Musicians: How do you deal with playing songs that have very monotonous parts?
I’m going to use James Brown’s Sex Machine as an example. Don’t get me wrong, I love the song. However, the rhythm guitar seems to be nothing but 2 chords played over and over and over with no variation (except for the bridge). What is it like to have to play songs like that? Even if you like the song, do you dread it, or do you just have fun as long as you are playing music? If you are bored, how do you deal with it? Does your mind wander while you play, or do you have to concentrate?
This is actually quite a profound question. It gets to the heart of the major conflict playing out in western music right now between linearity and circularity.
Western classical music of the common-practice era usually takes the form of a linear narrative, a hero’s journey. Music from Africa (and many other places) tends to take the form of cycles, setting a mood rather than telling a story. This is a gross oversimplification, but I think it’s an extremely useful one.
The major musical event of the past hundred years (in western cultures anyway) has been the hybridization between European linearity and African (and Latin American and Asian) circularity. This has been most dramatic in the United States, with its enormous populations of immigrants and descendants of slaves. Our popular music has been getting more and more circular (more “African”) with every passing decade, from jazz to R&B to rock to funk to hip-hop. And our popular music makes its presence felt in every corner of the world.
James Brown is a critical figure in this story because he did his best work at a time when black Americans were beginning to assert pride in their roots and ethnic identity. (“Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!”) JB made it an explicit goal to push his music into a more African direction: complex rhythmic grooves, minimal harmonic activity, improvisational chants instead of sung melodies, trance-like repetition over long time scales. “Sex Machine” isn’t even his most repetitive groove. Check out “There Was A Time,” a four-bar cell repeated more or less identically for over seven minutes. And by the way, JB’s love of Africa was reciprocated; he influenced a generation of African musicians, most famously Fela Kuti.
So, to finally answer your question. If you approach “Sex Machine” with a western classical value system, it certainly is going to seem “monotonous.” The classical term for that guitar riff is an ostinato, from the Italian word for “obstinate.” Hardly a term of endearment. You may well enjoy the song, but you’d naturally imagine that it’s intellectually unsatisfying and therefore boring to play.
Coming at “Sex Machine” from an Afrocentric perspective is quite different. The groove is so devastating, so effortless, so transporting. Adding variations to make it more narrative or “interesting” would only water it down and diminish its power. The groove isn’t really aimed at your prefrontal cortex. It’s aimed at the rest of your brain, your limbic system and motor cortex, not to mention your entire self from the neck down. The point of funk is to dissolve your conscious self into the holistic unity of the groove. As JB says in “Give It Up Or Turnit A-loose,” “Check out your mind, swing on the vine, in the jungle brother.” And as Prince sings, “There’s joy in repetition, there’s joy in repetition, there’s joy in repetition, there’s joy in repetition.”
Playing a James Brown groove is much harder than it seems. Learning the riff is easy enough, but sustaining it at length takes Jedi-like focus. Playing funk well demands a certain relaxed intensity, and if that sounds like an inherent contradiction, it is. Sustaining the balance between looseness and discipline takes more than musical skill; it requires you to be able to suspend your anxieties, your distracting thoughts and your self-consciousness. Fortunately, the groove itself is a great tool to help you do exactly that.