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In this episode we look at how African music transcended the Atlantic slave trade and how elements of the African roots of music became infused into the antebellum slave plantations through Black Spirituals, Gospels, slave work songs, and blues becoming the foundation of Black music in America today. Research contributions by Renee Lande OMalley.
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Yoruba Medicine, Roman Catholicism and the Birth of Santeria;

Hi, I’m Darius Spearman and you’re watching African Elements. Music has been a fundamental part of African and African American expression – tying together different elements of culture. In this episode we look at how African music transcended the Atlantic slave trade and how elements of African music became infused into the antebellum slave plantations of the Southern United States becoming the foundation of Black music in America today. All that coming up.

Welcome back to African Elements, if you’re new to this channel, we create educational content for higher Ed and make it accessible to the masses.

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With that out of the way, let’s jump in…

As we saw previously, culture can be understood as, “beliefs, practices, and modes of being of particular people in a particular setting adopted as a means of survival.” Religion was a key part of African cultural life. West African religion in particular was believed to be infused with “the music of life force and the natural beat” (Moore 665). West African culture and music also became critical survival tools in the Americas.

The rhythms of African music survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade appearing in the stylings of African American music. Specifically, sophisticated elements of offbeat rhythms found in African music emerged in the Spirituals of the antebellum South where music was played around the beat instead of on it, giving the feeling of the music the surrounding the beat. The prison work songs recorded in the 1930s at Angola State prison in Louisiana retain that feature.

Historically, music has been an integral component of African and African American culture manifesting in modes of worship, medicinal practices, ceremony, and in maintaining connections to our roots. Along with their culture, Africans who were taken to the Americas as slaves retained their musical constructs, rhythms, and even instruments. As such, elements of African music can be found in the slave plantations in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries, where they reveal themselves in Spirituals and the Blues, which included the cross rhythms and call-and-response techniques that were features of their African musical heritage.

…Gospel music started in the fields as slaves songs and work songs – songs that many of you know, and people sing even with bands and so forth and so on today. But the slave wasn’t allowed to sing in his natural tone which would have been something like…

… Something like that

They weren’t allowed to.

So they couldn’t sing in their natural language, or their native town so they were forced to sing like the people in the big house where they would hear things like…

So, what happened is, it changed into things like…

Gon’ lay down my burden down by…
Down by the riverside.
Down by…
Down by the riverside.
Down by…
Down by the riverside.
Gon’ lay down my burden down by…
Down by the riverside.
Study war no more…

The folk songs of Southern Blacks emphasized the offbeat phrasing of percussion, along with the call-and-response phrasing, typical of African music that became known as “Spirituals.” (Waterman 30). Among the basic elements of African music that contributed to the creation of Spirituals, at least four basic features of African music are found in African American sacred and secular musical styles: the complex rhythms or “metronome sense,” the dominance of the percussion, the offbeat phrasing of melodic accents, and the overlapping call-and-response patterns (Moore 667).

In music, call-and-response works similarly to a conversation where, in a combination of two distinct phrases, the first phrase serves as the “call”…
Gon’ lay down my burden down by…
…and second phrase is a direct answer, or “response.”  
…Down by the riverside.

Call and response became a fundamental feature of the Spiritual that provided a pathway for African Americans to encode their stories. Their songs often focused on the book of Exodus and the of story deliverance from slavery in Egypt. This focus was a “product of the infusion of Christian piety and the slave experience” for persons of African descent (Moore 667), but it was just as much an expression of resistance that belied their literal desire for freedom underneath the metaphorical biblical passage.

The use of cross rhythms, or conflicting rhythms occurring at the same time, was also a persistent characteristic found in African and African American music, and was often found in Spirituals.

Call and Response…

…and Polyrhythms

Another musical style incorporated into African American music, the “hot” musical style, contained more compelling and driving rhythms, and became a central a part of the Spiritual (Waterman 24). It relied on the rhythms of each instrument or voice being steady and reliable, maintaining their own time-signature. Use of the voice as the “hot” element in the Spiritual provided the component that inspired a connection to God through music.

The drum rhythms of “hot” music are reliable and steady, while the musical rhythms fall on a syncopated beat. The use of these cross rhythms along with the percussive instrumentation results in an abundance of musical accents, all of which are African features that have been consistently maintained in African American music (Wilson 16).

As we can see, Spirituals contained many rhythmic elements preserved from their African heritage. Offbeat phrasing and call-and-response were two often incorporated components.

The other music type that developed among African Americans of the 19th century was the Blues. Gerhard Kubrik identified musical traits from two different parts of Africa which he suggested contributed to the Blues. The first was the Ancient Nigritic style from West Africa, which incorporated a lamenting song style accompanied by repetitive motions and the sound of manual labor. The repetitive motions produced a “swinging” rhythm that was later typical of the Blues (Fossler-Lussier 72).

The other style identified by Kubrik was the Arabic-Islamic song style, from the people of the West Sudanic Belt. The Arabic-Islamic style was a combination of voice and instrument, often with the instrument complementing the voice in a call-and-response style, similar to Blues, and also incorporated the “bent” or “pitch-altered” notes also found in the Blues (Fosler-Lussier 73).

Additionally, the familiar 12-bar Blues style incorporates elements of both the Nigritic and Arabic-Islamic styles. Each of the 4-beats in the 4-bars might be repeated, bent, broken, or ignored. The vocals start at a relatively high pitch and then descend, with the rhythm being slow and having the “swing” of the Nigritic style, while the instruments and vocals create a musical “call and response” similar to the Arabic-Islamic song style. (Fossler-Lussier 71).

Both the Arabic-Islamic call-and-response style, and the “swing” of the Nigritic style along with the interaction of voice and instrument as seen from the people of the West Sudanic Belt, helped bring an element of African music to the Blues. The call-and-response in Blues was typically between the vocal and the instrumental parts of the music, blending in such a way as if two voices were carrying the melodies instead of one.

So, in summary the music of Africa was an element of life that enslaved Africans brought to the Americas. In the Southern United States, the spiritual, with the call-and-response and percussive offbeat phrasing, provided a continuity with the religious music of Africa. In later years, the Blues incorporated not just the call-and-response musical style from Africa but also the slow “swing” rhythm, bringing the vocal and instrumental rhythms together in harmony. The musical styles of the Spirituals descendents in the Americas leaving a profound impact on American music.

Hope you enjoyed this lesson. If you did, don’t forget to like and subscribe, and if you want to support this content further, there’s a link to my Patreon page in the description below. I’m Darius Spearman, and until next time, I’ll see you in the comments…

Fossler-Lussier, Danielle. “The African Diaspora in the United States: Appropriation and Assimilation.” Music on the Move, by DANIELLE FOSLER-LUSSIER, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2020, pp. 68–92. JSTOR, Accessed 30 Oct. 2020.
Moore, LeRoy. “The Spiritual: Soul of Black Religion.” Church History, vol. 40, no. 1, 1971, pp. 79–81. JSTOR, Accessed 18 Sept. 2020.
Moore, LeRoy. “The Spiritual: Soul of Black Religion.” American Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 5, 1971, pp. 658–676. JSTOR, Accessed 18 Sept. 2020.
Waterman, Richard A. “‘Hot’ Rhythm in Negro Music.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 1948, pp. 24–37. JSTOR, Accessed 18 Sept. 2020.
Wilson, Olly. “The Significance of the Relationship between Afro-American Music and West African Music.” The Black Perspective in Music, vol. 2, no. 1, 1974, pp. 3–22. JSTOR, Accessed 30 Oct. 2020.