Musical journey down the Nile in ‘Afrique’ by Richard Rijnvos

Born in Tilburg, the Netherlands, in 1964, Richard Rijnvos avoids the beaten tracks; his work cannot be pigeonholed. Indeed, he does not regard ‘style’ as a starting point, but as the unsuspected outcome of the creative process. On Saturday 13 November, the Residentie Orchestra and Slagwerk Den Haag present the world premiere of Afrique, the fourth part of his seven-movement orchestral cycle Grand Atlas. The concert forms part of Festival Dag in de Branding, and is conducted by Antony Hermus.

Early on in his career Rijnvos developed a preference for composing multi-movement compositions. Between 1995 and 2000, for instance, he wrote the eighty-minute cycle Block-Beuys. It was inspired by the pavilion of the same name, which is dedicated to this German artist in the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt. In 2001, Rijnvos started the still expanding cycle La Serenissima about the city of Venice and in 2008 he completed his six-part orchestral cycle Uptown|Downtown, dedicated to the city of New York.

Richard Rijnvos (c) Frank Zweers


The seed for his ambitious cycle Grand Atlas was sown in 2004, when he completed the final movement of La Serenissima. This semi-theatrical composition for voice, tuba and ensemble is called mappamondo and was inspired by the fifteenth-century Venetian monk Fra Mauro. He belonged to the hermit order of the Camaldolese, a branch of the Benedictines, and lived in a monastery on the Isola di San Michele in the Venetian lagoon.

‘Fra Mauro was considered the most important cartographer of his time’, says Rijnvos. ‘He spent most of his life working on an impressive world map. This is how I came up with the idea of creating my own, musical version. A kind of sounding atlas, in which each of the seven continents is represented in an orchestral composition. Thus I creep into Fra Mauro’s mind.’ In each movement he also incorporates elements from the musical culture of the continent in question.

Richard Rijnvos: ‘Grand Atlas is a sounding atlas, in which each of the seven continents is represented in an orchestral composition.’

Three of the seven movements have already been premiered: Antarctique (2012); Asie (2015) and Amérique du Nord (2016). Of the remaining four, Amérique du Sud (2019) and Europe (2020) have been completed but not yet performed, partly because the planned concerts were postponed due to the corona-pandemic. On Saturday 13 November, the Residentie Orchestra and Slagwerk Den Haag will perform the world premiere of Afrique in the newly opened cultural centre Amare on the Spuiplein in The Hague. 

Afrique was commissioned by the Residentie Orchestra and Slagwerk Den Haag. Prior to the premiere, I will give the first lecture of my three-part course on modern music in Amare. I will zoom in on the development of rhythm from roughly 1900 onwards, and the related rise of percussion ensembles. In the last fifteen minutes I will interview Richard Rijnvos about his new piece.



On his website Rijnvos writes about Afrique: ‘Our clockwise journey begins in North Africa, more precisely, the heart of Egypt. On our way to the historic monuments, temples and tombs near Karnak and Luxor, we hear snatches of native music coming from afar. Approaching the village of El-Tod, we clearly distinguish the characteristic sound of the mizmar, an extremely loud double-reed woodwind instrument.’

‘It’s a sort of Arabic oboe, which, due to its trumpet-like bell, easily manages the kind of volume we normally expect from brass. Two players improvise in a quasi-unison manner, whilst a third persists in sustaining what seems to be a never-ending, piercing, yet seducing drone. Traditional drums, such as darbuka, duff and duhulla provide a stirring accompaniment.’

‘We descend by boat down the Nile, all the way to Lake Victoria in Uganda, East Africa. The hospitable locals of Nakibembe, a small village in Busoga, treat us to an evening of their indigenous music. The central instrument is the embaire, a xylophone about 2.5 metres long, played by six people, seated three on each side. It has gigantic keys made from ensambiya wood, and is placed on a huge hole in the ground for resonance purposes. The music is lively and cheerful, with untrained voices singing along every now and then.’



‘Our travels continue via the east coast, in the direction of Southern Africa, to Botswana, where we meet the Balete people. In these regions, the focus is not so much on percussion. Instead, the locals play reed flutes, so-called ditlhaka, and they tend to gather in ensembles that incorporate dozens of participants, performing traditional dances, which can last for hours. The common practice is for men to play a variety of different-sized flutes, while dancing counter-clockwise in a circle, surrounded by women and young girls clapping.’

‘Travelling back north via the west coast, to Central Africa, we cross the rainforest of Cameroon, home of the Baka people. Their music is mainly vocal, displaying a striking polyphonic sophistication. Based on repetitive melodic fragments, with little variation, but lots of improvisation, they dance, sing and yodel as part of healing rituals, initiation rituals, funerals, but also for sheer entertainment.’

‘Our voyage ends in Senegal, West Africa, where the Wolof people preserve the Sabar drumming tradition. Among its most renowned pioneers was maestro Doudou N’Diaye Rose (1930-2015), and it is in his memory we finish with an orchestral remix of his legendary and utterly exhilarating “Rose Rhythm”.’

I hope to see you at the concert – and of course you are welcome to attend my lecture!


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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2 Responses to Musical journey down the Nile in ‘Afrique’ by Richard Rijnvos

  1. Pingback: Richard Rijnvos ‘ontleedt’ Octandre van Edgard Varèse op donderdag 17 maart in Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ -korting 40 % – De Nieuwe Muze

  2. Pingback: Richard Rijnvos ‘ontleedt’ Octandre van Edgard Varèse – Klassiek van nu

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