Our society has a gift for being able to neatly overlook provenance, whether that be in relation to so called eco-knowledge and ‘green’ attitudes which have been in existence for thousands of years within tribal societies, or in the field of music. This is an attempt to provide some redress and recognition to a consistent strand which has played a massive role in almost all musical genres, bar classical, in the 20th, and what little we’ve had of the 21st century.
This strand is music emanating from the descendants of Africans taken from their home continent through the human trade cargo, as practised on the continent of North America and surrounding areas. African-Americans have played a huge role in the formation of much of what we consider contemporary music. It is an often overlooked tale and one made even more intriguing given the scale of contribution in relation to population size.
There was undoubtedly music-making and rhythms from the start, through the 17th and 18th centuries when the greatest number of people were being brought over to America from West Africa. There is obviously no audio and a very limited historical record of what was being played during this period but there would have been the mixing of a huge range of musical traditions hailing from modern day Senegal, the Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Guinea Bissau and further south along the coast. With the slave trade in full swing new first generation West Africans were bringing with them the contemporary music traditions of their respective countries, adding anew to the mix of traditions established by previous generations of slaves brought over from Africa at earlier dates. Polyrhythms, counter metre and different folk forms brought together in the most brutal of ways but undoubtedly the building blocks from which later developments would rise.
It was in the early to mid-19th century that plantation work music, chants and field songs first gave rise to a new genre; the blues. A pentatonic-based musical juggernaut which emerged from the deep heat and oppression of the Mississippi Delta, the earliest bluesmen and women are lost to us but it is still possible to get a window into that world with some of the early recordings made of bluesmen as part of ethnographic recording projects of the 20’s-40’s (see the work of Alan Lomax).
As blues develops through into the twentieth century it leads on to jazz and another musical world. Around the turn of the century New Orleans begins to feature this new sound which burgeons and gives rise to a whole new raft of genre break-offs and interpretations. This includes its spreading northwards and into all the big cities in the form of 1940’s and 1950’s bebop.
By the mid part of the last century the African-American musical contribution was already hugely influential and arguably dominated the whole music scene around the western world in the form of jazz and its branch offs, for instance swing and the dancehall music popular in 1940s Britain which was directly inspired by the work of African-American players. Their influence permeated almost every musical field and the rhythms and energy provided proved irresistible to listeners from across the world, there was something unique in these musical forms’ ability to get a hold of listeners, engaging and pulling them closer. To see this power in action, one only need go back to performances by key messengers in venues across Europe, for instance in the footage of Ray Charles playing in 1960’s Antibes or Nina Simone in London during the same period, the power and energy of the music and its effect on European listeners is visible, audiences otherwise used to the reserved social norms of the day struggling to contain their bodily reaction to these new sounds.
As the 1960’s approached and with the brewing of a new cultural movement, the blues was about to get the spotlight in the same way jazz had been doing for the past half century. As a new generation grew up in the 50’s many now had access to blues recordings, and as the decade passed on a new interpretation of that same music was added to this with the sounds now coming from Elvis. This blues-come rock and roll led directly into the 60’s and a whole raft of groups, genre of music and arguably a cultural movement which could not have been more directly inspired by the music of bluesmen who had been playing down in the delta through the 20’s,30’s and 40’s. This direct branch off, which can include Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green, The Yardbirds, The Rolling Stones (whose Keith Richards speaks of being “blessed” by the blues), the Who, Jefferson Airplane, Zeppelin and many others led on to the more contemporary stories and all the genre break offs we know of, and often deem as variety today, including punk, prog-rock and so on. These may not have directly emanated from African-American musicians as blues, jazz, soul, funk and others did but they were brought into existence only through the work of those figures.
Travelling then into the 1980’s there is the advent of Hip Hop which can be seen as a continuation of this hugely creative ethnic narrative with many shared elements with bebop and Parker’s bouncy licks. Emerging from New York and spreading quickly, Hip Hop possessed a power and potential social and political potency which it gained through the combination of thoughts and poetry with sampled beats. Almost all these early samples were jazz-based with new drum loops added on top. An intoxicating combination of lyricism with music; the marriage of thoughts and ideas with the headiness of jazz (a marriage which, interestingly, was something Kerouac and his beat compatriots had begun to delve into as well back in the 1950’s). Hip Hop leads on then to Jungle, the beginnings of electronic dance music and what now forms the backbone of much of our contemporary music scene, the branch offs from drum and bass and dubstep which also increasingly find their place in the formulaic pop hits of today, if through nothing else via the practice of sampling as a backbone of the music.
The intention here is not to categorise or divide music along racial lines but rather to recognise this huge wealth of creativity and soul which has given so much. To ignore the role African-American, and going back further, essentially African rhythms, beats, feels, syncopation and so much more has played in the music we love is to allow another bluesman to die in obscurity and poverty in a delta shack whilst those, such as the Stones, who drew their fame and success directly from the blues get on the tour bus again.
It seems that in fact all of the music of the 20th century, minus classical, has been brought about in large part through the influence of Africa, as expressed through those from that continent forcibly relocated in the US. A story of brutality which in a strange turn of events gave rise to some of the most creative and influential musical fields of our times. Blues, Jazz and all its later advents such as soul and funk stand towering over our musical landscape, alongside many of us still today. Exactly how an ethnic group that currently make up less than 14% of the American population have had such a huge impact on the field of music as a whole is complex. I would argue it is a story of hope and also inspiration that from some of the greatest oppression done to any peoples in recent times they gave the world some of the most potent and rich musical genres, styles and sounds. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton, B.B King, Howlin’ Wolf to Hendrix, Ray Charles, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Etta James. The list is long and can be suited to almost any musical taste.
In light of the huge contribution it seems it is right to pay homage and recognise this extraordinary cultural thread, a thread with many faces but essentially the same foundations; a soul jarring ability to connect with the self and cause an emotional reaction. To see this one only need go back to some grainy Skip James recording or hear one of Parker’s disciples blasting out a heady bop lick with compelling, jittery urgency.
Jazz, Kerouac, Hip Hop and Dylan in the same breath. Only with recognition can come appropriate action, which in this case could be a number of things including a rebalancing of how we judge the value or worth of cultures or continents, to imagine a day when the music an ethnic group has gifted the world is considered as equally important to the GDP or wealth this or that country is able to generate. In this respect Africa truly is a land of superior wealth.
(Published originally a few months ago on this blog, this version is an updated and lengthened version)