Subscribe now for free! JAZZed. CLICK HERE to signup now!

Yoruban Game

Jazzed Magazine • Basic TrainingMarch 2011 • March 23, 2011

This is a topic I discuss often at Camp MMW and on my latest educational DVD, LIFE ON DRUMS (Vongole Films). Not only do we (Medeski Martin Wood) stress this as a practice method in our music workshops, but we also use “Yoruban Game” for composing and improvising as a band.

Conceptually: when two or more complimentary rhythmic patterns are playing together we call this “rhythmic harmony.” More common terms used are “counterpoint” and “polyrhythm.” This idea of two rhythms sounding together suggests a feeling. When we change one of the rhythms the perception and feeling changes with it. This is similar to the concept in tonal harmonic movement. So, if we have three or four rhythms at once the feeling is more complex and changing up the single lines within the combination creates a myriad of perception and feeling. This is much more musical and “conversational” in approach to performing, practicing, improvising or composing. All musicians need to be aware of this in order to have a deeper interplay and connection with one another whether improvising or just accompanying each other.

Yoruban Game is one of my “Stridulation” compositions for percussion, but can be applied to any instrument or ensemble as a rhythmic guide or study. Yoruban culture has it roots in West Africa and has influenced many other cultures, especially Cuba, Haiti, Brazil and most African American musical traditions. My book Riddim: Claves of African Origin (Music in Motion) explores this concept for drummers or any musician interested in deepening their rhythmic sophistication.

The graphic notation for Yoruban Game consists of two symbols: x (= sound) and . (= rest/space). Both symbols have equal time value. I created this notation so any person can participate and there is no emphasis on time signatures. Initially, we have all instrumentalists play woodblocks or bottles each with a slightly different tone. Later, we apply Yoruban Game to our instrument of choice in an ensemble and work out the tonality in a collective manner.

This is a collective effort. There is no leader, per se. Sometimes, you may need a prompter as initial guidance but the ensemble should govern itself collectively.

Here is a list of the rules and definitions:

X = sound
. = space

‘locked’ mode = everyone plays one tempo, share the same downbeat.
‘trading’ = players can jump from one pattern to another in any order or combination.

‘master clave’ = the key rhythm that defines tempo and dictates where the beginning of the phrase is. This part is usually the first pattern (clave) listed on the page.

‘master clave performer’ enters first with top line and determines tempo for the entire performance of this composition.

Yoruban Game

Each instrument uses one unique pitch within the ensemble. The ensemble may also collectively decide on a mode or tonal concept adding another level of tonal expression. Most West African musicians hear patterns like these as multiple timelines and each rhythm listed may suggest timelines pulsating in 2, 3, 4, 6, et cetera.

Players should not use dynamics in order to focus on this counter-rhythmic dynamic. The group acts as one organism and complements each other by choosing the pattern that compliments the whole. Don’t forget to leave some space. Everyone does not have to play constantly. Space is the place!

For video examples of the percussion class using Yoruban Game, visit:

For more about Billy’s book, Riddim: Claves of African Origin, checkout: www.billymartin.nnet/Riddim/Riddim_book.html and

In addition to his acclaimed work with Medeski, Martin, Wood, Billy Martin has also performed with Pe De Boi, Bob Moses, John Zorn, Iggy Pop, John Scofield, and Maceo Parker, among many others. He is a staunch advocate of music education and takes an active roll in Camp MMW:

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!