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Aug 6, 2021

Music for the Soul

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Sylviane Diouf Cropped

Sylviane A. Diouf

Brown University

Sylviane A. Diouf is a social historian whose research interests include the trans-Atlantic and trans-Indian Ocean slave trades, West African Muslims, and resistance to slavery.

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Music for the Soul

Untitled from series “Islam Played the Blues” by Toufic Beyhum

Sylviane A. Diouf, writer of the Renovatio articleWhat Islam Gave the Blues,” has more to say about the real and tangible ways African music survived the transatlantic slave trade, giving birth not only to African American music but American music as well. We asked Faatimah Knight, digital editor for Renovatio, to speak with Dr. Diouf about the African-Islamic influences on the blues and the historical circumstances that led to its formation. Dr. Diouf talks about the influence of Qur’anic recitation on African music styles and the latter’s influence on the blues; how the banjo is just as emblematic of African music as the drums (and certainly more Sahelian); and how black music has always looked to the future. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Faatimah Knight: In your article, you state that the blues is neither African, nor Islamic, but rather “an African American creation, born of American circumstances and various influences,” which include the history of American slavery. What are these conditions in American slavery that gave birth to the blues?

Sylviane Diouf: In the American South, Sahelian Muslims [the Sahel stretches from Senegal to Sudan] had a better chance of preserving their musical styles than the more numerous non-Muslims from the forest and the coastal areas of West Africa and West Central Africa, who relied more heavily on drumming and group singing and dancing. The reason is that drums were outlawed in the American South in 1740 after Central Africans staged a revolt in South Carolina in 1739, in which they used drums to call on people to join them. This revolt really spread fear in the colonies. People from the Sahel who relied less on drums could continue to play their string instruments, such as the banjo, and they adapted quickly to the fiddle. So that was really the first condition.

Then, between 1790 and 1865, there was in the United States what is called the domestic slave trade. Over a million Africans and African Americans from the Upper South—states like Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina—were sent on forced journeys to the Deep South to develop cotton and sugar on plantations. The work regime was extreme, and it rested on incredible brutality. Communal song and dance may not have been appealing in this inhumane environment, in the really terrible conditions the people were in. In addition, slaveholders were probably leery of assemblies, even if they were, on the surface, for the purpose of dancing.

For people originally from the Sahel, their musical style had a much better chance of taking root in the Deep South because that tradition had already been easier to preserve further north, and it also responded better to the social and psychological situations people found themselves in.

FK: I want to turn to Qur’anic recitation, which is not considered singing but “melodic” as you state, as well as Sufi chanting, and the relationship to native music styles. Did one influence the other, for instance, in West and North Africa? In other words, do native music styles influence Qur’an recitation, or do Qur’an recitation and Islamic norms influence native music styles?

SD: It really went both ways. In several regions in Africa, including the Sahel, which has a large Muslim population, traditional, pre-Islamic music is based on a pentatonic or five-note scale, whereas music in the Arab world, for example, is based on a heptatonic or seven-note scale. Throughout the Muslim world people recite the Qur’an according to what they know, their local traditions, which are based on the local sound that appeals to the population. So, although the words are the same, the way the Quran is recited can sound different.

A journalist, Isma’il Kushkush, wrote a very interesting BBC article on this subject, and it shows that social media and YouTube have introduced African reciters to a wide, international audience, which was not the case before. For example, the prayer and du’a of Shaykh Omar Jabbie, an imam from Sierra Leone who is based in the United States, has over 3.6 million views—he learned to recite in Senegal and in Gambia. And what’s interesting is that while most of the people who have viewed this particular prayer and du’a are found in France—it’s not surprising: there’s a large West African Muslim community there—the second-largest group of listeners is in the United States. And perhaps it’s a hint that to people in the US this sounds familiar, even unconsciously, because of the genesis of black music in America. Also interesting is the recitation style of the late Sudanese Nourin Mohamed Siddig, who died in a car accident last year. It was described, as Kushkush notes in his article, as sad and soulful and bluesy. He too used the pentatonic scale, which is traditional in Sudan.

And from the other perspective, the singing style of West African Muslims is characterized by the kind of declamatory style, wavy inflections, raspy voices, melisma, humming, vibrato, and quivering effects of Qur’an recitation. It’s so deeply rooted that it continues to be prevalent in contemporary music. For example, you can hear these features in the way Senegalese musicians like Youssou N’Dour and Baaba Maal sing. Have you seen the film Black Panther?

FK: Yes.

SD: When we see Wakanda for the first time, the soundtrack is by Baaba Maal, and it has all the characteristics I just mentioned. So, if people want to understand how West African Muslims sing, how they’ve been influenced by Qur’anic recitation, they can play Black Panther, and they’ll see exactly what I mean.

FK: That’s very interesting. I think people will be surprised to read that. You also quote Thomas Jefferson as saying in 1782 that the Banjer, which originates in Africa, led to the guitar in America, because the Banjer chords are the four lower cords of the guitar. If that’s the case, did Africans influence other American genres like bluegrass, country, and folk music, which all use the banjo a lot?

SD: It’s interesting because if this is forgotten today, it was widely known in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. There were many black string bands with fiddle, banjo, and guitar. They were often itinerants, and they played for black and white audiences—separately, of course. The banjo was so totally identified with black people that white musicians played the banjo in blackface in profoundly racist minstrel shows. Some early bluegrass and country musicians acknowledged that they learned to play the banjo and the guitar from black musicians, and the same white musicians, as well as others, also recorded with black musicians.

The thing is that black music is always looking forward and evolving. In other words, a change was coming. While white audiences were listening to hillbilly or old-time music, because they were nostalgic for the good old times, African Americans living under Jim Crow were looking elsewhere. There was no nostalgia for the past there. So, little by little, the black string bands became outdated. And interestingly the banjo, which was this purely African instrument, became associated with white, rural, racist Southern culture.

There were a few older black banjo and fiddle players who persevered, but as they died out there was little interest among young black musicians until groups like the Ebony Hillbillies and the Carolina Chocolate Drops claimed back the banjo. And then there was the first “Black Banjo: Then and Now Gathering,” which was held in North Carolina in 2005. I have here the announcement; the goal was “to create awareness that banjo playing today is an outgrowth of the African experience, to bring attention to contemporary Black banjo players who are carrying the tradition into the Twenty-First Century, to celebrate the Banjo’s place in African American music and culture, and to highlight the banjo’s role in cultural exchange.”

Since then, young black banjo players have reclaimed the instrument from the white Southern culture that it has been associated with. And in the spirit of black music always looking forward, they produce innovative, fresh sounds. But for a lot of people still today, the banjo is the epitome of white Southern music. They don’t know it is an African instrument, but Thomas Jefferson knew it very well.

FK: You have a lovely quote from Ralph Ellison writing about flamenco—another Islamic-influenced music—and what he said of the blues, and you also mention that the theologian James Cone saw the blues as “a secular spiritual.” Did something of the spirit of Islam—in terms of what it means to be a human being created by God living in this world—get passed on through the blues?

SD: From its inception in the rural Deep South to its various iterations in northern cities, the blues speaks of the African American condition post emancipation. And several elements from West and Central Africa, Islamic and not, went into the creation of the blues and its predecessor, the holler, including Sufi chanting and the call to prayer. And the tradition of du’a or supplication fits right into this melodic and spiritual frame.

Perhaps the best illustration of what I believe was du’a linked to the slave trade occurred in eighteenth-century Sierra Leone. A European who was visiting a slave pen saw a Muslim, who was literate in Arabic, chained and awaiting departure. Sometimes the man sang what the witness described as a melancholy song that was followed by a prayer. Du’a is calling on God when you need help and mercy, and it gives believers hope and relief—it is meant to save them from despair. And what was essential to Muslims in West Africa was all the more crucial in the Americas, and I think we find in the holler these elements that are some of the roots of the blues.

FK: Thank you for that. You note that the blues prevailed in part because a black man singing alone was not as intimidating to slave owners in the American South as the heavily rhythmic and communal nature of drum beating. Today, in hip-hop, we see a resurgence of drumming and percussion that evokes a rebellious spirit. Do you see a connection between that and the suppression of drumming during slavery?

SD: I’m not sure that people who use drumming and percussion know the connection, the history of drum suppression. But what is clear is that the drum, rightly or not, is considered “the” African instrument. I think you can ask anybody to name three African instruments, and the only one they would come up with would be the drum. The banjo is as African as the drum, even if it’s not as widespread, and so too is the xylophone, which is still found among Afro-descendants in the Americas. For example, the marimba is the emblematic instrument of black Ecuador—but these instruments have not captured people’s imagination, as the drum has, as a symbol of African cultures and of resistance to Western acculturation.

What is paradoxical is that the African drumming tradition that has endured in the Caribbean and in South America for over four centuries now is in decline among young people. In Ecuador, in Uruguay, along with other countries and in Maroon communities that exist in Colombia, Suriname, and French Guiana, there are specific rhythms on the drums for specific occasions, just like in Africa. In some communities, it’s not like just anybody can play the drums; there are families of drummers and people who learned with their relatives for years, so it’s very serious. And drumming is profoundly meaningful, which is why today there are elders who lament the spread of reggaeton, which is originally from Puerto Rico. It’s a style of music widespread among Afro-descendants all over the Caribbean and Latin America. But it uses acoustic drumming, which has zero significance. So, even though young people in these countries still perform and listen to a very syncopated, drum-based music, little by little, if that trend continues, they will actually lose the deeply significant drumming tradition that has been preserved for sixteen generations.

FK: Dr. Diouf, last question: What does your study of Africans enslaved in the US and their relationship with blues tell us about music as an expression of one’s circumstances? More specifically, why would Africans enslaved in the Americas, despite all of their challenges, persist in creating music?

“Islam Played the Blues” by Toufic Beyhum

SD: I think that the main reason is that music is omnipresent in Africa; it touches every aspect of life, secular and religious. Music is not simply an expression of happiness—it is life, and as such it also expresses pain, loss, misfortune.

We know, for example, from European captains and physicians, that people sang on the slave ships, and those Europeans were shocked because it was so contrary to their own traditions. So, they asked the translators to tell them what the songs were about, and the word that comes again and again to describe what they heard was lamentations. Lamentations about the loss of relatives and friends, about people’s fear of being beaten, their fear of hunger, their longing for their native food, their despair at being torn away from their home. This tradition of expressing adversity through song continued in the Americas. Frederick Douglass noted that the songs of black people represented sorrow. He described them as being akin to the tears that relieve an aching heart.

Martin Delany, who was a physician and abolitionist whose paternal grandparents were born in West Africa stated that people soothed their sorrow with songs that seemed cheerful but were in reality wailing lamentations. Again, this word, lamentations. Africans and their descendants created music that spoke of their condition whether on the slave ships, in the fields, or in the cities. And we can say that they sang a history of pain, of injustice, of sorrow, but also of resilience. I think that’s what the holler and the blues are about.

FK: Today we tend to think about music as something that is more joyous. We have a culture of pop songs, and those tend to be upbeat. This is quite distinct from a culture where, as you said, music is omnipresent. It makes a lot of sense that they would persist, because they didn’t have to be happy to make music.

SD: Exactly. It would have been very strange for Africans and their descendants not to continue to make music in the terrible circumstances they were in precisely because, just like du’a, music in Africa is also about alleviating pain.

The photo and video above are by international photographer Toufic Beyhum (, whose project “Islam Played the Blues” melds blues music with Muslim iconography to illustrate what research has uncovered about the influence of African Muslims on the blues.