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Drums of Benin

Study examines the ritual music of the Fon and Yoruba groups of West Africa

Group of Beninese musicians with their drums: a book on the subject is forthcoming

PERSONAL ARCHIVEGroup of Beninese musicians with their drums: a book on the subject is forthcomingPERSONAL ARCHIVE

The Fon ethnic group of Benin, West Africa, cultivates a particular style of ritual music that few researchers have studied. As a student in Germany in 1984, Marcos Branda Lacerda, a professor in the Music Department of the School of Communications and Arts at the University of São Paulo (ECA/USP), decided to travel to Benin for three months to examine that culture, in part following the itinerary presented in the books of French photographer, ethnologist and anthropologist Pierre Verger, who spent much of his life in the Brazilian city of Salvador. A critical review of his long-term study will soon appear in the book Música instrumental no Benin – Repertório fon e música batá” (Instrumental music in Benin – Fon repertoire and bata music), to be published by the University of São Paulo Press (Edusp).

Lacerda also focused on the music of the Yoruba people of Benin, in particular the Nago, who are well-known in Brazil. “I traveled around several cities and singled out the bata, a group that at the time had not been widely studied. I had the opportunity to come into contact with several musical groups,” he says. “Although bata music had been cited a lot, it was practically unknown in the musicology literature. Verger himself mentioned bata because of its connection to the Shango religion. “In addition to the Fon group, I chose to study the bata groups in two cities,” he explains.

The researcher says that there are fairly significant publications in Brazil about Afro-Brazilian ethnographic research and anthropological issues, in addition to the works of Verger, such as the studies by Reginaldo Prandi. In ethnomusicology, however, his work appears to be unprecedented. In his field research, Lacerda interacted with musicians, and some of the material he recorded is expected to be included with the book. “The Yoruba repertoire I recorded there is already well-known. Some time ago I published a CD through the Smithsonian Institution that gets a lot of attention from people in that area. Funarte published something from the Fon people, but it quickly went out of print.”

PERSONAL ARCHIVEAccording to Lacerda, there is an array of rhythmic elements that are more deeply layered in the Fon repertoire. “It was a repertoire studied only indirectly by researchers, mainly Americans and Ghanaians who researched the traditions of the Ewe group. The Fon group is both culturally and technically closer to that repertoire. There is deep layering of rhythmic elements, with features that differ greatly from those of Western music. It is a very distinct music from a theoretical standpoint,” he says. The bata group stands out for its density of sound, which is quite original, even in the context of the familiar styles of African percussive music.

These styles are linked to religious rituals, but Fon music is also used in celebrations of a solemn, institutional nature. It is what musicians would play “if our President came for a visit.”

Fon music is very closely tied to the occasions during which it is originally played, although some elements make their way in diluted form into the African music familiar to the wider world. “Popular music styles first try to streamline the textures; these repertoires are not likely to remain at all within the same stylistic spectrum.”

Lacerda worked only with percussion (the book has four photographs to give an idea of what the drums look like and how they are played), although ethnic groups play music for other kinds of instruments and for voice. “Voice is very important, but for strategic reasons I concentrated on the musical parts played only by instruments.” The work also focuses on theoretical issues and offers a brief assessment of how the music of these groups likely influenced Brazilian culture, in particular the ritual music of the Afro-Brazilian religious cults such as candomblé and other similar manifestations in the states of Maranhão and Pará.

Lacerda chose to limit his research almost solely to the world of African music. In his opinion, to try to listen to African music as a way of creating an immediate link to Brazilian music would be “intellectually risky.” “What happened in music is not the same thing as what happened with the Afro-Brazilian religions, and to draw an overly detailed parallel at this time would come across as somewhat forced,” he explains. “The Brazilian universe is diverse and conceptually very complex, so there is no way to build a direct link—at least not with West Africa,” he concludes.