How did black music start?

"Our story begins (as it must) in the middle of things”. Those are the first words written in The Oxford History of Western European Music by Richard Taruskin. For me, the story of black music begins in much the same way.

Very few accounts about the history of music start at the beginning. As with any music that goes back thousands of years, very little written or recorded evidence exists to aid us in knowing with certainty what it would have sounded like.

The idea of writing things down has often been used as a badge of superiority by those who enjoy wielding power over those labelled as ‘illiterate', because they do not use the same communication system. Historically, the music of Africans has not taken the same approach as the European notation system. For that reason, the physical recorded evidence of what it sounded like is not as readily available. In fact, it is not until the 1800’s that we begin to get extensive written records capturing the notated history of black music (with the exception of a small amount of music from the Spanish Caribbean in the 17th century).

Consequently, some people argue that black music doesn’t have a direct identifiable link with Africa. But they fail to respect the strength of the tradition of passing music from one generation to the next through listening and playing (after all isn’t this how music is supposed to be learned?). Some call this the ‘oral tradition’.

In spite of the efforts to erase the cultural memory of enslaved Africans musicologist Sam Floyd[1]tells us that a link with African music was preserved through:

  1. Outlaw communities who preserved African musical characteristics.

  2. In the Caribbean, African and African derived music was preserved though African societies called nations (naciones) - such as the Maroon communities in Jamaica and the Abakua society in Cuba and others. Such remainders have been identified by a number of significant scholars.

  3. The mixing of African music with European music practices in the USA and other parts of the Americas.

The history is complicated but it is there.

"Our story begins (as it must) in the middle of things”.

[1]Samuel A. Floyd, ‘Black Music and Writing Black Music History: American Music and Narrative Strategies’, Black Music Research Journal28, no. 1 (2008): 111–21.

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