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African music was brought by slaves to America and was developed further as these African drum ensembles filtered into the slave trade in the colonies. Drumming was a large part of the African and Cameroonian culture and the individuals brought across the country into slavery clung to it as a powerful symbol of freedom, as it was the only way to keep their heritage alive. These drumming rituals were also used to communicate between camps over miles of land by sending coded messages that the European settlers were completely oblivious to. This way slaves in different encampments could maintain contact with each other unbeknownst to the slave owners. By 1740 the “masters” had cracked the code and a ban on drums started sweeping over the country.
“It is absolutely necessary to the safety of the province, that all due care be taken to restrain Negroes from using or keeping of drums, which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs and purposes.” This ban started on plantations is Georgia and the Carolinas and forced the slaves to use improvised instruments to make beats such as spoons, washboards, furniture and even their own bodies (shout out Bobby Mcferrin). The invention of rudimentary tap dancing can be attributed to this ban. The biggest and most influential instrument used as a substitute for drums was the human voice. Field hollers, call and response and work songs were all derivative of the ban on drums in the slave community. Migos, the most popular rap group over the last 3 years, have a very distinct flow to their lyricism that calls back to these traditional work songs and slave driven compositions.
How it works
The flow is a quick choppy call in a low voice that is then responded to by either another member of the group or by the music itself. Migos’ front man, Quavo told MTV that researches were looking for the origin of the groups flow in southeast Africa, where dinosaur footprints are still visible and is thought to be the “birthplace of humanity”. The group outwardly references Africa and African culture in popular songs like “Versace”, “Bando”, and “Camera Flash.” While Hip Hop is the genre most closely associated with African American culture, Afro music had a major influence on multiple facets of the development of modern music that predate modern hip hop and rap. Through the remainder of the 18th century the vocal and improvised percussion stylings of the slave songs mutated and was adapted by white culture and composers and formed the drum-less foundation of American music.
The appropriation of slave music began with Blackface minstrelsy, which featured the banjo and was most notably pioneered by Stephen Foster in the first half of the 19th century. Foster derived his banjo tunes from Afro-musicians work and adapted them to produce songs such as Oh Susana which rose to be one of the most popular songs of the time. Artists like Foster, who stole and appropriated the music of African and slave culture, served as the founders of early country music. “One of the reasons country music was by African-Americans, as well as European-Americans, is because blacks and whites in rural communities in the south often worked and played together” a quote by Deford Bailey.
The call and response structure as well as the creative vocal stylings of the slave songs, paired with narration and the importance of African heritage in the lyrics ties African-American music to the creation of blues music as well. The popularity of Blues music took root in the deep south and gained wide popularity. African music paired with European harmonic focus brought about a new genre of music that featured scoops and bent notes reminiscent of field hollers. The lowered pitches of the blues scale are also closely related to the African quarter tone scale. Slave masters often demanded that the Afro musicians perform at events and occasion strictly in European style and the capable musicians honed their musical acuity by learning the new structures and scales which morphed and developed there artistic ability and creative process when writing music.
The bi-influenced music can be heard in many songs like “Blue Mountain Blue” by Bessie Smith which employs vocal smears and poetic structure. “The repeated vocal line AA followed by third line B, is holding to the poetic tradition of Western Africa. The ensemble and harmonies are traditions borrowed not only from African tradition, but European tradition as well”. Because of Catholic laws in Louisiana, contrary to the protestant laws in Georgia and he Carolinas, drums were not banned in New Orleans. This may have been the saving grace for many musicians in the near future. New Orleans, being a port city to Cuba and the Caribbean, held a large Creole land-owning middle class, so the label “black” or “negro” wasn’t as closely associate with slavery. New Orleans was before its time when it came to cultural acceptance and colored people maintained their rights, especially in politics, until the 1890’s and early 1900’s
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