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Jun 17, 2019

What Islam Gave the Blues

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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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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.

Henry Ossawa Tanner  The Banjo Lesson

The Banjo Lesson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893

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.

Islamic Music in Africa

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.

The African Diaspora and African American Music

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 Ban on Drumming

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

Study For Negro Boy Dancing

Study for “Negro Boy Dancing”: The Banjo Player, Thomas Eakins, probably 1877

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

String Instruments

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.

A Second Diaspora: The Deep South

By the 1750s, the musical landscape of the British North American colonies was much different from that in the rest of the Americas. Along with the radical impact of the Stono rebellion, another phenomenon particular to the United States was soon to give African American music its unique form. The 1800s saw an unprecedented forced migration of enslaved people to the Deep South. Between 1790 and 1865, the domestic slave trade sent more than a million Africans and African Americans from the Upper South on forced journeys to Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida. They were “sold down the river,” or they migrated along with their owners to the new cotton and sugar lands.24

The Deep South was peopled with men, women, and children who had been brutally uprooted and separated from their families, with no hope of ever reuniting. It was a traumatic experience akin to what Africans had endured when originally forced to part from their loved ones and communities. The new arrivals had to carve cotton or sugar plantations out of the forests, a back-breaking kind of work. Artisans who had acquired diverse skills in the Upper South were now sent to work in the fields, cutting cane and hoeing and picking cotton. The task system that in some regions had allowed people to work for themselves and cultivate gardens after their allotted daily workload was finished did not exist. Because of the distance, runaways to the free states were overwhelmingly from the Upper South (mostly Maryland and Virginia); the men, women, and children taken farther south had no hope of ever crossing the Mason-Dixon line. Worse, the extreme work regime rested on the use of such brutality that it amounted to torture. “Those who had seen and experienced torture in the southeastern and southwestern regions,” stressed historian Edward Baptist, “universally insisted it was worse on the southwestern plantations.”25

In this inhuman, dismal, devastating environment, the communal song and dance traditions may not have been appealing. In addition, the sight of a man singing solo was undoubtedly less alarming to white people than were large gatherings of people dancing to the drumlike beat of rattles and buckets. The Sahelian musical style had a better chance of taking root because its solo, non-instrumental tradition, which had already been easier to preserve farther north, responded better to the social and psychological situation in which people found themselves. This does not mean that most arrivals to the Deep South were Muslims or Muslim descendants. As Kubik argues,

[We cannot know] whether a majority of the ancestors of those who created and perpetuated the blues originally came from places like Senegal, Mali, northern Ghana, northern Togo, northern Nigeria and northern Cameroon. But that is of only peripheral importance, because others could have quickly learned from those who did come from there. Shared with others, their style could prevail. Under the circumstances of farm life in the nineteenth-century Deep South, one style cluster, with modifications, began to dominate, resulting in (among other things) the eventual development of the blues. Other style clusters were relegated to the background, retaining their potential for a breakthrough at some future opportunity.26

The Holler

One style that emerged in the Deep South was the holler. Traveler and author Frederick Law Olmsted heard a man in South Carolina, in 1853, raising a “long, loud, musical shout, rising and falling and breaking into falsetto his voice ringing through the woods in the clear, frosty night air, like a bugle call.”27 What he described also caught the attention of Harvard archeologist Charles Peabody, working in 1901 and 1902 in Coahoma County in the Mississippi Delta. The men he had hired on-site, fifteen miles from Clarksdale, had a particular way of singing that was different from the way the group of men he had brought from the city sang. One local man in particular sang what was “apparently genuine African music, sometimes with words, sometimes without.”

Long phrases there were without apparent measured rhythm, singularly hard to copy in notes. When such sung by him and by others could be reduced to form, a few motives were made to appear, and these copied out were usually quite simple, based for the most part on the major or minor triad. The long, lonely sing-song of the fields was quite distinct from anything else, though the singer was skillful in gliding from hymn motives to those of the native chant.28

In 1940, the African American scholar John W. Work III, who did extensive field work in the Delta and compiled 230 items for his American Negro Songs and Spirituals, described the holler as “a fragmentary bit of yodel, half sung, half yelled,” adding that the genre had “the slow time melancholy type of tune, the characteristic cadence.”29 Ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and his father, John, recorded numerous hollers in the 1930s and 1940s and found they shared distinctive features:

They are solos, slow in tempo, free in rhythm (as opposed to the gang work songs), composed of long, gliding, ornamented and melismatic phrases, given a melancholy character by minor intervals as well as by blued or bent tones, sounding like sobs or moans or keening or pain-filled cries, even when they were performed with such bravura that they resounded across the fields. 30

The holler was at the antipodes of the call-and-response, participative work song. As Work stated, “The ‘holler’ is in decided contrast to the first type of work song in which the rhythmic factor is uppermost in importance. It has no group significance.”31 “Cornfield Holler,” by Thomas J. Marshall, recorded in 1939 in Mississippi, is a perfect example of this genre, with its solo, melancholic tune, elongated words, and melisma.

Oooooh, Oooooh
I won’t be here long.
Oooooh, Oooooh
Oh, dark gonna catch me here,
Dark gonna catch me here.
Ooooooh, Oooooh

Hollers were often three-line songs, but some had many more verses. Examples of longer hollers can be found in Horace Sprott’s recordings. Born on an Alabama plantation in the 1890s, he learned to sing from his parents, grandparents, and other elders. His field holler “My Little Annie, So Sweet,” recorded in situ—one can hear birds chirping—features the traditional waves, vibrato, and pauses.

Post-Emancipation and the Birth of the Blues

After six decades of research in hollers and early blues, Lomax contended, “American blacks called upon ancient African resources, for complaints of this type existed in the tradition of African kingdoms.”33 He stressed that what he called “the high lonesome complaint” was common in West and North Africa, the southern Mediterranean, and the Middle East; this, he concluded, in America gave rise to the blues.

This rise originated in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. James Smethurst, a scholar of African American culture, reminds us that “the blues was essentially created by the first generation of African Americans who did not directly experience slavery as adults and yet who came of age as many of the hopes brought by Emancipation failed.”34 Reconstruction (1865–1877), a time of high expectation for the black population but also of violence, was followed by Jim Crow and its cortege of lethal brutality. The blues, in its original-country form, developed in the context of what can be called Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II, to borrow Douglas A. Blackmon’s book title. Sharecropping, peonage, lynching, chain gangs, terror, and forced labor were not conducive to the birth of a joyous musical style. The young rural creators of the blues grew up in a secular musical world dominated by the hollers, and this style permeated their new music. Music historian and critic Ted Gioia notes, “One sometimes is hard-pressed to say where the field holler ends and the blues begins.”35 Such is the case, for instance, with the blues “Sun Going Down” by Eddie James “Son” House Jr., with its melisma, vibrato, humming, and long pauses. Moreover, West Africa’s sounds were still familiar. A blues sung by Tangle Eye, an inmate at the notorious Parchman prison farm in Mississippi, was said to have “a virtual match in Senegal.” Hearing both tunes side by side convinced Lomax that “Tangle Eye’s forebears must have come from Senegal bringing this song style with them.”36

Instrumental Blues Style

In addition to the singing style, the instrumental dimension of the blues presents certain traits that some musicologists attribute to western Sahel. According to John Storm Roberts,

The parallels between African savanna-belt string-playing and the techniques of many blues guitarists are remarkable. The big kora of Senegal and Guinea are played in a rhythmic-melodic style that uses constantly changing rhythms, often providing a ground bass overlaid with complex treble patterns, while vocal supplies a third rhythmic layer. Similar techniques can be found in hundreds of blues records. 37

But not all African-derived features of the blues can be traced back to this region. Kubik has outlined the areas from which he thinks other elements may come. The “intensity zone of monochord zithers and slider technique”—what became the slide guitar—can be found, he states, from southern Benin to Congo. And “areas with mouth-bows played with the stave directed towards the player’s lips”—the American diddley bow and mouth-bow—are prevalent in Angola and Mozambique.38 In addition, Gioia proposes the interesting hypothesis that the repetition of the first line in many blues is an adaptation of call-and-response, the solo singer providing both the call and the response.39

Islamic Practices and the Blues

Musicologists such as Lomax, Kubik, Charters, Oliver, and others who found the roots of the blues in the West African Islamic belt envisioned this lineage as musical styles brought over by musicians. What they did not see is a direct link with specific Islamic practices that survived in the Americas, such as prayers, the recitation of the Qur’an, Sufi chants, and the call to prayer.

In Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, I have shown that Muslims continued to adhere, as best they could, given the circumstances, to their religion, its precepts, and its practices. Prayers, fasting, dietary restrictions, charity, literacy, and dress, for example, endured, secretly or openly. Slaveholders, travelers, and writers, as well as enslaved non-Muslims, witnessed and reported some of these manifestations of religious piety, without necessarily understanding them as such.

An incident that took place in Sierra Leone in the late 1780s illustrates what most likely occurred on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean:

In the neighboring slave-yard, I saw a man about 35 years old in irons. He was a Mahometan, and could read and write Arabick. He was occasionally noisy; sometimes he would sing a melancholy song then he would utter an earnest prayer, and then would observe a dead silence.40

The melancholy song may have been the musical recitation of the Qur’an or a Sufi chant: the young man calling on his faith’s oral expression to assuage his despair. On American farms and plantations, Qur’anic recitations and Sufi chants, done solo or in small groups, would have sounded just like songs. And so too would the call to prayer, the adhan. The words of the adhan are the same everywhere, but each call has a distinctive sound, characteristic of each place. It will sound different in, say, Uzbekistan and Senegal. Perhaps the most striking holler in that regard came from Bama, the star singer of Parchman prison. Like the adhan, his “Levee Camp Holler,” recorded by Lomax as late as 1947—a sign of the genre’s longevity—could have floated from a minaret. It is almost an exact match to the call to prayer by a West African muezzin. It features the same ornamented notes, elongated syllables sung with wavy intonations, melismas, and pauses. When both pieces are juxtaposed, it is hard to distinguish when the call to prayer ends and the holler starts. It was most likely these audible expressions of Muslim faith, and not merely what the musicians brought over, that generated the distinctive African American music of the South.41

The blues is generally understood as a secular music of loss: lost women, lost jobs, regrets, and defeat. But it has a more profound, spiritual side: defying despair. In the 1950s, Ralph Ellison, while writing about flamenco—another Islamic-influenced music—remarked that the “blues voice mocks the despair stated explicitly in the lyric, and it expresses the great human joke directed against the universe, that joke which is the secret of all folklore and myth: that though we be dismembered daily we shall always rise up again.”42For theologian James Cone, the blues is “a secular spiritual."43 In this spirituality, perhaps one may find an echo of one of the blues’s roots in Islamic practices and music.

The blues is not African music; there is no traditional “African blues.” Nor is it “Islamic music.” The blues is an African American creation, born of American circumstances and various influences. What makes it unique is the prevalence of a number of Sahelian/Islamic stylistic elements that became dominant due in part to historical events particular to American slavery. One, the Stono uprising, was an attack on the system in the pursuit of freedom. Another, the uprooting of a million people, was engineered to feed the monstrously violent development of slavery in the Deep South. Still another was the virtual re-enslavement of the post-Emancipation period. To resist the onslaught of these cruel historical circumstances, African Americans used all the cultural tools that best allowed them to express their suffering and hope, to comfort themselves, and to help them cope. Among these were the soulful tunes of the hollers and the blues. Though largely unrecognized, they are some of the most enduring contributions of West African Muslims to American culture.


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