Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

January 25, 2012

American Music Held Up on African Roots

Filed under: music — Tags: , , , , , — paragardener @ 2:39 am

The best American music combines European techniques (three-note chords, tightly structured songs) with African techniques (freely sliding pitch, polyrhythm). There is a cultural myth that America is the heir to Western Civilization, a torch passed to us through an unbroken line of progression from the wise forefathers of Classical Greece. That’s great and all, but we have also absorbed plenty of culture from the natives we nearly exterminated, the slaves we bought or kidnapped, and the great books of Asia which we’ve been reading translations of over the last 150 or so years. So, here I explore African music and its influence as a partial antidote to Eurocentrism. You may, however, find this post hopelessly Bluecentric (I’m actually looking for musical examples to help me understand passages from Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues ).

One crucible of America’s distinctive music was cosmopolitan New Orleans, where slaves were allowed to participate in drumming parties at Congo Square, and blacks soon got a hold of reed and brass instruments and learned to play them by inventing jazz. I sure wouldn’t condemn it, but I don’t really dig jazz. Every so often, I hear some prig on NPR say that “jazz is the only truly original American art form,” and I want to slap them through the radio. Blues? Rock and roll!?

The blues is jazz’s country cousin. While Jim Crow laws were being passed and white terrorism was raging, railroads and post offices were connecting the rural South to the rest of the country. Blacks could buy a guitar through Sears and Roebuck, then hang out on the front porch singing about “I’m gonna leave my baby, ’cause she mistreats me all the time” (double meaning: “I’m gonna leave this plantation and the shitty white family that runs it.”) The early bluesmen wove together work songs, religious music, white folk/country, and rhythms from a deep memory of Africa.

The earliest wave of slaving had taken many Africans from Senegambia, a dry region of West Africa heavily influenced by Arab culture. The griots there are a caste of professional musicians. Griots might play on the street, or play to coordinate group projects, or play for royalty (singing long, praise-filled histories of the royal family). The satirical songs of a griot scorned are much feared, perhaps especially by the powerful.

Here is griot Lamin Saho singing about peace, love, and unity between the peoples. He’s using the kora, the leader among all the instruments of that region.

You can hear a little of the Arabic tendency to torture a melody in Saho’s singing. Check out how one hand plucks an insistent bass line, while the other indulges in crazy runs of lead notes. Country bluesmen often pick a bass pattern with thumb, and lead notes with fingers. The most intricate country blues players may indeed come from the Southeast, where most of the Senegambian slaves ended up. Also, said slaves almost certainly introduced the banjo to this continent, probably with fretless models.

I wanted to embed a video of a guitar-playing bluesman from the Piedmont region of the Southeast here, but this is too incredible not to take its place: here is North Carolinian George Higgins somehow playing bass and lead parts on the harmonica!

Speaking of harmonica, one can speak through a harmonica, or blend a vocal line into harmonica music almost seamlessly. In old-time black American music, kazoos are not unheard of, and neither is moaning into a jug. Black slaves were mainly denied horns, just like drums, because they were loud enough to serve as a signal for revolt. Still, there may be a tenuous connection between idiosyncratic wind instrument playing here in the States, and the talking horns of Africa. Sometimes made from animal horn, sometimes from a gourd, the talking horn can be played like a brass instrument (by farting with one’s lips), or by singing into it.

Here are some songs utilizing talking horn — I suggest “Humans are Not Food.” I can only assume that the talking horn is that instrument that sounds like a big old kazoo has been shoved up the bell of a trombone. It’s funny that the one example of singing horn I can find is an African band playing American-style jazz!

Here’s the Memphis Jug Band doing “Cocaine Habit Blues,” aka “Take a Whiff on Me.” I’ve been messing with an old brown jug, but I can’t seem to draw a note out of it.

Later waves of slaving moved from Senegambia down the African coast, to the stretch once known as the “slave coast” (it’s that long stretch that faces southwards toward the Atlantic.) As a well-forested land, the slave coast provided big trees for making big drums. The area is a center for African drumming and rhythm. Communal music, involving the whole village, is the thing. Anyone can clap their hands or join in simple harmonies. Slaves taken from here tended to come in later, farther west, and were used more in the field than the house (thus, they had even less opportunity to get ahold of instruments.) Here is just a bitty example of community music-making from Nungua, Ghana.

When I heard this, it seemed instantly familiar. It’s like the fife and drum music of Mississippi. So check out the Ed Young Fife n Drum Corps, rocking a 60’s folk festival.

Properly, a Mississippi fife ‘n’ drum corps would play at a picnic, at night in the middle of a field. Male dancers surround the musicians, maybe getting in a grind with the bass drum, and everyone else hangs around on the dark edges. My favorite part is when a fifer gets down, slaps the ground, and wipes the dust on his forehead… the meaning is lost, though, when you move the action onto stage. On the plus side, ladies such as Sharde Thomas can lately be full participants (you can look up her Rising Star Fife and Drum band, a strong family outfit that has been going on for decades with different players. It rocks, especially because Sharde is a fireball of energy.)

How did blacks keep their excellent rhythmic skills through slavery and the attendant restrictions on instruments? Probably by singing, clapping their hands, and stomping their feet. It was a happy day when some miserable black draftee finally had a snare drum stuck in his hands!

There is one more musical idea I’d like to explore, polyphony. Basically, it means that people are making up melodies as they go, but listening to one another. You can hear it in the scattered “response” part of an old call-and-response work song, or in a Beck track where Beck has overdubbed his voice three or four times. The masters of polyphony are the Aka pygmies. These people were not slaved much (I guess, if I were working slaves, I’d want bigger, tougher-looking slaves), however, their neighbors picked up their polyphonous and yodeling ways. (Yodeling is slipping in and out of falsetto, also called “whooping.”)

Here are some girls singing a lullaby:

That’s what forest people sound like. Take the soul of that music and throw it in a prison:

This topic could go on forever and ever. One thing I’ve definitely learned, is that there is no traditional old “true blues”: the blues was going through changes since it came together and will go on changing as long as someone is playing it. It reflects a world in constant change. Just as dinosaurs faded and birds rose, old music is forgotten and reborn in new forms.

To leave you with, here is a haunting piece of traditional acid jazz, the initiation song of the central African Ongo.

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2 Comments »

  1. Awesome post! Plan to use it in our homeschooling. We just read a little kids’ book on Cuba and the sections on art and religion could be summarized as “West Africa meets the Catholic Spanish”. So it relates to the cultural fusion you’re pointing out here.

    The sad thing about your post is that the African examples sound happy and peaceful, but you take the basic musical style and inject misery and you get the music that originated with slaves. Of course we always knew the blues was about suffering, but to hear what it sounded like pre-suffering (the forest people lullaby or the guy playing the kora) makes it that much sadder.

    Comment by freelearner — January 28, 2012 @ 5:28 am

  2. Glad you brought up a Latin culture. Seems like there are cities full of Latinos in America, and very little of their music on the pop charts or even NPR’s world music show. There must be some invisible Latin music scenes floating around. I imagine they’re in a sort of limbo, something like the old “race records” category where the blues used to be enjoyed only by an in-group. Anyways, I totally overlooked Latino music, even though a lot of it has the same Africa + Europe dynamic going for it.

    Comment by paragardener — January 30, 2012 @ 6:24 am


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