Africa & The Bass Part 3: The Polyrhythmic Basses Of Zimbabwe & Congo

SOME OF THE WORLD’S MOST inventive bass playing can be found in Africa’s modern pop music.


Some of the world's most inventive bass playing can be found in Africa’s modern pop music. While some players have gotten a share of the international spotlight, most of the continent’s great bassists have remained unsung heroes. In this series of articles, we’re focusing on four of Africa’s most bassobsessed countries—South Africa (July ’10), Cameroon (September ’10), and this month, Zimbabwe and Congo—and finding out how Africans have been taking the instrument to new places.

N’Gouma Lokito’s right hand dances spider- like between the four strings. He’s finger-picking the bass, his thumb deftly moving between the lower three strings while his index finger answers with commentary from the G string. Lokito is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and he plays the bass in a way that nobody has ever thought of doing in America. By taking ideas from local instruments, African players like Lokito have come up with some surprising technical and conceptual approaches to the bass. In this last installment of the series, we’ll check out a few styles inspired by traditional African musical ideas.

Few would argue that the greatest African musical idea of all is polyrhythm. At its most basic, polyrhythm is the combination of two or more rhythms happening at the same time, and it’s a common element of music in Sub-Saharan Africa. For example, if you have one musician playing in 2/4 and another playing in 3/4, you get a two-against-three feel. This is common enough in the West, but in African music, the tension between the two-feel and three-feel is constant, driving the music. African musicians play with that ambiguity, slipping easily between grooves without committing to one or the other.

The polyrhythmic, 12/8 bass part in Ex. 1 hovers between those duple and triple feels. In the first half of each bar, it has a quarter-note triplet against two dotted quarters. At the same time, the bass plays against eighth-note triplets in the hi-hat (represented on the bottom staff), generating two levels of the three-against-two polyrhythm. The line is from a song by Thomas Mapfumo, the father of Zimbabwe’s guitar-driven pop music. Mapfumo’s music comes directly from the traditional repertoire of the mbira, a metal-keyed thumb piano. With just two thumbs and one index finger, mbira players execute a melody, a counter-melody, and a bass line at once, all in glorious polyrhythm. In Zimbabwean pop music, those parts are translated onto electric guitars and, of course, the bass.

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Charles Makokova, Mapfumo’s principal bassist through the years, pioneered a style that imitates the mbira bass parts, preserving the technical quirks of the instrument. Mbira players often strike their lowest note at the top of each measure, no matter the chord, leading to lots of inversions in the harmonies. And due to the challenge of playing melodies and bass parts at once with only three fingers, mbira bass tones often hit on the offbeats.

In Kinshasa, the booming capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, bassists have developed a unique playing technique. Congolese music—known variously as rumba, soukous, or kwassa-kwassa—is the most popular sound throughout Africa; it combines a laid-back, inherently danceable beat with dense layers of interlocking guitars, each playing melodic fragments that fit together like puzzle pieces. While Congolese music may not come directly from any specific traditional sound, there are old-school concepts at play. “In Congo, players play their guitars like drums, sometimes even thinking about particular drum patterns and sounds,” says Bob White, an expert on Congolese music who teaches anthropology at the University of Montreal. “Think of guitars like drums, and you get all kinds of wonderfully rich polyrhythmic patterns and counterpoint between the guitars.” Within this sonic tapestry, the bass acts as another, lower guitar-drum. Listening to Congo bass lines, it’s clear that the players are not thinking in terms of support. “These days, Congolese bassists play the bass like a lead guitar at times, often wandering into the higher registers,” says White. “But they never seem to lose the heavy bottom that drives this music.”

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Which brings us back to N’Gouma Lokito and his spider-hand. Lokito, whose very name means “Power of the Bass” in a local dialect, is one of Congo’s greatest and most widely imitated players. He learned to play on a homemade bass made out of an oil can; he later studied at a conservatory in Kinshasa and became a bandleader. His repeating, riff-based lines seem simple, but they are nuanced by the Congolese thumb-and-index finger picking technique (Examples 2 and 3). While his index finger never strays from the G string, his thumb keeps moving on the eighth-notes, hitting muted notes, low bass tones, and open strings as well as playing the main melodic material. For faster bits, Lokito strikes his thumb up and down like a pick. He keeps his left thumb curled over the fingerboard on the E string, allowing him to reach down with the right and pluck a half-muted bassy thump at any moment. In Lokito’s hands, the bass becomes a versatile percussion instrument, producing a wide range of sounds while maintaining a hypnotic groove.

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Lokito isn’t shy when it comes to the source of his genius: “This is what made me the best bass player—because I listened a lot to our folk music.”


Secrets Of The Motown Vault

CALL IT A PERFECT STORM OF BASS. The setting is Studio A at Universal Mastering Studios East, in midtown Manhattan. Sitting at opposite ends of the board are Anthony Jackson and James Jamerson Jr., the world’s foremost authorities on the style and substance of Motown master James Jamerson. Harry Weinger, VP of A&R for Universal Music’s catalog division, with a menu of original session tapes at his fingertips, starts the Supremes’ 1968 single, “Reflections.” Instantly, and without noticing the other, Anthony and James Jr. begin intently playing air bass, each precisely matching the notes emanating from the speakers. And what notes they are. With several instruments turned off in our custom mix, and Jamerson’s bass boosted, his part is more than just ghost-in-the-machine groove, it’s a living, breathing entity that can physically move you—as we learn when one of his token drops causes our collective bodies to bend sideways in delighted reaction. Recalling his vault experie