By Hugh Tracey

The Chopi people of Portuguese East Africa are famous for their music. They play large orchestras of xylophones which they call Timbila, and their orchestra: dances. Migodo (sing. Ngodo), are probably the most advanced example of African artistic endeavour in the southern part of the continent.

Their orchestras are to be found in every large village. In the Zavala district alone each of the eight more important chiefs has his own Ngodo or orchestra and dancers. This word Ngodo sometimes Igodo, Ingodo, or Mugodo) means «the whole show» including both dancers Basinyi and players Waveti, and their performance.

Their instruments and their songs and dances reflect great credit upon the abilities of the Chopi. When one remembers that not a note of their music has ever been written down, nor has anyone within their experience, they say, written or translated the words of their poems, it is remarkable to find that they compose new Ngodo with almost unfailing regularity every two years or so. A Ngodo is an orchestral dance in nine to eleven movements. Each movement is dis­tinctive and separate, and may last from a minute only, as in the case of some of the introductions, up to five or six minutes each. The whole performance takes as a rule about forty-five minutes, depen­ding upon the intricacy of the dancers' routine and the mood of the moment.

Descriptions of how Katini and Gomukomu set about composing a new orchestral dance will show how musically advanced these men are. Both of them say the first thing they do is to find appropriate words for their song and compose the verses of the lyric before the music. The subject-matter may be gay, sad, or purely documen­tary. In every case it is highly topical and appropriate to the locality, so much so, in fact, that most of the allusion would be caught only by those in close touch with the villagers and the district. They are often highly critical of those in authority over them, white or black, and to a large degree it may be said that the poems reflect the attitude of the common people towards the conditions of their society. High good humor is a very prominent feature of most of their poems. Sly digs at the pompous, outspoken condemnation of those who neglect their duties, protests against the cruel and overbearing, outcries directed against social injustices as well as philosophy in the face of difficulties, are all to be found in their songs and shared through their music and dancing. Unlike our own songs, they are not preoccupied with sex, with the yearnings of «torch-bearers», or with the raptures of blue birds and sunsets.

One can well imagine the forcefulness of the reprimand conveyed to a wrongdoer when he finds his misdeeds sung about by thirty to forty strapping young men before all the people of the village, or the blow to the pride of an overweening petty official who has to grin and bear it while the young men jeer to music at his pretentiousness. What better sanctions could be brought to bear upon those who outrage the ethics of the community than to know that the poets will have you pilloried in their next composition? No law of libel would protect you from the condemnation conveyed by those concerted voices of the whole village set to full orchestra and danced in public for all to revel in.

It is this aspect of African music which has perhaps escaped our notice — that it performs a highly social and cathartic function in a society which has no daily press, no publications, and no stage other than the village yard in which publicly to express its feelings or voice its protest against the rub of the times. It will be realized how important it is to keep open such a channel through which incidents per­petuated for a while in song express symbolically the plethora of similar incidents which gratify, amuse, exasperate, or sadden the common people — community expression through the self-expression of their composers. It might even be regarded as a form of theatre, a non-dramatic beginning to a living theatre in the sense ascribed to it recently by V. S. Pritchett:

«A living theatre is the boasting of a people; people boasting of their delights, their doubts, their wounds ... to show off and to be shown off. That is the beginning of a living theatre.»

Another aspect of Chopi poetry is at first surprising to us — the apparent paradox that even their saddest songs are sung to gay music. Some of the poems are poignant; particularly those lamenting the untimely death of their children or friends, but all of them, grave or gay are set to lively music. When I asked them why this was so, they explained, «We must dance our sorrow». It is a fundamental difference of outlook between us; we, who of recent centuries have forgotten how to symbolize our religious emotions in the dance, and for whom the dance means so much more than just a spectacle good-time party. It is a means of intense enjoyment through sharing in a common activity and statement. They speak with one voice and move with one spirit by mystical participation in the compelling music

To return to the composer: when he has decided upon the words of his poem, or, in the case of a long poem, the opening verse, he must now find his melody Chichopi, in common with other Bantu languages, is a tone language, and the sounds of the words themselves almost suggest a melodic flow of tones. This is developed rhythmically, as Gilbert and Sullivan did in their light operas, is one or other of the well-defined patterns which characterize their national verse, with clever use of repetition and offset phrases. The verses are not always metrically alike, as one would naturally expect of a tone language, but all bear a family relationship to the prototype lines. As often as not, the final verse sung to the coda is a repeat of the statement or first line of the poem. In this they follow a well-recognized trick of the trade which is exploited so frequently in our own popular songs. The subject-matter of the poem is not necessarily devoted exclusively to one theme or to one event.

The verse and the leitmotiv now fixed in the composer´s mind, he sits at his instrument, over which his hands wander with expert deftness, and picks outh the melody with one of his rubber-headed beaters After a while, during which his right hand becomes accustomed to the new tune, his left will begin to fill in the harmonies or contra-melody with well-understood sequences, punctuated with rhythmic sur­prises suggested by the ebb and flow of the words. Now the right hand will wander away from the melody, mapsui, into a variation. kuhambana, and as he sings the words over to himself the contrapuntal accompaniment will begin to form under his hands. How much of this process is the result of dexterity and habit and how much comes from direct musical inspiration remain to be discovered. At least the orches­tral overtures which have no poetry upon which to base their motives must depend upon genuine musical originality.


They now have the primary melodic line of the poem — the subject or leitmotiv — and the secondary melodic accompaniment — the orches­tral sentence — which hits the words contrapuntally, with a number of variations and sequences. It is this secondary melody which becomes the main theme for the orchestral part of the work from it the orchestral ground Is developed by the composer himself and by his fellow musicians as they play. In this degree the composition now becomes communal, with the players of the various pitches of Timbila (treble, alto, tenor, bass, and double bass) improvising their own parts to the ground. But they all conform to the master pattern set by the composer who may or may not have composed all these ground variations himself. It is incorrect to think that the performance of such variations is entirely impromptu. It is not. A repetition of the work will elicit the same variations as before, though the number of times they are played will depend upon the number of repeats, kuvagela, required by the dancers or the leader. Recordings of their work have elucidated this point.

The composer is now left with the final touches to decide. He must devise an introduction, arrange the general sequence of the movement, and decide how he will complete his code. The introduction to a move­ment is often complicated. The leader may first play over a statement of the melody, kukata Indando. Then after a short pause he will start an intricate cadenza, kudala which leads, via a run down the instrument, kusumeta, and an introductory phrase, kuningeta, into the full orchestral opening, kuvetani vootsi. Other introductions are not so intricate and may sometimes be only a matter of a couple of notes by the leader before the whole orchestra follows. The sequence of the movements is dependent upon the steps to be danced and the verses to be sung. It is arranged later between the composer and his dance leader.  This leaves only the coda. Generally, though not always, the code is a repeat of the first line or verse of the lyric, and the leader must devise a musical indication. kuvelusa, which his men will be able to hear and so follow him into the coda.

The musical side is now complete in every essential, but the dance has yet to be composed and fitted to the music. The composer will call on one or two of his friends to help play over his new work to the dance leader, who listens attentively and devises in his mind the dance routine to fit it. Then, with the plan of action clearly in his mind, the dance leader will try out his new steps and call upon the composer to give him a stipulated number of repeats of the basic sentence or phrase for each part of the dance. Naturally there would be confusion if a clearly devised plan were not strictly adhered to by dancers and orchestra. But the system works without the writing of a word or note on paper, and between them the whole movement takes shape.

The singing of the words of the lyric is part of the dance routine and is undertaken by the dancers. They sing as a rule in unison with occasional  harmonic passages by their leader.the clear statement of the subject and counter-subjects by young male voices set percussion accompaniment of the mellow-toned timbila makes stirring music.

So each new movement is added and replaces the old one which is discarded from now on. and in the matter of a few weeks or months the Ngodo has sloughed its old skin and is born fresh with new words, new music, and new dances.

It is against this highly developed pattern of melody, contra-melody, and action, that Chopi  poetry is heard.



Hugh Tracey