A Language of Song: Journeys in the Musical World of the African Diaspora


In A Language of Song, Samuel Charters—one of the pioneering collectors of African American music—writes of a trip to West Africa where he found “a gathering of cultures and a continuing history that lay behind the flood of musical expression [he] encountered everywhere . . . from Brazil to Cuba, to Trinidad, to New Orleans, to the Bahamas, to dance halls of west Louisiana and the great churches of Harlem.” In this book, Charters takes readers along to those and other places, including Jamaica and the Georgia ...
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In A Language of Song, Samuel Charters—one of the pioneering collectors of African American music—writes of a trip to West Africa where he found “a gathering of cultures and a continuing history that lay behind the flood of musical expression [he] encountered everywhere . . . from Brazil to Cuba, to Trinidad, to New Orleans, to the Bahamas, to dance halls of west Louisiana and the great churches of Harlem.” In this book, Charters takes readers along to those and other places, including Jamaica and the Georgia Sea Islands, as he recounts experiences from a half-century spent following, documenting, recording, and writing about the Africa-influenced music of the United States, Brazil, and the Caribbean.

Each of the book’s fourteen chapters is a vivid rendering of a particular location that Charters visited. While music is always his focus, the book is filled with details about individuals, history, landscape, and culture. In first-person narratives, Charters relates voyages including a trip to the St. Louis home of the legendary ragtime composer Scott Joplin and the journey to West Africa, where he met a man who performed an hours-long song about the Europeans’ first colonial conquests in Gambia. Throughout the book, Charters traces the persistence of African musical culture despite slavery, as well as the influence of slaves’ songs on subsequent musical forms. In evocative prose, he relates a lifetime of travel and research, listening to brass bands in New Orleans; investigating the emergence of reggae, ska, and rock-steady music in Jamaica’s dancehalls; and exploring the history of Afro-Cuban music through the life of the jazz musician Bebo Valdés. A Language of Song is a unique expedition led by one of music’s most observant and well-traveled explorers.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

A Language of Song is an important work. Samuel Charters is a lovely writer, his observations and anecdotes are invaluable, and his background for writing this book perhaps unsurpassed among living writers. He has visited so many important places in the history of the music of the African diaspora during the last half century, and has always done so with great attentiveness and sensitivity.”—Ted Gioia, author of Work Songs and Healing Songs

“From The Gambia to the Canary Islands, across the Atlantic to the American Deep South, New Orleans, St. Louis, Manhattan, down to the Bahamas, Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba, and finally to Brazil. These were staging grounds of the horrific African slave trade, which eventually became outposts of freedom and cultural and musical creativity. With beautiful, highly evocative prose, Samuel Charters describes a lifetime of tracing these routes and documenting the music that was created along them—blues, ragtime, jazz, zydeco, calypso, reggae, steel band, rumba, samba, and much more—music that has changed the way the world listens and dances.”—David Evans, author of Big Road Blues: Tradition and Creativity in the Folk Blues

“In this highly readable account, Samuel Charters takes us on a personal, guided tour of the many musical worlds touched by the African diaspora. In a sensitive and revealing text, Charters portrays the real stars, often unknown to the general public, who have played a central role in melding a range of traditions, from ancient to modern, into new musical styles. Like that of Alan Lomax, Charters’s work has transcended genres and crossed the decades, laying the groundwork and providing inspiration for generations of scholars who have followed. This splendid book is a celebration of a lifetime of enthusiasms.”—Richard Carlin, author of Worlds of Sound: The Story of Smithsonian Folkways

Signal to Noise - Stuart Broomer

“[A]n extraordinary journey, filled with vital, revealing details of cultures and music. Charters himself emerges as a guide fully worthy of all the guides he’s sought out so diligently and clearly been so blessed to discover.”
The Wire - Clive Bell

“Charters’s sensitive examination of the well-heeled Kingston audience and their ambivalent response to this inflammatory music is one of this book’s high points. . . . The present volume falls somewhere between a memoir and a compilation album: over 14 chapters he recounts his trips in search of what lies behind black music. . . . Charter’s elegant gambit is to switch back and forth from today’s music to its historical precedents...This is a quietly written book, but Charter’s excitement at such moments of epiphany is palpable. . . . His book is an absorbing, accessible read, underpinned by solid scholarship and the author’s good-humoured and seemingly endless curiosity”
Downbeat - Frank-John Hadley

“No garden-variety writer about music, Samuel Charters deserves a respectful bow from anyone who values roots music. . . . Charters’ first-person writing—straightforward, flowing, quietly passionate, seldom dry, never afflicted by self-absorption or scholarly denseness—provides proof of his gift for understanding various types of African-derived music that he encountered on his travels. . . . Any reader beginning an investigation of this or that music discussed would be wise to spend time with A Language of Song. Readers already hip will find new information and appreciate Charters’ fresh enthusiasm over the golden sounds.”
Jazzwise - Brian Priestley

“What’s truly impressive is the scope of the whole work which, while it devotes a little space to blues and jazz, is basically about all of the rest of the African-derived music we hear from around the world. . . . The quality of the writing is invariably interesting and sympathetic, not to mention informative. . . . [T]here’s a timely attention to the economics of slavery and the present-day persistence of racism which merits a wide readership.”
Living Blues - Scott Barretta

“The scope of the book is pretty astounding, particularly considering that so much of Charters’ work with jazz, blues and other musics—not to mention his literary pursuits—is barely referenced here. The book flows smoothly thanks to Charters’ narrative style, which shifts effortlessly back and forth between colorful travelogues, summarizations of modern research, and his informed interpretations of the music and social settings he encounters. All in all it’s a delightful book that reflects a remarkable life in music.”
Popular Music - Conrado Falbo

“Reading Charter’s book, even an experienced researcher may find precious tips on how to articulate sources and conduct fieldwork. The author’s experience in finding and interviewing local musicians and making profitable use of literary and historical sources can be useful for the academic public as well as providing a pleasant reading experience for the non-specialist.”
Conrado Falboa

“Reading Charter's book, even an experienced researcher may find precious tips on how to articulate sources and conduct fieldwork. The author's experience in finding and interviewing local musicians and making profitable use of literary and historical sources can be useful for the academic public as well as providing a pleasant reading experience for the non-specialist.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822343806
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/22/2009
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Samuel Charters is a renowned and influential ethnomusicologist whose many books on music include A Trumpet around the Corner: The Story of New Orleans Jazz; The Blues Makers; The Roots of the Blues: An African Search, winner of an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award; Robert Johnson; The Life, the Times, the Songs of Country Joe and the Fish; The Bluesmen; and The Country Blues. In recognition of his writing, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1994. Charters is a Grammy-winning music producer, who has made many recordings as well as a documentary film, The Blues. He is also the author of four novels, numerous books of poetry, and a memoir.

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Read an Excerpt

A Language of Song

Journeys in the Musical World of the African Diaspora
By Samuel Charters

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4380-6

Chapter One

A Griot's Art

The Story of Everything

Beginnings. Roots. Sources. Every story has a beginning. Every story has its roots. Behind every story is a source. In the story of the music that was part of the long African journey in the New World, there must be a beginning, and it must be a beginning in Africa itself, since so much of what the journey has yielded has its sources there. Even now, when so many centuries have passed, the roots of the journey lie in Africa.

Many of the things that travelers have written about Africa-that it is large, that it is a continent of contrasts, that the land is hard, that it is beautiful, that it is cruelly poor, that its cultures are rich, that it is fascinating, that it is ancient, that it is new, that it is dangerous, that there is no way to understand Africa and its people without having been there-these things have been written again and again for hundreds of years, and they still are just as true. Traveling in Africa continues to be a thicket of experience that leaves everyone who journeys there in some way changed.

The mass of land that is Africa is almost large enough to contain the United States and Western Europe, and there is nothing in the barren mountains that enclose the Sahara Desert in the north to prepare you for the broad, grassy plain along the Niger River at Bamako or the choked mangrove swamps of the Guinea coast, hundreds of miles to the south. The vivid contrasts of colors of the African landscape become enough in themselves to change your perceptions of color-the gaudy flowers dangling over the walls of Dakar, the gray, thorny brush of the savannah, the green of the forests of Ghana, and the red of the earth where roads have been slashed through the stands of trees. It is the flaming colors of the African mornings that many travelers remember-the abrupt blaze of the sun flaring through the morning mists, the pale rim of the horizon flushing from faint yellow to orange, the endless blue of the sky as the sunlight floods the land.

The story of the African journey to the continents and the islands to the west across the Atlantic, however, is only closely linked to one clearly demarked area of Africa-the coast of West Africa. It was along that coast that the slavers' ships waited offshore for the African rulers who controlled the commerce to bring them their cargoes. The long miles of the coast still mirror the mingling of the languages and the customs of the European nations that at some point considered the lands to be part of themselves. The coast of the northern desert had Spanish rulers, south of it, in Senegal and Guinea-inland to Mali-the rulers were French. Farther to the south it was the British, their "protectorate" beginning at Sierra Leone, in an effort of slave repatriation, then following the curve of the coast to Ghana, and ending in Nigeria. The Portuguese, still farther south, were the rulers of the last decades of slave commerce, with their stretch of coastline in Angola. It is that coast that was the source of the African peoples who became part of the journey to the new Americas. When I journeyed to Africa, it was that crescent of coast line that was my destination.

I flew to West Africa in the early spring of 1974, and my journey began in the city of Banjul, the capital city of what was still known as The Gambia. My travels led me from Senegal to Mali, and south to Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria in search of anything I might learn about the sources of the American blues. Of course, what I found was much more than what I was searching for, and in the usual ironies of travel I learned that the sources of the blues itself were somewhere else. The first blues that I had already heard in Memphis or St. Louis, Alabama or Mississippi, were as close to a source as I would ever come. What I found in Africa were a gathering of cultures and a continuing history that lay behind the flood of musical expression I encountered everywhere in the lands across the Atlantic Ocean-from Brazil to Cuba, to Trinidad, to New Orleans, to the Bahamas, to dance halls of west Louisiana, and the great churches of Harlem. What I would learn in The Gambia, as one of its singers told me, was the story of everything.

The Gambia is a thin sliver of land stretching inland along the banks of the Gambia River, in some places no wider than the mounded earth of the banks and a strip of fields on either side of the muddy current. Banjul, which is two hundred miles south of Dakar on the Atlantic coast, was then small and still. A commercial traveler I met later on a coastal ferry shook his head when I said I'd been staying in Banjul. "That's a sleepy little place!"

The city had spread without plan or order along the banks of the Gambia River, and across the battered wharves along the water's edge I could see the line of surf where the river-almost a mile wide at its mouth-surged out into the sea. The struggle between them, the river and the ocean, went on through the rise and fall of the tides as the river's ribbed, murky flood pushed tirelessly against the dazzling gleam of the ocean's turquoise blue swells.

The bare, cement-walled room I rented in an empty hotel a block from the river smelled of wet plaster and disinfectant, and from the open door to my little balcony I could hear the distant crash of the surf. The room had so little furniture that my notes, my tape recorder, and its jumble of accessories were spread out over the tile floor. I usually worked in the late afternoons in Banjul's one room library, making notes from the early records of the country's upriver English trading post. The commercial venture's storeroom inventories and yearly sales summaries had been turned into a thick-volumed "history" of the country. Banjul itself had been built at the mouth of the river early in the nineteenth century to assist the British Navy in its efforts to stamp out the slave trade, and in its years as an outpost of the British Empire the city's name had been Bathurst. When it became the capital of the newly independent country, its name was changed to Banjul, the native word for a tall cane reed that grows along the riverbanks.

It was too hot to go out in the sun in the middle of the day, so when I had to shop in the noisy covered market I joined the streams of people in its dank passageways in the hours after dawn. By 10:30 the streets were almost empty and lazily silent. What music I heard came over radios, or followed me in the dark passages of the market where three or four stalls sold 45 rpm singles. Most of the recordings were South African hi-life bands. I was conscious that the other music, the music of the older traditions I was listening for, was there somewhere, and as the days passed I began to hear its echoes. Sometimes the echo was faint and uncertain, other times it was loud and jarring.

Late one morning I became conscious of the sound of voices and the rattle of cars on the street below me, and I went to my balcony and looked down. Despite the heat, the street was filled with people in richly colored robes-the women with their heads wrapped in turbans sewn of the same dyed cloth as their robes, and the men in the sober skull caps they wore of the mosque. The people were streaming toward the small park in the center of the city. I had forgotten that it was the country's independence day. It had been nine generally peaceful years since the last British governor had turned the country over to its first African government. Though it was almost noon, and the sun was at its most intense, the government had organized a celebration that included groups from all of the tribal villages up and down the river.

The afternoon passed with speeches by conscientious men in dark suits and sun glasses who addressed the crowds from a newly erected wooden platform on the dry grass of a soccer field in the center of town. When the speeches ended there were processions of self-consciously proud children in their stiffly ironed school uniforms, accompanied by loud shouts from their equally proud parents pressed against the iron fence that kept them out of the soccer field. There was a continual fluttering of people fanning themselves in a futile gesture of protest against the blazing heat. Following so closely behind the school children that they bumped against the last lines of marchers, the dancers and musicians from The Gambia's native peoples hurtled onto the field. In their flapping, swirling, brightly colored robes they looked like large, exotic, excited birds.

As the hours passed there was music everywhere around me. Processions of drummers swept through the streets, followed by lines of serious-faced men and women swaying in time to the music. Beside a gritty wall a trio of ragged musicians playing slim, curved native flutes entertained shrieking crowds with suggestive acrobatics. Drifting with the rhythms I suddenly began hearing a new ensemble of instruments. The sounds filled the air with the nervous pandemonium that European travelers in West Africa had described hundreds of years before. In a street close to the soccer field a group of thirty or forty men were milling in a patch of shade with impatient energy, trying to maintain some semblance of an organized procession. At the same time they were impatiently expressing their feelings about being made to wait there on the sticky macadam pavement by the arm-banded marshals who were keeping order for the day. The noise they were making was enough to make me forget the heat. It was a shattering crash that rang in my ears for most of the next week. In the hours I had spent following the drums and the rattles of other tribes as they worked their way toward the gates in the fence to make their appearance down the wobbly chalk lines on the scrubby grass, the musical excitement had been measured and restrained. Now I found myself squeezed into the middle of an irregular procession of Fula musicians.

The Fulas-or Fulanis-there are many spellings and variations of the name-were one of the tribes that had won great victories in the religious wars of West Africa in the centuries before the imposed stewardship of the Europeans, and in the steaming heat on the jammed street I could almost believe that they had defeated their enemies by deafening them. The men clustered together on the street were tall, muscular figures, swathed for the day in formal, long, white robes. They had traveled from their isolated villages in the dusty, dry, backcountry thickets of spindly trees and brush where they tended herds of scrawny cattle, and they still had the edgy saunter of men who spent their lives in the sun. As I wrote in The Roots of the Blues,

In the dense press of white robed bodies I could have been present at any moment in the hundreds of years since Europeans first met the Fulas. The dark faces, the tall sharpness of the bodies, the swaying robes, the din of the instruments-it resembled a scene from the earliest descriptions ... somewhere in the procession there was every kind of Fula instrument. Men were carrying deep, bowled drums with strips of thin metal nailed to the rims to add to their thudding tone. Behind them were a row of men with xylophones strung from their necks. There were also the one-stringed fiddles, the riti that I had heard the Fula jelefo play. Close to me were four or five flute players, their hand-carved wooden instruments more than a foot long with a high, sweet tone. I could see five-string harps made from a curved piece of wood-see them, but not hear them, any more than I could hear the one-stringed fiddles in the din ...

In the dense crowd around me some of the musicians were playing curved trumpets fashioned from the horns of their cattle-blowing long blasts of a single note, in no sequence or pattern that I could ever work out. They took a breath, lifted their much handled instruments, and blew as loudly as they could for as long as their breath held out. I realized that if they hadn't blown their notes with such insistence they wouldn't have been heard over the swollen calabash drums that some of the men had strapped to their stomachs and played with metal rings on their fingers. The noise of the calabash drums, though, had to fight against the thunder of the elongated wooden drums that other men were carrying with worn leather shoulder straps or had set up on the street. Their instruments had been carved out of tree trunks, and the deep, throaty sounds were like the grunts of a large animal emerging from the depths of the earth.

But even standing a few feet from them it was hard to make out what the drummers were playing, because closer to me were several men energetically shaking rattles made of dried pieces of calabash. The rattles were constructed from long, bent sticks, with a coarse string tied from the bent tip to the sweat stained handgrip. Dangling from the string were large, flat, square pieces of dried calabash, the large gourd that is an indispensable part of West African life. The skin of the calabashes dries hard and it lasts for years, and dried calabashes turn up used for everything from water bottles to hand rattles. The thunderous, clattering sound as the men shook their sticks energetically would have drowned out jackhammers.

The musicians filling the street around me wouldn't have been out of place in one of the battles that travellers in West Africa described in the 18th century. Godfrey Lovar heard one of these assemblies of musicians playing during a battle on the Guinea coast in 1701, not far to the south of the Gambia River, and he wrote,

During the Combat the Drums, Trumpets, and other Instruments in their way continually sound; which joined to the cries of the Negroes, make a Noise louder than Thunder. Their drums are a Piece of Wood, hollowed at one end only and covered with the Ear of an Elephant, tightly bound over the mouth. Their sticks are two Pieces of Wood shaped like a Hammer, covered with Goat's Skin, which give a dull, hoarse Sound ... [The musicians, including boys playing trumpets made out of elephant's teeth, blasting out a single tone, stayed close to the combatants.]

To this ... They add an instrument as remarkable for the Simplicity of its Construction, as it is hard to be described. It is of Iron, shaped like two small concave Fire-Shovels, about a foot long, soldered together, and which form a kind of oval Belly. A boy holds this instrument by the small end, and with a Stick of half a foot long strikes on it according to the Cadence of the Drums and Trumpets, who are always near the General, while the Fight lasts ...

Usually European travellers didn't come so close to a crowd of musicians, since it was a battle they were witnessing, but even from their safe distances they generally used the same word, "din," to describe the noise, and for once the travelers got it right.

A Fula named Musa Camara was helping me find the older musicians I was looking for. Musa was young and enthusiastic, and he was planning to use the money I was paying him to add to his small salary from Radio Gambia to accumulate a "bride price" so he could get married. I would also take tapes to the small compound where he lived with his two sisters and they would lie giggling and sprawled on the sagging bed, slowly working out rough translations of the songs I was recording. Although they were Fulas, they also were fluent enough in Mandingo, or Mandinka, as the word is often spelled, the language that was spoken by most of the people in the small city. It was also the language of the most important praise singers, the griots, and at the end of the afternoon I would have enough notes and suggestions from the words and lines they called over to me that I could assemble a text. With the text of the song and the tape I would then spend an hour with a retired school teacher who, though he was Serrahule, was completely fluent in Mandinka, and his considered responses and polite corrections would give me some assurance that what I had put together was the song I'd heard.


Excerpted from A Language of Song by Samuel Charters Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

A Note

1. A Griot's Art: The Story of Everything 1

2. Canaries—Canarios: A New Music in an Old World 17

3. Go Down Chariot: The Georgia Sea Islands and Fanny Kemble. The Slavery Spirituals, Lydia Parrish and Zora Neale Hurston 37

4. Skiffles, Tubs and Washboards: Good Time Music before the Blues 62

5. Red Clark's List: New Orleans Street Jazz and the Eureka Brass Band in the 1950s 81

6. A Dance in Ragged Time: "Shake the World's Foundation with the Maple Leaf Rag" 105

7. Gal, You Got to Go Back to Bimini: The Bahamas, Its Rhymers, and Joseph Spence 133

8. Pretenders, Caressers, Lions, and a Mighty Sparrow: Trinidad's Sweet Calypso 152

9. It Be Like Thunder if a Man Live Close: Nights in Trinidad's Pan Yards 178

10. Reggae Is a New Bag: Kingston Streets, Kingston Nights 203

11. To Feel The Spirit: Gospel Song in the Great Churches of Harlem 230

12. A Prince of Zydeco: Louisiana's Zydeco Blues and Good Rockin' Dopsie 254

13. ¿Como se llama este ritmo? Bebo Valdés, the Music of Cuba, and the Buena Vista Social Club 283

14. Bahia Nights: Carnival in Brazil's Black World 308

Notes 335

Bibliography 339

Index 343

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