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Call & Response has its earliest roots in the participatory music rituals of sub-Saharan Africa, where music played a role in nearly every major social function, from religious ceremonies to civic gatherings. The straightforward but impactful technique made its way across the Atlantic through the slave trade, and was prominently used in the earliest musical forms of the Black diaspora, from work songs, to spirituals, gospel, and blues. While a question and answer figuration is a primary device of musical style in general, the form and prominence it takes in the Black Music tradition is unique, and reflective of unique aspects of the Black experience. 

Were we only to discuss a single trope of Black Music that most fully encapsulates its aesthetics, Call & Response would be the one. Its ubiquity reflects an essential aspect of the tradition; Black Music is a collective experience, not a fixed object – and should be appreciated as such. Take one of the most famous Jazz recordings – the opening bars of which, it turns out, are a great example of Call & Response in action – “So What” by Miles Davis. While one can speak ad infinitum about the innovative genius of Miles as a composer, what comes to mind for most when hearing the title ‘So What’ is what he and his cohort of fellow legends did on that given day in the studio. It’s about the moment. The Black Music tradition is event-based, focused on process and performance. Music in constant motion. While the 1959 version of ‘So What’ which opens Kind of Blue is the most iconic snapshot of that tune in flux, even another recording of the same ensemble performing it will be totally different. That’s saying nothing of the countless performances from other players and groups in entirely different situations and eras. So what is ‘So What’? Like all great works of Black Music, it’s a point of departure.

Black Music exists solely in the moment of performance. The music – whether written down or not – is a vehicle for the individual expression of the performer leading a collective experience, one in which the audience aren’t solely bystanders, but active participants. The audience doesn’t sit quietly waiting to applaud at the end of a multi-movement work, but registers their approval (or disapproval) immediately and vocally. The “Yes Lawd!” interjected during a gospel performance, the hollers of excitement that accompany a big drop during a techno party, or the boos at a weak number on ‘Showtime at the Apollo’ are not merely incidental, but in fact integral parts of the Black Music experience. The performers express themselves with their interpretation of the music, and respond to one another’s musical whims. The audience responds in real time, thereby becoming a part of the music making process. 

On a compositional level, Call & Response can take the form of either a representation of this interaction between different voices on a single instrument – like the opening of ‘Purple Haze’ by Jimi Hendrix – or a direct use of the interaction itself, as in ‘Can I Kick it’ by A Tribe Called Quest. Some pieces, like this famous recording of ‘Salt Peanuts’ by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie utilize both approaches. In a performance context, it’s a way for a performer to include the audience in the creative process, and make a deeper connection with their fellow players. It’s a technique that allows the music to refer back to itself and the performance setting, reinforcing the recursive, self-referencing nature of Black Music.  

Call & Response therefore represents the aspects of Black Music that most clearly distinguish it as a musical tradition worthy of individual study, one based on its own value system and offering unique experiences wherever its influence is felt. The participatory nature of Black music-making, so deeply rooted in the collective musical forms of African religion and ritual, endured as a fundamental feature of the musical permutations as they spread and evolved in the Americas. 

This content was originally published here.

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