studio and archives

Spring 2008: Bembe

Below is a fuller explanation of the piece Bembe, which is a fairly literal translation of an Afro-Cuban rhythm, played on conga drums and other percussion instruments, with a lead vocal and a "coro," or chorus.

For many years, I've been intrigued by the idea of representing music in visual terms. My husban is a percussionist, and recently I decided to try to make a hanging of one of the Afro-Cuban rhythms which are so compelling to him (and me, for that matter).

I chose bembe, which has three or four parts for congas, a shaker, bell, and sticks. Many different songs are sung to this rhythm, and I chose one (Abu Ken Ken). The song is sung in call-and-response style by a lead singer (akpwón) and a coro (chorus--generally, anyone who's around and willing). I depicted the lead voice in bright red and the coro in blue. The coro lines are scattered among the other instruments, to echo the mingling of singers/drummers, or audience/performers.

As I thought about this translation, more and more factors seemed important to include. I wanted the colors of each line to reflect how things sounded to me. Hence the bell, which is the backbone of the rhythm, is in the middle and is bright yellow. The lowest drum (which plays the lead) is in purple, very rich looking. With the congas, I tried to indicate tone by making the more prominent notes brighter. I also displaced the notes within each line, to indicate left and right hands.

The rhythmic cycle for bembe is 4 beats long, and each beat is subdivided into 3. (If you read music, think of this as 12/8: four 8th-note triplets.) Each small vertical rectangle is one subdivision -- one note or rest. For example, within every beat the high conga (second from top) plays two notes (turquoise) and a rest (the background black-brown).

I also thought about duration of the sounds. The shaker (orange, on the top line) plays on each beat, but the sound lingers beyond its subdivison -- so I made fabric that fades from one beat to the next. On the other hand, the bell (yellow) and sticks (green, bottom line) have a very quick duration, so I put some extra background in to imply that.

This piece is a fairly literal translation of 4 measures of music (in 12/8 time), showing from top to bottom:

shaker (guiro or shekere) - orange

coro: all the skinny horizontal blue lines are coro

high conga (cachimbo) - turquoise

low, lead conga (caja) - purple

lead vocal (akpwón) - bright red

bell (campana or guataca) - yellow

middle conga (mula) - soft red

a second middle conga - soft red

sticks (paila) - green

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