Xavier Voices: West African Influence on Early American Music

Kora (Photo by: Mathaz via Wiki Media Commons)

Louisiana can easily be described as America’s hotbed of cultural fusion, with influences from Africa, the Caribbean, Spain, Italy, France, and even Germany. These many cultural ties draw people to New Orleans, and leave them boasting about the food, the music, the architecture, the colors, and more. They are not wrong in these boastings, and they would propel those voices even more if they knew all the cultural lineage that went into these now traditions.

When people talk about Louisiana, there is often the mention of it being the birthplace of so many musical contributions: jazz, the blues, and R&B. Like any good claim, this idea is riddled with controversy. Yes, people of this state made considerable contributions to the music wealth of America; however, those contributions come with a long history. We’ll begin with the West African influence.

West African music traditions seem to be all about the drums. In West Africa, music accompanied nearly all religious rituals and ceremonies commemorating the different stages of life, such as birth, puberty, weddings, and funerals. It was so integral in everyday life that in some cultures, young boys were taken from their homes to be trained musically, later to return and perform in their people’s cultural celebrations and rituals. Skilled musicians were also highly revered as is seen with the griot tradition. The griot was a complex role passed down through families, somewhat similar to the European bard. Griots were skilled musicians, singers, storytellers, poets, historians, and even advisers. They passed down their knowledge through oral tradition and held the crucial role of preserving the history and culture of the people. Now add to that the accompaniment of the kora, a 21 string harp like instrument with a sound that very closely resembles a blues guitar, and the divided rhythms which were grouped either in 3’s, 4’s, 6’s, 8’s, or 12’s, and a connective sound to our current music should start to play in you ears, or at least your mind.

Over top of the time line, other drummers and instrumentalist would layer repeating melodic patterns in groups of 8, 16, or 24 beats, and this is what would lead to the complex polyrhythms that are characteristic to the West African region. So, this is all taking place in West Africa, but how did it make it to these shores? Like most things, the story isn’t a pretty one.

The link is drawn through the transatlantic slave trade. There’s no way to shine any light or positivity on the slave trade. It did happen, and New Orleans was a unique region in that it allowed for the cultural expression of its slaves while other slave states strictly forbid it. This was largely due to a belief that the freedom to continue their cultural practices would allow them to vent the stresses and frustrations that came hand in hand with the horribly hard lives they were forced to live, ultimately lowering the potential of a slave revolt like that of the Haitian revolution in 1791.

Slaves would meet every Sunday after church in Congo square to trade goods, sing, and dance, and often attracted large crowds to their passionate performances. This led to a greater cultural retention in the New Orleans area than the rest of the South allowed many of the West African music traditions previously mentioned to take root in the budding American tradition. This included polyrhythms, the use of the voice as an instrument rather than telling stories, later to be referred to as scat, and the usage of purposefully distorted or bended notes, likely coming from the use of the Yoruba’s talking drum which was capable of bending its pitch to sound speech like.

Eventually all of these West African traditions carried over with the slaves began to merge with the European traditions already prevalent to create a new interesting form of music later referred to as ante-bellum music, meaning music before the civil war. This new tradition born out of the blend of two wildly different practices took form in the working songs the slaves sung on the field. Many of these field hollers, like the griot stories that came before them, were passed down orally and just memorized by the other slaves. This later became the tradition of standards seen in jazz, which would develop from this genre of music, standards being defined as traditional songs passed down by memory as young musicians either learned them by ear or from a teacher.

Then came God. Well, religion. The gradual Christian influence on the slaves, due to the forced religion by owners and the state, began to sprout into their musical traditions, giving rise to gospel music. Blues developed alongside it and eventually the two genres took the place of ante-bellum music, carrying with it the same West African traditions.

As the years passed, the two shifted and evolved with the times soon giving rise to the genres jazz and R&B. You can hear the polyrhythms in everything from Lil’ Wayne to Harry Connick Jr., but these are not the creations of just these New Orleans musicians. They are the creations of the ancestors who were forced to and who eventually called this state home. In a way, they’ve never left, and we can hear their voices in the music of today.