EPISODE 4 : 6/8 Rhythm by Eugene Skeef

Through his travels over many decades, Eugene has worked in diverse communities.He has worked in prisons, with people serving life sentences, schools, communities, and with orchestras. He used to drive Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness movement. He writes poetry every day. Eugene employs rhythm as the principal motivational, focusing, galvanizing and energizing force.

Module 4: PRE TASK

Through his travels over many decades, Eugene has worked in diverse communities. He has worked in prisons, with people serving life sentences, schools, communities, and with orchestras. He used to drive Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness movement. He writes poetry every day. Eugene employs rhythm as the principal motivational, focusing, galvanizing and energizing force.

He anchors everything in Ubuntu: “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” meaning “A person is a person through other people.” This Ubuntu philosophy says, we are inter-connected, as is all of life.

This makes perfect sense in rhythm because vibration is oscillation, it is molecular motion. When molecules collide in the air that is how sound travels. What is that, if it is not rhythm?

You know that maskandi music blaring, when walking across a taxi rank to get your ride home? That rhythm pulsating all round, is pushing you on in the afternoon home-bound crowd of commuters. You know the tabla pounce, walking into a Pakistani cellphone shop to buy ten Rands airtime? This music makes your head bob with the beat, your fingers snap in unison and your heart throbs in joy.

Being hooked to rhythm in a song disregards your fluency in the language of the melody, or your adeptness in the dance of the music style. You get lost in rhythm, oblivious of all dangers.

This is Africa where rhythm is the foundation of all music, and it is a unique rhythm, laced with syncopation and polyrhythms.

We, South Africans are children of a heady, whirling, musical rhythm. The KhoiSan’s circle at midnight with foot rattles, wooden pegs clapping, haunting sopranos and tenors of the trance and dance. The Vhenda, Domba, python-like wriggle in unison in the fire lit night girl initiation rites. BaSotho droning male voices in harmonic songs, accentuated by the accordion. The ukuxhensa shoulder trembles and timed foot stomps. The drum and squeal of sorghum beer inebriated sangoma initiates, amathwasa. The reverberation of Zululand hills as amahubo by the warrior regiments echo from valley to valley. A-capella harmonies of isicathamiya in the male hostels. The piercing horns of European classical music (Dutch, English, German, Portuguese). The sad melodies in the minarets muezzin music. The bible-thumping and clanging bells accentuating repetitive Christian hymns. The urgency, wide mouths and insistent hand gesticulation of African classical and choral music. The light, peppered spin and toothless laughter of minstrels as they thump goema wine barrel drums from the Cape Carnival. The two chord guitar and beer and pork of Boere vastrap music. The flying skirts, pink panties and throbbing breasts in the sweaty dance for African Jazz, kwela, marabi, mbaqanga, isicathamiya and Free Jazz. We got rhythm all right.

Rhythm as the connecting point

Resonance is the key to the pulse of life. Because all life pulses at its core and the ripples of our consciousness travel from the centre of our being outward to touch every other living entity in our midst, we are forever connected to all life. One arrives at this point of connection through group meditation, chanting or playing rhythmic games and exercises.

The success of applying the deep principles of rhythmic connection to our lives in so-called modern society begins with attaining balance in our own lives. Even before we can advance towards being connected to others in our community, we need to establish a connection with ourselves first. This connection can also be understood as alignment. When we are aligned with ourselves in the deepest sense of the word, we become more balanced in every aspect of our being. Our ancestors were connected telepathically.

Rhythm is mathematics. In Africa there was no margin or barrier between maths and music. Therefore, we can always turn the simplest task into an opportunity for exploring and expressing rhythm – like stirring a cup of tea in a deliberately rhythmic manner; or tapping the edge of the pot with a ladle in a particular beat; basically being joyfully silly about the lessons of rhythm hidden just beneath the surface of everything that surrounds us – because rhythm is everything.

The soul and spirit of the animal.



Do you remember when Ladysmith Black Mambazo used to perform and they would go rrrrrrriqiqi and do those sounds on stage? Those sounds are what the boys made. The young guys were the ones that herded the oxen and cattle and also guided and controlled the oxen ploughing the land. Those sounds and you do the whistle – all of that is vibing. This is a creative Zulu thing.

Eugene grew up in Clermont township which was a violent township. His dad’s nickname was Bhubesi, Zulu for lion because he was the toughest man and an expert in rhythm. He used to wrestle with oxen. As a child, Eugene used to imitate the songs of birds and monkeys in the bushes. There are many lessons for rhythm we can draw from animals.

There is a tradition of herd boys in Africa playing their flutes to the rippling of the muscles of the hindquarters of the cattle. The Dinka people who live along the Nile River, just like the Nguni people of South Africa, are very close to their livestock. Young herders sleep with them. They use the animals' bodies and dung to keep themselves warm. The rhythm of a cow's breathing when it is still helps the young herders to relax and distend their own diaphragms to increase their breathing capacity. Their relationship with their animals is one of reassuring them of their connection to the universe through their shared pulse of life. Their herds give them a sense of belonging. Their cows constitute the centre of their universe of reality.

Now answer the following questions



1. Endeavour to liberate yourself from electronic devices for this task. This task is an opportunity to spend more time physically exploring your creative gifts and using them to increase the sense of “who I am.”

2. Listen carefully to feel the pulse of your internal rhythm. Relax into the rhythm and let yourself go with it.

3. Play your rhythmic riff with your instrument.

4. Invent a phrase that metrically fits the pattern and improvise with it. If you can, as always, record your invention to share with us.

He anchors everything in Ubuntu: “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” meaning “A person is a person through other people.” This Ubuntu philosophy says, we are inter-connected, as is all of life.




Module 4: POST TASK

The Western concept of common time being 4/4 is actually misleading. In Africa, rhythms in multiples of 3 are actually more prevalent.

When a pregnant women is at her most relaxed her heart beats in 3/4 or 6/8. This rhythm brings peace and harmony to the unborn child and similarly to a community or nation. The 6/8 time signature honours the echoes of the heartbeat of a people’s state of consciousness. This beat is the pre-eminent metaphor of people who are at one with themselves and their environment.

This rhythmic tendency can be visualised as a triangle nestling in a square. The triangle has three sides, while the square has four. In African cultural traditions the number four is considered to be feminine and stable, while the number three is male and constantly in motion, conceptually never coming to rest.

The combination of these values in society leads to a kind of motive harmony, where the instinct for movement is equal to that of accentuating the home base. The alternate and simultaneous apportioning of prominence to either and both of the numbers three and four is the essential thrust of the African 3/4 or 6/8 rhythm.

It is therefore not uncommon, when you are playing percussion accentuating a 6/8 rhythm, imagining enveloping repeated cycles of three, to suddenly experience a momentary head spin in which the feeling (or “feel”) of a strong sense of four beats takes over. This oscillation is the basis of our perpetual search for home.

Eugene Skeef was a great friend of the late Bheki Mseleku. Bheki was globally renowned for his highly developed harmonic sense and was known as a master improviser at the piano. His scintillating solos often incorporated rapid melodic runs that left audiences and fellow musicians in total awe of his unbelievable speed. Eugene described how a friend once said about Bheki that his speed reminded him of John Coltrane in that no matter how fast he played, he articulated every single note of a run as if he was visiting people in his neighbourhood – stopping to greet every single one, exchanging pleasantries and having tea with them, before moving on to the next neighbour, until he had paid everyone in the community a visit.

There is an extent to which, when you’re playing that fast, the binary linear articulation of notes in a 4/4 relationship has to be elasticised and become triangular for you to be physically able to go beyond the limitations of normality. The morphing into three beats per cycle is like an acknowledgement of our having reached the outer limits of human capability and having to therefore embrace infinity in our tonal articulation.

Now answer the following questions?



1. Rhythm is the oldest human creative format for telling stories. Storytelling is an intrinsic part of being human. Through story-telling inspiration for melodies, lyrics, rhythms, choreography emerges.
Choose an object that is significant to you and share your personal story behind this object in a creative way.

2. Every single musical instrument carries in its soul an infinite number of stories. These include its origins, the ceremonies in which it has been played, the reasons behind its creation, in whose presence it has been played and where else it will carry the memories of its sound.

3. Can you place this story onto your instrument?

4. As always, record your creation so as to share with us.

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