The Dialectics and Aesthetics of Freedom:
Hegel, Slavery and 19th Century African American Music

by Greg Harrison

2. Music as Praxis – African Traditions and the New World



O go down, Moses

Away down to Egypt’s land,

And tell King Pharaoh

To let my people go!

In December of 1861, the full text of the slave spiritual ‘Go Down Moses’ first appeared in the pages of the ‘National Anti-Slavery Standard’.  Based upon the reports of the Rev. Lewis C. Lockwood, a young missionary working among the slaves at the Port Royal settlement, this transcription and its later publication as sheet music marked an historic moment in the history of African American music.  Even despite the fact that Lockwood had made no attempt to preserve either the dialect or the integrity of the text and supplied a notably different version for the sheet music edition which appeared only two weeks later, with the publication of this song, African American music effectively began to emerge from over two centuries of obscurity.  This was in fact the first ‘true’ Negro spiritual ever to be published with music. [1]   


Lockwood, who was among the first Northern missionaries sent to Port Royal to assist the slaves at the beginning of the Civil War, recounted how on his first night in the fort he heard the slaves sing ‘Go Down Moses’ - a song which was to become one of the most famous of all spirituals.  As is evident from his description, the singing and the emotions it expressed made quite an impression on him:


Last evening...I overheard music, and directed my footsteps thither, and in a long building, just outside the entrance of the Fortress, I found a number of colored people assembled for a prayer-meeting.  The brother who led in the concluding prayer had a sing-song manner, but his sentiments and expressions were very spiritual and impressive. He prayed that He who brought Israel out of the den of lions, might bring them into full deliverance, spiritually and temporally....I told my mission in few words, and the message was received with deep, half-uttered expressions of gladness and gratitude.  They assured me that this was what they had been praying for; and now that “the good Lord” had answered their prayers, they felt assured that some great thing was in store for them and their people.[2]



As we shall see later, the settlement at Port Royal and the surrounding Georgia Sea Islands proved to be an extremely significant site in the history of African American music and culture.  Because of the relatively high number of slaves on these islands and their isolation from the mainland, the slave communities of the area developed forms of music, language, and stories that were quite unique to North America.  Indeed, it was the songs collected in the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands that would provide the bulk of the material for Slave Songs of the United States, the first published volume of slave music.[3]


It is not, however, the undeniable significance of Port Royal as a cultural site or even the spirituals as a form that concerns us for the moment.  Rather, what is crucial here is this apparent ‘discovery’ of a unique style of slave song at the beginning of the Civil War and what it suggests about the intervening two hundred and fifty years.  Particularly in the Northern states, the sudden recognition accorded the spirituals as a ‘new’ form of music was certainly timely.  Even the location of the first published transcript suggests that the spirituals were embraced and quickly advocated among Northern Abolitionists as being representative of the slave’s right to freedom and their hope for deliverance from bondage.  These spirituals thus served a twin function. They signified the ‘voice’ of the slaves to white America and, in doing so, reinforced the righteousness of the Abolitionist cause.  While there certainly was an undeniable element of truth in this message, particularly in regard to the dominant themes of the songs and their correlation with the history of the American slaves, the mere fact that it should take a national conflict to bring them to the attention of the populace also illustrates the remarkable historical neglect of the music of the slaves before this time.


Throughout more than two centuries of slavery in North America, African musical traditions underwent an immense process of transformation.  Despite the widespread constraints imposed on slave life, including various bans on religious practices, literacy, public assembly and drumming, succeeding generations of African American slaves managed not only to transform traditional African musical forms and practices but to incorporate elements from New World traditions within the creation of new musical styles.  By the time of the Civil War, the spirituals thus contained identifiable elements from both Old and New World sources.  However, as subsequent arguments over their origins and authenticity suggests, the spirituals were also markedly distinct from either African or European musical traditions.[4]  While any comparison between the spirituals and contemporaneous forms of white hymnody immediately highlights these differences, it must also be noted that this process of synthesis and formation was not confined within the domain of the sacred world.  Secular musical styles such as blues, ragtime and jazz which emerged in the South towards the end of the nineteenth century were also markedly distinct from previous forms of African or European music.  Like any new forms of art, however, these genres did not arise suddenly but rather emerged over a number of generations and through elaborate processes of cultural retention, borrowing and synthesis.  The fact that by the latter half of the nineteenth century there was already in place a number of identifiable sacred and secular African American musical forms indicates that there must have been an extensive and ongoing process of musical and cultural syncretism or acculturation taking place in the Southern states of America amongst the slave communities throughout the period of slavery.[5] 


Unfortunately, despite the invaluable efforts of musical historians such as Dena Epstein, who in Sinful Tunes and Spirituals attempted to trace this early history, the details of the various stages in this musical and cultural development remain (and will probably continue to remain) largely irretrievable.  Although in her painstaking research Epstein was able to uncover numerous accounts from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the vast majority of these appear more concerned with the agenda of the writer than with the subject matter.  As a result, they tend to focus upon the ‘bizarre’ nature of the forms and practices, on what the witness believes these may represent about the condition or will of the slaves, or on the impact of the music upon the listener themselves.  Very rarely do any of these early accounts from the mainland United States actually offer a formal or informal musicological description or a detailed report of the practices accompanying the music.  This is in no way intended to belittle Epstein’s work, which is extraordinarily thorough and remains the most authoritative source of its kind.  Rather, what this observation is intended to highlight further is both the visible neglect paid to the early development of these musical forms by white America and the submerged nature of the process of transformation itself.   In regard to the former, it should also be noted that this neglect was not limited to forms of slave music but extended similarly to nearly all of the slaves’ cultural forms and practices.


As a result, the historical and cultural development of at least half-a-million African Americans remained largely submerged within the discourse and practice of antebellum American history.  As Hegel suggested, however, this did not effectively remove their influence upon the course of that history.  Although an apt metaphor for slavery, Orlando Patterson’s use of the term ‘social death’ also tends to imply a complete negation of influence within the social and historical realms.  However, as Hegel indicated theoretically and slave historians such as Rawick, Stuckey and even Patterson himself have argued, in antebellum America at least, this was certainly not the case. Throughout this period, the slaves were very much a part of the underlying depth of colonial American history and were central in the shaping of modern America.  The traditional culture and history of the slaves did not ‘die’ as such but was instead transformed and developed within the context of American culture and history.  The influence of the slaves on the formation of antebellum Southern culture was widespread and has been identified in such diverse areas as language, cooking, farming practices, music, dance and, of course, economics.   Despite this influence, and as Du Bois was at pains to point out in Souls, while there was essentially one American history and culture, particularly as it emerged in the South, it contained within itself two separate but related modes. 


Although influential, the culture and history of the African American slaves remained effectively submerged beneath the manifest surface of American history until their emancipation in the mid-nineteenth century.  Indeed, the question of whether emancipation actually constituted a union of these two historical and cultural modes or not is contentious.  For many Americans, both black and white, the proclamation did not herald the entry of the African American into the discourse of American history.  In the ensuing decades, the manifest failures of Reconstruction and the gradual secession of Federal power and influence in the Southern states also did little to help the cause of the freed slaves.  Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century (when he wrote the essays that would eventually become Souls), Du Bois was acutely aware of slavery’s on-going legacy.  As he indicated, the influence of the ‘peculiar institution’ had manifested itself so fixedly within these separate modes and had for so long been played out in these divided but related processes of cultural transformation that there still remained both an explicit and an implicit legacy of that history within American culture.  For Du Bois, the legacy of slavery became expressed internally in the African American in the form of double-consciousness and externally in the divided nature of post-bellum American society which was further reinforced by the existence of the ‘colour-line’.  He thus described the South in his own time as a deeply divided and afflicted society: “...outside of written history and outside of printed law, there has been going on for a generation as deep a storm and stress of human souls, as intense a ferment of feeling, as intricate a writhing of spirit, as ever a people have experienced.”[6]


Between the two worlds of the South (as he referred to them) and “despite much physical contact and daily intermingling, there is almost no community of intellectual life or point of transference where the thoughts and feelings of one race can come into direct contact and sympathy with the thoughts and feelings of the other.”[7] Du Bois was mindful that after slavery, America not only remained a divided nation, but that it was becoming more so.  Describing the white and black communities, he noted: “They go to separate churches, they live in separate sections, they are strictly separated in all public gatherings, they travel separately and they are beginning to read different newspapers and books.”[8]  Due to a combination of heritage and historical condition, by the late nineteenth century, African American culture and its representative traditions had formed differently from those of white America and apparently continued to do so.  Furthermore, and as Du Bois made clear in Souls, nowhere were these distinctions more evident than in the forms and practices of African American music.


Thus, what we are left to contend with when confronting this process of transformation is essentially an enormous historical gulf surrounded on the one side by seventeenth and eighteenth century West African cultural tradition and on the other by an emerging late nineteenth century African American culture which finds its most distinctive forms of expression in musical styles such as the spirituals, blues and jazz.  In between these two cultures and traditions lies the dark history of American slavery - a period in which we know little about the slaves’ cultural practices and even less about their ‘thoughts and feelings’ or consciousness.  How then could it be possible to trace the processes that took place in the formation and transformation of that emerging culture or, in Hegelian terms, the slaves’ work-upon-the-world? 


While we can point to characteristic aspects of African American music of the late nineteenth century, by this stage the ‘work’ is already well underway and the process of syncretism that has taken place and fostered the production of these forms is well over two hundred years old.  As a consequence, though forms such as the spirituals, blues and jazz clearly contain elements from both Old and New World traditions, the search for direct African retention in regard to the formal characteristics of late nineteenth century African American music is an area fraught with difficulty and uncertainty.   In fact, as we shall see later, many of these musical forms had become synthesized to such an extent that their separation into constituent parts and clear identification as to origins is often (at best), conjectural.  Moreover, even if we could clearly distinguish those formal musical devices and techniques which were retained from Africa from those that were introduced in the New World, this would reveal little if anything about the process of cultural formation itself in regard to either its function or its effects. 


Nevertheless, assuming for the moment that at the height of the slave trade there existed within West African society relatively unified forms of cultural practice in regard to music, the question of African retention among the slave communities of the United States remains a crucial one.  Given the obscurity of the intervening period, however, it is unlikely to be in the scant details that we shall find these connections.  Thus, rather than focusing upon shared or distinct formal musical characteristics, the remainder of this chapter will concentrate instead on the underlying social aspects of music and associated practices considered within the context of West African traditional culture.  Following from this, it will be argued that the relationship that existed between music, the individual and the community within many of these cultures provided a foundation for the process of musical and cultural formation and synthesis that took place in North America. 


In lieu of the premise presented in chapter one, this extended process of syncretic musical ‘work’ performed by the slaves will then be considered not merely as a synthesis of musical form but, in addition, as a retention and transformation of elements of African musical practices or ‘praxis’ into a unique and dynamic relationship with cultural and historical condition and development.  It will be argued in subsequent chapters that elements particular to the historical situation and social condition of the slaves in the New World such as displacement, cultural subjugation and the growing influence of Christianity were, to a large extent, negotiated and mediated through forms of musical praxis that have identifiable correlations with those found in West Africa both in the period of slavery and subsequently. 


The relationship between music and ‘ways of life’ that existed in many traditional West African cultures up to and beyond the time of the slave trade will therefore be examined in regard to the possibility that they provided a cultural legacy to the slaves of the New World.  Even more important for this study is the specific prospect that it was this traditional relationship between musical praxis and culture brought to America by the slaves that provided a foundation upon which their music-making could not only take on a central role in the negotiation of slavery and cultural bondage, but further enable the formation of a dialectically distinct cultural schemata or consciousness vital to their survival. 


However, in order for these hypotheses to be confirmed, it must first be acknowledged that the central role played by music-making in traditional African society was fundamentally distinct from coexisting European or American conceptions of music or art, and that these differences extended to the perception, appreciation and function of music within culture. Classical European notions of musical aesthetics did not (and arguably still do not) encompass either the broad range of music’s function nor the extent of its integration within the traditional African cultural milieu.[9]


As will be discussed later, this ‘aesthetic’ discordance is perhaps most specifically illustrated in the capacity of traditional African music to mediate between the individual, the group and the world.  Although this functional aspect was certainly not replicated to anywhere near the same extent within either Western musical practices or musical aesthetics, it nonetheless does bear a remarkable similarity to the Hegelian notion of Absolute Spirit or the ideal form of consciousness in regard to function. When considered in relation to Hegel’s belief that the need for the dialectic (and in fact all philosophy) arises from the division of the universal and the particular, by effectively performing this function, the nature and role of traditional West African music certainly tends towards this ideal.  However ironic this may appear in light of Hegel’s infamous comments on African culture, musical praxis within those cultures can nevertheless be further understood as being both a distinctly African form of  ‘aesthetic’ and an ideal form in the Hegelian sense by which to mediate between what was fundamentally a European philosophical division.  By effectively mediating this division and (to some extent) abolishing the distinction between the two realms within its praxis, this markedly distinctive West African musical ‘aesthetic’ appears not only to have performed this function in the Old World but the New World as well.  As we shall see, as a form of retention, many of the underlying features of West African musical praxis thus provided the African American slaves a particular means to ‘work-upon-the-world’ from within the ‘peculiar institution’.


In the remainder of this chapter, therefore, we shall not be searching for direct correlations between musical genres or devices in Africa and the United States nor, for the moment, focusing upon the music of the African American slaves.  Instead, we will turn our attention initially to the possibility of identifying some unified elements in regard to West African culture and world view.  Following from this, an analysis of the nature and role of music within those traditional societies will be undertaken.   Given the broad conceptual nature of this study and, more particularly, its focus upon the notion of cultural work as a transformative process, it is anticipated that only by engaging with these questions of origin will it then become possible to answer similar questions in regard to the processes that took place in America.  Through an examination of West African music within the context of its relationship with traditional culture, it is hoped that we can better understand: firstly, why it was primarily music and not some other form of art or culture that occupied such a significant place in the formation and representation of slave culture and history in the New World; and secondly, what work was this process of musical formation actually performing upon that world, the consciousness of the slaves and therefore that of America itself?


Many Branches but Only One Tree

When we speak of African culture, aesthetics or world view, it is a notion of  ‘Africa’ that, given the circumstances surrounding the history of the slave trade, is difficult to pin down accurately. Correspondingly, in the New World the term ‘African American’ implies a unity of culture existing in slave populations across the USA which, as the work of Ira Berlin points out, is clearly not the case.  Due to the scattered nature of slave dispersal across mainland USA and the later influx of new arrivals from both Africa and the West Indies, African American communities developed marked cultural differences which became accentuated throughout the slave period.[10]  It is, however, beyond the scope of this work to deal with each region individually, and just as we will limit our definition of African culture to that of West Africa, the later parts of this work dealing with African American cultural practices will concentrate largely upon selected regions of North America which contained relatively high slave populations and, in some cases, populations that were possibly more homogeneous in origin than was previously thought.  Nevertheless, as Van Der Merwe points out, the question of specific or unified African influences on African American culture is extremely difficult to pinpoint:


The African influence on the music of the United States, though profound, is extraordinarily hard to pin down to individual cultures.  The half-million-odd African slaves arrived over a period of more than two centuries, beginning in 1619 and ending some time during the mid-nineteenth century.  They came from a vast area, stretching from the westernmost tip of Africa to southern Angola, and reaching deep into the continent….Once on American soil, tribal groupings were often broken up, for fear of insurrection, and in any case the internal slave trade eventually scattered the tribes far and wide.[11]


While there are certain areas in which a high degree of direct cultural survival was maintained such as the Georgia Sea Islands and Southern Louisiana, Van Der Merwe’s view is substantially correct for the majority of mainland United States. Notwithstanding these considerations, there is a large body of work that indicates  such a broad view of West African culture, particularly in regard to cultural influence, is not completely misguided.


In regard to the question of specific retention, Van Der Merwe himself infers that, “a calculated vagueness is therefore advisable”, suggesting that the African origins of American idioms must remain generally West African, and not specific to any particular people.  As he states, this situation was unique to North America and was not replicated throughout other destinations for slaves in the New World: “It is a far cry from the survival of African musical cultures in South America, sometimes even down to language.”  Therefore, he concludes, when dealing with the issues of African American cultural retention, “ we must not attempt to provide our Africanisms with precise family trees.  Their ancestry is far too mixed, confused and obscure for that.”[12]  Nevertheless, as the work of Sidney Mintz and Richard Price in Birth of African American Culture suggests, general continuities between the two cultures can still be discerned by “the analysis of systems or patterns in their social context.”[13]  Accepting this for the moment, it would appear that whilst the extent of formal retention between Africa and the New World may have declined markedly since the antebellum period, there remains the possibility of tracing some of these correlations by a comparative analysis of their underlying features and processes.    


It is a view supported strongly by Lawrence Levine, who in Black Culture and Black Consciousness argued that the African American slaves did not bring with them a network of beliefs, customs, institutions and practices which could be referred to as a unified African culture.  As he states, “This unified culture cannot be said to exist even within Africa itself as peoples of that continent created a myriad of culture and cultural forms.”[14]  Rather than seeking a unified view of African culture within specific forms, he contends that any examination of African retention in the New World must be based on an underlying commonality of ‘world view’ among West African culture.


Levine also believes that contentions such as those of Robert Park which herald the death of African culture amongst the African Americans do not account for the possibility that culture is more than simply a collection of the various shared expressive forms of language, religion, and customs.  He cites Redfield’s work as providing evidence that certain peoples with “diverse languages, religions and customs can nevertheless still share an emphasis on certain virtues and ideals, manners of independence and hospitality, general ways of looking upon the world, which give them a similar life style.”[15]  It is this tendency which he believes creates what is essentially a common ‘world view’.  Levine argues that this applies with special force to the West African cultures from which so many of the slaves came:


Though they varied widely in language, institutions, gods, and familial patterns, they shared a fundamental outlook toward the past, present and future and common means of cultural expression which could well have constituted the basis of a sense of common identity and world view capable of withstanding the impact of slavery.[16]



A similar interpretation in regard to the identification of unified forms of African world view is implied in the work of Dr. John Mbiti and Raboteau.  In his study of over three thousand different African communities, Mbiti concluded that, “indigenous African religion, even when overlaid with Christianity or Islam, is a unity – “many branches but only one tree”.  He observes that in spite of their diversity, “there are sufficient elements which make it possible to discuss African concepts of God as a unity and on a continental scale.”[17]  He points out that “no African religion fails to recognise God as originator, as other than human, or of the ethical responsibility of humanity in the world.”[18]   Although this could be said of many cultures, Mbiti further claims that in traditional African culture there was no formal distinction between the sacred and profane realms of life, or between the material and spiritual, and that therefore, in African societies, religion permeated and was the basis for all aspects of life.[19]  This fundamentally unified view of African religion is also argued for by Raboteau who believes that “similar modes of perception, shared basic principles, and common patterns of ritual were widespread among different West African religions.”[20]


As Levine suggests, to seek this concept of world view only in regard to direct survivals is both to prejudge the issue and consign this process of retention to the realms of ‘quaint folk heritage’.  This is particularly the case for many of the early accounts of slave music in America, which either neglect the underlying complexity of these forms and practices or pre-judge the issue in terms of their own agenda.  In his attempt to shift this focus, Levine offers an alternative view:


For Africans, as for other people, the journey to the New World did not inexorably sever all associations with the Old World;…aspects of the traditional cultures and world view they came with may have continued to exist not as mere vestiges but as dynamic, living, creative parts of group life in the United States...Therefore, the question is not one of retention but of transformation and the strength of a culture’s resilience is not determined by its ability to withstand change, but its ability to react to the realities of a new situation and condition.[21]



Considered together, the arguments of Mbiti, Raboteau and Levine all suggest the existence of a relatively unified world view in traditional West African culture which is identifiable within cultural beliefs, forms and practices such as religion and ritual.  Furthermore, the work of African musical historians such as Chernoff and Nketia present aspects of this ‘African’ world view as clearly manifest and discernible within the ‘aesthetics’ of African performance and music-making practices.   Thus the notion of a distinctly African musical ‘aesthetic’ can to some extent encompass and express elements of this world view.   As Chernoff states:


The study of African music...can reveal a great deal about the nature of culture and community life.  From such a perspective, a culture may perhaps best be considered not as an abstract idea or as a basic formal structure but rather as dynamic style with which people organise and orient themselves to act through various mediators – institutions such as language, production, marriage, folklore, religion and of course, art.[22]



Here, Chernoff highlights two significant points.  Firstly, like Levine, he posits the nature of culture as a dynamic process and secondly, he stresses the propensity of this process to create and cohere institutions with which to mediate between the self, the community and the world.  As discussed earlier in this chapter, it is this latter aspect that is particularly relevant in our search for an appropriate definition of African musical aesthetics or praxis because of the extent to which music-making engages in “the process of creating and cohering institutions”.  Indeed, this denotes a functional potentiality within these customs which would appear to be distinctly African.  Assuming that Chernoff is correct, there appears to exists within West African music, performance and associated ritual a particularly potent means of mediating between the world, the self and the community which creates, reinforces and recreates elements of culturally specific world view.


Read in conjunction with Levine’s acknowledgement that elements of African world view are identifiable within the development of African American culture, Chernoff’s concept of the function of music in traditional African culture also highlights the probability that it is here that we may look for some form of significant retention between the two cultures.  The underlying nature and role of music within the culture and world view of these traditional West African societies should therefore share some similarities with that found in early African American activities.  If this is so, then the study of African American music, particularly within the context of slave culture and history, should not only reveal a great deal about that emerging culture and community but also about the retention of this musical aesthetic in the continuation and formation of culture and world view.


However, due to the dynamic and syncretic nature of culture as process, the notion of a retained world view is a concept that is also extremely difficult to particularise.  The abstract notion of world view finds its material expression within diverse cultural forms and institutions that overlap and merge within practices and ways of life.  As a means of overcoming this generality, this study will therefore focus most specifically on the musical aspects of this retention, and these will be considered primarily in relation to both their function within the culture and more particularly as a means of representation for aspects of that retained world view.  Indeed, the same problem has prompted Samuel Floyd Jnr., in his work on ring shouts in Africa and America, to invoke the concept of ‘cultural memory’.  Floyd defines this as:


...a repository of meanings that comprise the subjective knowledge of a people, its immanent thoughts, its structures, and its practices; these…are transferred and understood unconsciously but become conscious and culturally objective in practice and perception.[23]



Like Nora’s concept of ‘living memory’, which has been used effectively by Joseph Roach in his study of circum-Atlantic performance, Floyd’s concept of cultural memory is one means of negotiating the problems of generality that arise from issues of cultural retention, continuity and change.[24]  In regard to our search for retention therefore, it is not so much the surface aspects that we seek but the underlying depth of musical practices within their social context.  With this objective in mind, let us  return briefly to Jena to see what this has to do with the master-slave dialectic. 


As Hegel claimed, the transformation of the slave culture and consciousness would take place through their work-upon-the-world.  Accepting this for the moment, it also follows that the nature and effectiveness of this work will be directly dependent upon the form of cultural ‘tools’ utilised.  Therefore, it is my contention that traditional West African world view and more specifically, its integration and expression within musical praxis was, to a degree, retained in the form of ‘cultural memory’ and as such, provided a distinctive and effective means for African Americans to work-upon-the-world and develop and cohere forms of cultural self-consciousness.  As outlined in chapter one, only by doing so could the slaves hope to overcome even to some extent the social and historical condition in which they found themselves.  Accepting this, the next step is to seek the origins of this African American cultural memory through an examination of the nature and application of these means within traditional West African musical praxis.


West Africa

As mentioned earlier, the separation of art and life that has transpired in the west since the Enlightenment does not appear to have been replicated in traditional African culture.  This is particularly evident in African musical praxis.  As Borneman has argued, extemporisation and social function in African music largely served to collapse the classical western distinctions between music, art and life and create different correspondences between all three. [25]  This distinction between art and life appears itself to be largely a construct of relatively recent European culture and its aesthetic traditions.  Although it obviously cannot be argued that there was no such separation in African societies, it would seem that traditional African ‘aesthetics’ predominantly disregarded such a distinction as meaningful.  The aesthetic and the social aspects of culture were thus far more integrated and synthesised within traditional West African community and daily life than in corresponding European traditions.  The dialectic of art and life was, like Cartesian dualism, not an underlying concept with which to contemplate or explain the world.  As a result, the universal aspect of West African world view also contained marked conceptual differences to that of their European contemporaries. 


This was not a question of ‘civilisation’ or its apparent absence, since at this time West African society was not the primitive world of the European imagination and Hegel’s misconceptions.  During the period of the first major encounters between Europeans and Africans and prior to widespread European colonialism, the countries of the Western Sudan region, the principal source of the slaves, included highly organised social, political, religious and aesthetic systems.  Evidence of this can be found in many accounts of Islamic and European navigators, travellers and merchants who throughout this period stressed the majesty and beauty of the centres of West African culture. 


...the great Indian ocean port of Kilwa (which Ibn Battuta called ‘one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world’), Mogadishu and Mombasa, destroyed by the Portuguese, were centres of networks of trade and cultural exchange that extended as far as Indonesia and China.  Likewise, besides being a major trading city for the huge caravans that brought European goods and returned with ivory, salt and gold, Timbuktu according to the sixteenth century Spanish traveller, Leo Africanus, was one city in which a splendid court and an army of scholars were ‘bountifully maintained at the King’s expense.’ [26]



Nonetheless, during the period of the slave trade, the majority of West Africans continued to live in village communities where tribal and traditional customs and institutions held sway.  Due to their relative isolation, much of West African culture therefore maintained an entirely different concept of universality or cosmology to that of European culture.  Metaphysical aspects of integration and continuity were markedly distinct and expressed themselves in a different world view and in different ways of life.  


The Nigerian author and scholar Wole Soyinka has described this African concept of the world variously as a ‘conceptual totalism’ and  ‘protean universalism’ and the African social structure as “…a thorough fusion of individual functional relations with society, one that cannot be distinguished from a ‘psychological syncretism’ of self and community…”.[27] Moreover, this social syncretism seems to appear not only between the self and the community but also to a large extent within other aspects of life as well.  The mediation of the living with those departed and those not yet born is one clear indication of both the degree of integration between this world and the chthonic realm as well as a conception of the continuity of time.  Both of these features are predominantly foreign to modern European thought.  Consequently, it would appear that the concept of a ‘cosmic totality’ was a far more tangible one in African society than in Europe.  Soyinka further posits the gradual erosion of the earth in European metaphysic scope as being probably due to the growth and influence of the Platonic-Christian tradition.


In Asian and European antiquity, therefore, man did, like the African exist within a cosmic totality, did possess a consciousness in which his own earth being, his gravity-bound apprehension of self, was inseparable from the entire cosmic phenomenon.[28]  



He refers to the European view as ‘anti-terrestrialism’ and believes the consequence of this is that “the cosmos recedes further and further until, while retaining something of the grandeur of the infinite, it loses the essence of the tangible, the immediate, the appeasable.”


Thus, where formerly the rites of the exploration of the chthonic realm, of birth and re-birth, the rites of regress and entry, were possible from any one of the various realms of existence into any other, for and on behalf of any being – ancestor, living, or unborn – living man now restricted his vision of existence to the hierarchic circuits immediately above earth.” [29]



Whether this is true or not for ‘living man’, suffice it to say here that for the traditional African, the ‘rites of regress and entry’ were eminently possible and took place within the performance of ritual.  In fact, it could be said that these rituals served many of the same functions as those intended by Hegel in the Phenomenology and particularly in the master-slave dialectic; as already mentioned, both are principally concerned with a means of reuniting the universal and particular aspects within humankind.  Even more important for this study is the fact that, in many traditional and contemporary accounts of African ritual practices, music-making  plays a central role in this and other forms of mediation.  As Soyinka points out in regard to Yoruba ritual drama:


The means to our inner world of transition, the vortex of archetypes and kiln of primal images is the ritualised experience of the gods themselves and of Ogun most especially. Nor is Ogun’s identification with the innate mythopoeia of music fortuitous.  Music is the intensive language of transition and its communicant means, the catalyst and solvent of its regenerative hoard.[30]



In light of Soyinka’s definition of ritual African music as a ‘language of transition’, we will now turn our attention to some of the early accounts of West African musical praxis in regard to what they reveal about the function of that music-making and its relationship to the broader scope of African ‘world view’.  By identifying some of the significant ‘aesthetic’ characteristics of traditional African music and examining their role as mediators in the process of transition, I hope to highlight the role of music in the formation of West African cultural identity or world view.  In later chapters, it will then be argued that these characteristic practices, albeit in a transformed state, provided a political and social force – a ‘catalyst and solvent’ for the development of forms of communal spirit (volksgeist) and Absolute spirit amongst displaced Africans within the New World.


Mungo Pudding for Empty Praise 

Let us begin this search with one of the earliest detailed accounts of African music as witnessed by a European.  In 1795, Mungo Park, a Scottish surgeon and explorer, arrived at Jillifree on the Gambia river and commenced his remarkable penetration of the interior in search of the source of the Niger.  In the course of his journey, he encountered and described in detail the musical instruments of the Mandingoes including the Kore and the Balafon, and similarly, of the griots, called Jilli kea who, he says: 


...sing extempore songs in honour of their chief men, or any other persons who are willing to give ‘solid pudding for empty praise’.  But a nobler part of their office is to recite the historical events of their country; hence in war they accompany the soldiers to the field, in order, by reciting the great actions of their ancestors, to awaken in them a spirit of glorious emulation.[31]



Park also noted the semantic functionality of African drumming and recounts how the drum was applied at wrestling matches to “keep order among the spectators, by imitating the sound of Mandingo sentences; for example, when the wrestling match is about to begin the drummer strikes what is understood to signify ali boe see – sit all down…and when the combatants are to begin, he strikes amata amata – take hold, take hold.”  He also noted that at all such events, “the clapping of hands appears to constitute a necessary part of the chorus.”[32]


Mungo Park is also credited with being the first European to translate an African song into English - a song created on his account.  He claims that, during his travels, he found himself outside a village at nightfall as a heavy storm approached.  Just as he was preparing to climb a tree to protect himself from the animals of the area, he was helped by an African woman who provided him with food and escorted him back to her village. Here Park recounts how, as the women spun cotton, they sang songs to lighten their labour, at least one of which, he realised, was composed extempore for he was its subject.  This is Park’s translation of that song:


The winds roared and the rains fell

The poor white man, faint and weary

Came and sat under our tree

He has no mother to bring him milk

No wife to grind his corn.


Chorus - Let us pity the white man,

                No mother has he.[33]



Later, while accompanying a slave coffle who were being marched in chains some six or seven hundred miles to the coast, Park also relates a story of the ‘Jilli kea’, who marched in front of the group on their way to town.  Within a hundred yards of the town gate, these ‘singing men’:


...began a loud song, well calculated to flatter the vanity of the inhabitants, by extolling their well known hospitality to strangers, and their particular friendship for the Mandingoes...the people gathered round us to hear our detengi (history); this was related publicly by two of the singing-men ; they enumerated every little circumstance which had happened to the coffle, beginning with the events of the present day, and relating everything in a backward series until they reached Kamalia. [where the coffle began.] [34]



I have concentrated here on Park’s accounts not only because he was one of the few early Europeans to pay any serious attention to West African music but more so because his story contains many of the elements present in later descriptions of African musical praxis.  Indeed, the majority of accounts dealing with music in West Africa emphasise three fundamental social aspects that distinguish it from Western traditions and these are all to be found in Park’s account.  They are:


1. Active Participation 

2. Functionality

3. Integration


It must also be noted that, as Soyinka and others have argued, and the marked discrepancies between European and African musical aesthetics further suggest, even these conceptual categories are not always readily distinctive but often tend to crossover to varying degrees and become merged with other social aspects and institutions such as language, religion, customs and mythology.  Cultural forms such as language and more specifically speech patterns in African tonal languages are often inextricably combined with forms of drumming (as is evident in Park’s account of the wrestling match and in the ‘talking drum’ tradition of West Africa).[35]  In cases such as these, determining whether or not such combinations of music and other forms still constitute music in the European sense of the term is therefore highly disputable.  As Chernoff observed:


...witnessing a ritual involving masked dancers, a Western observer might wonder whether sculpture, dance, music or drama was the dominant art, and if he could understand the language of the drums or the words of the songs, he might have to consider poetry as well. [36]



Certainly, African music’s propensity for integration within other areas of cultural life further complicates the possibility of engaging African musical praxis within a predominately European aesthetic framework.  As a result, none of these features common to West African music can be examined purely in isolation.  Particularly due to the integrative nature of music in the life of the community, distinctions and oppositions that seem natural to European aesthetic sensibility are not necessarily so in African world view.   Chernoff relates how even to pose the question: ‘What is music for?’ to an African is illogical because of the integrated nature of music within communal practice:


The African musician has his own answer to the fundamental question, ‘What is music for?’ The European serious musician would probably answer ‘to be beautiful’, or possibly ‘to move the listener’, or even to ‘satisfy the mind’, depending upon whether his bias is Classical or Romantic.  That is not how the African sees it.  In Africa, music is something which generally serves a clear cut purpose, and is judged according to its fitness for that purpose. It is not an object of beauty to be contemplated in isolation. [37]



Despite these problems, I would contend that even the rough division of these practices into the aforementioned categories does provide us some means of examining West African musical practices within a social context and in comparison to European modes of thought and behaviour.


Active Participation

The concept of active participation in African music encompasses both communal musical practices and those of the individual.  In communal events such as dances, rituals, rites, work and sport, a clear distinction between the performer and audience is often blurred because the mode of passive reception of music by audiences so common in European classical traditions is generally non-existent.  Similarly, on an individual level, the participation of a greater number of people in the process of making music, whether that be within large ceremonies or, as in Park’s case, in small groups, is far more prevalent.  Although in most traditional West African societies, there were professional and semi-professional musicians often referred to by the French term griots, numerous accounts also indicate that musical performance and extemporisation were practised widely and as an accompaniment to almost all forms of activity.  Soyinka’s claim that there was a high level of mediation between the self and community is thus seen to be manifest in the communal nature of music-making:


…it is assumed that everyone is musical, that all are capable of taking part in some capacity in the communal work of music making.  The professional musicians are not separated from the rest by their skills, but function as leaders and pacemakers.[38]


This level of mediation is a trait that also emerges in the active and inclusive nature of the practice itself.  In a description of West African musical practices that could just as readily apply to many forms within the African American sacred or secular musical traditions, J.H.K. Nketia writes: “Individuals may shout in appreciation when something in the performance strikes them, or indicate at a particular point their satisfaction with what they have heard or seen.”[39]  In both of these traditions therefore, there often transpires within social musical practice a dynamic and developing dialogue between the audience and performers which, as we shall see later, not only increases the potential for extemporisation but in addition, largely submerges the ‘space’ between the two groups in regard to both the direction of the piece and therefore its expressive (and other) functions within the community.  By incorporating the individual members of the audience or community within the practice of musical expression, traditional music-making in West Africa also tended to create a higher potential for mediation to take place between those individuals and the community itself.  Similarly, in regard to the notion of individual participation in music, there is a level of mediation occurring between social activity and the self that is manifest within musical practice.  The sheer amount of music in African societies appears to be a distinctive feature ubiquitous to the continent and evidence of this form of mediation. Chernoff cites an astounding series of instances where specific music is featured: 


Ashanti children sing special songs to cure a bedwetter; in the Republic of Benin there are special songs sung when a child cuts its first teeth; among the Hausas of Nigeria, young people pay musicians to compose songs to help them court lovers or insult rivals…among the Hutus, men paddling a canoe will sing different songs depending on whether they are going with or against the current.[40]



The extent of Chernoff’s list tends to reinforce the argument outlined above that music in West African society tends as much towards a social institution as an art form in the European sense.  Although we shall return to this broad functionality of music within West Africa, this concept of music as an institution first needs to be further explored.


Participation and Institutions

Due to the high degree of integration and functionality of music within African culture, active participation in music making was often an inextricable part of the daily minutiae, the ritual activity or the consolidation of institutions of community.  Taken in conjunction with the complex integration of music and culture, the prevalence of group activity in African music making also “...creates another dimension to culture in which music takes on the role of an institution.” 


For Africans, ideas of community serve as the foundations for conceptions of the order of the world and for evaluations of the meaning of life.  They refer to their community traditions as ‘ways of living’, and their communities have meaning for them as multifaceted and open arrangements designed, it seems, to allow them to participate and thus to be involved to their extent with power as they live their lives.  Religiously considered, participation adds the value and strength of a person to the continuity of commitment that creates a heritage.”[41]



This also appears to be the case within the context of African ritual. As Small comments:


…a major function of the sculptures, masks and costumes, no less than the music and dance was their use in affirming and celebrating in ritual the power of the lineage and of the common ancestors; thus art and religion work together to reinforce the integrity of the community. [42]



As a result, even within the notion of active communal participation, it is near impossible to separate the cultural and aesthetic notions of integration and function that further distinguish African music from its European counterparts. Chernoff thus suggests that the functions of African music have been developed to such an extent that it often performs the role of formal institutions such as language, kinship or occupation, because it “helps people to distinguish themselves from each other” and “provides a basis for thinking about and ensuring the integrity of a group.”[43] Accordingly, the institutional nature of music had become established to the point where it was expressed within authoritative and chthonic symbolism. “In Africa it is a drum and not a sceptre which is the symbol of the king and the voice of the ancestors.”[44]


Therefore, while the institutionalisation of music and its performance occurs partly as a result of the communal participation in African music, it would also seem to have a further function in the integration and consolidation of community, institutions, ‘ways of living’ and the continuity of tradition.  In Africa, this relationship between music and the community was manifestly and widely expressed in the numerous functions that music played not only within the ritual and religious context but in the social and secular world as well.  Chernoff’s contention that music in Africa can be considered an institution is therefore apt not only in regard to its role in terms of religious ritual but also for its function at the level of social relations within the community as a whole.


Myth, Language and Music

In regard to the community and tradition, music making in West Africa shared many of the social functions and qualities normally associated by Europeans with institutions such as mythology.  Particularly in traditional drama and ritual, the use of music was highly specific.  Chernoff relates cases within rituals where the drummers would not understand the meanings of the ‘words’ which they were drumming but nevertheless had to replicate those words accurately for the success of the ritual.  Soyinka also speaks of language in Yoruba tragic music as being transformed through myth into a correspondence with the symbolism of tragedy in which it “transcends particularisation of meaning.”[45]  Moreover, this is not merely a relationship between the external aspects of music and language but includes their inherent functional, symbolic and expressive elements.  Soyinka’s explanation of this concept is worth noting in full:


We acknowledge quite readily the lip-service paid to the correspondence of African music to the tonal pattern (meaning and allusion) of the language, but the aesthetic and emotional significance of this relationship has not been truly absorbed, one which springs from the primal simultaneity of art-forms in a culture of total-awareness and phenomenal involvement. Language therefore, is not a barrier to the profound universality of music but a cohesive dimension and clarification of that wilfully independent art-form which we label music. Language reverts in religious rites to its pristine existence, eschewing the sterile limits of particularisation.  In cult funerals, the circle of initiate mourners, an ageless swaying grove of dark pines, raises a chant around a mortar of fire, and words are taken back to their original poetic sources when fusion was total and the movement of words was the very passage of music and the dance of images.  Language is still the embryo of thought and music where myth is daily companion, for there language is constantly mythopoeic. Language in Yoruba tragic music therefore undergoes transformation through myth into a secret (masonic) correspondence with the symbolism of tragedy…It transcends particularisation (of meaning) to tap the tragic source whence spring the familiar weird disruptive melodies.  This masonic union of sign and melody…unearths cosmic uncertainties which pervade human existence...The forms of music are not correspondences at such moments to the physical world...the singer is a mouthpiece of the chthonic forces of the matrix and his somnambulist ‘improvisations’ – a simultaneity of musical and poetic forms – are not representations of the ancestor, recognitions of the living or unborn, but of the no man’s land of transition between and around these temporal definitions of experience. [46]



Here, the correspondence between the community and the chthonic or sacred realms is mediated directly through musical practice, and it is in this way that music in West Africa provides, at a symbolic level, a similar role or function to that of mythology and sacred ritual within European cultures.  As Soyinka suggests, sacred music is not only ‘mythopoeic’, but in its correspondence with language, produces a form that ‘transcends a particularisation of meaning.’   In traditional West African ritual, forms such as language and myth thus actually appear to tend toward the condition of music.[47]   If so, this would also suggest that in traditional West African culture, it was the condition of music or musical praxis that was the ideal form of distillate or mediator.  Once again, this is in stark contrast to concurrent European cultures, where the ideal forms for the processes of mediation between the self and the world and the self and the community were (arguably) language and its expression in various forms such as theology, mythology and philosophy.[48]


This idea of music both as myth and as an ‘ideal’ form of distillate within West African culture is further enhanced by the apparently common African perception of the sacred and secular world and its universal and particular aspects as relatively unified.  As Small explains, in traditional African society, this is evident both in the relationship between the self and the community and the self and the world:


The reciprocal relationship between individual and community finds expression in a system of rites of passage; nature may bring the child into the world but only the community can make him or her fully human...the rites of puberty, marriage, procreation and death, each of which is a stage in the integration of the individual into the community, serve to integrate the community and the individual, not only of the living but also of the dead and the not yet born, and are at each time an occasion for the renewal of that community, injecting fresh energy and keeping death and disintegration at bay. Just as the living individual is the link between the departed and the yet unborn, so he or she is also the link between the physical and the natural worlds, linking God to nature through membership of the natural world...Thus, all human life and activity takes place within a religious framework...The arts too contribute to this unified consciousness.[49]



As evidence of this, Small cites the work of Basil Davidson, who, in his study of African art has argued that African tribal sculpture was seldom designed to be enjoyed as art but rather that each piece was made to attract specific religious spirits.  Without the presence of such spirits, the piece had little value. From this, Small then asserts that:


...a major function of the sculptures, masks and costumes, no less than the music and dance was their use in rituals affirming and celebrating the power of the lineage and of the common ancestors; thus art and religion work together to reinforce the integrity of the community.[50]  


In a similar interpretation of the sociology of African music as myth, Chernoff constructs an argument that arises from Levi-Strauss’ famous observation that in Western art, technique is internalised and expression is externalised, while in ‘primitive’ art, technique is externalised and expression is internalised.[51] Chernoff inverts Levi-Strauss’ definitions of myth and art, believing we should instead view African music in this sense as a myth:


In the case of works of art, the starting point is a set of one or more objects and one or more events which aesthetic creation unifies by revealing a common structure. Myths…use a structure to produce what is itself an object consisting of a set of events...Thus instead of processes of interpretation, we will get a picture of  processes of community….The rich repertoire of music….speaks of  a concern to develop a means of recognising the important moments of an individual’s life and referring them to a common tradition.[52]



In such cases, African music shares this functional quality with forms such as mythology, language and folklore; music as a group activity can become “a means for tradition itself to be organised and communicated…in the villages, creative effort in musical competitions becomes a way of discriminating status, obligations and identity.”[53]  As myth, the nature and role of music is therefore broadened beyond European notions of the aesthetic into a dynamic form (or process) that is practical both in its secular and sacred aspects.  In the former, music is highly integrated within the tradition of the community and the life of each member of the group and provides a means of mediation between the two.  As Soyinka’s depiction (cited above) implies, in its sacred aspect, these underlying functions become even more overt and tend beyond particularisation and toward a universality of experience and transition. It is hardly surprising therefore that the correspondence between African music and myth can seem anomalous to a European conception of music. Soyinka further highlights these ‘aesthetic’ distinctions in regard to the music of the Yoruba: 


The European concept of music does not fully illuminate the relationship of music to ritual and drama among the Yoruba…Firstly, it is ‘unmusical’ to separate Yoruba musical form from myth and poetry. The Nature of Yoruba music is intensively the nature of its language and poetry, highly charged, highly symbolic, myth embryonic.[54]


A similar integration of forms appears within the relationship between music and dance.  Though perhaps less startling (given their conventional associations), the integration of music and dance in traditional West African communities meant that the two forms interpenetrated to an extent that can scarcely be imagined in European society.  As with music, dance also performed communicative functions in the social sense.  As Nketia explains: “the dance can be used as a social and artistic medium of communication.  It can convey thoughts or matters of personal or social importance through the choice of movements,  postures and facial expressions.”[55]  He goes on to list the meanings conveyed within African dance. These include reactions of hostility, co-operation or friendship held towards others, offerings of respect or appreciation, affirmations of status or expressions of beliefs through the choice of symbolic gestures.  This level of integration between music and dance is certainly one of the most distinguishing features of African musical praxis and further embodies the features of active participation and functionality.  It also further extends the essential concept of music as beyond a form of art in the European sense and more towards an activity that is functional as well as being creative, entertaining and enjoyable.  Correspondingly, in many African languages, there was in fact no word to distinguish music from dance and the two were therefore integrated within the context of social life.


Function: Parody & Ridicule

Although it has become rather a cliché to refer to African music as functional, it is certainly true that in Africa, the social purpose of music is far more overt.  As Van Der Merwe acknowledges: “there are songs for keeping wrongdoers in line, for voicing grievances, for deriding enemies, for raising morale, and for maintaining the authority of potentates.”[56]  We can add to this songs for the invocation of spirits, work songs, game songs, historical songs, praise songs and songs of ridicule.  In fact, it was these last two that were particularly noted by European travellers to Africa in the colonial period and later, though this was probably due as much to their prevalence in the community as to their unique nature.  Although songs of praise and ridicule existed in European cultures, the extent to which satire was practised and institutionalised in Africa appears to have been significantly distinct from colonial Europe.  Closer comparisons can perhaps be made to practices such as those described by Bahktin that took place in medieval Europe and particularly in carnival.[57]


In his article ‘Puttin’ Down Ole Massa: African Satire in the New World’, Piersen lists many instances of satirical song and dance within African ritual.  He notes that the satirical function of the ‘amusing spirits’ in the Poro society of Sierra Leone, the Ogo society of Eastern Nigeria, and the Hausa of northern Nigeria remain part of a continuous line of African satiric commentary with marked similarities to Afro-American examples. He also cites the fascinating account of Captain Hugh Clapperton who witnessed a lampoon of whites while among the Yoruba in 1826.  During a series of plays given in honour of his arrival, a ‘white devil’ was featured which:


...went through the motions of taking snuff, and rubbing its hands; when it walked, it was with the most awkward gait, treading as the most tender-footed white man would do in walking barefoot…The spectators often appealed to us, as to the excellence of the performance...and certainly the actor burlesqued the part to admiration.[58]



As will be discussed later, such use of mimicry was similarly replicated among slaves in the United States in forms of music and dance common in antebellum plantation society such as the cakewalk.  In these regularly performed dances, the slaves in America, like their African counterparts in this account, would lampoon white ways of walking, talking, dressing and dancing.  In fact, as we shall see in chapter six, the origins of minstrelsy can most probably be found in these early forms of ridicule, and although the satire was often aimed in the opposite direction, it nevertheless revolved around and was drawn from these traditional mimetic practices.


Another account of African ridicule, this time occurring within festival, comes from William Bosman, the Dutch traveller and official who lived in Africa from 1688 to 1702.   The derision described here, however, was not directed towards whites but appears to have been widespread and quaquaversal within the community.  Bosman recounted a ceremony he claimed to have witnessed twice on the Gold Coast which is remarkably similar to festivals such as Saturnalia and others practised in Medieval Europe and described by Rabelais:   


This procession is preceded by a feast of eight days, accompanied with all manner of singing, skipping, dancing, mirth and jollity; In which time a perfect lampooning liberty is allowed, and scandal so highly exalted, that they may freely sing of all the faults, Villainies and Frauds of their superiors as well as Inferiors without punishment.[59]



Similarly, among the Ashanti such forms of satire were institutionalised in the apo and other ceremonies, where ridicule of authority was especially sanctioned and encouraged for a limited period.[60]  Herskovits also witnessed such a ritual amongst the Dahomey in their monthly social dance in which the residents of a certain section of the city satirized those of another part:


Crowds came to see the display and to watch the dancing, but, most of all, to listen to the songs and to laugh at the ridicule to which are held those who have offended members of the quarter giving the dance.  Names are ordinarily not mentioned ...However, everyone who is present already knows to whom reference is being made.[61]


The art of trickery and satire were obviously held in high regard in West African society and the presence of trickster spirits and Gods in West African religion and folk tales provides further evidence for this fact.  The widespread use of songs of ridicule within both ritual and social contexts in West Africa also seems to have passed over to African American traditions relatively intact and with many of the same features and functions.  As we shall see later, the unique slave practice of ‘singing the master’ or other individuals, as well as the use of ridicule within forms of slave singing, preaching and language games, was certainly widespread in the southern United States and, as in Africa, was one of the few features that is regularly mentioned in white accounts.  Indeed, it is this functional aspect that is arguably the single most perceptible African element retained in African American folklore and music. [62]


According to Herskovits, in West Africa such practices also carried over to the social milieu, and Dahomean men and women wove songs in which they commented on the generosity or scant hospitality of their last host, recounted gossip, and articulated attitudes of reproach and protest.  John Atkins noted in 1721 that the inhabitants of Sierra Leone would gather in an open part of town to form, “..all round in a circle laughing and with uncouth notes, blame or praise somebody in the company.”   Similar activities were observed on Gold Coast in the nineteenth century by Cruickshank, who further commented upon their function within the community: “This habit of publishing the praise, or shame of individuals in spontaneous song, exercises no little influence upon conduct.”[63]



Although the use of ridicule in traditional African music was extensive and an activity in which it appears the entire community took part, in its most developed form, it was primarily the province of the Griots.  As Mungo Park mentioned, the presence of griots or ‘singing men’ was unique within traditional West African communities.  The griots were a hereditary caste of professional or semi-professional musicians who were employed as individuals, in pairs, or even in very large groups and orchestras. They were often, in effect, hired musical ‘guns’, who could be employed to compose and perform songs of praise, ridicule, gossip, to relate traditional songs of history and lineage and even write songs to attract potential partners.  As Oliver points out: “the attitudes of their audiences are ambivalent, for while they fear being the butt of their humour they want to hear the gossip and news they purvey, and listen to their music.”[64]  Perhaps it is for this reason that the griot was in a peculiar social position within the community: 


…the griot was in an ambiguous position in West African societies, both privileged and un-privileged, receiving gifts for their work which could amount to small fortunes while simultaneously being generally separated by caste to the point where their internment in the ground constitutes desecration.  Jolivet explained that instead of being buried, their bodies were placed upright in Baobab trees and allowed to putrify.[65]



Likewise, Sachs has also noted that amongst the Wolof of Senegal and Gambia the griots, known as the gewel, occupied a lowly social position.[66]  Nevertheless, the griot was simultaneously in a position of some power, particularly when attached to a chief or king.  Tolia Nikiprowetzky notes that, when attached to a chief, the griot customarily flaunts the quality of his master and perpetuates the memory of the members of his family.  The songs used in these cases generally came from repertoires of traditional songs which may have been handed down through generations and which are usually associated with the celebration of lineage and ancestral values.  In 1931 William Seabrook noted the presence of two distinctive types of ‘royal’ griot among the Dan and Guere of the Ivory Coast:


These are a special class and divide further into two separate specialised functions.  One type of griot is like the subsidised poet or minstrel who was attached to a European court in the middle ages.  He is an improvising singer, shouter, orator whose duty is to flatter and glorify his master.  The second type of griot corresponds even closer to the medieval king’s jester.  He is a comic fellow to whom every outrageous licence is permitted.[67]


Thus, while a griot in the service of a chief or king had to know many traditional songs without error he must also have had the ability to extemporise on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene.  In addition to being the local historian and storyteller, in many cases the griot had to be adept at extemporisation and this appears to have been tailored to suit the occasion.  The social function of the griots was most clearly demonstrated in this role.  Oliver also cites Nikiprowetzky’s work in Senegal as identifying the griots as both innovator and manipulator: 


While the griots had a standard available repertoire of tunes, songs and words, they do fit new words to old musical themes, model old phrases into new ideas and ‘rather than being a perpetuator of attitudes…[are] an instrument for social change.’[68]



Similarly, when employed by a group of workers, griots praised the achievements of some members of the profession and encouraged the efforts of all the workers.  In their role as institutionalised ‘praisers’ and ‘ridiculers’, the griots thus performed a function within the community which, particularly in regard to work songs, was replicated within the songs of the slave communities of the New World and is further manifest within the lyrical content of later African and African American sacred and secular music.  In regard to this, Robert Farris Thompson has pointed out that African song lyrics are generally concerned with moral and ethical considerations and attack pride and pretension in whatever form these unsociable qualities appear.[69] Correspondingly, many of these songs also display a tendency to reinforce sociable and benevolent behaviour and frequently deal with philosophical questions that would appear ‘odd’ to Western sensibilities.  As Chernoff explains, ‘songs of allusion’ and ‘songs of derision’ are not merely designed to entertain but in addition, “…serve as vehicles for the mobilisation of authoritative community values.”[70]  As we shall see, this is also a feature that appears within the African American musical tradition both in the themes evident in slave singing and later in forms such as spirituals and blues.



Although we can identify particular traits in African musical practices, it could be argued that the fundamental and most distinctive feature of music within West African culture is that of integration.  As already noted, numerous oppositions that would seem natural from a European aesthetic perspective are largely reconciled or merged within African musical praxis.  Aspects such as self and community, self/community and world, art and life, myth and art, music and speech, music and poetry, music and dance, music and ritual, and music and religion were far more integrated within the social milieu of traditional African life.  Although to a certain extent we can isolate specific aesthetic characteristics, the overall inclusive nature of musical practice thus tends to support the view that the nature of music-making was also highly unified within a sense of the communal, the self and the world.  Indeed it was such a fundamental characteristic of life in traditional African culture that as Nketia states:  “A village that has no organised music or neglects community singing, drumming or dancing is said to be dead.”[71]


Read in conjunction with the evidence presented thus far, Nketia’s comment reiterates two characteristics of African musical traditions crucial to this study.  Firstly, he emphasises the high degree of integration in the relationship that existed between music and the community.  Secondly (and following from this), he underscores the essential functionality of music in African culture whereby music is not merely a form of art but a means of community survival.  This cannot be, or more fundamentally is not said of European concepts of music or even of art.  Consequently, the degree of integration of music and life within traditional West African culture requires a radically different understanding of aesthetics to that required by most European philosophies.  Both these points are further emphasised by the fundamental differences that appear within European and African concepts of musical aesthetics and the former’s unpreparedness to encompass either the integrative nature or the inherent functionality of music within traditional African communities.  Thus, the very term ‘aesthetic’ carries a degree of implied separation that would appear inappropriate to the African musical and cultural tradition.  Even the process of evaluating the success or beauty of a piece of music in the two cultures is thus fundamentally distinctive.  As Chernoff has observed, “ [in Africa] is important only in respect to the overall success of a social occasion” and the African “does not focus on the music but on the way the social occasion is picked up by the music.”[72] 


Considered alone, Chernoff’s comments might be seen to imply that it is this ‘functional dimension’ that is the essential aspect of African music. However, as we have seen, this functional aspect is also inextricably tied to the concepts of communal and individual activity, and consequently, to broader interpretations of African culture and world view.  So perhaps it is not any particular aspect (either communal or functional) which is the essential feature of African music, but rather, the underlying integration that music provided within the lives of the group, the individuals and the cultural process itself.  As a mediator between and across these particular modes, African musical praxis was thus able encompass and mediate between the self and the community, the sacred and secular, and the universal and particular aspects of life and the world.


Within the context of this study, and having regard to the notion of an African retention among the slaves in the New World, the degree and nature of these cultural differences in regard to musical praxis further supports two key contentions made earlier.  Firstly, the claim made in the previous chapter that Hegel’s notion of Arbeit and Bildung can be broadened to encompass the musical work of the slaves is, in the light of these cultural distinctions, evidently more plausible.  Secondly, the efficacy of music as a form of work in the cultural development of the African slaves in America can be attributed (at least in part) to its role within traditional African culture.  Thus, in the survival and development of an African American culture and consciousness, it is eminently feasible that elements of African musical praxis were retained by Africans in the New World and moreover provided a suitable ‘tool’ with which to perform this work. 


As we shall see, although it took on new styles within America, the music of the slaves retained a forceful undercurrent of African praxis in regard to these traditional relationships.  Rather than adopt a musical aesthetic fashioned on a European model, in which music is either a form of entertainment or art to be passively received by the listener, the slaves, like their African ancestors, practised music that required and encouraged active participation and was often overtly functional.  Perhaps most significant, however, was the fact that in antebellum African American culture, music remained highly integrated with other forms of art and life and retained a significant presence within the social milieu.   Thus, as is the case for African music, cultural and aesthetic dichotomies which prevail within European conceptions of art and music are neither applicable nor of insufficient breadth to permit understanding of many of these emerging African American forms and practices and their relationship to culture.  Regardless of the stylistic transformations, the key to those retentions is instead to be found in the ‘work’ that the music itself performs and the context in which it performs that work.


Praxis and Retention

Hegel’s comments on the primitive nature of the African thus appear as somewhat ironic when we consider that the Phenomenology and the master-slave dialectic were principally concerned with the underlying problem that seems to have been negotiated within African musical praxis. Historical and contemporary accounts indicate that traditional musical practices in Africa, particularly within ritual, were a means of mediating between the universal and the particular.  However true this may in fact be, there is strong evidence that there existed within African communities a reciprocity of music and culture which was largely absent from European culture at this time.  Furthermore, to a large extent, it was this relationship which served to unite elements of the self and the community and therefore, in Hegelian terms, forms of individual and common spirit within Absolute Spirit.

It is a relationship that can best be described as a ‘praxis’ of music because it includes the performance of, reception of and role of music within the wider bounds of social activity and therefore a conscious and subconscious interaction between the individual, the community and the musical modes of production. It would appear then that it is within the practice of African music, the work and not the product, that the true significance of African retention among African Americans becomes apparent. The fundamental distinction between the relative worth of musical product and musical practice in traditional European and African communities displays this distinction clearly. For past West African communities, it would seem that the act of creation and performance was more significant, while in European practices, particularly after the Enlightenment, the piece itself appears to gain prominence. The work is, in the classical tradition, most often to be valued as a permanently fixed piece and performed in unaltered form. This is definitely not the case for traditional African music. Up to and beyond the time of the slave trade, it is the activity that is of primary significance. In light of this, Small’s interpretation of  the function of music within ritual, as a form of communal and individual affirmation and becoming, seems particularly apt:


Nowhere else [other than Africa] is the affirmation and the celebration of identity and of right social relationships through music and dance more highly cultivated.  Not only tribes and peoples, but religious cults, occupational groups, age groups, and the two sexes, all enact in music and dance those rituals which are the embodiment of selfhood, and an acting out of those myths which give shape and meaning to life.[73]


Implicitly, Small clarifies a distinction which is explicitly stated in the master-slave dialectic - the notion of ‘selfhood’ as opposed to ‘thinghood’.  In the initial stages of the dialectic, and ensuing from the struggle for dominance, the slave consciousness itself is characterised by Hegel as having the quality of ‘thinghood’ and being essentially a consciousness devoid of self-consciousness.  Whilst it is inconceivable that the slaves brought to America were devoid of either individual or cultural self-consciousness, it does seem likely that a condition of enforced geographic and cultural displacement followed by a long period of social oppression necessitated the development of new forms of ‘selfhood’ capable of withstanding such a situation and ensuring survival.  Thus, if we were to frame Small’s comment in regard to the master-slave dialectic (and assuming that an ‘African’ praxis was to some extent retained within the slave communities of the New World), we would expect a developing communal self-consciousness to be embodied in the re-enactment of ritual within those communities displaced by slavery.

Therefore, within African American musical practices, it is the retention of those African modes of production that should be of highest significance in regard to the creation of selfhood, volksgeist and consciousness. Accordingly, we need to look beneath the manifest surface of African American musical form and technique and attempt to trace the characteristics of musical praxis that exhibit the social relationships not only within the community that produces the music but between the community, the individuals and the music itself.  It is within this social context that, I believe, musical retention is most prevalent and its function within those communities is most significant. 

Music as Praxis – African Traditions and the New World



[1] Epstein, D.J., Sinful Tunes and Spirituals – Black Folk Music to the Civil War, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1977, 249. Epstein points out that Lockwood was largely unaware of the historical significance of his actions and afterward remained an obscure missionary working in Delaware. The musical arrangement of ‘Go Down Moses’ by Thomas Baker, an English violinist (who probably knew little of the original song) appears to have been largely flawed in its transcription. As a result, despite its profile amongst Anti-Slavery groups, the song was not widely popular until later versions were published in ‘Jubilee Songs’ of 1872. See Epstein, Appendix III for a number of versions with notation and full text.


[2] Ibid., 243-244.


[3] For many Northerners, it was the Civil War that first brought them face to face with the Southern slaves.  Of these meetings of cultures, perhaps the most notable occurred in the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. In May of 1861, a month after open hostilities had begun, the first refugee slaves entered the Union lines at Fortress Monroe in Virginia.  When General Butler, who commanded the fort, was asked to return the slaves to their masters, he refused, claiming them as ‘contraband of war’ (a term which quickly became a synonym for slave throughout the North).  As news of his decision spread, large numbers of slaves began to pour into the Fort and the neighboring town of Hampton.  Later that year, a similar process took place in the Sea Islands.  On November 7, 1861, the settlement at Port Royal Harbour was established by Union forces because it commanded the entrances to Charleston and  Savannah and provided a sea route to the Southern States. 


The region surrounding Port Royal was unique for a number of reasons.  At the outbreak of the Civil War, the concentration of slaves on the Sea Islands was far above the ratio of whites to blacks for the South as a whole.  The state census of South Carolina for the year 1860 listed 939 property owners and 33,339 Negroes for the Beaufort District. (Epstein, 1997:253)  In addition, because the islands were separated from the mainland by water, the slaves there tended to live in isolation and thus retained a higher proportion of Africanisms in their speech (particularly the Gullah dialect) and culture.  As a result of Butler’s proclamation, the Union forces in Port Royal soon found themselves in charge of thousands of slaves who had entered the settlement often in poor health and with nothing but their clothes.  In response to the appeals for help, 97 of the 114 teachers and superintendents sent South by the Educational commission during its first year of operation went to Port Royal. (Epstein 256) 


For more on the ‘Port Royal Experiment’, see Epstein (1997), Chapter 14, 252-273. For a discussion of  Slave Songs in the United States, see Epstein (1997) Chapters 16 & 17, 303-342.

[4] Lawrence Levine (Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom, New York, Oxford University Press, 1977) makes this clear in his introduction: slaves engaged in widespread musical exchanges and cross-culturation with the whites among whom they lived, yet throughout the centuries of slavery and long after emancipation their song style, with its overriding antiphony, its group nature, its pervasive functionality, its improvisational character, its strong relationship in performance to dance and bodily movement and expression, remained closer to the musical styles and performances of West Africa. (6) 


In regard to arguments over the distinctive nature and origins of the spirituals see: Cone, J.H., The Spirituals and the Blues: an Interpretation, New York, Orbis Books, 1991.


[5] Any discussion of the development of African American music must confront issues surrounding the concept of syncretism or the merging of features from different cultural traditions. Munro Edmonson has suggested that the idea of syncretism can be best utilized by contrasting it with the concept of nativism. He explains that while “nativistic movements attempt to revive and perpetuate an autochthonous tradition,” syncretism is the “integration (and consequent secondary elaboration) of selected aspects of two or more historically distinct traditions.” (Edmonson, M., ‘Nativism, Syncretism and Anthropological Science’ in “Nativism and Syncretism” New Orleans, Middle American Research Institute, 1960, 195.) In his study of Brazilian culture, Roger Bastide traced the notion of syncretism between African, European and native Indian religions, describing the process as an “interpenetration of civilisations.” (Bastide, R., The African Religions of Brazil, Sebba, H.(trans.), Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1978.) Like researchers in the Caribbean, Bastide interprets syncretic traditions in Brazil as evident in the correlation and identification of African Spirits (loa) with Christian saints. He also notes that these were not fixed correlations but ones which exhibited a high degree of disparity between various religions and regions. He therefore sees these syncretic processes as, “fluid and dynamic, not rigid and crystallized.” (268) The term has also been used extensively to describe belief systems found in areas of the Caribbean and Latin American countries such as Voodoo in Haiti, Santería in Cuba, Shango in Trinidad and Candomblé, Macumba and Umbanda in Brazil. In the United States, the work of Melville Herskovits (The Myth of the Negro Past, Boston, Beacon Press, 1958) identified two regions; the Georgia Sea Islands and Southern Louisiana as the best areas in which to look for evidence of syncretism. As will be detailed later, a French and Spanish colonial past, traditions derived from French Catholicism, migration from St. Domingue (Haiti), a high proportion of slaves and free blacks to whites, the nature of the slave trade and the institution itself all contributed to the syncretic nature of New Orleans culture.  For a good analysis of syncretism in the spiritual churches of New Orleans, see: Jacobs, C.F. and Kaslow, A.J., The Spiritual Churches of New Orleans, Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

[6] Du Bois (1997), 143.


[7] Ibid., 144.


[8] Ibid., 144.


[9] The African style of music making cannot be encompassed within classical European notions of aesthetics largely because any interpretation based on a European aesthetic philosophy of music demands a clear and dichotomous separation between the concept of art and that of life itself. The connections between traditional African styles of music making and lifestyle are far too complex and interwoven for any such reading. Any meaningful interpretation of traditional African music must therefore employ a broader conception of aesthetics; one that is directed away from a contemplative (and often isolated) interpretation of form, object and content in terms of representation and more towards an aesthetic that encompasses aspects of ‘praxis’ (or the combination of theory, form and practice). This is necessary in order to engage and highlight characteristic aspects of African music and music-making such as function, response and the complex and dynamic relationships that exist between the performer and the listener, the music and the musician, music and speech, and music and the activity being undertaken. Besides being associated with almost every aspect of daily minutiae, within a ritual context, traditional African music provided a means of communication and spiritual passage between this world and the world of the ancestors. It therefore performed a specific and significant function not found in coexisting European cultures. Particularly in its sacred aspect, traditional West African music occupied a central mediating role within the culture and thus between the world, the community and the individual. Furthermore, while it it would be foolish to claim that there was no distinction between the secular and the sacred in traditional West African societies, there certainly does appear to be a greater propensity for crossing over, and in contrast to European concepts, the two are not normally considered mutually exclusive. Like the intergration of art and life, however, we should be careful not to place too much emphasis on this. Chernoff explains the distinction well:


The admirable artistic integrity of an African musical situation is sometimes romanticized into a broad equation of ‘Art’, ‘Life’, and ‘Oneness’ and then elaborated into an implicit critique of other cultural styles.  But the value judgements involved in such comparisons do not help characterize the different kinds of actual interactional configurations that distinguish people’s social life. All ongoing cultures, of course are ‘living’, ‘genuine’ and ‘authentic,’ and music everywhere is related to its culture; it is the character of art as a mediator which varies.  (Chernoff, J., African Rhythms and African Sensibility: aesthetics and social action in African musical idioms, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1979, 216)


As Chernoff suggests, while music everywhere is certainly “related to its culture”, it is equally the character and degree of this relationship that varies.  In regard this question, Christopher Small has attempted to summarise the prevailing differences in European and African approaches to music: 


Europeans tend to think of music primarily in terms of entities, which are composed by one person and performed to listeners by another.  These entities…are fixed in their over-all identity….pieces tend to be treated as permanent objects with an existence over and above any possible performance of them.  Composition and performance are thought of as separate activities, and the composer dominates the performer as the performer dominates the audience...The African musician, on the other hand, thinks of music primarily as action, as process, in which all are able to participate.  In so far as musical entities exist at all, they are regarded not as sacrosanct, but rather as material for the musicians, whose primary responsibility is to the listeners and to the occasion for which they have come together, to work on.  Hence there is as a rule no final form for a piece, rather a constant state of development and change…Composition and performance are thus part of a single act which Europeans call improvisation but others call, simply, playing. (Small, Music of the Common Tongue, New York, Riverrun Press, 1987, 45-46)


However, as J.H.K. Nketia states (The Music of Africa, London, Victor Gollancz, 1975, 237), both aesthetic approaches are evident in traditional African music:


There are restrictive traditions that tend to limit the freedom of performers to make significant changes of their own, such as the court tradition of some societies which demand fidelity to known texts, particularly in historical songs and pieces that legitimise the authority of a reigning chief or his claim to the throne.  The latitude for variations as well as for extemporaneous expression gets wider and wider as one moves from such musical types to those which provide a basis for expressions of social values or social interaction.  Songs of insult, songs of contest or boasting songs, songs designed in such a way to allow for references to relevant to the present moment, all give scope for creativity or for limited improvisation.


[10] Berlin, I., ‘Time, Space, and the Evolution of Afro-American Society in British Mainland North America’ in The American Historical Review, Vol.85, No.1, February 1980.


[11] Van Der Merwe, P., Origins of the Popular Style, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1992, 27.

[12] Ibid., 31.


[13] Quoted in Roach, J., Cities of the Dead, New York, Columbia University Press, 1996, 22 (52)


[14] Levine, L. (1977), 4.


[15] Ibid., 4.


[16] Ibid., 4.


[17] (Quoted in) Floyd, S.A.Jr, The Power of Black Music, New York, Oxford University Press, 1995,15.


[18] (Quoted in) Small (1987), 20.


[19] (cited in) Floyd (1995), 15.


[20] Raboteau, A.J., Slave Religion, New York, Oxford University Press, 1978, 7.


[21] Levine (1977), 5.


[22] Chernoff (1979), 36.


[23] Floyd (1995), 8.  Floyd cites the work of Jason Berry as providing him initially with the concept of  ‘cultural memory’. See: Berry, J., ‘African Cultural Memory in New Orleans’ in Black Music Research Journal, 8, no. 1:3-12, 1988.


[24] There are a number of similarities between Floyd’s notion of ‘cultural memory’ and Nora’s ‘living memory’.  In his work on the rituals of performance in The Cities of the Dead, Joseph Roach constructs a convincing argument that draws on the work of Foucault, and more specifically, the French historian, Pierre Nora.   Nora’s concept of  ‘places of memory’ includes the modern production of artificial sites of national and ethnic memory and are in stark contrast to what he calls ‘environments of memory’ which are the largely oral and corporeal retentions of traditional cultures.  For Nora, modernity is characterised as the replacement of environments of memory by places of memory such as museums, archives and theme parks. He describes these as: “moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned; no longer quite life, not yet death, like shells on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded.” (quoted in Roach, 12) In contrast, ‘Living memory’ remains resistant to this form of forgetting through the transmission of gestures, habits and skills. Roach traces some of these ‘living memories’ in the performance rituals of New Orleans and London and finds that, rather than being static models of performance, they are marked by their contingency. 


[25] (quoted in) Hentoff, N. & McCarthy, A.J. (eds.), The Roots of Jazz, New York, Rinehart, 1959, 13.


[26] Small (1987), 19. Nicholas Hudson notes that sixteenth and seventeenth century European accounts often depicted African nations as despotic and semi-civilized rather than as utterly savage. (Hudson, N., ‘From “Nation” to “Race”: The Origin of Racial Classification in Eighteenth-Century Thought’ in Eighteenth-Century Studies, 29.3, 1996, 248-249)  For more on European perception of Africa and Africans in the late eighteenth and  see: Curtin, Philip D., The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Actions, 1780­1850,  Madison, University Of Wisconsin Press, 1964 ; Anthony J. Barker, The African Link: British Attitudes to the Negro in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade, London, Frank Cass, 1978.


[27] Soyinka, W., Myth, Literature and the African World, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1976,137-138.


[28] Ibid., 3.


[29] Ibid., 4.


[30] Ibid., 36.


[31] Park, M., Travels in the Interior of Africa, Edinburgh, Adam & Charles Black, 1878, 258-259 (Park’s italics).


[32] Ibid., 36-37.


[33] Ibid., 182. For a further discussion of this song see: Southern, E., (ed.), Readings in Black American Music, New York, 1971, 6: and Cuney-Hare, M., Negro Musicians and Their Music, New York, De Capo, 1974, 36ff .  According to Cuney-Hare, a version of the song, which was printed in The Boston Review in June 1800 was lyrically adapted by the Countess of Devonshire and set to music by G.G. Ferrari. That version (produced below) also includes two additional verses:



The loud wind roared, the rain fell fast,

The white man yielded to the blast;

He sat him down, beneath our tree

For weary, sad and faint was he;

And ah, no wife or mother’s care

For him the milk or corn prepare.


Let us pity the white man, no mother has he,


The storm is o’er; the tempest past

And Mercy’s voice has hushed the blast.

The wind is heard in whispers low ;

The white man far away must go! –

But ever in his heart will bear

Remembrance of the Negro’s care.


Go, white man, go – but with thee bear

The Negro’s wish, the Negro’s prayer ;

Remembrance of the Negro’s care.


An interpretation of this song also appears in Sterling Stuckey’s essay; ‘Frederick Douglass’s Seizure of the Dialectic’ in Sundquist, E.J.(ed.), Frederick Douglass – New Literary and Historical Essays, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.  Stuckey cites his version as appearing in the reprinted edition of Park’s text  (New York, 1971).  However, given his version is the same as that cited by Cuney-Hare, it is unclear whether the song printed in Stuckey is its amended version or perhaps that presented in the 1971 reprint as Park’s original.  As  yet, I have been unable to obtain the recent reprint of Park’s book so I do not know.  However, the embellished lyrical tone tends to suggest that it is not Park’s original.


[34] Ibid., 304. 


[35] In regard the formal relationship between music and language in West Africa see: Chernoff (1979), 75ff; Nketia (1975), 178ff; Van Der Merwe (1992), 33ff.  As Van Der Merwe explains: “To understand African music one must know how speech, song and instrumental sounds impinge on one another.  Most African languages have pitch accents; that is, a fixed melodic relation between syllables.  In some languages, precise observance of the tones is essential to avoid ambiguity.”  In Yoruba for example; oko may mean boat, spear, hoe or husband according to which of the three tonal levels is used. “These speech patterns have profound consequences for African song.  When ordinary speech is so melodious, a little stylisation is enough to make it satisfyingly musical; which helps explain the common use in Africa of recitative styles singing, and the frequent transitions between a speaking and singing delivery.” Later he elaborates on this in regard to drumming: “There is a similar intimate exchange between instrumental and verbal patterns.  Among the Mandinka of Senegambia, a dance may begin with this announcement by the master drum; ‘Good evening.  The events are beginning.  The visitors have arrived.  We have come to play and laugh.  That’s what brought us here. We haven’t come to fight, but only to enjoy ourselves.’ ” Van Der Merwe relates how a short message in the middle of a drumming lesson induced a passer-by to return a few minutes later with two bottles of beer.” (36)  For a further account of the relationship between African languages and drumming, and the use of drumming as a mean of communication: see Chernoff (1979), 75ff. Van Der Merwe also believes that in African languages there is a predilection for musical onomatopoeia: instruments imitating natural sounds or mechanical such as trains. If so, this can be seen to have carried over to America in practices as harmonica players imitating trains.


[36] Chernoff (1979), 34.


[37] Ibid., 32.


[38] Small (1987), 26. This is most strikingly evident in African forms of choral singing which are ubiquitously antiphonal (call and response) in style. Chernoff also comments on the many and varied manifestations of this ‘dialectical’ approach:


Examples proliferate of the dialectical manner in which the aesthetic potential of African music is realized; the specialization of cross-rhythmic apart-playing should evoke the mediated appreciation of wholeness; the overlapping of call-and-response yields intriguing accents; the traditionally established rhythmic organization reinforces the situational commentary of the songs; the continuing dynamic tension of conflicting rhythms is varied through the appropriate timing of dramatic gestures which change the tension; the concentration on precision and control stabilizes the expansion of feeling.  The balancing of disparate modalities of musical expression is contrary to what we as Westerners expect to find in an African musical event. (Chernoff ,1979: 123) 


Van Der Merwe also presents evidence of these antiphonal styles as being reinforced by the melodic characteristics of African music. He believes that, considered generally, the solid part of an African phrase or melody is its end.  He thus asserts that: “…when a melody is varied, the part that changes is usually the beginning, the ends of each variation being the same…Much the same often occurs in call and response forms, with frequently varying calls against an unchanging response.” He also notes that the antiphonal style is not limited to singing but may occur between a singer and accompaniment or in the conversational mode between instruments.  He further argues that in African styles, note position is usually more important than note length and that the beginning of the note is percussive (a crisp and precise articulation of the note). He believes this tends to explain the qualities of African instruments which often exhibit a “characteristic African kick at the beginning of the each note.” Van der Merwe (1992), 38-39.


[39] Nketia (1975), 32.


[40] Chernoff (1979), 34.


[41] Ibid., 164.


[42] Small (1987), 20.


[43] Chernoff (1979), 35. Of course, in the European tradition, music is used to reinforce communities and groups – anthems, hymns, school songs – but it is the degree of this function and its prevalence within the social milieu which differ; it is far more overt in traditional West African culture.


[44] Ibid., 35. Nketia comes to similar conclusions and provides further evidence of this amongst both the people of Sukumland, Tanzania and the Bambara of Mali.  In regard the first, he describes how when the corpse of a dead chief is being carried to the grave, the itemelo drum is beaten. “All those who hear the sound of the drum understand; the word spreads: ngoma ya  chibuka, the drum has burst – that is, the chief is dead.” Similarly among the Bambara: “the mythical symbols of the Bambara ancestral pantheon are the tabale drum and the ngoni harp. (Nketia, 1975: 29 and 44)


[45] Soyinka (1976), 148.


[46] Ibid., 147-148.


[47] Soyinka argues this point in regard to drama. He asserts that the serious divergencies in traditional approaches to African and European drama will not be found in the arguments of creative individualism versus communal creativity or in differences in audience participation. He sees these as ‘red herrings’.  He believes they will be found more accurately in what is a recognisable Western cast of mind, a compartmentalising habit of thought, “which periodically selects aspects of human emotion, phenomenal observations, metaphysical intuitions and even scientific deductions and turns them into separatist myths (or ‘truths’) sustained by a proliferating superstructure of presentation idioms, analogies and analytical modes.”  He describes it as the difference between “one culture whose very artifacts are evidence of a cohesive understanding of irreducible truths and another, whose creative impulses are directed by period dialectics.” Ibid., 37.


[48] In his analysis of Du Bois’s use of the spirituals as a means of cultural representation, Paul Gilroy presents a further reading of this tendency in a New World manifestation.  He claims that the role of music as a representitive form in early African American culture can be viewed both as a response to the limitations imposed upon the slaves and one that is informed by “social memory”. Gilroy lists the various stages by which a subordinated group, denied access to particular cultural forms such as literacy, may develop other forms such as song as a “...a means of transcendence and as a type of compensation for very specific experiences of unfreedom”.  He notes:


The third stage characteristically involves a deliberate and self-conscious move beyond language in ways that are informed by the social memory of the earlier experiences of enforced separation from the world of written communication. A countercultural sense of the inability of mere words to convey certain truths inaugurates a special indictment of modernity’s enforced separation of art and life as well as a distinct aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) standpoint.  Music is the best way of examining this final aspect. (Gilroy123-124)


[49] Small (1987), 20-21.


[50] Ibid., 21.


[51] Levi-Strauss, C., The Savage Mind, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1966, 29ff.


[52] Ibid., 197.


[53] Ibid., 34.


[54] Soyinka (1976), 147.


[55] Nketia (1975), 207.


[56] Van Der Merwe (1992), 32.


[57] For a fascinating account of parody in medieval Europe see: Bakhtin, M., Rabelais and his World, Massachusetts, University of Minnesota Press, 1968, 86ff.


[58] Piersen, W.D., ‘Puttin’ Down Ole Massa: African Satire in the New World’ in African Folklore in the New World, Crowley, D.J. (ed.), Austin, University of Texas Press, 1977, 21.


[59] Levine (1977), 8.


[60] Piersen (1977), 21.


[61] (quoted in) Levine (1977), 9.


[62] For discussions of the trickster figure in America (particularly the Signifyin’ monkey and Br’er rabbit), see: Gates, H.L., Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A theory of African-American literary criticism, New York, Oxford University Press, 1988;  Levine (1977), Chapter 2, ‘The Meaning of Slave Tales’; Floyd (1995), 7, 48-50, 94.  According to Gates, language games involving ridicule such as ‘Playing the Dozens’ and ‘Signifyin’ have grown out of the Signifyin’ monkey character whom he describes as the “ trope of tropes, the figure for black rhetorical figures” (51)  Citing Gates, Floyd defines Signifyin(g) as “figurative, implicative speech that makes use of the tropes of “marking, loud-talking, testifying, calling out (of one’s name), sounding, rapping, playing the dozens and so on.” Floyd also notes that one obvious mode of Signifyin(g) is found in the “toasts” of African-American culture – the long, complex, metrical and multimetric epic poems that include “The Signifying Monkey,” “The Titanic,” “Squad Twenty-two,” “Shine,” “Stackolee,” “The Great McDaddy,” and other such tales.” Floyd (1995), 7.


[63] Piersen (1977), 21-22. Piersen also provides a summary of Thomas Winterbottom’s eighteenth  century account of boatmen’s songs in Sierra Leone.  A longer excerpt of this account can be found in Epstein (1977), 6.  As Epstein notes, Winterbottom’s account bares a striking resemblance to boat songs reported in South Carolina around the same time. These are also reproduced in Epstein (1977)166ff.  Piersen’s summary is reproduced below:


To the stroke of the oars a lead singer would boom out an impromptu couplet, and his crew would respond in a general chorus.  The songs boasted the exploits of the rowers, and lampooned females of their acquaintance; they also broadcast the news of the coast and added gossipy satires of current events.  Sometimes the sarcasm of the crew was more pointedly directed at their employers or the important men of their society. (Piersen, 22.)


[64] Oliver, P., Savannah Syncopators – African Retentions in the Blues, London, Studio Vista, 1970,47.


[65] Ibid., 47.


[66] Ibid., 49.


[67] Ibid., 48.


[68] (Quoted in) Oliver, Ibid., 47.


[69] (cited in) Chernoff (1979), 70.


[70] Ibid., 70-71.


[71] (quoted in), Ibid., 36.


[72] Ibid.,, 22.


[73] Small (1995), 29.

SOURCE: Harrison, Greg. The Dialectics and Aesthetics of Freedom: Hegel, Slavery, and African American Music. PhD dissertation. Dept. of Art History, University of Sydney, March 1999, iv + 463 pp. Chapter 2, pp. 55-103. Introduction by Ralph Dumain added for this web site only.

© 1999, 2014 Gregory Michael Harrison. All rights reserved. Published by The Autodidact Project with permission of the author.

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