history, more than in other parts of Europe (genetical studies on “African admixture in Europe” seem to confirm this). Historically: the Moors (led by Arabs, but including Berbers and other Africans) ruled over large parts of Spain for centuries (8thc-15 c. AD). Or maybe it is an imperial/colonial past coming back: African rhythms via Latin America and the Caribbean travelled back to Spain as it became the first colonizer of that part of the world, after 1492. Likewise, Marco Polo probably brought Asian influences/aspects to Italy, while there also is a long historical (trade) connection between Italy/Venice and Turkey (and beyond). The pizza is after all also originally Turkish, and pasta from Asia.
Asia is a very large continent, and imagine all the musical differences throughout that continent. I must admit, I haven’t focussed very much on Asian musical structures in my life (more on African music), let alone comparing Arab, Indian, South East Asian, Chinese and other music. It also is largely “outside the scope” of this post, as they say. If it is indeed true that “melody” is overall more important in Asia..what does that say about its essential culture? Is it a more “spiritual” culture? (as the cliché about Asia already holds). More “imaginative” perhaps? More “enlightened”? If these are mind-sets helping to shape melodies (which can be disputed)..
The aforementioned Wikipedia article on Rhythm also points at the use of rhythm in music in Asia (e.g. the tabla in India), and even gives examples of Polyrhythm – more common in Africa -, such as in Indonesia Gamelan music. This goes to show that all aspects (rhythm, harmony, and melody) return in world-wide music. Likewise, current Flamenco music in southern Spain, influenced by local Andalusian, Gipsy, Moorish and other influences, has many rhythmic aspects, often through castagnets or hand-clapping (or slapping the wood of the guitar). Interestingly: maybe the best-known Flamenco instrumental – Paco de Lucía’s ‘Entre Dos Aguas’, employed Afro-Caribbean (Eastern Cuban) bongos and other percussion, alongside Paco’s Spanish guitar..
Within Africa there is likewise much variation, of course. The North and parts of East Africa have received Arab and Middle Eastern influences (mostly moving the music partly toward melody and harmony). This is not a total change, though. Interestingly, the music of the people of Ethiopia speaking Semitic and Hamitic languages (Amhara and others) is decidedly more rhythmic and sub-Saharan African in character, when compared to Arab/Middle Eastern music (or from the other side of the Red Sea, so to speak), showing thus mixed influences, including from Africa itself.
Within Africa, further, West Africa is known for music with rhythm and polyrhythm, but also often “harmony”: vocally and otherwise. Although mostly in another way than the standard “chord progression” of Western music. African music tends to be characterized by “polyphony”, contrary to homophony (though this is also found in Africa), more common in Western music. With polyphony different musical parts maintain their independence in a same piece, while interacting. Just think of the rhythms and “answering” rhythms, or cross-rhythms, heard at the same time in traditional African music: polyrhythmic music. No forced harmonizing, and therefore freer, more tolerant. That can be seen as positive.
Then there is the (overall!) focus on “rhythm” by itself (poly- or not): more characteristic of African, especially sub-Saharan African music. What does that say about a culture? Babatunde Olatunji – a famous, earlier Nigerian percussionist – once said: “rhythm is the soul of life”. Interesting: because the “soul” of life refers to the spiritual and imaginative, some associate more with “melody” or “harmony” than with “rhythm”. Somehow “rhythm” got connected too much with the “basic” (and therefore “simple” or “primitive”) in the Western/Euro-centric mind. Olatunji’s comment contradicts that: rhythm is not just life practically (heart beat, day/night, eat/sleep), no, it is also the “soul” (spirit, imagination) of life..
This "soul of life" is also illustrated by the symbolic meanings attached to rhythms within African music. I refer specifically to how in polyrhythmic pieces the main rhythm - generally more steady - tends to be symbolic of the main "strength" or direction one goes in a human life, while other rhythms respond to this or interrupt this main rhythm, representing symbolically either "challenges" in life disrupting this direction/goal, or otherwise positive, alternative "hope". These meanings are mostly expressed through the use of different drum types, with lower/bass drums more often representing strength/direction and higher/treble drums often challenges or hope.
In the remainder of this post I will focus on this meaning of “rhythm” and polyphony in Black music, specifically reggae (of which I know most). How did music with “the soul of life” (rhythm) survive the slave trade/slavery: the African diaspora? And did “freer” polyphony survive the Western, harmonizing tyranny? Did rhythm and polyphony remain as important in the music of Africans in the West, as in Africa itself? Or did they become important in new ways?
That rhythm and polyphony survived among Africans in the West is evident and proven. Therefore I will focus on “in what ways”. Reggae will be the main example and case – due to my acquired knowledge about it -, through which I will do this. It is not the only genre I will discuss, though.
First a bit more about rhythm as such, specifically in African music.
In main definitions of rhythm, also the one in Wikipedia, the word “regulated” or ”regular” recurs (recurs regularly, ha!). This was also the original meaning of the Greek term. These tend to be rational, scientific explanations. The Wikipedia (English) article on rhythm as I write this opens as such:
Rhythm (from Greek ῥυθμός—rhythmos, "any regular recurring motion, symmetry") generally means a "movement marked by the regulated succession of strong and weak elements, or of opposite or different conditions."
I also know of more philosophical, or, if you will, “spiritual” explanations, such as in a book I have on Percussion instruments and percussion (the book is in Dutch and is called: ‘Trommels & klankinstrumenten’, author Töm Klöwer, year 1996). Interestingly, the author treats various kind of drums and percussion instruments, after which he focusses on rhythm in music, (and finally gives clues and guidelines for exercise).
In the more abstract/theoretical part on “rhythm” in the last book, the author, Töm Klöwer, associates the essential human connection with rhythm with the heart beat of the mother an unborn child hears. That’s where it starts. The three and two meter (3-2: common in several African drum patterns) also has this basic connection with life, nature, and biology: the heartbeat has two beats, whereas the act of breathing goes in three (even though some might think two): inhale – pause – exhale. African drum rhythms often relate to that.
Control over one’s own life – and the connection with nature’s cycle (of e.g. day and night, rain and sunshine etcetera) is thus based on rhythm. Simplistically you might therefore say that music focussed on rhythm deals more on the essence of life and the connection with nature, whereas harmony/chord music deals more with systems and organization, and melodic music with, well, imagination? These are maybe neutral concepts – not the one better than the other – though I find that the harmonic focus in much Western/European music has certain oppressive/intolerant aspects, inherent to systems, especially toward individual difference. Kind of contradictory in a culture (the West/Europe) which praises its own individualism so much.
In Africa there is harmony, in vocals often, melody too (the indigenous – tuned - mbira/kalimba thumb piano can make melodies for example, as do indigenous wind instruments and xylophones), but generally combining with rhythm (thus: life and nature). That’s the strength of it, I would argue, as it results in synergy..
That “rhythm is the soul of life”, as Babatunde Olatunji stated, is also exemplified by the fact that the rhythms by drums and other instruments in several African religious/spiritual traditions serve to invoke spirits or deities – through specific rhythmic patterns - , that then possess persons, directing their body movements, eventually to (as other religions) direct or explain life choices/events, beliefs, or situations.
Furthermore – and somehow in line with this - , dance and music are not separate domains in African music. Simply put: music is almost inherently to dance and move your body to. That differs from European culture, where dancing is a separate and specialized activity, like e.g. chess. That dance-music interrelation probably kept the rhythmical focus (or vice versa) in African music, as our common sense would of course tell us.
What can be seen as ironic is that some African languages do (or originally did not) have a separate word in their vocabulary for “rhythm” or even “music”. Different type of drums do have names, for instance, but there is then not a direct term for “music”, even if rhythm and music are very prevalent in the culture. The irony is that music and rhythm are so dominant in and interwoven with daily life itself in these cultures, that it need not be named separate as such. Music is simply part of life.
I know something about African music, a bit about European music, a bit less about Asian music, but I know most about Afro-Caribbean, especially Jamaican music. I am going to continue on discussing the deeper role of “rhythm” in music of the African diaspora, especially reggae.
The slave trade has been one of the greatest evils done unto the African continent, still affecting it today. Africa has been relatively more affected by it, even if slavery was found historically on all continents “since organized man”. Looking at the scale and numbers, Africa has been the continent most negatively affected by it.
First Arab and other Muslim slave traders held much Africans in slavery, sanctioned by a belief that non-Muslims or infidels could be enslaved. This was for economical and power reasons, but also the Islam as religion itself – like Christianity – enabled it in some sense. That the main messenger of God’s/Allah’s messages, Muhammed, owned slaves (including an Ethiopian/African) himself when converting, did not help to condemn it as “ungodly” or immoral, probably. Many millions of black Africans, with a slight preference for women for harems, thus were transported in chains across the Sahara, and ended up in several Middle Eastern countries. Not every one knows that due to this history, countries like Iran, Iraq, and Turkey knew discernible – and discriminated - “black minorities”. Eventually, most of them mixed with locals, but they are still recognizable. So-called Afro-Turks are still being discriminated against, and Iran – related to this – knows some carnivalesque “blackface/minstrelcy” depicting Blacks, up to today.
Then, came the Europeans on an equally large scale, perhaps more intensive in time. It started even before Columbus “discovered” the Americas in the name of Spain. Columbus was not a Spaniard (even if some history books at schools in the Caribbean still teach this, I read), but from Genova in what is now Italy: a city-state with a tradition of sea-faring and trade, including in (also African) slaves, also in the eastern Atlantic. Also the Portuguese, had a tradition already in the 14th c. of trading in African slaves in the eastern Atlantic. This was even before 1492 and Spain claimed ownership to the Americas.
In fact, Batholomew de las Casas, who is said to propose importing Africans as slaves in the Americas (first on what is now Hispaniola) to replace Amerindians, referred to the earlier Portuguese activities as example for this.
Spaniards started importing slaves – first gradually, later higher numbers - in their colonies since the early-16th c., the Portuguese in Brazil, and soon after the Dutch, English, French and others. Meanwhile the plantation industrial complex got more developed (under Dutch-Brazilian influence), requiring even more African slaves, in higher numbers than before, since the 18th c., when the English were also very active in it. Thus came about the “slave societies” in the Caribbean, with a majority population of enslaved Africans, though also Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, USA and other parts of the Americas had high numbers of African slave imports.
All in all millions, some say over 50 million, Africans were deracinated, many died along the way, and those who survived were enslaved, and lived shorter, harder lives. They were not only taken by force from their homeland – sometimes (as with the Arab/Islamic slave trade) aided by African middle-men/collaborators - , but were also culturally deracinated. They lost their family names, their family bonds, cultural connections, and often also their language.
There were differences between slave regimes in the Americas. “Divide and conquer” was applied by all European colonizers, but in different ways. In most English colonies – though to differing degrees – ethnic bonding of Africans – e.g. Coromantee or Congo socializing with each other and talking their own tongue, was feared and therefore at least discouraged. This group bonding was probably seen a s a forebode to concerted efforts of rebellion against their state. The Spanish and Portuguese slave regimes were known as a bit more loose and less strict, with at least in theory a few laws protecting slaves. The bonding on ethnic grounds among African slaves was tolerated more in e.g. Cuba and Brazil, and e.g. slaves of Yoruba or Congo origin, were legally allowed to come together in clubs, speak their own tongue and involve in music or other cultural activities, as long as it did not interfere too much with plantation work. Case in point: at some point, African slaves were forbidden to beat drums in English colonies; such an official and total prohibition of drumming did not take place in Spanish colonies (though it was limited and frowned upon).
The level of “tolerance” of the Spanish or Portuguese colonial or authorities did differ per period, but overall some direct African continuities could be maintained this way in e.g. Cuba and Brazil. But also in the British Caribbean , against even more odds, African culture was maintained: principles and concepts behind it, but even African direct continuities. I think that as long as basic and specific values were maintained, the essential culture also survived. Even the seemingly very African traditions like the Afro-Cuban Santería religion in Cuba, Vodou in Haiti, or certain percussive traditions, are partly similar to where they are from in Africa..but not exactly the same. They are not identical, so even there some difference developed between Africa and the West. This is due to a different historical development, and a different geographical location.
The Yoruba language can be heard in Cuba at Santería gatherings, or even Kikongo in other Afro-Cuban traditions of Central-African origin (like Palo), or Coromantee among Surinamese Maroons during certain rituals, but it is not linguistically identical to how Yoruba, Bakongo, or Coromantee people in Africa today talk, for example. Linguistically it is partly simplified and changed.
There was change, but to differing degrees, among African-descended people in the West/Americas, you can conclude. The underlying African musical and cultural principles – and their connection to specific world views and social life - were however maintained by Blacks in the Americas.
I am going to illustrate this by focussing on the role of “rhythm” in a Afro-Caribbean music genre I by now have learned a lot about (being a fan for over 26 years): reggae, from Jamaica.
Some think that in reggae music the bass guitar is the most important instrument, others “know” that the drums are in fact the most important. I would say it like this: in Reggae Music (in general) the drums are the most important instrument, but in (specific) Reggae SONGS the bass guitar mostly is (along with the vocal parts). Not that the drums are always the same throughout songs, but the bass tends to drive the chords/melody – and sung part -, and partly the rhythm in a distinct direction, helping it to distinguish more from other songs (with e.g. a similar drum pattern, or rhythm guitar pattern etcetera)..
In any case, the drums helps define what reggae is. The accent on the off-beat, or "after beat" (not on the standard 2 and 4 of 4/4), distinguishes reggae from rhythm & blues or rock (or most pop). This is driven by the drums, accentuating the first and –especially - 3rd count of a 4/4 bar. Or on the 2 when counting double time One-AND-Two-AND-Three-AND-Four. The rhythm guitar chops in between on the 2nd and 4th, following these drums.
The change to the after-beat (or off-beat) gave rise to a new, Jamaican music style, developing from local influences, as well as from US Black music like R&B, called Ska, arising around 1960. Some think the New Orleans variant of R&B, which was a bit more “syncopical” rhythmically was especially influential in Jamaica. In light of the importance of drums, local Jamaican drumming, such as part of Afro-Jamaican belief systems like Kumina, Pocamania, or Burru had also an influential on developing Jamaican genres: from ska, to rocksteady, and reggae. Some drummers in the ska era, such as Lloyd Knibb of the Skatalites, and others, were influenced by Latin and Cuban drumming styles, which contained much African continuities, as were percussionists. The wide-spread percussion instruments Congas and Bongos are of Afro-Cuban origin (both with influences from Congo/Angola), found a way in US Jazz, but also spread throughout the Caribbean and Jamaica.
The “heart beat” of a.o. Kumina drumming in rural Jamaica (especially maintained in the Eastern parish St Thomas (East of the capital Kingston), influenced from early on reggae drumming (as well as Rastafari music). Some argue that the emphasis on the Third count of a 4/4 bar came indirectly forth out of this “heart beat” drumming (after two low counts, came a higher/”snare”/treble counter beat on the third). Sounds probable, I think.
The “heart beat” recurs throughout drumming in Africa itself, along with related 3-2 patterns.
‘MODERN DRUMMER’ ISSUE
There is a magazine/journal for drummers, called ‘Modern Drummer’ – self-claimed to be the world’s nr. 1 drum magazine -, which is published in the US. It had an interesting Special Issue, that appeared in August 2012, devoted to Reggae, Ska, and Rocksteady grooves, and among other things contained interviews with, or portraits of, famous Jamaican drummers Carlton Barrett, Sly Dunbar, Carlton “Santa” Davis, Style Scott (of the Roots Radics), Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace, Lloyd Knibb, Willie Stewart (of Third World), and others.
It offered a broad, if not a comprehensive overview of drumming in reggae (I missed some aspects), but it had definitely interesting aspects, even for non-drummers. Not strange that it contained specific lingo and specialized terms for drummers that are not explained (not really necessary with the magazine’s target audience). Looking at the theme I focus now on – rhythm/riddim – it had some insightful portions. It mentioned the typical rhythmical “displacement” of Jamaican drum patterns toward the after-beat or off-beat, setting it apart from other genres like rock.
The interesting thing about this is that Jamaican music distinguished itself – created an own “identity” so to speak – through rhythm. “The rhythm (is) the rebel”, as Chuck D of Public Enemy once rapped. This own after-beat-focussed riddim appeared first around 1960, when ska developed out of different influences: US Rhythm & Blues, jazz (many musicians then in Jamaica were then jazz musicians), some Latin influences, but also local Jamaican folk music like mento, drumming, and percussion. Lloyd Knibb who combined jazz/Latin influences with Afro-Jamaican drumming traditions like Burru, was one such connecting figures in this stage.
An interesting comment in the said issue of ‘Modern Drummer’ was that reggae drummers ought to realize to – obviously – stay in the beat/riddim -, but that is self-evident. Yet, in addition they should realize, it is stated, that: “less is more”, when compared to other genres where “flashy” fills are relatively more common by drummers. Drummers should, as said by Jimmy Cliff in the same issue, “keep it steady”, and therefore “hypnotic”. Less in indeed more.
At the same time, another interesting comment in the same issue, from an earlier interview with Carlton Barret (of the Wailers) - who deceased in 1987 - is worthy to quote in length:
"It's a spiritual vibe that I try and get from my drums to the music. Because drums are from the slavery days and from Africa, it comes from a lot of history. The reggae drummer carries that history more than the guitarist or keyboard player, and the good reggae drummers make playing a spiritual experience"(Carlton Barret).
In the same vein is a line from the lyrics of the song 'Very Well' (1979), by reggae group the Wailing Souls: "Every sound of the drum you hear it's an African beat".
Rocksteady, a genre following ska, developing in Jamaica around 1966, had the same off-beat focus, but was slower than ska, and had a more pronounced bass guitar (now electric), playing different, more closed patterns, when compared to the acoustic and “walking” (jazz-like) bass in ska. Rocksteady’s slower allowed more experimentation of drummers, including with different influences. On the other hand, it is said, that overall the role of drums diminished in most rocksteady, because both the bass and guitar in rocksteady began to play more “percussive” (when compared to ska). So, overall rocksteady is not less-rhythmic than ska, but “different rhythmic”. The “one drop” drum pattern, emphasizing with bass and snare drum on the third of a 4/4 bar (or, again, on the Two, if counting like One-and-Two-and-Three-and-Four), arose especially with rocksteady, since 1966.
The fact that (e.g.) the bass became more percussive in rocksteady has another interesting aspect, pointing at intra-Caribbean borrowing. Not from nearby Cuba this time, from where some musical influences already reached Jamaica, but now from Trinidad’s steel pan tradition. An important guitar player working in Jamaica in the Rocksteady era was the Trinidadian Lynn Taitt. Taitt himself said that he was a pan (steeldrum) player, back in Trinidad, before taking up the guitar and that this influenced his style. Also, when he decided to play simultaneously his guitar with the bass line, giving many rocksteady songs a distinct – I find “groovy” - feel, with – if one wants to hear it – somewhat the feel of steel drums. Nowadays steel drums are more tuned, and is a so-called “chording instrument”, but they’re still also drums/percussion, and originally a rhythmic replacement of the drums banned then by colonial laws.
Rocksteady gave way to Reggae around 1968.It differed from rocksteady in musical characteristics, though – at first- not too much in tempo: early reggae up to around 1971 tended to be faster than later Roots Reggae.
One aspect distinguishing Reggae from Rocksteady was in the drumming. This became even more “syncopic” and – as some argue – incorporating more Afro-Caribbean drum and percussion influences, such as from the Nyabinghi, Kumina, Burru, and Pocamania traditions. One of the first reggae songs, by Lee “Scratch” Perry, ‘Why People Funny Boy’ (1968), included, according to Perry’s own statements , drum patterns inspired by a Pocamania (Afro-Christian) session at a church he happened to encounter. Of course this is a relatively “percussive” song (the keyboard also plays drum-like patterns), but in fact Reggae is overall relatively rhythmic , including drums, percussion, the rhythm guitar , but also the way the bass is played. The bass guitar is also a chording (“harmony/melodic”) instrument but is also used relatively rhythmically in Jamaican music, especially after the “walking bass” (more harmonic) was abandoned for Rocksteady bass lines.
In the Wikipedia article (English) on Reggae, it is also mentioned that alongside the drums, percussion is much used in Reggae. Further analysis shows that especially in the Roots Reggae Era since about 1973 – when Rastafari was very influential on Reggae – the use of additional percussion instruments increased, like (a)kete drums (as used in Nyabinghi gatherings among Rastas), or also conga’s and bongo’s (both originally Afro-Cuban, but in sound similar to drums used traditionally in Jamaica), and rasps, cowbells and shakers (or self-made things like bottles). Congas are used and played by e.g. Burning Spear, while Sly Dunbar added bongos to his drum-set. The Timbales, another Cuban instrument, influenced the way the snare drum was pitched by some Jamaican drummers: tighter/sharper. African cross-rhythms occur when these percussion instruments are added, even when improvizing. The Itals ‘Me Waan Justice’ is a good example of this: an almost perfect blend of a Reggae Riddim (still there, albeit more “hidden”) with Afro-Jamaican percussive, drumming traditions, with evident African continuities.
“Riddim” is also the Jamaican word for instrumental. More specifically the basic instrumental “to be reused” by other singers to sing or toast over. This practice of “reusing instrumentals/riddims had developed by the early 1980s, and seems less original to many, and it probably arose for economic reasons as well. There is however still creativity and talent needed to breathe new life into existing riddims by creating strong vocal parts. Plus, many Riddims just “stay” good, and do not grow old soon. The term “riddim” refers to the whole instrumental, including the bass line: drum and bass at its most basic, often including guitar and keyboard parts. So strictly speaking a Riddim (meaning here “instrumental”) is not “purely rhythmic”. Yet, the fact that an instrumental part of a song is called a “Riddim”, says something about rhythm’s role in the music genre.
Likewise Dub Reggae: also largely instrumental, remixed Reggae songs (with sound effects) were and are described as “Raw Rhythm”, also by its early inventors (King Tubby and others), even if the bass is often important in Dub, it is placed within a rhythmic framework.
Dancehall Reggae is generally associated with a shift away (in part, at least) from African consciousness and Rastafari. Perhaps ironically, it is however argued, also by people who know what they’re talking about - like drummer Sly Dunbar - that the digital/computer-made Dancehall Riddims since the later 1980s, seemed more bare and Techno-like superficially, but actually also continued more complex African drumming/rhythmic continuities, like the ones discussed before: cross-rhythms and polyrhythm/polyphony. A shift to “purer” riddim, meant to dance to, inherently meant a practical Africanization, but the precise musical ways this occurs in dancehall, shows more of the African heritage (cross-rhythms for example), than other electronic music known as rhythmic (Techno, House, etc.).
Jamaican music maintained more African continuities that related Black American music, The latter still also had some African continuities, only to a lesser degree. Ska was for instance more syncopic than R&B when it arose around 1960, while current Digital Dancehall is rhythmically generally more complex (overall) than most “new-school”, digital hip-hop music and beats, of the same time (some hip-hop fans contest this, saying it is different, not less complex or layered).
James Brown’s music (strongly focussed on drums and rhythm, of course: he used two drum kits for recording, and used a more rhythmic phrasing for e.g. horns, guitars and other instruments), on the other hand, came closer to the African polyrhythmic roots, as did/does the music of some other Black US artists.
In vocals the call-and-response singing is characteristically African, reflective of both the polyphony and rhythm in sub-Saharan African music, going back a long time. This survived in almost all Black music genres in the Americas: in the US, Caribbean, and Latin America. Even before ska, it was present in Jamaican Mento (an earlier rural, folk style, which I discussed in another blog post, of August 2013), and in various local Afro-Jamaican and Afro-Christian traditions. Via those two routes (US Black music, and local traditions), it almost inevitably entered Jamaican music.
The interesting thing about call-and-response singing is that it combines the three basic musical aspects I mentioned at the beginning - melody, harmony, and rhythm - with the rhythm being overall most decisive, albeit combined toward a synergy. Call-and-response is a vocal way, you might say, of rhythm- and counter-rhythm, found traditionally in African polyrhythmic music.
Another vocal tradition is of course evidently rhythmic: the dee-jaying: starting with toasting, now called chatting. I devoted another blog post to this, of October 2013. It is a Jamaican innovation, that would influence Rapping in the US. It consists of rhythmically singing/talking over existing instrumental music, with a higher emphasis on a rhythmic flow than on melody or harmony. Often it combines “pure” rhythmic talking with what is more like chanting or singing. Still, the shift toward the rhythmic is clear, and said to derive from ancient African Griot traditions.
Again, the Toasting and Chatting is not rhythmical in a simple, but rather in a complex/layered way, and just listening to experienced Toasters/Chatters from older times (like U-Roy or I-Roy), or current ones like Sizzla, Capleton, Jah Mason, Lutan Fyah, Junior Kelly and others, would show this: there are actually mostly more complex layers of rhythms within one song, interchanging each other. This often even gives the songs a polyrhythm/ polyphonic feel. Again: this – variety and layers (or: dexterity) within rhythmic Toasting - diminished somewhat in its derivative hip-hop: all in all mostly flatter and less-layered rhythmically, though there are exceptions.
Jamaican music created its own identity – a musical, but also broader a cultural and “national” identity – first through rhythm. In other words: by returning to African, cultural roots, which may seem paradoxical, but is not. For, as Marcus Garvey said: “a tree without good roots cannot bear good fruit(s)”. Rhythm had thus a foundational importance in Jamaican music, and the focus on rhythm remained important in all music genres that developed in Jamaica.
This focus on rhythm includes the changing drum styles (e.g. One Drop, Rockers, Steppers) but still on a solid off-beat or after-beat base and drum accent on the Third count of 4/4 (or the Two when counted differently: One – and –Two-and Three-and-Four), typical of Jamaican music since Ska. Further, it is there in the relatively percussive bass (and guitar) playing that became characteristic, and the relatively frequent use of added percussion/drums, often even directing songs, or at least adding counter-rhythms. Rhythm also shows, vocally, in the common call-and response vocals, and the later developed Toasting/chatting styles.
This rhythmic tradition was a crucial ingredient, that in a combination with good, honest, “soulful” singing, and good melodies and harmonies, resulted - as a type of “rhythm-shaped synergy” - in a tasteful, unique, and inspiring “recepy”.