Descriptive notes by Ken Moore
Almost five hundred years ago, Africans began their forced migration to the Americas. They were first transported to the Caribbean in 1502 and soon thereafter to Central and South America. In 1619, they arrived in the colony of Virginia. Traditional African musical practices were either fiercely suppressed or tightly controlled. Gradually, however, African-American sounds entered the musical mainstream, notably in popular and religious genres. This transformation of original African musical styles and instruments throughout the Americas continues today to influence musical practices worldwide.
The essence of African music is rooted in the concept that simple rhythmic patterns played on rattles, drums, bells, horns, and other musical instruments simultaneously form a dense mixture of polyrhythmic impulses that fade in and out, constantly renewing and recombining as a kaleidoscope of sound textures. Handclapping and jingles worn on arms and legs or attached to clothing accentuate dance movements and add to this rhythmic complex of layered sound. The music invites the active participation of each member of the community, and distinctions between performer and observer become blurred as the infectious rhythms demand that the body react. Many Africanisms — languages, funerary customs, and foodstuffs — were brought to the Americas, but it is the African rhythms, created by musical instruments, that have enriched and enlivened the world’s musical vocabulary.
African musical instruments ‘talk’ by imitating the rhythms and tonal inflections of spoken language. By playing coded messages, instruments like drums and trumpets make announcements and send warnings, such as ‘the king is approaching’ or ‘the enemy is attacking.’ Aware of this African ‘telegraph’ system, American plantation owners, fearing revolt, destroyed most of these potentially dangerous instruments and music and dance fell under strict controls. Inconsistancies in the regulation and enforcement of these bans, in response to localized conditions, contributed to an uneven distribution of instruments, performances practices, and styles throughout the Western Hemisphere. In South America and the Caribbean, traditions were reorganized by Maroons, escaped slaves who, isolated in rural settings, reestablished conventions very simliar to African models. To disguise and make their Africanisms more acceptable, many urban slaves combined their traditions with European customs. They fused African rituals and celebrations with Christian ones, producing a singularly African-American culture and music that has made its influence felt worldwide.
Aside from music making, African musical instruments, like those of our own (American) society, may function as symbols of a political hierarchy or of social status. Some drums were so closely identified with leadership that if the king’s drums were captured, it was as though the ruler himself had been abducted. In the Americas, as the fabric of traditional African social and economic hierachy disintegrated under slavery, so did the potent meanings of instruments once associated with power. Since they had no importance to the slave traders, musical instruments of great beauty, luxurious materials, and symbolic significance remained on African shores.
Slavery, with its outward adherence to strict regulation and purposeful annihilation of African political, social, and economic institutions, could not prevent slaves from turning inward to spiritual matters. Throughout the Americas, religious ritual sustained by music, dance, language, and even the preparation of food was vital for retaining an African identity. Rituals provided a modicum of structure and empowerment and gave comfort and meaning to slaves’ lives. Practiced on ‘free’ days, African religious forms reasserted themselves as Lucumi, Santeria, Candomble, and Vodou.
These religions incorporated certain Christian elements but maintained even stronger ties to practices of the Yoruba and Fon peoples of West Africa. Names and personalities of deities, spirit possessions and trance, divination, ritual language, sacrifice, healing practices, music, and instruments all parallel African religious practices. Trance-induced dance and possession by spirits are crucial elements in these religions, and a knowledgable drummer, able to coax spirits to a gathering and to recognize signs indicating the presence of individual deities, is essential for a successful meeting. Drums call a spirit who takes control of the initiate, who in turn serves as a contact between humans and gods.
Even though in the Americas these religions have been periodically banned, their drums burned, and their worshipers persecuted, they prove resilient, are always revived, and are still vital forces fulfilling the spiritual needs of their practioners. Rhythms now referred to as ‘Latin’ all arise from this religious musical core.
Vodou, a religion formed in Haiti during the colonial period, blends several African components, particularly from the Fon peoples of Benin, with traditions of the indigenous Taino concepts and Spanish Catholicism. Worshipers from different areas of Africa created within Haitian Vodou a confederation of African nations set on destroying slavery. Today, the Vodou confederation contains seven nations, each identified with its own spirits and each grouped into on one of two main branches: Rada, characterized by balance, peace, and reconciliation; and Petwo, characterized as informal and more miliataristic.
Specific instruments, rhythmic patterns, and possession behaviors are correlated with each nation and deity. Drums are associated with both the Petwo or Rada branches and are part of a set (je). These drums may be painted or, as in the case of older drums, carved with veve (sacred diagrams) or spirit symbols. Voudou occupies an important historical position in the movement toward freedom. Voudou leaders, like other religious leaders, encouraged and supported slave insurrections, including those in New York (1712), South Carolina (1739), and North Carolina (1822), as well as the Haitian Revolution of 1791.
Slave coloinies in the thirteen colonies experienced more stringent prohibitions against African music making, ritual, and dance than those in the Carribean and South America. Catholic missionaries, enthusiastic for new ‘souls,’ sought syncretism between Catholic and native religions. These missionaries fused African traditional celebrations with those of the church. Colonial Protestants, on the other hand, tended to dismiss African religions and, at first, did not convert slaves, as conversion would have acknowledged the slave’s humanity and equality. There were, however, small pockets in North America that were influenced by the Caribbean. In Louisiana and parts of Florida, for example, Africanisms were more freely expressed. The practices of Vodou, drumming, and dancing were abundantly documented during colonial times and are in evidence in New Orleans today.
Slaves generally needed to recast African musical practices into a form that was acceptable to their masters. African drums and other signalling devices were destoryed, and slaves began to take up European instruments. These slaves brought African sensibilities to both vocal and instrumental performance and formed and invented new musical styles. African-American music represents a triumph of the reinvention of the self, a transformation of culture emerging form the cruelest conditions yet capable of maintaining an African identity. Today, almost 500 years after the first arrival of slaves in the Amercias, the enduring rhythms and styles of African-derived music continue to cross racial, political and economic barriers to re-energize popular, religious and classical music.