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ROOTS & CULTURE
Our instruments, ourselves-music's basics are the voice and human percussion, using the body itself as a drum. Witness the organic Pygmy percussion of playing nature-hitting a tree with two sticks or rhythmically slapping water as it rushes over rocks.
People can make an incredible range of sounds, solo. In tap, feet are the drumsticks and the ground is the drum. Tap happened when West African "juba" step dances synchronized with European clog dances. It shone in early twentieth century entertainments like minstrel shows and the Theater Owners Booking Agency's T.O.B.A. (commonly called Tough On Black Asses) a vaudeville circuit that lasted until the Depression. Tappers like Charles "Sandman" Sims, and Honi Coles, and Will Gaines found their match in the unpredictable bebop drumming of the 1940s.
"They are almost like drummers and you can learn a lot just listening to the rhythms they get from their taps," Miles Davis recalled. "In the daytime, outside Minton's (bebop's 1950s Harlem nightclub home) next to the Cecil Hotel, tap dancers used to come up there and challenge each other on the sidewalk."
Along with other cool 1940s boppers like Slim Gaillard, Gaines split for bohemian London in the 1980s. They both became icons-in-residence, inspiring Britain's acid jazz movement. Their presence encouraged a generation of British jazzers like Courtney Pine to develop their own Caribbean-inflected British jazz using hip-hop technology.
Even when tap went underground there were alwaysdancers still hoofing it in the spotlight. Outside of the old timers, Gregory Hines seemed to become the solitary Mr. Tap. Then a dread-locked homeboy, Savior Glover put a spring in tap's step in the 1990s. His griot-like musical, Bring in `Da Noize, Bring in Da Funk, was a dramatic tap journey through the history of African America.
Tap dancers talk with their feet. The composer, conductor and spontaneous inventor, Bobby McFerrin, made his whole body and voice the instruments for his hit song "Don't Worry, Be Happy." So blithe, seemingly so simple, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," became a global catchphrase.
In the 1980s Doug E. Fresh put a new twist on going solo—a twist influenced by his Harlem hip-hop background. Like Darren Robinson of the comedic rap group, the Fat Boys, Fresh billed himself as "The Human Beatbox." His bleeps, clicks, and boings were so distinctive that in a neat reversal, an actual beatbox—the Oberheim Emulator synthesizer—installed a Doug E. Fresh sound chip in 1986.
McFerrin and Fresh amaze by playing their bodies in unexpected ways as does LadySmith Black Mambazo. This South African Zulu harmony group's unadorned voices are a smooth rush. Ladysmith's unique sound has been used internationally to advertise a variety of products, from Coca-Cola to "Inkneyzi Nezazi," their ode to Heinz baked beans which became a chart hit in England. Listeners respond to their sound without needing to understand the mystic metaphors of their leader, Joseph Shabalala. The group comes from a rich tribal choral tradition that was partly developed in apartheid South Africa's grim male migrant worker hostels as a way to escape from loneliness and abuse.
In West Africa, the voice was the only instrument needed by griots—the guardians of verbal culture—to deliver their ancestral epics. Yet many chose to complement their words with a silvery sweep of notes from the twenty-one-stringed kora (a harp-lute instrument).
"Telling two hundred years of history takes a long time. Some of our songs last two days. They speak of kings and how they fought for power, and how they tried to make their kingdoms strong," wrote Foday Musa Susa, a Gambian griot and kora master in his book Jali Kunda: Griots of West Africa and Beyond. Research for the book took Susa to the five griot countries of the old Manding empire: Mali, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry and The Gambia.
"In songs about slavery, we sing about which kings fought each other and who was captured," he wrote.
Susa bridges old and new worlds. He collaborates with artists as diverse as composer Philip Glass, trumpeter Don Cherry, and pianist Herbie Hancock. He also has absorbed the traditional one-hundred-and-eleven songs in his canon. "I studied in the home of my teacher and uncle Saikou Suso for seven years, studying at night. In exchange, I worked in the fields."
A complicated social etiquette governs the griots. Making music is reserved for their caste and is frowned upon for outsiders. The musicians are respected and needed, yet they have low social status.
In the 1980s, three musicians spearheaded Manding culture's popularity—Mali's Salif Keita and Senegal's Baaba Maal and Youssou N'Dour. In the world of popular music, their sound has become known as "The Griot Groove." Artists like Guinea's Oumou Dioubate and Sekouba Bambino follow in their footsteps. But these pioneers paid a price in going against their families' wishes.
Even though N'Dour's mother was a griotte, his father disapproved of his decision to become a singer. Nonetheless, N'Dour has been a star since his keening, compelling voice was broadcast on national radio, singing at the funeral of the beloved singer, Pape Samba Diop. N'Dour was twelve years old.
In the first band he formed, Super Etoile de Dakar (Dakar Superstar) N'Dour pioneered singing in his language—Wolof—and made use of the mbalax sound with its signature use of the flailing two-headed sabar drum. British musician Peter Gabriel and Amnesty International, a human rights group, helped introduce N'Dour globally.
Many griot epics were dedicated to the feats of the Manding emperor and warrior, Sundiata Keita. His descendant, Salif Keita, updated the style on the album, Soro. It was produced by Ibrahim Sylla in Paris during the early 1980s. Married with synthesizers Keita's unearthly piercing vibrato gives the machines soul.
Born albino, Salif's pallor was regarded as a curse in Mali. He compounded his rejection by becoming a singer. "Children spat at me as I passed," he recalled. Eventually Salif ran away from home and found fame with the Rail Band of Bamako,
Despite his father's objections. Maal was eager to learn and was adopted into the griot family of blind guitar player, Mansour Seck. After studying at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, Maal traveled the villages of Mali and Senegal, learning from the old griots.
"Salif Keita, Youssou N'Dour, and I were a generation that grew up with traditional music around us," Maal said. "Now the world has changed. Young people aren't staying in the villages any more. In the city, there's no contact with the ceremonies of the oral tradition; people are too busy trying to eat."
Breaking down old barriers, Maal is enthusiastic that his band members come from different ethnic groups. He paid tribute to the African/Jamaican connection with the dance track, "Yella! It Sounds Like Reggae!" In the same spirit, he has incorporated Irish voices in his music, specifically the Screaming Orphans-Sinead O'Connor's back-up band.
"When I heard Irish music it was something so deep. I know there is a connection in the past." The mesh of their voices recalls the black Moors who once ruled Ireland. It's an ancestry that's been explored by bands from such diverse groups as the British ravers, Afro-Celt Sound System and Wingless Angels—a group consisting of Jamaican Rasta Nyabinghi drummers who were recorded by the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards. The Irish band, Chieftains, in their Celtic-Cuban exploration recall the same ancestry on the album, Santiago.
In villages and cities all across Africa, music was not entertainment. Babatunde Olatunji, a Nigerian singer, remembers, "Drumming was going on in my village every day. When someone passed into the spirit world we celebrated with songs and drums and chants, or when a baby was born or a young man or woman went through a rite of passage like getting married." Olatunju reintroduced the sound of pure African drums to America with his Drums of Passion series in the 1950s.
Making a drum is a sacred process for the drummers of Burundi. As one explained, "Before we make a drum we go into the forest and find the tree that we feel is right. Then we pray to it and pour liquor on its roots as a libation. This makes the tree understand we have not come in a malicious spirit, but so that it can be used for a sacred purpose."
So powerful is the drum that under slavery, its use was banned in America in 1692. Echoes of this prohibition occurred throughout the years. In the tradition of rock and rap, bad boys created the shimmering tremolo lilt of steel pan bands. In Trinidad the steel pan has become a source of enormous cultural pride. The instrument and the culture it represents was silenced when the British colonial administration and the Catholic Church banned traditional drums along with the African-derived Shango religion in the years preceding the Second World War.
The steel pan creators were ghetto roughneck "Bad Johns" living where the police were afraid to go. In defiance of the ban they used a chisel and heat to tune a honeycomb of flattened octagonal sections from the oil barrels of the island's greatest export. "Banging iron," the Bad Johns marched into fierce battles with both the police and rival steel orchestras in Port-of-Spain. Orchestras like the many-time Carnival winners, Exodus, rose from gang entertainment by refining music. They created interpretations of Beethoven, Bach, and local composers Pelham Goddard and Lord Kitchener.
Crucial to ancient African science, the drum stirred listeners into a sacred frenzy that connected the everyday and the spirit world, particularly in Cuba and Haiti. Haitian slaves were allowed to make their own tanbour (single-headed drums) in the West African style, and though the practice was illegal until 1987, the voodoo forces summoned by the drums were omnipresent.
Though cloaked in Catholicism, these Haitian forces were capricious or benevolent African spirits of the earth, river, and sea much like the Trickster of the Yoruba people in Nigeria. These deities were carried into bondage with Haiti's voodoo and absorbed into Cuba's Santeria, Jamaica's obeah, Trinidad's Shango and Brazil's Candomble. Each spirit had its own color and rhythm that can still be heard in popular as well as ritual music.
Brazil's African heritage is strongest in the coastal town of Salvador, Bahia, from whose hillside squatter camps or favelas the velvet timbre of Virginia Rodriguez attracted the support of Brazil's musical elite. The tropicalismo stars of the 1960s—Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, and Caetano Veloso—were among those who mixed electronic rock with traditional rhythms and coded lyrics that criticized the military government. A consistent force in Brazilian music, they united to work with Rodriguez in the 1990s. Rodriguez began singing in the choir of her parents' Protestant church. "I was in another world," she said. "As I matured I wanted to know more about my roots and ancestors. Through Candomble, I learned more about my people. To relate to the orixas, in the ceremonies we dance, sing and drum."
Cuba taught America and Europe about rhythm, passion, and seductive tension with its stately sons: the rhumba, the mambo, and the cha-cha-cha. Rhumba became a particular obsession in colonial West Africa where the bandleader and guitarist Franco and his O.K. Jazz, developed the melodious Congo language, "rhumba lingala."
Cuban musician and actor Desi Arnaz used the term babalawo, a Santerian bishop, to inject the religion into the heart of American TV culture. Arnaz shouted "Babalu!" in his theme tune for the "I Love Lucy" comedy series. But the love affair between America and Cuba was shattered when Fidel Castro toppled General Juan Batista for government leadership in 1959. Cuba was boycotted culturally as well as politically. Immediately upon Castro's ascent to power, the first wave of Cubans left for New York and Miami.
Cuban trumpeter Jésus Alemany was just a child when these artists left. He grew up within Castro's socialist system. Like all other professional Cuban musicians he was taught and eventually paid by the state for playing gigs in places like Havana's famous Tropicana nightclub, alongside leading Cuban combos like Irakere and Los Van Van. Relocating to London in the 1990s, he gathered key players from home and put together the group Cubanismo! "People think that in the period of isolation there was nothing going on in Cuba, but that is not true. We developed the rap sound timba, and brought the African drum, the bata, into the popular music a lot more."
The drum is a source of renewal. Some of the greatest jam sessions never recorded must have been those thunderous nights of drumming in seventeenth-century New Orleans' Congo Square. Now Louis Armstrong Square, it is described by the Neville Brothers as "the place where American music was born." Here African slaves of all ethnic groups would transcend their Wolof, Fon, Ashanti, and Yoruba language barriers with their drums. The Neville Brothers call it "that mojo in motion" in their track, "Congo Square." It was a place that attracted audiences of all classes and complexions. They were forging new conjunctions and absorbing the sounds around them—sailors' shanties, Wesleyan hymns, the sprightly quadrille, and jolly brass bands of Europe.
The versatile musician, arranger, and producer Quincy Jones reflected, "Thank God that the Spanish and the French were in New Orleans or we would have really been in trouble because the Protestants would have blown it (the culture of drums and music) away."
Commercialization cannot sift out the sacred from New Orleans music culture. The exuberant bottle-and-can banging and brass bands of the "second line" in a New Orleans funeral procession was an inspiration for trumpeters like the romantic Terence Blanchard and the classicist, Wynton Marsalis.
At Trinidad's Carnival, the same clanking-bash rings throughout the main streets of predawn Port-of-Spain. During Carnival, half-clad revelers splashed in paint and mud prance ecstatically behind the steel bands. In Brazil, too, Carnival is the climax of a lengthy build-up of preparations for Mardi Gras.
|Connections. The foundation of all music springs from|
|Africa, spreading new branches and expressing itself|
|uniquely wherever it stretches. From funk to the sacred,|
|musicians are guardians of traditions deep within our|
|ROOTS AND CULTURE:||14|
|Spirituality has always been a serious force in Black|
|music, starting with the tradition of drumming, chanting,|
|and revelations. In African America, churches are a|
|consistent unifying force; gospel's classic voices take|
|to nightclubs and find commercial success. Pop artists|
|smuggle sacred concerns into their infectious grooves.|
|In the jazz world, the spiritual quest informs experimental|
|music. Still close to its holy drums, Rastafarian reggae|
|rallies a global movement. On the dance floor, trance|
|music transports ravers.|
|HEART AND SOUL:||54|
|Perhaps the greatest of all subjects, love songs express|
|urges that transcend nations and generations, from smooth|
|1950s crooners to today's balladeers. Changes in generations|
|and society are palpable in the contrast between the|
|lascivious double entendres of the blues, the idealized|
|romantic yearning of 1950's doo-woppers and the explicit|
|lust of hardcore urban artists and Jamaican dancehall's|
|Black music has a history of performerswhose art was|
|matched by their commitment even in the face of conflict.|
|Whether facing assassination, torture, or police harassment,|
|these courageous heroes and heroines of Black music fought|
|oppression and injustice in their lives and in their music.|
|Artists of honor tell it like it is.|
|In the Black music continuum, there have always been|
|adventurous spirits who acknowledge barriers only to use|
|them as rites of passage. Such innovators invent new|
|musical languages like scratching or dubbing. Other|
|explorers might project a vision of alternate realities,|
|parallel space universes, that becomes a manifesto,|
|rallying fans into a common cry.|
Posted May 15, 2000