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In Afro-American Folksongs, published in 1913, ,Henry E. Krehbiel describes an African instrument called a zanze as follows:

"The zanze is a small sound-box...hollowed out in the form of a round gourd to the upper side of which, over a bridge, are tightly affixed a series of wooden or metal tongues of different lengths. The tongues are snapped with the thumbs...and give out a most agreeable sound. I find out no records in the accounts of travellers as to any systematic tuning of the instrument, but a specimen from Zululand in my possession is accurately tuned to the notes of the pentatonic scale.with the addition of two erratic tones side-by-side in the middle of the instrument..." [Afro-American Folksongs, p. 68]

Krehbiel continues at another opening:

"I have mentioned a Zulu zanze which is in my possession--. It has pentatonic tuning down to two middle tongues, which emit strangely aberrant tones. The key is D-flat. The tongues on one side emit the descending order, D-flat, E-flat and B-flat; on the other B-flat, F, D-flat and A-flat....Between the right and left rows of tongues lie the two which give out the strange, wild notes A and B." [Afro-American Folksongs, p. 74]

The instrument Krehbiel describes sounds like a thumb piano in today's terms. Other than saying the instrument came from Zululand, he provides no other idea of its origin. Assuming the instrument is authentic, the question came to me as to whether the tuning he describes, especially the aberrant notes, belong to a natural scale. Krehbiel assumes that the tuning is diatonic. I'm not sure that is a good assumption for a genuine folk instrument. For one thing, the pentatonic tuning could as well result from the gaps in a natural scale.

Assuming Krehbiel's description of the pitches is accurate, I transposed them down a half step to C and fitted them to what appears to be an approximation of a natural scale. Does anyone in OMN have a take on this?

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I study ethnomusicology at SOAS in London with a focus on Africa and India. It does sound like a lamellophone commonly referred to as thumb piano. However, neither the term zanze nor the location given can be used conclusively to identify exactly what he's talking about. Db Eb F Ab Bb can be described as our standard major pentatonic, however in African music they sometimes switch things around so the intervals still seem the same but the tonal centre has shifted. Based on the description of the pitches this instrument produces Ab Bb Db Eb F Bb in ascending order, so I would say the key is Ab, not Db. The two dissonant pitches he talks about could be there to produce intentional dissonance or buzz, which may not be pleasing to our ears, but it is common in various African instruments. He also doesn't specify how he obtained the instrument so tines could've been knocked and this, from personal experience is most common with the longer tines, so I'm even willing to entertain the option that his analysis of the tuning is flawed and the two middle tines could be tuned to A and Ab or Gb and Ab instead. It doesn't make a lot of sense to have a B tine more central than a Bb tine, which is going to be longer and therefore restrict access for the thumb.

I asume what he means is the mbira. In Mozambique they are called nsansi. They have different tunings. A friend has two originally tuned ones. I'll try to analyze them on Overtone Analyzer. Until then enjoy listening.

Pentatonic tuning is just one of many possibilities. In Zimbabwe there are many kinds of tunings, many derived from different modes. Often the scales aren't tuned exactly to our western equal temperament. Many of the African musicians I have met and worked with are very open to changing their tuning. In fact in Zimbabwe the song is the fingering pattern, you can play the same song on a different tuning, and it is still considered to be the same song. If you want to go deeper check out "The Soul of Mbira" by Paul F. Berliner. Also metal keys have a different kind of overtone series which is fascinating. It's another rabbit hole!



Ruud Bemelmans said:

I study ethnomusicology at SOAS in London with a focus on Africa and India. It does sound like a lamellophone commonly referred to as thumb piano. However, neither the term zanze nor the location given can be used conclusively to identify exactly what he's talking about. Db Eb F Ab Bb can be described as our standard major pentatonic, however in African music they sometimes switch things around so the intervals still seem the same but the tonal centre has shifted. Based on the description of the pitches this instrument produces Ab Bb Db Eb F Bb in ascending order, so I would say the key is Ab, not Db. The two dissonant pitches he talks about could be there to produce intentional dissonance or buzz, which may not be pleasing to our ears, but it is common in various African instruments. He also doesn't specify how he obtained the instrument so tines could've been knocked and this, from personal experience is most common with the longer tines, so I'm even willing to entertain the option that his analysis of the tuning is flawed and the two middle tines could be tuned to A and Ab or Gb and Ab instead. It doesn't make a lot of sense to have a B tine more central than a Bb tine, which is going to be longer and therefore restrict access for the thumb.


Hi Ruud,

I'm new to OMN discussions, so this is a test to see if you get my reply before I write something only to see it go off into the ether. Let me know if you get this.

Regards,

Bob Hester
Received it. I don't hang around here often myself, but I saw this topic come up in an email and figured I'd reply.

Great!

My main interest is in slave songs from the American Civil War period. Writings on these songs, beginning with Slave Songs of the United States in 1867, generally approach them from the perspective of the equally tempered diatonic scale. After reading a piece by Aindrias Hirt on what he calls the European folk music scale (Ethnomusicology Review, September 2013), I got to wondering if such a scale can be posited for an African (and Afro-American) folk scale and how such a scale might have come to be. Hirt traced his European folk scale to the harmonic partials generated by the shepherds trumpet, which was apparently in common use in Europe.

This is a leap, but I tried applying Hirt's methods to the tuning of Krehbiel's "zenza"--assuming that the instrument was authentic, that it had not been damaged, etc., etc. Now, it's my understanding that metallic natural trumpets were introduced by Muslims into Africa as early as the 1300s and that these instruments were sometimes seven feet long or longer. Such an instrument would have been capable of producing a Ab3 3rd partial. (Db2 and Db3 1st and 2nd partials would have been difficult, if not impossible, to blow.) For convenience, let me transpose these tones down a half step, in which case, Krehbiel's tones become C D A | Bb Ab | A E C G. Comparing these to the partials of a natural trumpet yields:

Partial Tone
3 G3
4 C4
5 E4
6 G4
7 Bb4
8 C5
9 D5

This list accounts for Krehbiel's tones, except for A4 and Ab4. Neither of these are found in the natural scale until the 13th partial, which is a tone about half way between A5 and Ab5,which doesn't help very much. As a practical matter, however, A4 is a universally familiar perfect fourth down from D5 (9th partial), and Ab4 is an equally well known major third down from C5 (8th partial). Adding these derived tones to the mix rounds out the full complement of tones in Krehbiel's zenza.

It's a leap, but could Krehbiel's pentatonic scale actually be a naturally gapped scale derived from the partials of a natural trumpet with two derived tones thrown in? To stretch the point, could ancient Africans have absorbed such a scale using a sort of solfege that was eventually transmitted to the New World?

I could keep editing this message on and on, but it probably won't get any better. What do you think?

Like many others, I have scratched my head over contemporary descriptions of slave songs. I have concluded that imposing the diatonic, equal tempered scale on the music misses something. Hirt's approach to European music makes sense, so I ask if something similar could have happened in African music?

Hi

This indeed does look like the natural scale. You will have to measure it though. Firstly, it looks similar to a juice (Jews) harp which is definitely the natural scale. The difference is that with the juice harp, the box is flexible but the vibrating mechanism is the same. So the issue is, when you change the tongue you pluck, does it reinforce the harmonic series of the resonant frequency of the box, or does it create a new harmonic series?

This is the major reason why stringed instruments are always (well, almost-the aqua marine being one exception) out of tune in harmony. So if you have one violin playing a C and another violin playing an E, no matter how hard you tune, the upper overtones will not match. With a natural trumpet, you are just pushing energy into one of the many notes of the natural scale. So two C trumpets in tune are playing all of the notes in the natural scale at the same time. So no matter which note they push energy into, they are always in tune

So the question is, when you shift the tongue you pluck, is it reinforcing the pitch gamut of the box or is it creating a new harmonic series. You have to measure it and look at the wave form.

Best,

Aindrias Hirt

Thanks - fascinating discussion.

If the zanzes' tuning is derived from any instrument using the overtone series it has to be from:
https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=publish
Or:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIDNXChbTkM&list=PLe4Cb0qO4WIro...
Both are relevant to the area mentioned. Taking things over to the Americas we can clearly see the same instrument in the Berimbau, though admittedly played somewhat differently. But for me I can also see a link between these instruments and the diddly bow of the southern US. In fact, I've played my berimbau with a slide before and it works like a charm.
Going from South Africa to west Africa. There's this excellent article examining the connections between the Bambara of Mali and the possible influence they've had on the Delta blues:
https://eprints.soas.ac.uk/19491/
Which is mainly about this song:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KA0ErTCqUPo


Aindrias Hirt said:
Hi

This indeed does look like the natural scale. You will have to measure it though. Firstly, it looks similar to a juice (Jews) harp which is definitely the natural scale. The difference is that with the juice harp, the box is flexible but the vibrating mechanism is the same. So the issue is, when you change the tongue you pluck, does it reinforce the harmonic series of the resonant frequency of the box, or does it create a new harmonic series?

This is the major reason why stringed instruments are always (well, almost-the aqua marine being one exception) out of tune in harmony. So if you have one violin playing a C and another violin playing an E, no matter how hard you tune, the upper overtones will not match. With a natural trumpet, you are just pushing energy into one of the many notes of the natural scale. So two C trumpets in tune are playing all of the notes in the natural scale at the same time. So no matter which note they push energy into, they are always in tune

So the question is, when you shift the tongue you pluck, is it reinforcing the pitch gamut of the box or is it creating a new harmonic series. You have to measure it and look at the wave form.

Best,

Aindrias Hirt

Hi Aindrias,

I'm not sure how I could test a zanze, but my question is not so much about the instrument as it is about on what basis such an instrument might be tuned. Africans and Afro-Americans had a pitch aesthetic that was informed by something they learned (i.e., not some inherent racial trait). Your idea that favored tunings might be established by some application of the overtone series is very appealing.

Krehbiel wrote Afro-American Folksongs in 1913 in an attempt to demonstrate Arfican retentions in Negro spirituals. One piece of evidence he adduced was a table of "modal characteristics of 527 songs he deemed to be of Afro-American origin. Here's what he found:

Ordinary major 331
Ordinary minor 62
Mixed and vague 23
Pentatonic 111
Major with flat 7th 20
Major without 7th 78
Major without 4th 45
Minor with raised 6th 8
Minor without 6th 34
Major with leading tone 19

How does this compilation compare with your findings for European folk songs? If I understand your article, 63% major (331/527) and 12% minor (62/527) compare pretty well.
'Looks spot on. I'll have to read the reference. I will also have to reinterpret the "ordinary" modes since the non-natural scale notes probably fall on unstressed beats. This is problematic since Afro-rhythms can be quite complex. Stress often falls on upbeats. So what is disregarded/marginalized might shift. With indigenous (IE?) European music transcribers only made mistakes on the upbeats/unstressed beats. With African music transcriptions, the mistakes may have been made on the downbeats with the upbeats (which may have been stressed) being accurate. So you need to know the rhythm first, and then diminish the importance of pitch on unstressed beats which are different than where stress occurs in indigenous European music. In short, what is stress and I stress and how did that inform (subconsciously) the musical transcription?

If you could supply a link to the work you cite, I can ponder the classification system and see any systematic error. Personally, I've turned my back on academia for awhile and don't have much time to read and think. So it may be a while until I can think on this. Still, if you can give me an online link to this, I'll glance at it and my subconscious will sort it out. It takes a while, much to my PhD advisers found to their chagrin...
Should be "what is stress and unstress"

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