Essay on The African Musical Context By John Miller Chernoff

Essay on The African Musical Context By John Miller Chernoff

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In the African musical context, writes John Miller Chernoff in African Rhythm and African Sensibility, “Expert art makes for effortlessness even in the most fantastic displays.” (Chernoff 150) Indeed, in direct contrast with the more outward expressions of effort characteristic of Western music-making, even, and perhaps especially among virtuosos of their art, those of African music display their mastery of their craft through the effortlessness with which they communicate. This effortlessness, described as coolness, or baalim, by Ibrahim Abdulai, Chernoff’s chief instructor in his studies of African drumming, appears to be native to and widespread throughout Africa. In African music, as well as in African dance and visual art, there exists a persistent and pervasive aesthetic of “cool” which not only differentiates it strongly from Western aesthetics of performance, but which also speaks of a fundamental difference in societal values between the cultures of Africa and of the West.
The word “baalim” is one which is difficult to translate without some loss of its full meaning. Though the word “cool,” the word’s closest translation, is not at all foreign to Westerners, it is important to note that its meaning within the African musical and societal context is. Abdulai himself, in explaining the concept to Chernoff, reminded him that “Baalim is not ‘cool’ in the way that water or the weather is cool.” (Chernoff 106) Instead, it represents a certain control, a coolness in temperament as opposed to temperature, which, “having the value of composure in the individual context,” has that of “social stability in the context of the group.” (Thompson 2) As any explanation I can muster might not capture the full essence of the term, I thin...


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...ricans detach themselves from their individual roles in their daily lives to contribute to and work towards the common good of all in their social circles and society.
The aesthetic and cultural principle of cool, baalim, is one which not only differentiates African artistic expression from that of the West, but is also one which differentiates African and Western cultural values on a greater scale. While a Western musician might play from their heart, and their audience seek to internalize the values they embody in doing so, an African musician, through a display of coolness and poise, would create a space which fosters the audience participation and enjoyment of all which reflect the values of his culture. In either case, under ideal circumstances, both audience and performer should leave the performance satisfied fully in the role they played in its taking place.

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