Applying Aqsaq Rhythms To Jazz Improvisation


Though a great many jazz musicians have undergone some kind of training in the traditional or classical music of Asia or the Middle East, the music of Turkey and surrounding countries is usually not discussed or adapted as much, at least until now.

One such tradition is the use of odd numbered beats known in Turkish music as aqsaq (“stumbling”) rhythms. Though many types of Western and Eastern music contain odd numbered time signatures such as 7/4 or 5/8, the Turkish aqsaq ( or aksak) rhythm is divided into a set of two or three counts in a repeating chain, e.g. 2 + 3 + 2, or 3 + 2 + 2, for example. Thus, rather than feeling like one set group of 7 equal beats, the aqsaq rhythm ‘wobbles’ and skips between two and three which gives the music a rather pleasurable bounce, often figuratively compared to a young woman carrying two heavy, sloshing pails of river water back to her village.  This type of rhythmic format is found throughout Eastern Europe especially, and artists such as Bulgarian clarinetist Ivo Papasov or saxophonist Yuri Yunakov have created brilliant, virtuosic (and world famous) art out of aqsaq rhythm-laced Bulgarian wedding music. Papasov’s extremely fast melodies  and rapid time are rather unbelievable, and I guarantee you will be left gasping in wonder at his work.


What also makes Papasov and Yurnanov extremely significant is the fact that they are Roma, “gypsies,” and often risked their lives by playing their music under the oppressive governments ruling the country (who attempted to force ethnic minorities into nationalization, banning Roma music and culture in the process ). Papasov and Yurnanov often put their lives on the line for the sake of preserving the culture of their people.. aqsaq rhythms literally stood up to oppression!

As previously mentioned, the limping effect is due to what feels like an “irregular” relationship between the divisions of the beat. In most Western countries rhythm is measured symmetrically, most often in even groups of two and four: we are used to hearing decades of 4/4 rock beats, and 2/4 marches, and/or three notes divided into two or four ‘sets” (6/8, and 12/8). This is how we come to dance in ways that subconsciously teach us to step once or twice back and forth from one foot to another in an unending sequence (polka, two step, swing dancing, and so on). Aqsaq rhythms do not follow this logic and more often than not, resist being described as time signatures (as there is not time signature that reckons with two eighth notes followed by a dotted eighth – it must be converted into 7/16th notes, rather than 2.5/4!). The rhythm itself though feels more like a cycle than a measurement, and the stutter or limp that results is actually easier to get used to anyways. This is one of the great advantages to learning Bulgarian music, let alone aqsaq rhtyhms: you soon get so used to feeling the music “bounce” two or three times that your body adjusts to it without effort, and there is no need to mentally count a long set of twos and threes. The song “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck is an excellent example of this embodied effect. The last two notes in every bar of music have such a heavy bounce to them, that it is almost impossible to get lost even if you lose count of the beats (your body just feels the rhythm. And yet if one tries to count out every bar in their head while playing it, they will almost invariably get lost! Aqsaq rhythms work the same way: they have a lilt, like a piece of poetry.

To begin studying or using aqsaq rhythms then is to create a few simple binary (2) and ternary (3) groups. There are six basic combinations: 232 (or 2+3+2), 223, 332, 323, 233, and 322. You can string together individual twos and threes, as well as use the six basic groupings – it doesn’t matter. As long as you feel how the set swings and bounces, it doesn’t matte that much how you write them down on paper. I have chosen theses basic groupings because they create groups of seven and eight beats in total; the seven note grouping being less common in Western music, and the eight beat grouping created by aqsaq rhythms not the usual way of writing symmetrical beats in the West as well. Using these groupings then we can overlay our own original melodies or improvisation, and the possibilities are seemingly endless.

The C major scale is a good place to start, since it is a common and easy to play. Counting out the notes then in step with the rhythm we can practice 2+3+2 for example as the stepwise organization of the scale [C D, C D E, D F], followed by [D E, D E F, E G] and so on, up and down the scale. This not only imprints the new rhythm into your technique without having to count it, it also breaks up habitual, engrained symmetrical patterns that keep you from being more creative and/or original. Moving on to 223 then we could organize this grouping as two sets of large intervals, followed by diatonic ascension: [C E, D F, E F G] followed by [D F, E G, F G A], etc. Do this with major and minor scales. Then move on to chromatic [ C C# D…] or symmetrical scales like the “half/whole” diminished scale [C Db Eb E F# G A Bb].

These provide a very productive work out, especially on the saxophone, which further proves that you don’t have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of music theory in order to create sophisticated art, you just need a few solid (expandable) concepts and good muscle memory on your instrument (but… I didn’t say it was going to be easy!). Then you can begin to build ever longer chains of rhythm, and begin to form your own original scale exercises to advance even further in a shorter period of time than usual.

The implication of my brief description of aqsaq rhythm(s) then is that you will begin to develop this idea to fit your own particular genre of music and technical proficiency. You will begin to feel these wonderful rhythms as natural, independent of a time “signature,” and your playing and writing will flourish in new and exciting ways.



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