West Africa: Joining In and Standing Out
Andrew Killick [+]
University of Sheffield
The African root of American popular music is traced back through the history of slavery to the West African cultures from which most slaves in North America came. Guarding against any assumption that West African musical cultures were the same in the days of the slave trade as they are now (which might represent the ethnocentric view that “other cultures don’t have history”), historical evidence is reviewed to establish that the features relevant to the story were already present at that time. One such feature, shared with most African cultures south of the Sahara, is that music-making is oriented toward communal participation (“joining in”) more than presentation by performers to a passive audience. Musical features that promote participation are discussed in the context of drumming ensembles, including the “polyrhythmic” African approach to musical time that fed into the American “backbeat.” At the same time, stereotypes of African music as consisting only of drumming and repetitive patterns are counteracted by focusing on two types of musician who “stand out” from their communities as highly skilled musical specialists: master drummers and the bard-like griots who sing to the accompaniment of the harp-lute kora. The master drummers with their “talking drums” also challenge our initial definition of music by blurring the distinction between musical sound and speech.