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THÉRMASMA MAGAZINE - Approved Draft N.4, 1999

An Essay on The Origins of African
American Music

The trappings of a by gone eraChildren following parents
Shoes walking on the presentHearts
continue to beat the rhythms of the past;
While the melodies in their heads reflect the future.

The music of African-Americans is as complex as the people. Not one African-American composer or theorist can boast of having a monopoly on what constitutes the music of African Americans. The experience of listening to this music can be compared to a walk in garden. Each flower, herb, tree and plant has something unique to offer. When one listens to several composers, one can hear and experience this wonderful diversity.


The roots of African-American "Classic" music run deep. They are nurtured with African Folk music, European Songs and harmony. Then it is layered above the innate rhythmical component that give this genre of music its characteristic sound and feel. The “feel” of an African-American composer’s work is immediately recognizable and distinctive. African-Americans allow their emotion, intellect, educational backgrounds as well as their desires to dictate to them in the writing of their music. The African-American Spiritual was passed down by an oral tradition that, until it was notated, could change with the emotional state of the musician. The absence of written notation allowed the spiritual to take on a life which could be more than the original inspiration of the creator.


The tunes or melodies of these spirituals would become a source of inspiration and material for later composers. Composers of African and European descent have used the beautiful and sometimes haunting melodies of the spiritual in compositions which have little or nothing to do with the original intent of the spiritual. Composers continue to use these melodies, and it is a testimony to the melodic beauty of these compositions.


If one uses melody and no rhythm, the work is called chant. There is some call and response melismatic chant events which occur in the African-American church tradition. This writer would like to concentrate on the use of rhythm in African-American music. Rhythm has been an integral part of the African heritage from time immemorial to this day. Africans have drums which are used for communication. This form of communication takes place over many yards and in some cases miles. In this case scenario, the rhythm of the drum serves as communication. Naturally, when the Africans where sold into slavery, they would use the techniques they learned in Africa to communicate with others. When this form of communication was discovered in America by the slave owners, slaves where no longer allowed the use of drums. To the writer's knowledge, the only place where this practice of drumming as well as dancing took place on a frequent basis in America was Congo Square. This area, which is located in the French Quarters - the oldest part of New Orleans - is now occupied by the Mahalia Jackson Center for the Performing Arts and the park which surrounds this area is named after Jazz trumpeter, Louis Armstrong. From this account one can surmise how the use of rhythm plays a major role in the development of African American music genres.
Over the past sixty years, conservatories, music schools and universities trained African -American musicians. These classically trained musicians and composers have produced musical compositions from symphonic works to art songs and music that would be described as atonal and experimental. The one common thread that separates the African American composer from his/her European contemporary is the use of melody and the pervasive and sometimes underlying rhythmical patterns.


Is the music of Africans and Europeans amalgamated in the music of African Americans? Just as an interracial child is an amalgamation of each parents ethnic backgrounds, the writer would have to say that the music of African Americans is a culmination of African and European musical traditions. Although there is an amalgamation, the ethnicity of each group is heightened or more pronounced according to the genre. For instance in the Blues and Jazz, African influences predominate. In the music of composers like Wallace Cheatham, Earl Stewart, Ralph Simpson, Noel Decosta and Uzee Brown, just to name a few, each work has different elements that may be highlighted. The writer is not attempting to make judgments which can not be proven.


For the modern African-American composer, each selection is so diverse that one can not put these composers in a box. What the writer can say is that there is a common thread which connects them. That thread is the use of melodic and rhythmical elements which can be traced to Africa. The use of harmony and the application of notation as well as other European elements makes up what is called African-American music.

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY Roberts, John Storm. Black Music of Two Worlds. New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1998. Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans. New York: Norton, 1971. Stewart, Earl L. African American Music: An Introduction. New York: Simon and Schuster Macmillan, 1998.

- Lucius R. Weathersby -
Chairperson of the Music Department
Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana

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