György Ligeti freely acknowledged the influence of African music on his work—an influence that is seldom readily obvious, though it can be teased out by analysis.
After he listened to recordings of African drumming, Ligeti began exploring the use of various rhythms through multiplication of the basic pulse, a concept that resonated with the additive rhythms of the traditional music that he grew up with in Hungary.
In one of his few passages involving the use of an African-sounding instrument, the third movement of Ligeti’s piano concerto includes an Africanesque pattern played on bongos. He marked the part to be played very quietly, so rather than being foregrounded it serves almost imperceptively to reinforce patterns being played simultaneously on other instruments. Unlike most African drumming, this bongo pattern evolves over time, so that its end is quite different from its beginning.
This according to “Ligeti, Africa, and polyrhythm” by Stephen Andrew Taylor (The world of music XLV/2  pp. 83–94).
Today is Ligeti’s 90th birthday! Below, Mihkel Poll performs the movement in question.
Ever since the publication of his African Music in Ghana (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1963), Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia (b.1921) has been reknowned among ethnomusicologists. His distinguished career has included many fine publications on music in Africa and its diaspora. The first volume of his collected papers, Ethnomusicology and African music: Modes of inquiry and interpretation, was issued by Afram Publications in 2005.
Nketia’s extensive background in musicology gave him the tools to revolutionize the analysis of African drumming, and since the 1980s he has produced landmark articles on more general aspects of ethnomusicological theory. He is also a composer—he studied with Henry Cowell in the late 1950s—who has written works for both Western and African instruments.
This post is part of our series celebrating Black History Month. Throughout February we will be posting about resources and landmark writings in black studies. Click here or on the Black studies category on the right to see a continuously updated page of links to all of our posts in this category.
Below, a performance of Nketia’s Monna n’ase (1942).