The Primacy Of Rhythm: Youssou N'Dour brings drums forth

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Ry Cooder once told me that “rhythm rules.”

The other night, at the Youssou N’Dour show at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 2,000 people were dancing, propelled by the powerful African rhythms of the great drummers. Did they speak Wolof? No, not a word, except for the Senegalese patrons, who were in ecstasy in the presence of their favorite Senegalese artist.

It was the rhythm of the drums that got the show moving. Rhythm dominates African music, both in the giant continent but also in the African diaspora that Africans went to: Haiti, Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, the city of New Orleans, and other countries. Without African rhythms, we’d have no rock and roll. African rhythms entered the U.S. via New Orleans with Haitian and Cuban music, bringing drums and rhythm with them; without that rhythmic invasion, we’d be listening to Irish ditties and Scottish folk music instead. Heaven forbid.

Taking it back to the 13th century, Pope Gregory forbade rhythm, giving us monodic Gregorian chants instead. When African slaves brought the zarabanda dance into Moorish Spain in the 13th century, the Church was horrified and banned it. It was the original dirty dancing, the mingling of hips.

When you see a photo of a European classical orchestra, ever wonder why the drums are always in the back, almost an afterthought? The opposite is an Afro-Cuban orchestra: the drums are always in the front, the rhythmic dynamo that powers the band.

Ry Cooder was right. The musical universe is better for it, too.