African music is mostly polyrhythmic, composed of multiple rhythms each with its own particular metre. The friction between these criss-crossing polymetric strands of rhythm is what generates its energy or heat. The first stage in learning to play African music is to acquire the discipline of the separate beats. It is a training that, in Africa, starts in infancy on the dancing mother’s back, or from the myriad of children’s rhythmic games that abound on the continent.
In the agbadza, there are four subrhythms that create its basic phrase and correspond to one complete agbadza bell pattern. This single basic phrase of the agbadza can be imaginatively treated as being divided into twelve equally spaced time intervals - a temporal framework into which all four subrhythms can fit.
1. The feet (i.e. the dance downsteps) are played evenly four times for each basic phrase: on the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth of the imaginary twelve time intervals mentioned above.
2. The kagan drum is played with two sticks. It s rhythm is made up of groups of three notes. The right stick strikes the open drum twice; the left is then played, but with the skin muted by pressure from the right stick. This results in two high notes followed by a low, muted one. This is played four times to correspond to the twelve imaginary time intervals.
3. The kidi is a hand-drum. Its simplest rhythm is made by the right, left, then right hands striking the perimeter of the drum-skin, producing three open notes, then the three muted notes, played twice over in the full agbadza phrase to make up the twelve time intervals.
4. The claves or cow-bell (Ewe gankogui) pattern is made up of seven pulses. If a double-headed bell is used, the very first pulse is played on the lower-pitched bell. The spacing of the seven pulses on the twelve imaginary time intervals exactly corresponds to the spacing of the seven major notes (do, re, mi, fa, etc.) on the twelve intervals of the one octave of the melodic scale. The first agbadza bell pulse is therefore equivalent to the note “do” - and so on up to the seventh bell pulse, which is equivalent to the note “ti”.