Jun 17, 2019
What Islam Gave the Blues
The blues, born in the Deep South, conjures up images of cotton fields, oppressed sharecroppers, chain gangs, pain, and lonesomeness. When one thinks about a music so embedded in rural African American culture, Islam certainly does not come to mind. Yet it should because some of the deepest roots of the blues grew not in the Mississippi Delta but thousands of miles away, in the Islamic belt of West Africa.
Islam had been known in West Africa since the eighth century, through contacts with Berber and Arab merchants and clerics from the north. The religion started to spread in Senegal and Mali at the beginning of the eleventh century, carried by local traders, scholars, and clerics. Its reach soon expanded from the banks of the Senegal River in the west to the shores of Lake Chad in the east. Malian traders and clerics introduced it to northern Nigeria in the fourteenth century.
The Muslim world, which at various times extended from Portugal to China, was a global marketplace of ideas and goods, and West Africa was part of it.
As in many other Muslim lands, Sufism, the mystical side of Islam, spread widely in West Africa. One of its distinctive features was—and still is—music. Viewed as a means to bring an individual or a group closer to God, music is an integral part of Sufi life, following the injunction of the hadith “Adorn the Qur’an with your voices.” Members of Sufi orders routinely chant the Qur’an and religious hymns. Supplications are also a genre, consisting of prayers chanted in an emotional way. Another genre is the high art of tilāwah, the recitation of the Qur’an performed by specialists who follow strict rules of pronunciation and intonation and always chant solo. Although Islamic traditions do not consider the recitation of the Qur’an and the call to prayer as singing, both are nevertheless melodic.
Strong trembling sounds, melisma (changing the note of a syllable while it is being sung), wavy intonations, elongated notes, long pauses between sentences, glissandos, and a certain nasality are characteristic features of reciting and singing in the Islamic world. Or as ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl described it, “Middle Eastern singing is tense-sounding and has a harsh, throaty, nasal tone, with a certain flatness.”1
Unsurprisingly, music was among the cultural exchanges that took place between North Africa and the western Sahel, defined here as the area stretching from Senegal/Gambia to northern Nigeria. Music in North Africa was distinctly different from music in the Middle East, having been influenced by the indigenous black populations living in the southern parts of the Maghreb and later by non-Muslim victims of the trans-Saharan slave trade. Often employed as musicians, these enslaved West Africans brought their music and rhythms to North Africa. In western Sahel, especially in the urban zones, Muslims adopted, adapted, and transformed the Islamic musical style. Much cross-fertilization occurred on both sides of the desert.
In the Muslim areas of West Africa, the lower caste of professional musicians attached to courts or wealthy families developed a repertoire of genealogies, praise songs, and epics. They sang solo—or sometimes in groups—in a declamatory style, with wavy inflections, melisma, humming, tremolo or vibrato, and throbbing or quavering effects. This style, centuries old, continues to be heard in contemporary music. Professional singers accompany themselves or are accompanied by musicians playing string instruments, such as lutes, one-string fiddles, the kora (a twenty-one-string harp), and balafons (xylophones).
Musicologist Gerhard Kubik places this model into the larger context of music in the Islamic world:
Stylistically, the music played in the west African savanna hinterland, such as, for example, on certain stringed instruments, especially the long-necked lutes (xalam, garaya, etc.) and one-stringed fiddles (goge, goje, riti, etc.), is characterized by the predominance of pentatonic tuning patterns, the absence of the concept of asymmetric time-line patterns, a relatively simple motional structure lacking complex polyrhythm but using subtle off-beat accents, and a declamatory vocal style with wavy intonation, melisma, raspy voices, heterophony, and so on. Some of these characteristics are, of course, shared with the broader realm of Islamic music.2
Even when this type of music involves drums, it is clearly distinct from the music of the African coastal and forest areas. It is characterized by a strong reliance on drums, bells, rattles, polyrhythm, collective participation, and call-and-response, and is found in the southern parts of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin, and Nigeria, as well as West Central Africa from Gabon to Congo and Angola.
Starting in the early 1500s, the transatlantic slave trade deported an estimated 12.5 million men, women, and children from West and West Central Africa. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims were among them.3
Wherever they landed, Africans brought their music, and with time, they and their descendants developed numerous new genres. Throughout the Caribbean and South America—from Brazil to Cuba; Uruguay to Peru; Haiti to Guadeloupe, Colombia, and Venezuela—the music they developed shared a number of traits that originated in the African coastal and forest areas: elaborate polyrhythm, percussion on African drums (as opposed to European drums), collective participation, and call-and-response.4
Notably, these elements were conspicuously absent from the traditional music created by Africans and their descendants in the United States. In their music, drumming was nonexistent, while string instruments (banjo; fiddle; and later, guitar) were the preferred medium. This African American specificity is very much in evidence in the blues. Analyzing the differences between African American music and that of the rest of the western hemisphere, Paul Oliver, in his slim but seminal 1970 volume Savannah Syncopators: African Retentions in the Blues, was the first to point out that the roots of the blues were not to be found in the coastal and forest regions of Africa. Rather, he stated, the blues was rooted in what he termed the savanna hinterland, from Senegambia through Mali, Burkina Faso, Northern Ghana, Niger, and northern Nigeria.5
Though research and debate will doubtless continue… experts agree that the roots of African American music are to be found in Islamic West Africa.
Over the past thirty years, other musicologists and music historians have agreed with Oliver but have offered divergent views on which area was the most dominant. Robert Palmer and Samuel Charters pinpointed Senegambia, while Alan Lomax, when not referring to West Africa in general in The Land Where the Blues Began, specifically mentioned Senegal.6 Gerhard Kubik, author of Africa and the Blues, was emphatic that West Central Sudan—from Mali to northern Ghana and Nigeria, northern and central Cameroon—was the core, while Senegambia only showed “some blues traits.” 7 Though research and debate will doubtless continue and be largely influenced by the specific area where someone did fieldwork, these experts agree that the roots of African American music are to be found in Islamic West Africa. Since Muslim Africans were present throughout the Americas, what can explain the development and predominance of their musical style in the United States and not elsewhere?
The first determinative episode in the history of African American music can be found in a significant eighteenth-century incident. On September 9, 1739, enslaved people from the kingdom of Kongo (which covered parts of today’s Congo and Angola) staged an uprising in Stono, South Carolina. Their goal was to reach St. Augustine in Spanish Florida, where the authorities guaranteed freedom to any runaway. They marched with “Colours displayed and two Drums beating.” As their numbers grew, they “set to Dancing, Singing, and beating Drums, to draw more Negroes to them.”8In the end, the uprising killed twenty whites and forty Africans. The following year, South Carolina passed a law that stipulated:
It is absolutely necessary to the safety of this province, that all due care be taken to restrain the wanderings and meetings of negroes and other slaves, at all times, and more especially on Saturday nights, Sundays and other holidays, and their using and carrying wooden swords, and other mischievous and dangerous weapons, or using or keeping of drums, horns, or other loud instruments which may call together, or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs or purposes.9
It is significant that drums and horns were deemed as dangerous as weapons. The prohibition remained in place until the abolition of slavery. Georgia followed South Carolina’s lead in 1740 and restated the ban in 1845. By law or by custom, drums were proscribed all over the South, except in Louisiana, which was French until 1803 and where drumming was documented until the mid 1800s. Interestingly, the largest slave uprising in the United States took place in 1811 in southern Louisiana, where, in a scene reminiscent of Stono, a crowd of men and women “marched along the river, towards the city, divided into companies, each under an officer, with beat of drums and flags displayed.”10
Although drums and horns had been outlawed in the British Caribbean since the late 1600s—for the same reasons as in North America—enforcement was lax, and as music historian Edna Epstein summarized, slaveholders “became convinced of the wisdom of permitting their slaves to dance and drum under normal conditions.”11 White witnesses’ descriptions of public dances to the beat of drums were abundant throughout the Caribbean and South American colonies—but not in the United States. Moreover, drums were absent from the memories of formerly enslaved people in the United States. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviewed about 2,300 men and women about their lives in slavery. Four dozen made references to drums, but these were the Union army’s drums or belonged to the African American fife and drum bands that accompanied the Union regiments. Two references to drums used by enslaved people are of interest. James Bolton of Georgia remarked, “Atter supper we used to gether round and knock tin buckets and pans, we beat em like drums. Some used they fingers and some used sticks for to make the drum sounds.”12Also in Georgia, Mack Mullen stated that, in the evening, people on the plantation where he lived danced to the tune of a fiddle and a drum. In the remote areas and islands of Georgia, 138 formerly enslaved men and women were interviewed for the 1940 WPA study Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes. Despite the book’s title, few informants mentioned drums. Two people recalled Africans having drums, and about a dozen stated that drumming was done on the Sea Islands to announce somebody’s death and during a funeral.13
The dearth of references to drums is equally striking in the numerous “slave narratives” (autobiographies of former slaves). In contrast, the significance of the drum in the lives of some Africans and its effective prohibition after they arrived in the United States are encapsulated in an episode that happened in 1865 in Mobile, Alabama. Five years earlier, on July 8, 1860, 110 young people from Benin and Nigeria—many of them Yoruba—landed in Mobile. They were the last Africans brought—illegally—through the international slave trade. In April 1865, when Mobile fell to the Union army, they were told they were free. Their first act was to make a drum. Coming from drum cultures, they viewed the heretofore forbidden instrument as an essential part of their lives and a symbol of their freedom.14
While the drum disappeared, its “spirit” did not. People created an original drumming ersatz. For polyrhythmic drumming, they substituted hand clapping, foot stomping, the beating together of bones or sticks, and “patting Juba.”15 In Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup, born free but kidnapped and enslaved in Louisiana, described this genre, practiced all over the South: “[P]atting is performed by striking the hands on the knees, then striking the hands together, then striking the right shoulder with one hand, the left with the other—all the while keeping time with the feet, and singing.”16
As ingenious as they were, patting Juba and bones and sticks could never replace the coastal and forest drummers’ very complex and elaborate rhythms. As musician and critic Robert Palmer has underlined, “the range of musical expression that was left to Africans from south of Senegal was cruelly circumscribed.”17
Whereas their counterparts from the coast and forest areas were no longer authorized to perform, enslaved Sahelian musicians who traditionally used string instruments could continue to do so, and as their style became prominent, it was picked up by native-born musicians.
One of the string instruments that gained prominence—and was referenced more than ninety times in former slaves’ interviews—was the banjo, whose African origin was common knowledge throughout the Americas. Thomas Jefferson observed in 1782, “The instrument proper to them is the Banjer, which they brought hither from Africa, and which is the original of the guitar, its chords being precisely the four lower cords of the guitar.”18 But long before Jefferson’s remarks, the banjo (also called a banjar, banza, banjer, bangil, bonjoon, or bangoe) was described in the Gambia in 1621 and appeared in numerous accounts from the French and British Caribbean as early as 1654.19Made of a gourd or calabash, banjos in the Americas, like the various African lutes, had a round neck as opposed to the flat one that later became the norm.
Laurent Dubois, in The Banjo: America’s African Instrument, labels the banjo “the first truly ‘African’ instrument” because, in the Americas, it connected the different musical traditions from West and West Central Africa.20In 1819, Benjamin Latrobe described and sketched a banjo—as well as drums—that he saw at a gathering in New Orleans’ Congo Square:
The most curious instrument, however, was a stringed instrument which no doubt was imported from Africa. On the top of the finger board was the rude figure of a man in a sitting posture, & two pegs behind him to which the strings were fastened. The body was a calabash. It was played upon by a very little old man, apparently 80 or 90 years old.21
The elderly African’s instrument did not resemble the Sahelian lutes in one important aspect: the figure of the man. Noting the presence of anthropomorphic engravings or sculptures on some African string instruments, Dubois remarked, “This tradition of decoration, interestingly, seems to have been less common on the string lutes from West Africa, whose construction more closely resembles that of the New World banjo.”22For religious reasons, African Muslims do not add anthropomorphic decorations to their instruments. This particularity may hint at a Sahelian rather than a coastal and forest origin for the American banjo.
Besides the banjo, musicians who were familiar with lutes and one-cord fiddles took on the violin. Fiddles are by far the most referenced instrument in former slaves’ interviews. Fiddlers played not only for their community—including during forced collective corn shucking, to keep people alert, and during closely monitored dances—but also at white people’s dances. Solomon Northup, a well-known fiddler, was often “rented out” by his owner to play in white people’s balls.23 Fiddlers appear in many runaway notices as having taken their fiddles with them.