A Brief History of African Music through The Colonial Period
Music before the 20th century was very different when compared to the music of the 21st Century. There were distinctive occasions for each type of African music. West African music, the African Diaspora, and the music of the Colonies each had different musical instruments.
West African music
was the music of the African people
before the Europeans captured and sold them into slavery in the Americas. It was unique in the manner in which it was played as well as the reasons why it was played. West African music was documented around the 1600's when explorers wrote journals about what they had found while traveling.
Every West African village had its own professional musicians and singers who would perform for the community. Musicians were idolized in their villages. They normally sat with the king or chief because of their elevated status.
West African's made music for ceremonies surrounding agriculture, the crowning a new king or chief, and the reenactment of an important event that happened in the past. Special kinds of music were played during war ceremonies, hunting excursions, and other victory celebrations. Hunting songs, war songs, and boating songs were performances of men. Music performed by women was associated with children, young girls, and funerals. An example of a festival the West Africans celebrated was called the "Annual Customs of Dahomey". This was a festival worshiping the king of their capital. The West Africans also had music for litigation. They would come before a judge and sing or chant their argument.
Dance was also a big part in the music of West Africa. Dance was performed at ceremonies surrounding fertility, death, worship, adulthood, and other kind of certain concerns of the village.
Mainly the West Africans used percussive instruments. These drums came in all sizes ranging from ten to twelve inches to ten to twelve feet. Their drums were made out of hollowed out logs and gourds with a tight skin over the hollow. They also used idiophones to make music. They used a variety of bells, castanets, gongs, and sometimes they made small xylophones or small pianos. Aerophones weren't as prevalent as the percussions or idiophones. Some explorers made small flutes, horns and trumpets from elephant tusks. These instruments as well as the drums were used as "talking instruments". Chordophones were exclusive in Africa. West Africans didn't have many harps, fiddles, or musical bows. When they did they were made out of gourds and deerskins with holes. Fiddles were made from cow or horsehair for the strings and a narrow box made from alligator skin. Harp strings were made from the roots of a palm wine tree.
During performances on-lookers often participated by clapping their hands, tapping their feet, and dancing. They shouted encouraging words or words of disapproval to the performers indicating whether they enjoyed the performance or not. Call-and-response was big in West Africa. There would be a lead singer with a few others would act as a chorus to the one lead singer. That lead singer would sing a refrain while the others would almost sing back to the lead singer while singing their refrain. This call-and-response technique was representative of poetry as well as music.
During the seventeenth century Africans were brought to the mainland colonies. The earliest black settlers were indentured servants. Black people weren't the only indentured servants, white people and native Americans were also forced to work. African Diaspora
was the music of the slaves and indentured servants. It connects to the Colonial Era
Around 1650 the first indentured servants were released after completing their respective amounts of servitude. Around that same time more and more Africans were being brought to the colonies as servants of some time but for most part, as servants of all time. During this period, black slavery was being established as law throughout the colonies. Although slavery was illegal in Massachusetts at that time, the slave traders had found ways to work around that law. They were technically slaves but they weren't directly called slaves.
Black slaves were being taken away from their families and were not permitted to bring material objects with them. In the Colonies, Africans weren't allowed to read, write, or learn anything except for what their master taught them. Some Africans learned to play a musical instrument by watching other white male musicians. Some became relatively famous. They had memories and their culture of music to keep their minds off of their enslavement. Their music in Africa was reflected in the new songs they sang as a release from the physical and mental cruelty of their new slavery.
During the Colonial Era slaves were allowed to attend church Sundays. This brought congregational singing into their lives. Black men and women had there own special pews and they would chant one or two lines at a time ending on a definite pitch and then the congregation would follow singing with the same line. This was called "lining out" which still lingers on in black churches today. They learned to sing psalms by hearing them and then ach time they were sung, the tune would change a little. Singing schools eventually started appearing so people could receive "correct singing". Organs were brought into churches. During the 1730's a more upbeat singing pattern came to the churches called Hymnody. They were religious poems rather then psalms which became vastly popular through the colonies.
In the colonies, black musicians were entertainment for the colonists performing dance music. They would play for balls, country-dances, and sometimes in dance schools. Slaves played this music because they were consistent, experienced, and inexpensive. Many slaves were sold expensively because they had a musical talent. Slave musicians were mostly flute or violin players, which made them more valuable to the white colonists because dancers preferred these instruments.
Slaves, who weren't allowed to read or write, were able to play instruments so well because, according to Eileen Southern in the book The Music of Black Americans, "It is thus logical to accept the notion that colonial slaves also might have taught themselves, especially since they were closer to the African tradition, and would have remembered the musical activities they pursed before coming to the New World." (49) For slaves, the musical instruments favored were usually easy to learn, the instrument had easy access so they could practice at anytime, and their instrument had to be useful so that when they finally learned to play it, they could perform it well. Learning to play instruments and singing fell into to place when they had celebrations for example "'Lection Day". This was when the black slaves would get together and vote for a "governors". Slaves were given Wednesday to Sunday to elect their "governors". During this celebration slave sang and danced to fiddles they played.
One piece that I listened to was Amazing Grace by Aretha Franklin. She has such a powerful voice that the song struck me as a prefect song to go along with the slavery era. The slaves kept their mind off the work they were doing by singing. Singing a song like Amazing Grace is a way to keep your emotions fixated on the song rather then the work. Listening to Aretha Franklin sing this song was such a joy because, although they play this song mainly at funerals, listening to her sing it just put a smile on my face.
The second piece I listened to was Fix Me Jesus sung by the University of Mississippi Concert Singers with conductor Jerry Jordon. What struck me in this song was I heard it in the Alvin Ailey Company video in class we watched. I liked this song because it reminded me of the songs the slaves sang during their one day off thinking what have they done wrong to deserve this treatment, please fix me Jesus. This really just hit me as startling and heartbreaking.
While West African music, the African Diaspora, and the music of the Colonies all had their unique music, these three time periods all blended in together creating music that would follow from generation to generation. African music soon blended into slavery music, which blended into spiritual and gospel, then soon blended into blues, rhythm and blues, and then maybe into hip hop as we know today. African American music to me is poetry of feeling.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans A History Third Edition. Chapters1 and 2 of Part One. W.W. Norton & Company 1997
Franklin, Aretha. The Complete Recording CD. Track 13 Amazing Grace Rhino Recordings
University of Mississippi Concert Singers. Fix Me Jesus. CD. Walton Music