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Africa and the Blues

Africa and the Blues

Gerhard Kubik
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 260
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  • Book Info
    Africa and the Blues
    Book Description:

    In 1969 Gerhard Kubik chanced to encounter a Mozambican labor migrant, a miner in Transvaal, South Africa, tapping acipendani, a mouth-resonated musical bow. A comparable instrument was seen in the hands of a white Appalachian musician who claimed it as part of his own cultural heritage. Through connections like these Kubik realized that the link between these two far-flung musicians is African-American music, the sound that became the blues.

    Such discoveries reveal a narrative of music evolution for Kubik, a cultural anthropologist and ethnomusicologist. Traveling in Africa, Brazil, Venezuela, and the United States, he spent forty years in the field gathering the material forAfrica and the Blues. In this book, Kubik relentlessly traces the remote genealogies of African cultural music through eighteen African nations, especially in the Western and Central Sudanic Belt.

    Included is a comprehensive map of this cradle of the blues, along with 31 photographs gathered in his fieldwork. The author also adds clear musical notations and descriptions of both African and African American traditions and practices and calls into question the many assumptions about which elements of the blues were "European" in origin and about which came from Africa. Unique to this book is Kubik's insight into the ways present-day African musicians have adopted and enlivened the blues with their own traditions.

    With scholarly care but with an ease for the general reader, Kubik proposes an entirely new theory on blue notes and their origins. Tracing what musical traits came from Africa and what mutations and mergers occurred in the Americas, he shows that the African American tradition we call the blues is truly a musical phenomenon belonging to the African cultural world.

    Gerhard Kubik is a professor in the department of ethnology and African studies at the University of Mainz, Germany. Since 1983 he has been affiliated with the Center for Social Research of Malawi, Zomba. He is a permanent member of the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, London.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-728-8
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Examples
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. List of Photographs
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  7. Part I. Out of Africa

    • Introduction
      (pp. 3-4)

      Historically oriented research on the blues embraces several disparate areas of inquiry:

      1. The study of the musical, literary, and social factors leading in the late nineteenth century to the gradual development of a new, distinct genre of accompanied solo song in rural areas of the South—a genre that would later be labeled “blues.”

      2. The study of the remote history of this previously unnamed genre’s musico-structural and literary characteristics with regard to their origins in African and other cultures.

      3. The study of the developments and changes that took place in the blues after the first publication of sheet music versions...

    • 1 Sources, Adaptation, and Innovation
      (pp. 5-20)

      Anyone studying the history of the early rural blues and its proclaimed “roots” will be aware of the complexity of such an undertaking. To recall a few basic data of the general history of the United States might therefore help us to avoid the most serious errors, such as suggesting a direct,unilinear descentof the blues from any specific eighteenth- to nineteenth-century ethnic African musical genre.

      The first British settlement in North America was Jamestown, established in 1607. By the 1640s only a narrow strip along the Atlantic coast had been settled. In 1682 the French under La Salle...

    • 2 The Rise of a Sung Literary Genre
      (pp. 21-50)

      Many proposals have been put forward as to the possible “African roots” of the music called blues. The blues as oral literature—though studied in great detail by various authors (cf. Dauer 1964-65, 1979, 1983a and b; Oliver 1990; Evans 1978b, 1982; Ferris 1973; etc.) for their social and historical commentary, their literary value, and their compositional structures—have remained somewhat neglected as concerns their African backgrounds in content, diction, and psychology. In part, this could be the result of a prevailing musicological tendency—also encountered in some studies of African music—to underrate literary aspects in favor of an...

    • 3 A Strange Absence
      (pp. 51-62)

      For those of us with training in the percussive rhythms of Guinea Coast music (cf. Richard A. Waterman 1952, discussion in Merriam 1953), much of our Guinea Coast experience is inapplicable to the blues. This is so not just because of the absence of drums and complex polyrhythms in early blues; there is, in addition, the very specific absence ofasymmetric time-line patternsin virtually all early twentieth-century U.S. African-American music, except in cases where these patterns were borrowed from Puerto Rico or Cuba. Only in some New Orleans genres does a hint at simple time-line patterns occasionally appear in...

    • 4 The West Central Sudanic Belt
      (pp. 63-70)

      The explanation for the absence of time-line patterns in the blues, and from the North American scenario in general—with the exception of their shadowy appearance in Louisiana early in the twentieth century, and in more recent times, for example in Bo Diddley’s music (cf. Kubik 1993: 443—44; see also his recent biography based on interviews, White 1995)—must therefore be something other than repression or amnesia. Paul Oliver, on the basis of fieldwork in northern Ghana (Oliver 1970, 1972, 1973), suggested that if there was any affinity at all in musical structure between the blues and certain African...

    • 5 Blues Recordings Compared with Material from the Central Sudanic Savannah
      (pp. 71-81)

      Like Oliver’s recordings, some of my own from Nigeria, Togo and northern Cameroon since 1960 can be usefully compared with blues records, in spite of thegenealogical distancethat separates these traditions. I would like to cite the following examples from this material for detectable affinities.

      Big Joe Williams was born in Mississippi in 1903. His recording “Stack o’Dollars” from 1935 can be compared with traditions of the western and central Sudan, especially in three areas: in vocal style by the abundant use of melismatic passages, the pentatonic basis of the pitch-lines, and his voice quality; in the instrumental realm...

    • 6 Some Characteristics of the Blues
      (pp. 82-95)

      Rural blues in the Deep South is not a completely homogeneous tradition. Enough time has elapsed since pre-blues traditions crystallized into something toward the end of the nineteenth century that could be called “blues” to allow for early processes ofdivergenceanalogous to how a language splits into dialects, and subsequent processes ofconvergence, i.e., mutual influences and borrowings among the formerly divergent styles.

      In a comparative study of hand postures and thumbing patterns of blues guitarists—from Henry Thomas, born 1874, to Robert Belfour, born 1940—Andrew M. Cohen has come up with the following revised delineation ofBlues...

    • 7 Why Did a West Central Sudanic Style Cluster Prevail in the Blues?
      (pp. 96-104)

      Africans deported to the United States left their home countries through many ports along the west African coast. But just as the Portuguese slave trade (especially from Angola, Nigeria, Dahomey, Guinea-Bissau, Gabon, and Mozambique) was mainly directed to Brazil, so was the British and French slave trade directed to North America and the Caribbean islands. The influx of slaves from the western Sudan via the infamous Ile de Gorée (Senegal) was considerable during the eighteenth century. Senegal was part of the French slave trading network to Louisiana. Eventually, in the nineteenth century, some of the descendants of deportees from Senegal,...

    • 8 Heterophonic Versus Homophonic Multi-part Schemes
      (pp. 105-117)

      No serious student of African-American music will subscribe today to allencompassing formulations such as that “harmony” in jazz and other African-American music is “European” in origin, while “rhythm” is “African” (i.e., a sort of pan-African hodgepodge). One still occasionally encounters the opinion, inherited from early twentieth-century writings, that “all African music was originally pentatonic” and that “the Portuguese brought heptatonic harmony to Africa,” as I noticed to my surprise in the discussion following a lecture I gave to a scholarly circle in Chicago on August 20, 1997.

      Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer (1992:32) begins her “radical proposal” concerning the “Comoro Crossroads” of...

    • 9 The Blues Tonal System
      (pp. 118-145)

      Carl Gregor Herzog zu Mecklenburg and Waldemar Scheck (1963: 9) give an overview of the numerous theories by means of which Western musicians and musicologists from the 1920s to the 1960s tried to come to grips with a phenomenon in the blues that seemed to run contrary to all established harmonic rules of Western music: the “blue notes.” By this term normally two tones are understood, variously written as B♭ and E♭ in relation to the Western diatonic scale based on C. These two notes seem to be notoriously unstable and somewhat superimposed on the Western major scale like “aliens.”...

    • 10 The “Flatted Fifth”
      (pp. 146-152)

      There are many unusual scalar patterns in the blues, and some could perpetuate tonal concepts found in regions of Africa outside the west central Sudanic belt. One of the issues to be accounted for in any study of the origin of the blue notes is the so-called “flatted fifth” (cf. Schuller 1968: 51-52). It was only recognized as a blue note in the 1940s, but there is no doubt that it existed in some of the “early downhome blues” (cf. Niles 1949).

      The flatted fifth is not part of my merger model. Does it represent a different strand in the...

  8. Part II. Return to Africa

    • Introduction
      (pp. 155-160)

      The most trenchant external influences on African music in the twentieth century were not European, as might have been expected in the face of colonial structures; instead they were African-American. These have included nearly every aspect of the New World music from the Caribbean and from South and North America. In the 1930s it was rhumba and some jazz-derived forms of ballroom dance music. Then came a wider range of Latin American and Caribbean styles—merengue, cha-cha-cha, pachanga, mambo, calypso, and so forth. From North America came swing jazz, then rock ’n’ roll, twist, and soul, later superseded by Jamaican...

    • 11 The 12-Bar Blues Form in South African kwela and Its Reinterpretation
      (pp. 161-185)

      South Africa was not a slave-raiding area for the New World labor market, and South African musical traditions therefore did not influence New World music before mid-twentieth-century contacts and exchanges (e.g., Louis Armstrong’s adaptation of August Musurugwa’s “Skokiaan” theme; the recording of “Wimoweh” by the Weavers in 1951 [Decca 27928]; the emigration to the United States of South African singers and instrumentalists such as Miriam Makeba, Dollar Brand, and others; and the touring ofmbaqangagroups since Paul Simon’s Graceland album—cf. Erlmann 1991). Influence in the other direction, however, had occurred much earlier. U.S. spiritual and harmony singing became...

    • 12 Return to the Western Sudan
      (pp. 186-196)

      Since the 1970s some of the more recent developments in African American music in North America and elsewhere have radiated back to the western Sudan. In 1981 I was startled, during a visit to the “Conservatoire National” in Dakar, Senegal, to find an ensemble consisting of a brass section (trumpet and trombone), saxophone, piano, electric bass guitar, and jazz drums, playing in a style that came close to “Creole music” (cf. Borneman 1969 on that style) as found on some of the Caribbean islands and in Louisiana. A jazz-like shuffle rhythm was used, and blues tonality was unmistakable (Kubik 1989a:...

  9. Summary and Conclusions
    (pp. 197-204)

    It is possible to delineate the panorama of the blues in its various strands in view of their foundations in the cultures of the western and central geographical Sudan, as well as other parts of Africa, emphasizing stylistic continuity and remote links with specific African genres and performance entities. However, it is not possible to adopt as an objective to “derive” blues directly from any single African tradition, because the blues’ cultural genealogy stretches right across west central Sudanic and other African regional traditions, including minstrel music, chantefables, work songs, and children’s music of the eighteenth century, and across a...

  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 205-224)
  11. Index
    (pp. 225-240)