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NOTES from the FIELD: Resurrecting African Music and Dance

Each time a Griot, Jaly, or Ayan (keepers of African oral traditions) dies, they literally take libraries of African music and dance to the grave where it is entombed and lost to the world forever. Since the music and dance of Africa is largely an oral tradition that is verbally passed down from one generation to the next, sheet music is not available. Younger generations of Africans no longer practice or know the traditional music and dance of their ancestors, therefore, African music and dance is an endangered species.

Griots, Jalys, and Ayans

Upon viewing my work, the Timi of Ede, Oba Adetoyese Laoye-1, Nigeria's foremost authority on musical traditions, asked me to return to Nigeria to put the Igbin drum music into written notation. He died while I was enroute. Duro Ladipo, master drummer of the Bata drums also applauded my percussion notation system. His particular interest was the arm pit drum or tension drums. He extended an invitation to me to work with him on notating these instruments. He died before this work was put into motion. Asadata Dafora, an African from Sierra Leone, was the first to bring African dance to the concert stages of New York. He passed away in 1965. Pearl Primus, a pioneer in African dance passed away in 1994. Each of these people took their work to the grave. There is no written documentation of any of these works. Today, African music and dance is the subject of many thesis and dissertations, consequently, these aspiring graduates are having considerable difficulty in trying to reconstruct the works of these pioneers through the oral process.


For decades, Africa has been searching for a way to write her vast music, particularly music of her percussion instruments. The Western system of notation has been applied by scholars and they have witnessed its shortcomings. A quarter note does not tell an African if the drum was struck with half of the hand, the whole hand, or a stick. It does not indicate if the stick struck the drum skin and bounced off or if it remained in contact with the drum skin. What was needed was a method that could notate not only the percussion instruments, but all the nuances associated with them. Greenotation is a system that notates the music of various instruments such as bells, rattles, drums of all types, xylophones, scrapped instruments, hand clapping as part of the musical ensemble, pot drums and water drums.

The Greenotation system also accompanies Labanotation, the system for analyzing and notating dance movements, and illustrates the accompanying dance movements through in a parallel single integrated score. Labanotation was created by Rudolf Von Laban in 1926 and refined throughout the years by numerous teachers specializing in notation. As a certified teacher of Labanotation, I introduced this system of notation in the African communities where I worked during my Fulbright assignment in the Ivory Coast and Gambia.


The basic symbol of Greenotation is the rectangle. Different shadings and designs within the rectangle indicate which instrument is played and the sound produced. The size of the rectangle indicates the duration of sound in time. Therefore by sight, one can see the rhythm of a given selection.


Greenotation uses a vertical staff and a center line divides right and left sides. The right column indicates played with the right hand or the right side of the instrument and vice versa. The staff is read from bottom to top to facilitate continuity of movement. Symbols that are played together are placed side by side on the staff. Symbols that are played consecutively are placed on the staff one after the other. Rests are indicated by absences of a symbol within a column.


The area between two bar lines is a measure. The length of the measure is determined by the number of beats indicated in the time signature. Each category has its own symbols and solfeggio to represent it's sounds. Standard solfeggios are defined as the application of syllables to a musical scale, for example, Do, Re, Me, Fa, So, La, Ti, Do. The Greenotation system is used parallel to the Labanotation system for writing dance movements, thereby creating a single integrated score where both music and dance are viewed simultaneously.


Ensemble performance is more common than solo artists in African music. Because individual performers in a group usually have separate and distinct parts to perform, each instrument has its own staff. All staves are joined together by a double line at the beginning. A bar line is drawn through each staff for clearer reading and measure identification. The music staff is on the left and the dance staff appears on the right.

The Greenotation system has been applied, tested, and proven successful to the music of more than 25 African nations and has been recommended by the Organization of African Unity for inclusion in all schools, colleges, and universities in Africa. This system permits one to see African music as the African themselves view it, and makes complicated African music as easy to play as reciting a nursery rhyme. The Greenotation system resurrects African music from the graves of Griots, Jalys, and Ayans, taking African music into the next millennium.


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