An Introduction to Afrocentric Music
By Dr. Karlton E. Hester (Copyright Hesteria Records & Publishing Co. 2000)
Afrocentric Origins of "Jazz"
Music, dance, and visual arts remain reliable means through which Africans communicate with God, perpetuate their sociocultural history, and harmonize with nature. In America, music inherited a dominant role in nurturing spiritual, intellectual, and philosophical aspects of African culture for displaced people in a hostile environment. Throughout the history of America, the impact of African-American music has gradually affected all who managed to shed their cultural biases long enough to witness the evolution of its innovative beauty, grandeur, and cultural significance. It is small wonder, therefore, that so many people in the world now want to claim African-American music as their own.
It is important to examine the African past carefully if we are to recognize the elements of African tradition that lie at the foundation of African-American music and culture. Avoiding Afrocentric perspectives in discussions of the development of American culture only postpones the inevitable serious study of the music some call "jazz." Just as we examine European music from European antiquity to the present, we must study the complete history of African-American music. Since African culture is much older, and more obscure to Western readers, the task of surveying the history of the vast African continent is formidable. In this study we can only manage to scratch the surface.
The Afrocentric innovations that some call "jazz" are now recognized as Classic American Music and as an American treasure. This music, the invention of Africans in America under the pressures and limitations of an oppressive society, is America's premier indigenous art form. Tracing the history of African-American music carefully from African roots to the present leads to the discovery of the point at which "jazz" evolved from the categories of "Nigger music" and "race records" to the more lofty status of an American art form. It also forces the question, can "jazz" be referred to as "American" music when the people who created were not recognized unconditionally as American (as opposed to African-American)?
The diversity of languages, sociocultural customs, religious practices, political structures, and metaphysical systems among the numerous African nations served to undermine possibilities of unification among those who later became captive "New World" slaves, especially within the regions that eventually became the United States of America. An extremely eclectic culture was apparent even within the small radius of the Gulf of Guinea, the region from which most slaves were obtained by means of bargaining or larceny. Some areas of Africa remained untouched by slave traders. Other northern countries (particularly desert areas such as Egypt) contributed only a few slaves. The difficulties in communicating between fellow Africans, as well as the weak communication between Africans and Europeans, made it difficult for Africans to appreciate and anticipate the severe consequences of the malfeasance that fell upon their continent. To the foreign European slave traders, the social and cultural diversity within African society was interpreted as uncivilized, disorganized, and backward.
Communal presentations of traditional African music and dance are far removed from more passive Eurocentric performances, where the audience remains still and quiet until "appropriate" times to respond. African music was intense enough to lead those involved in spiritual ritual towards ecstasy. Many African American participants in church services in America "get the Holy Ghost" or become filled with the Holy Spirit in ways similar to the possession that comes during the sustained momentum of the rhythmic, dynamic and melodic intensity of African music and dance ritual.
Gospel music was born from spirituals sung by Africans in America during the slave era. Sacred African American music (force-filtered through Eurocentric Protestant religions) emerged from African roots and served dual purposes that included communication and catharsis. Thomas Dorsey of Georgia coined the term "gospel" at the time of the National Baptist Convention in 1921. Dorsey wrote "Precious Lord" and other popular church songs and became known as "the father of gospel music." Spirituals were songs of hope (prior to the Emancipation Proclamation), while blues developed later, after it was clear that the Civil War (and movement to urban areas) did not bring freedom, equality and prosperity to Africans in America. Gospel music eventually provided Africans in America a music source lighter in character than the heavier lyrics of music emerging during the quest for freedom from slavery. Gospels directed African Americans towards their inner selves allowing them to commune with the Creator on personal levels. Afrocentric music most often involves purposes that include sacred worship, communication, and social commentary.
In 1990, CBS Records released an album by the controversial, and highly popular, rap artists Public Enemy entitled Fear of a Black Planet. The media reprimanded the group for its "explicit lyrics," perhaps because the clarity, precision, and unreserved nature of the artists' Afrocentric perspective is exactly the thing that America labored arduously to suppress for centuries. Clearly the Public Enemy artists, like many other African-American citizens, wonder to which "good old days" in the incessant history of slavery and oppression European Americans often refer when attempting to thwart social progress in America.
The development of the notion of European supremacy and the perpetuation of a slave culture required the destruction of the history of African people. Oppression required an attempt at the total repression of the minds, bodies, and spirits of not only those captives imported from Africa as hard laborers, but also those forced to live under the countless lies, delusions, and psychological baggage that also enslaved European-American society. The slave era mentality remained a dominant force in American culture while "jazz" and other African-American music evolved. African-American music becomes distorted or obscured if divorced of its African heritage. The melodies, harmonies, timbres, textures, and formal construction of traditional African music are all elements that African-American music has retained in various form of the music labeled "jazz", blues and spirituals.
African Americans, Native Americans, and other victims of colonial conquest were forced to abandon their indigenous religions and adopt Christianity. Paradoxically, African Americans used this same religion--intended to pacify and subdue them--as one of their primary tools for liberation. Similarly, when the drums were taken away from Africans in America (and African music was forbidden) to further annihilate tribal, familial, and sociocultural structure, African polyrhythms were transformed into a new brand of stylistic syncopation unlike any rhythms the world had ever known. Africans forced to sing European hymns did not merely fuse African and European music. European hymns were subjected to an extraordinary fissional process that combined a multiplicity of musical elements and social convergence, experienced by Africans in America, into a socio-nuclear reactor producing billions of musical "electron volts." "Jazz" was the most electrifying result of this experimentation. Not only were the musical elements and concepts novel, but the composers of twentieth-century "jazz" were more fluent in the performance practice of their musical language than most other twentieth-century composers. European twelve-tone and serial composers created exciting new musical concepts and languages, but few could improvise with their new vocabularies the way most baroque, classical, and romantic composers did during their respective eras.
This investigation involves the historical legacy of musical development that evolved from traditional African music and emerged into the African-American innovations labeled "jazz." It's not intended to deny or diminish the participation and contributions of people of European, Hispanic, Asian, Native-American, or other descent in the history of African-American music. All modern art forms are influenced by numerous ancient determinants from the global community. Consequently, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, "Music is the international language of all mankind." Nonetheless, particular art forms evolve from cultural traditions, patterns, and dialects that determine the shapes, colors, and styles of a given artistic manifestation. We cannot confine "jazz," one of the world's most ecumenical and influential musical genres, to a color like black, brown, red, white, or any other hue or ethnicity. It most certainly does have a specific cultural origin, however, and the African-American innovators responsible for its evolutionary development are the focus of this study.
People say that defining "jazz" is a difficult task. Without a doubt, the music some call "jazz" is an African-American invention evolved in the musical world essentially during the twentieth century. Its evolution from traditional African music into an array of related forms involves African-American field hollers, spirituals, blues, ragtime, classic "jazz," swing, rhythm and blues, bebop, cool, hard bop, free "jazz," funk, soul, fusion, neoclassic "jazz," and rap music. Each new African-American musical invention retained elements of traditional African music. It will certainly continue to evolve and retain Afrocentric musical vocabulary in the next millennium.
A clear relationship exists between the African-American use of "blue notes" and similar traditional African stylistic elements in music such as the traditional Fulani song "Nayo" (as sung by Juldeh Camara).[i] Within the context of some African songs we hear emphasis on a pentatonic scale embellished with a flexibility of pitch. These qualities were conspicuous characteristics of early rural blues. Certain Baoulé traditional songs demonstrate a pitch set that has much in common with rural blues tonality. Qualities identifiable with African-American Swing "feel" and "riff" technique, as well as the use of ostinato patterns as grounding structures for polyrhythms and heterophony, have parallels in Malinké and other African music south of the Sahara. A comparison between "All Blues" by Miles Davis with the bass pattern heard in the Malinké "Dance of the Hunters" displays striking resemblance.[ii] The blue notes, call-and-response patterns, and other musical elements and devices found in blues and "jazz" are also apparent in various traditional musical forms throughout the African continent. African music is often directly associated with dance and the multidimensional effect in most performance presentations.
The inclinations toward "blue notes" in African music were difficult for Europeans and European Americans to understand before they were exposed to African-American blues. The ability of tonal systems to support both the major and minor third within a single chord of a given key baffled Europeans when they first heard it in Africa. The frequent employment of the unresolved tritone [iii] in African music (also a prominent characteristic of African-American "jazz") made African music sound dissonant to the European ear. Likewise, the structuring of musical intonation along flexible lines of tuning aligned with the natural harmonics of vibrating objects (tube, string, wooden or metal bar, etc.) stood in opposition to the even temperament of the European piano. A European-American missionary arrogantly reports:
My Baby don't stand no cheating, my Babe. [circa 4 bars]
My Baby don't stand no cheating, no back-talking or midnight creepin', [circa 4 bars]
My Babe . . . two
little children by My Babe . . . don't let me catch you with My Babe. .
. . etc. [circa 5-6 bars]
Recordings of voodoo ceremonies in Haiti are good examples of interdisciplinary Afrocentric celebration and African retention in the "New World" regions where Africans were not completely denied their African heritage. [vi] Music for such spiritual occasions resembles traditional African ceremonial sources more closely than any African-American musical style. Nonetheless, the music of "jazz" artists such as Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and other modern innovators embrace African tradition and are strongly influenced by African music and culture.
A student once asked, "Isn't most of society naturally inclined toward tonal music because it is a natural musical phenomenon to which we grow up listening; and avant-garde music apparently opposes this (sonic) orientation?" This question has some merit, but it reveals what is often a Western indoctrination that presupposes that Eurocentric orientation is pandemic and "natural" for all of world society. An early twentieth-century book (that is a part of the Schomburg collection) containing discussions on musical practices in Central Africa shows elements of the European-American bigotry, fascination, and ambivalence that many people carried with them throughout Africa.
Technically speaking, placing the musical focal point on the lower portion of the harmonic series (musical intervals including the tonic, octave, fifth, fourth, and major and minor third) is no more natural than the modern emphasis on the upper intervals of the same series (namely, major and minor seconds, quarter tones, etc.). African music, and later many African-American counterparts, have preferred to include a wide range of intervalic, timbral and rhythmic possibilities. This too is a very natural inclination, though many Westerners initially perceived of such musical choices as chaotic or dissonant. Understanding the relationship between those stylistic inclinations shared between African and African-American culture is key to developing a knowledgeable appreciation for the Afrocentric innovations labeled "jazz." A thorough and systematic sociocultural journey, from the dawn of African culture through early African-American music, is necessary to expose the Afrocentric roots of "jazz."
Despite Milligan's difficulties in adopting Afrocentricity when analyzing African music, he spent enough time in Africa to gain an awareness of the close relationship between African and African-American music. He eventually realized the importance of African-American music despite his arrogant tone:
For a long time
the music of Africa defied every attempt on my part to reduce it to musical
notation. Very few persons have made the attempt; for it is easier to reduce
their language to writing than their music. At first it seemed as inarticulate
and spontaneous as the sound of the distant surf with which it blended,
or the music of the night-wind in the bamboo.[ix]
Transferring that theory to the analysis of music, I find a similar tendency among Eurocentric theorists and musicologists to emphasize the analysis of musical forms and formulas. Central to their investigations, for example, are the examination of music based on the sonata form, the application of Schenkerian and other forms of musical analysis, the tracing of the Golden Section, [x] the cataloguing of materials, or the search for tonal coherence. Afrocentric discussions more often attend to personal styles, musical anomalies, virtuosity, and elusive elements such as spiritual or aesthetic concerns. The two approaches are certainly not mutually exclusive, but the different emphases may reflect aspects of cultural orientation.
Analysis can often help our understanding of a musical subject, but usually only if the system of analysis is derived from the music under investigation. Western analysis generally involves tearing the subject apart without regard for a particular creative goal. At the conclusion of the analysis of music, for instance, there is often little produced other than catalogues of rhythms, scales, chords, and cadential formulas. Once isolated, these elements are like the brushes, paints, canvases, and colors used to produce a beautiful painting: isolated ingredients used in the production of art that tell little of the power and beauty produced from the wellsprings of artistic imagination. Music involves the direct transference of human emotions and thought through sonic images. Musical meaning thus remains beyond the reach of words. Therefore, we often look to the environment upon which artists reflect to find greater appreciation and understanding of their music.
Many African-American "jazz" artists insist that a spiritual orientation is the foundation of their music. As their titles and comments often suggest, some African-American innovators and practitioners insist that their musical expression is inseparable from African-American spirituals, gospel, and other religious music.
Dean C. J. Bartlett and the Reverend John S. Yaryan invited Ellington to present a concert of sacred music in Grace Cathedral (San Francisco). A review of the September 16, 1965, concert (in the Saturday Review) entitled "The Ecumenical Ellington" stated: "These were musicians offering what they did best--better than any others in the world--to the glory of God." Hundreds of newspapers across America carried a UPI report of the concert under the headline "Duke Ellington Talked to the Lord in Grace Cathedral Last Night." Ellington discussed his attempts to "see God" in his autobiography:
So be wise and satisfied with the joy that comes to you through the reflection and miracle of God, such as all the wonders and beauty we live with and are exposed to on earth.
There have been
times when I thought I had a glimpse of God. Sometimes, even when my eyes
were closed, I saw. Then when I tried to set my eyes--closed or opened--back
to the same focus, I had no success, of course. The unprovable fact is that
I believe I have had a glimpse of God many times. I believe because believing
is believable, and no one can prove it unbelievable. [xi]
Denying Africans in America direct access to past traditions forced them to become the most culturally free people in the world. While American composers continued to express their creative ideas through Eurocentric musical language, they could not expect to achieve a high degree of affinity with an indigenous American musical language. Ellington's musical dedications to Harlem, on the other hand, contain the power, subtlety, elegance, pain, complexity, intensity, and emotion found within that community during the first half of the century. No composer could produce such vivid American imagery without engaging both African-American and European-American culture directly the way Ellington managed. Albert Murray suggests that most Americans preferred attempts at building European edifices, social constructs, and cultural emulation on the American landscape. It is easy to distinguish between music reflecting original cultural patterns created by people of a given cultural milieu from music created through imitation of stylistic innovations from the fringe of a culture, and other such derivative products.
Those musicians and music scholars who refuse to seriously consider the importance of African-American music enter into debates over "where to find a definitive American Music." At a lecture at Cornell University, when composer Lucas Foss mentioned that he abandoned improvisation because he could not master it, a student in the audience asked the appropriate question: "Why didn't [Foss] study with any of the countless number of African-American "jazz" masters in New York City?" Albert Murray discusses the significance of African-American blues and "jazz":
Eurocentric Documentation and Control of African-American Music
People on the fringe of the progenitors' culture generally define African-American creative expression. This condition stems from the hegemony of Eurocentric discrimination. The contemporary African-American community is less a victim of slave mentality and oppression than in the past, yet problems related to the exploitation of African-American music continue to intensify. The recent reduction of African-American "jazz" to "neoclassic" imitation by talented African-American musicians is telling. Clearly a movement driven more by business capital than revolutionary artistic motivation, the music of the last two decades stands in striking opposition to the legacy of evolutionary experimentation and innovations of earlier years.
During the era of slave exploitation, language and culture were manipulated to erase African heritage from the minds of Africans in the Americas and to promote negative images of things associated with Africa. Terms such as "jazz," "serious music," "race records," and other politically charged labels perpetuate social notions that foster racial division and economic control.
According to many labeling practices in American society, African Americans produce "popular" music regardless of the actual level of popularity enjoyed by a given style, or despite degrees of musical sophistication and complexity involved. This "popularity," consequently, erodes the music's credibility and deems it unworthy of institutional support or serious study. Only European or certain European-American music are "serious" music. Labels change as needed, however. The increased popularity and prestige of "jazz" finally brings forth the modern phrases "vernacular American music" and "America's classical music." Some innovators in America prefer to find their own labels, such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago's "Great Black Music" or, as Makanda Ken McIntyre puts it, simply "African-American music":
Not that the African
slave in America did not have instruments, but rather, they were taken away--unlike
slavery in the Caribbean, where the slaves were allowed to keep their instruments.
Consequently, the connection with Africa is more direct, since the vast
majority of musical instruments utilized in the Caribbean are built similar
to West African instruments. [xiii]
The problems that surround the documentation of African-American music are complex. Anthony Braxton discusses some aspects of the problems rooted in the African-American community in Graham Lock's Forces in Motion.
European theorists and musicologists write most European music history and theoretical analysis. Social context is often an important element of such studies. Histories of Jewish music during World War II benefit from ample descriptions of the horrible social and political circumstances surrounding the artistic production in Germany under the Nazi regime. Historical research that avoided mentioning the intense brutality and genocide of the time would be poor and insensitive indeed. People may well feel that such histories are better told by qualified Jews than by Aryan Germans. A related set of considerations must be applied to African-American music scholarship and theory.
Jehoash Hirshberg's Music in the Jewish Community of Palestine 1880-1948 presents a social history that begins with the Jewish immigration to Palestine and ends with the declaration of the State of Israel. [xviii] Hirshberg discusses the lives of Jewish musicians in the context of two world wars, local skirmishes, and a full-scale national war, then considers the effect that waves of immigrants and refugees had on the development of Jewish music in Palestine. Few would criticize such comprehensive and candid research as polemic. Yet writers often consider frank Afrocentric viewpoints "disturbed and disturbing," as Gene Lees describes Miles: The Autobiography. There are those who seem to view any frank Afrocentric position as polemic. The difference in perception is difficult to reconcile.
Although many of the progenitors of the African-American music some call "jazz" have always considered that label for their music derogatory, yet it becomes increasingly clear that artists have little control over the labeling, presentation, documentation, and dissemination of their work. Christopher Harlos feels this is why African-American musicians have wanted to write autobiographies (to define their music themselves).
If the system used to label citizens is a strong indicator, then there is little chance of creating legitimate vernacular American music in the twentieth century. French composers may compose French music; Japanese composers compose Japanese music; Russian composers compose Russian music. Alexander Pushkin did not produce Afro-Russian literature. But who are the creators of native American music? There are only Native Americans ("Red"), African Americans ("Black"), European Americans ("White"), Hispanic Americans ("Brown"), Asian Americans ("Yellow"), biracial Americans (here we run into problems with colorful labels!), and other such people. There is no category for anyone who is just an "American" on employment or college applications. Since African Americans are the creators of blues, spirituals, "jazz," and other "race" music, why is the music produced by African-American innovators referred to as American music? This does not occur with Latin "jazz" (even when performed by Pamela Wise, an African American), European-American country music (when performed by Charlie Pride, an African American), or Jewish klezmer music (in the hands of Don Byron, an African American) in America.
In a country that has often asserted that African Americans have contributed little to American culture, should labeling "jazz" "American Classical Music" arouse skepticism, suspicion, and trepidation? Will African-American innovators and music scholars finally enjoy appropriate equity and economic benefits commensurate to their European-American musical colleagues? If so, this change should be reflected in a new attitude toward the performance and preservation of African-American music. The conventional terms used by European-American industries to identify African-American music thus remain severely flawed, as McIntyre suggests in the liner notes to his recording Home:
The term is rather
nebulous regarding its heritage. Moreover, it raises questions. For example:
What is "jazz"? Are there "jazz" people? Where do they come from? Where
did it originate? Who were the creators? What caused it to happen? Is it
racial or is it national? Unquestionably, the questions can never be answered
by someone who has the ability to manipulate the language. But when one
is seeking logical answers, the questions become unanswerable. [xx]
The function and purpose of many general labels used to identify cultural components, social artifacts, and other aspects of our environment, remain fairly unchanged. Such terms are often geared toward justifying actions, maintaining control, and perpetuating prevailing political agenda. It could be argued, for example, that under the cloak of the terms "war," "religion," and "slavery," "New World" men have killed and raped more people, stolen more property ("from sea to shining sea"), and altered or suppressed more information than any other people since antiquity. Propaganda disseminated by black-faced minstrels of the nineteenth century, who promoted racial stereotypes and hatred, seem now converted into media portrayals of criminal African-American men or Hispanic-American men, and unwed African-American or Hispanic-American women. Although African-American citizens represent around 15 percent of the population in the United States, this statistic is not reflected in any positive way in American society. However, well over half of the prison population is composed of African Americans and other "minorities." [xxi]
Many Americans still
refer to Native Americans as "Indians" although none of the numerous tribes
labeled as such ever had anything to do with India. Just as many African-American
musicians resigned themselves to accept the term "jazz," some Native Americans
eventually began to refer to themselves as "Indians." Other labels invented
by Europeans, such as Negro, Nigger, Colored, Mulatto, etc., share similar histories,
political purposes and social patterns. Labels (for music or anything else)
can serve political agendas, therefore, and are not always simply for the purpose
of organization and clarity.
The Impact of Racism and Sexism
It is often difficult to approach modern issues involving residual racism, sexism, and other social malfeasance stemming from European colonization. The theory that "might makes right" has enabled conquering armies to dictate the gods that people worship, the history that they believe, the marriages that are socially appropriate, and the art that is aesthetically significant. While a dominant culture may shape fragile and temporary historical records, it in no way changes the course of historical actuality. Nonetheless, those who suffered the limitations and hardships of slave era brutality and oppression could expect punishment if they complain about social conditions or attempted to assert perspectives that contradicted prevailing notions.
Racism is one of the primary factors that thwarts an understanding and appreciation of African-American music. Racism has been a topic of numerous debates and articles in "jazz" publications over the years. It is a complex topic that cannot be investigated meaningfully when Europeans or European-Americans are the sole authors and participants in such discussions.
Given the history and nature of American society, one cannot assume that non-African Americans have documented and evaluated African-American music in an objective, knowledgeable, and equitable fashion. Systematically institutionalized racism and sexism remain a prominent feature of contemporary American society and a constant reminder of even more offensive conditions in the not-so-remote past. Just three decades ago it was highly unusual to find European-American males prosecuted for raping African-American women or for lynching African-American men in many regions of America. Although less overt today, such conditions have not been eradicated. Bigotry is evident statistically among the students and faculties of American colleges, among gainfully employed professionals, and among citizens enjoying economic prosperity. A few years of limited Affirmative Action policies have hardly eliminated the attitudes that perpetuate racism and sexism in America.
Some people feel that "serious" art is a mirror of the conditions within which it resides. A glance at the history of "jazz" in America reveals few integrated bands that remained together for a number of years. Even when musicians were willing to integrate, socioeconomic factors often prevented anything more than tokenism of various kinds. Consequently, musicologists can write two separate histories of American "jazz," each revealing tangible differences reflective of our general American society. There will be distinct African-American and European-American "jazz" forms as long as American socioculture is strongly segregated along racial and ethnic lines.
Today there are many debates over the ownership of the music some call "jazz." While there is agreement that the roots of African-American music are in Africa, some have always claimed that "jazz" evolved from a mixture of almost equal proportions of African and European influences. Regardless of the inaccuracy of the claim, this is a step up from earlier times when Nick LaRocca claimed that "jass" was a European-American invention with which African Americans had nothing to do. LaRocca claimed that his Original Dixieland Jass Band invented "jass" and insisted that he and his musical colleagues were completely unaware of (and therefore escaped the possible influence of) the music of African Americans in his native New Orleans.
It is not entirely surprising that LaRocca could gain support for his assertion from at least one individual, the German researcher Horst Lange. [xxii] It is not clear how much time (if any) Lange spent in America listening to African-American music. Nevertheless, the effects of LaRocca's exposure to African-American stylistic influences (ranging from "front-line" funeral band music, ragtime, and jig bands to other forms extant within the musical community of the day) are obvious in the derivative style of the ODJB's music. It is also obvious that LaRocca and his colleagues were not enclosed within a cultural void as they suggested. If nothing else, the ODJB members received distorted or diluted exposure to African-American music through the media.
If we are to believe the historical documentation of European-American writers, then Paul Whiteman was the "King of Jazz" and Benny Goodman the "King of Swing," and George Gershwin made "jazz a lady." [xxiii] Each musician brings something special to "jazz." Nonetheless, when the various stylistic forms of African-American music are carefully and thoroughly examined from a more objective position, none of the above claims to royalty can be justified in musical terms. European-American musicians have the economic and social advantage over their African-American counterparts (as well as a greater percentage of musicians), yet the evolution of "jazz" innovations has remained entrenched among African-American musicians. If we extract the major innovators from the various sectors of "jazz" history, then it is undeniable that "jazz" is a musical style invented and evolved primarily by African-American progenitors.
Because Eurocentric and Afrocentric musical worlds are most often segregated in America, Eurocentric American "jazz" understandably exhibits different characteristics than the Afrocentric music of Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, Basie, Ellington, Bird, Monk, Coltrane, Miles, Sun Ra, Ornette, and Cecil Taylor. This is a question not of musicianship or creativity but, rather, of style and authenticity. Origins and originality itself cannot be fabricated or duplicated.
The economic and political factors that impinge upon the development of African-American music make the question of racism significant. William Julius Wilson is a noted author and professor of sociological and public policy at the University of Chicago. On November 13, 1995, Wilson spoke on the topic "Power, Racism and Privilege" before a packed auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall on the Cornell University campus. He acknowledged that the problems of the poor and under-served sectors of the American population (especially in inner cities) are exacerbated by racism, but he felt that the roots of the issue lie within the unequal and discriminatory economic class structures: "It's not just simply a matter of race or racism. I assume the race factor. Besides the fact that these places are segregated based on a history of racial discrimination, something else is happening here. We need to go beyond race to explain the impact of these economic and political factors." [xxiv]
Once "Black" music migrated away from the economic infrastructure of segregated African-American neighborhoods, the European-American music industry influenced the definition, the success, and the audience acceptance of "jazz" and other African-American music to a much greater degree. Additionally, as a result of American socioeconomic constructs, European-American "cover" bands that performed music based upon African-American prototypes received much wider acceptance and economic returns than African-American innovators.
Books written by Eurocentric authors have claimed that women were inferior, that Native Americans were savages, that Columbus "discovered" America, and that Africans were only three-fifths human. Sun Ra said, "History is 'his'-story . . . . You have not heard my story. . . . My story is a mystery [my-story] . . . Because my story is not his-story." Self-proclaimed Eurocentric "jazz" authorities frequently display arrogance and lack humility, regardless of their level of knowledge or inexperience, because these men (traditionally, they rarely are women) are seldom challenged. Writer Gene Lees, for example, insists that Bill Evans is the most significant force in "jazz" and in the history of music. He never feels the need to support his claim with any evidence beyond his personal opinion, which he apparently feels is sufficient:
But why should
he? It wasn't him. He had assimilated many influences, but the result was
what we think of as Bill Evans, one of the most distinctive, original, and
finally influential forces in the history of jazz, and one of the most original
in the history of music. [xxv]
Likewise, the systematic exclusion of women, children, and people of color from historical records renders subjectively grounded reporting negligible. Sexism minimized the roles women musicians have enjoyed in music throughout the Western world. Although women managed to play a significant role in the development of African-American music, sexism exists to varying degrees in "jazz" as well. The cycles of exploitation and development that women have witnessed tell us something significant about the attitudes and conditions surrounding their musical creations and the music of their male counterparts.
In the minds of marginalized musicians, social insularity, inequality, and institutional malfeasance consequently relegate Eurocentric critics, club owners, or record company executives to positions of "plantation store" parasites. The music industry, therefore, appears bent on destroying "Black" artists who fail to conform to Eurocentric authority. This condition continues virtually unchallenged in America. Labels, catch words, and cryptic signals are assigned by tacit (if subliminal) agreement by an entertainment industry controlled by a social "majority" that benefits economically and egotistically from the exploitation of "minority" artists. The manipulation of seemingly innocuous terms like "jazz" obfuscates the origins of African-American music while facilitating the commercial goals and interests of a music industry born out of a slavery-era mentality. Thus the acknowledgment that "jazz" is America's only indigenous art form has rarely been coupled with the recognition that it is an African-American manifestation.
If reasonably objective music scholarship is a desirable goal, then the elimination of racism should be of mutual concern. Irrational and bigoted propaganda leads to confusion. Many champions of the music of Elvis Presley, for instance, attempt to defend his recordings against attacks from listeners who asserted that Elvis stole music from African-American musicians. Ironically, a few broadcasters have presented programs where they played original versions of numerous African-American blues songs followed by Elvis's versions of those songs. While seeking to prove Elvis's ownership of the music by claiming that Elvis "refined" the original African-American songs to the point of creating a brand new music, these broadcasters inadvertently substantiated the accusations and claims of those they sought to disarm.
Rhythm and blues artists such as Louis Jordan, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and others derived their singing and instrumental style from the Afrocentric speech patterns, dance movements, and other sociocultural nurturing on which they were reared. Rock and roll merely became a "distilled" derivative of rhythm and blues. Since Elvis and other European-American artists had limited direct contact with African-American culture, it is understandable that they could only create parodies of African-American styles. Elvis even adopted the style, clothing, and fake "processed" hairdo of rhythm and blues artists of the 1950s. Despite individual aesthetic preferences, the original creators of the songs Elvis "covered" were indeed African-American.
During the 1960s some
European performers who used African-American music or stylistic elements in
creating their own music (such as the Beatles) acknowledged their debt to original
artists. Why do many Americans find it hard to admit they love, learn from,
and borrow African-American music?
Most American children know more about Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Picasso, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt than about Ellington, Bird, Miles, Coltrane, Bearden, Sargent Johnson, and Augusta Savage. Perhaps this is because an embarrassingly disproportionate number of the people who teach, compose, perform, document, theorize, criticize, sell, and distribute innovative African-American music are non-African-American. Braxton again discusses some possible reasons for the unfortunate and often absurd notions and attitudes that many Americans hold regarding music.
I propose, therefore, that "jazz" have several subdivisions. There are distinct approaches involving African-American, Latin, European-American, Asian-American, Asian, African, and European styles, for instance. Each variation shares basic roots based on evolving American music transplanted from African tradition. Of course, African music has been influenced by local environmental elements everywhere it landed. Nevertheless, each subdivision of music is largely a factor of the specific sociocultural values, attitudes, history, and styles of the various segregated units in which music practitioners find themselves. As we grow closer socially, so too will we begin to produce music that is clearly (unhyphenated) American.
People say that music is potentially a universal healing force capable of bringing peace, understanding, and harmony to the inhabitants of our world. We just entered a new century. How much of the slave era bigotry, selfishness, and ignorance that has retarded the progress of humanity will we take as baggage into the present millennium? Can we find a few answers to relevant questions concerning solutions to our contemporary social problems and strife within a careful study of Afrocentric innovation some call "jazz"? "Jazz" has managed to bring people together from all backgrounds, occupations, and places on earth. Even those who despise and discriminate against African-American people have not escaped their alluring music. In time, given the opportunity, perhaps Afrocentric music might demonstrate even greater positive potential. Reflected in the patterns retained in African-American music, sermons, quilting, painting, dance, and nutritional arts are the oral histories, motivic patterns, and cultural nuances inherent within the songs of the African griots. The psychological, educational, economic, and spiritual benefit of this rich heritage enabled the Africans in America to endure severely debilitating slavery-era conditions.
The mentalities that slavery produced are extremely difficult to overcome. If the African-American music some call "jazz" suffers today under adverse economic and social conditions worldwide, this is more a consequence of its progenitors' African-American identity than of any reasonable aesthetic criteria. The introduction of dodecaphonic music, [xxviii] aleatory music, [xxix] musique concrète, [xxx] and minimalism into European and certain American academic musical circles has received far less resistance and condescension than the disrespectful and exploitative tendencies directed toward the influential art forms created by African Americans.
Racism and sexism, like other ridiculous notions, manifest in ludicrous ways that make it clear that only quest for power, sociopolitical privilege, and economic advantage could motivate people to accept weak justifications for their insensitivity and greed. The absurdity of such delusions is clear when society presumes that a woman of African heritage cannot have a "White" child, yet a woman of European ancestry can have a "Black" baby. How did a "White race" evolve so rapidly during the slave era? It took time for Italians and Jews to become "White" in America and parts of Europe. The socioeconomic and psychopolitical frameworks that support such conditioning weigh heavily upon the development of African-American music.
Bishop Desmond Tutu heads the Truth Council in South Africa. This transitional organization grants amnesty to those who confess of atrocities committed under apartheid. Tutu feels that, as painful and inadequate as this process may be, it is necessary to expose facts of history and to arrive at some measure of truth that can aid in the promotion of healing throughout his country. Perhaps by looking squarely and sincerely into the American mirror some call "jazz" we can achieve similar ends.
[i] Mandinka and Fulani Music of the Gambia: Ancient Heart. Axiom 314-510 148-42. 1990. CD. Mandinka group: Sukakata Suso, Karnnka Suso, Bolong Suso, Manjako Suso, Jewuru Kanuteh (kora); Mahamadou Suso, Mawudo Suso, Salun Kuyateh (balafon); Saiko Suso, Lamin Suso (batakonkon); Dembo Kanuteh, Mahamadou Suso (dundungo); Bobo Suso, Mahame Camara (voice); Fulani group: Juldeh Camara, Korreh Jallow (nyanyer, voice); Alieu Touray (flute); Amajou Bah, Karimu Bah (calabash); Amadou Jallow (lala); Ousman Jallow (jimbeh); "Hamaba" "Nayo" "Dangoma" "Sanjon Bilama" "Kumbusora" "Nyanyer Song" "Julajekereh" "Galoyabeh" "Lanbango" "Borasabana" "China Product."
[ii] African Tribal Music & Dances. Legacy International CD 328. No year listed. CD. No personnel listed. Music of the Malinké: "Festival Music" "Solo for the Seron" "Hymn of Praise" "Percussion Instruments" "Festival of the Circumcision" "Dance of the Hunters" "Dance of the Women" Music of the Baoulé and others: "Invocation, Entrance and Dance of the Glaou" "Duet for Flutes" "Solo for Musical Bow" "Xylophone Solo" "Male Chorus and Harp" "Dance of the Witch Doctor" "Sicco" "Toffi" "Ibonga" "Gnounba Gnibi" "Dianka Bi" "Sibi Saba" "Sindhio" "Didrenquo" "Bonomiollo."
[iii] Interval composed of 3 whole-steps.
[iv] Fetish Folk of West Africa. p. 78.
[v] See Mojo Hand: The Lightnin Hopkins Anthology. 1993 Rhino Records (R2 71226)
[vi] Voodoo Ceremony in Haiti: Recorded Live on Location. Olympic Records 6113. 1974. LP. No personnel listed. "Voodoo Drums" "Nibo Rhythms" "Prayer to Shango" "Petro Rhythms" "Nago Rhythms" "Invocation to Papa Legba" "Dahomey Rhythms: 'The Paul'l'" "Maize Rhythm" "Diouba Rhythm: 'Cousin Zaca'."
[vii] Robert Milligan, Fetish Folk of West Africa (New York: Fleming H. Revel, 1912), p. 78.
[ix] Ibid., p. 79.
[x] A way of dividing a fixed length in two sections expressed in mathematical terms as b/a = a/a+b (also known as Golden Mean, Golden Ratio).
[xi] Music is My Mistress, p. 260.
[xii] Albert Murray, The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary Approach to Aesthetic Statement (New York: Pantheon, 1996), p. 206.
[xiii] Liner notes from McIntyre's album Home. Steeple Chase SCS-1039, 1975. McIntyre plays alto sax, flute, oboe, bassoon, and bass clarinet on this recording.
[xiv] Duke Ellington, Music Is My Mistress (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973), p. 436.
[xv] Music Is My Mistress, p. 412.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 244.
[xvii] Lock, Forces in Motion: The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton (New York: Da Capo, 1988), pp. 276-77.
[xviii] Oxford University Press, 1996.
[xix] Christopher Harlos, "Jazz Autobiography," in Representing Jazz, ed. Krin Gabbard (Durham: Duke University, 1995), p. 134.
[xx] Steeple Chase SCS-1039, 1975. McIntyre plays alto sax, flute, oboe, bassoon, and bass clarinet on this recording.
[xxi] The number of people referred to as minorities in America collectively compose over 50 percent of the population.
[xxii] James Lincoln Collier, Jazz: The American Theme Song (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 200.
[xxiii] The latter idea was Leonard Bernstein's.
[xxiv] Cornell Chronicle , November 30, 1995, p. 6.
[xxv] Gene Lees, Cats of Any Color: Jazz Black and White (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 238.
[xxvii] Ibid., p. 313.
[xxviii] Pertaining to twelve-tone musical technique or compositions.
[xxix] Music involving the introduction of chance or unpredictability into the process of performance or composition.
[xxx] A conceptual term first coined by Pierre Schaeffer in Paris around 1948, musique concrète involves the recording of any number of sounds (voice, street noises, musical instruments, sounds of nature, etc.) that undergo electronic manipulation, modulation, and enhancement in the recording studio.
[xxxi] Phillip T. Drotning. Black
Heroes In Our Nation's History (New York, Washington Square Press, 1970).
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of Global African Music
Received October 2000