Foli – West African word used for rhythm

Foli – West African word used for rhythm

In my experience of living two years in rural West African, you can develop a strong connection to the sounds and rhythms of nature. It not surprising that  West African musicians draw inspiration form the natural environment and trusting that reality resides predominantly in what is heard and said.

Foli, a mandinka word describing speech or to produce music, is an ongoing project, which explores phonetic descriptive sounds of translated drum patterns. In West African culture. Phonetic speech is still the traditional method of teaching about oral history, ancestry and mythology. Ritual and sacred rites of passage are passed onto generations through percussion and other forms of ancestral music. The vocabulary of music is described through the lips of the speaker, providing a description of how the sound would transfer when hands physical connect to a drum, which in turn creates sound to occupy space in the external world.

In my enquiry I am working with Mamadou Camara, a Guinean musician whom I became close friends with whilst co-managing the group Kouma Kan, musicians and dancers based in Kartong, The Gambia. From 2012 to 2018, Mamadou taught me a lot about the foundations and complexities of traditional West African drum rhythms through phonetic speech. Through this method Mamadou has learnt and retained the instrumental parts and culturally historical significance of hundreds of traditional Mandinka rhythms. The example of the recordings on this page orally presented by Mamadou are Soko, which is the opening rhythm that we performed as a Troupe at festivals. The last recording is a short explanation of the Dunumba rhythm (dance of the strong men).


© Tony Spencer


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