Analysis of Steve Reich's Drumming and his use of African polyrhythms
In the summer 1970 Steve Reich went to Ghana to study drumming. With a travel grant from the Special Projects division of the Institute of International Education, he made his way to Accra in order to study with Gideon Alorworye, the resident master drummer of the Ghana Dance Ensemble. Due to illness he returned from only after five weeks. He spent the following year almost exclusively on the ensemble piece called Drumming. At first glance, Drumming appears to draw on Reich's non-western musical influences more than any other of his compositions to date. The ensemble of instrumentalists sharing their time between drums, mallet instruments and singing testifies to the composer's attraction African traditions; as does the 12/8 rhythmic cell-- reminiscent of an African bell pattern--that accounts for the entire work's material. However, listening to Steve Reich's Drumming with an ear that is thirsty for African polyrhythmics is the recipe for misunderstanding and disappointment. The sort of strict polyrhythmics that is found throughout central and west African music is not at all the point of this piece of music. There is a drastic disparity between the complexity of the rhythmic material in traditional African music and the single rhythmic cell present in Drumming. Furthermore, the multi-leveled construction of African polyrhythmics often acts as a vehicle for the master drummer to flaunt his command over the pulse: with great ease, he is able to play just a few of milliseconds ahead of the bell pattern, or ever so slightly behind the low drum. This form of interaction is entirely absent from Drumming. The comparison begs the question: what did Reich learn by going to Ghana?
Momeni, A. Analysis of Steve Reich's Drumming and his use of African polyrhythms. 2001.