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Combining several rhythmic streams



Polyrhythm is traditional West African music considered by musicologists to be the most rhythmically complex music in the world. Rhythms and counter rhythms in the common African tradition of call and response complement and communicate with one another with different drum lines, other musical instruments, bodies and voices contributing rhythmic elements. This element of instrumental call and response is also evident in the polyrhythmic quality of jazz. By contrast, most traditional European music has a flat linearity.

Nigerian percussion master Babatunde Olatunji has exploded on the American music scene in 1959 with his album Drums of Passion, which was a collection of traditional Nigerian music for percussion and chanting. The album has contributed a great impact on jazz and American popular music. Olatunji would go on to teach to collaborate and record with numerous jazz and rock artists, including Airto Moreira, Carlos Santana and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead.

Afro-Cuban conguero, or conga player, Mongo Santamaria was another percussionist. Their polyrhythmic virtuosity has helped transform both jazz and popular music. Santamaria has fused Afro-Latin rhythms with R&B and jazz as a bandleader in the 1950s, and was featured in the 1994 Buena Vista Social Club album.


What is a poly rhythm?

The prefix poly- means many, and according to this, The Oxford English dictionary say that: "The use or an instance of simultaneous contrasting rhythms" But this definition makes all music consisting of two (or more) different rhythmic lines, poly rhythmic. ____________________________________

Some Definitions of Poly rhythms


First definition: It is the way to qualify as a polyrhythm that the rhythms should be chosen such the numbers denoting their rhythmic relation are relatively prime to each other.

Second definition: The sum of two (or more) simultaneously sounds rhythms results in a subdivision of the beat that is not present in either of the constituting rhythms. We call this resultant rhythm polyrhythmic.

Third definition: When one rhythm is included in the subdivision of the beat implied by the other rhythm, these two different rhythms do not produce a poly rhythm as they are played simultaneously.


This is a polyrhythm


Another important point to consider in order qualifying as a polyrhythm, the two constituting rhythms should be clearly heard and felt as separate rhythms, each with their own properties.

For instance, if two snare drums play with the same pitch and the same loudness, it just sounds like one rhythm, being the sum of the two building parts! Unless two players have been put far apart it is not a polyrhythm.





Frédéric Chopin

Frank Zappa

Tony Williams

Miles Davis

Elvin Jones

McCoy Tyner

John Coltrane.

Steven Reich




To be a poly rhythm, two rhythms or more are needed to form this polyrhythm. These two rhythms, should be based on relatively prime subdivisions and clearly distinct from one another




• Stone, Ruth M. (2005) Music in West Africa: experiencing music, expressing culture. New York; Oxford University Press

• Betsy Marvin and Richard Hermann (Ed.) (1995) Concert music, rock, and jazz since1945: essays and analytical studies. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester

• Arom, Simha (1991) African polyphony and polyrhythm: musical structure and methodology. Cambridge: New York. Cambridge University Press

• Oxford Essential Dictionary (2006) Oxford, UK Oxford University Press

•WikiPedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyrhythm (Accessed on October,2 2006)

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