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African American December 20, 2006

Posted by wallofsound in Uncategorized.

Musical and cultural repertoires

This chapter explores the cultural resources that are available to music makers when they compose and perform music. When musicians or singers produce innovation in music they have to do so by modifying and adapting forms with which they are already familiar. When they perform their material they do so by drawing on styles that interest them.
However, the traditions that music makers draw on, and that are seen as the roots of popular music, are not just traditions of musical form or style. They are also traditions of practices in music-making, listening, and evaluation. These practices are produced by the ways that musicians, record company executives, radio station programmers, journalists and listeners think and talk about the music.

From this perspective, I want to recast the idea of musical roots into the idea of ‘music culture discourses’. Musical sounds are part of the wider cultural practices, which collectively constitute our knowledge of popular music, so it is not simply that musicians have ‘musical influences’, but rather ‘musical cultural influences’. These influences/discourses constitute whole ways of playing, listening and moving to, talking and thinking about music, and in turn ways of ‘knowing’ other aspects of our social world. To clarify this approach, it is useful to think about the four areas most commonly seen as musical roots and convert them into four music culture discourses: Tin Pan Alley, African American, European Vernacular, European Art.

Each of these discourses constitutes a distinct set of ways to understanding music and its cultural role. As such each is a set of knowledge about what music is, how it should be produced, what it does, and why it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They constitute traditions and people involved in musical cultures can draw from the past to justify or explain the values of their distinctive musical culture. However, it is important to emphasise that these discourses have never existed separately from each other, that their availability varies to different cultural groups at particular moments, and that the different styles of popular music draw upon these discourses to different degrees and often in contradictory ways. They therefore constitute the repertoires out of which a distinctive (and new) musical culture can be built. Which aspects of the repertoire will be drawn upon, and in what way, will depend upon how these practices are made meaningful by the particular cultural group.

African American

‘African American’ is the widely used term to describe the culture and music of the black communities in North America. It would be mistaken to think that there are a set of musical forms and practices which are uniquely ‘black’, and like the other three repertoires of music culture we will examine here the African American tradition of music making has constantly interacted with other traditions. However, the formation of a distinctive African American tradition out of a continuing relationship of black Americans with white Americans and Europeans has produced musical cultures which are at the same time both troubled and validatory: Troubled because an African American culture only exists because the African peoples who became the first black Americans were forcibly transported to a different continent to work and live as slaves and their descendants were compelled to make their lives in a society riddled with racism and racial discrimination. Validatory because in the face of such inhumane treatment black American musicians constantly attempted to transcend racist white society and find pride in cultural achievements.

Philip Tagg has gone as far as challenging the notion that there is something we can describe in any essentialist way as black music (Tagg 1987/9). I too have been careful not to suggest that that there is an essential form of music that is solely belonging to, or somehow reducible to, the people of the African diaspora. However, the term is meaningful as it points to an important connection between music and identity. It is worth quoting Stuart Hall here. In his view black popular culture, including music, has:

.. come to signify the black community, where these traditions are kept, and whose struggles survive in the persistence of the black experience (the historical experience of black people in the diaspora), of the black aesthetic (the distinctive cultural repertoires out of which popular representations are made), and of the black counter narratives we struggle to voice.
Hall 1992, 28

Hall points to the vital role that music has played in the development of African American and Caribbean identity in the 350 years of its development in North and Central America and its islands. This music has been the primary way that the changing experience, aesthetic and counter narratives of the sons and daughters of African slaves in America have been expressed (see Jones 1966). The African peoples who were enslaved, were caught in the tension of diverse backgrounds and a common oppression in which the almost complete annihilation of any African culture — language, personal names, religious practices, music and dance — was a parallel to their physical domination. Music was allowed some outlet: to regulate work, to celebrate Christian festivals, and to provide music for slave owners and their guests. Some slaves provided the music for their white ‘masters’ as a service like any other of their servitude, and carried out this technical service to the requirements of European conventions. However, remnants of African Music were kept and developed as a means to keep some semblance of identity under slavery, and articulate the shared solidarity against oppression. Some of this distinctive black music was performed for the white oppressors, and seen by them as exotic entertainment (Southern 1983).

The development of black American music, therefore, was caught in another set of tensions, this time between being an articulation of an oppressed black identity, and as entertainment for the white oppressors. This paradox is a central dynamic of the history of black music. The changing roles of African American music, and the shifts of identity in relation to the political and cultural history of America have been built around the contradictory tugs of two alternative cultural and political stances: separatism/self sufficiency from mainstream white America, and the possibility of assimilation into and success in that culture (George 1988). The development of music in the Caribbean shared many of the same cultural factors, but the annihilation of African-originated customs and music seems to have been less complete, and the scale of island life, the different history of colonial rule, and the lower level of professional exploitation of black musical forms led to a different and distinct history of music and identity (see Davis and Simon 1983; Clarke 1980; Bradley 2000).

The changing musical genres of black America – Hot Jazz, Swing, Blues, Jump Blues, R&B, Soul, Hip Hop and House – and of its near neighbours in the Caribbean – Ska, Rock Steady, Reggae (in all its forms), Calypso, Dance Hall and Ragga – all reflect the pulls of an economic and cultural self sufficiency on the one hand, and the promises of success in a wider, fully integrated North American society on the other. In this history the roles of musicians and music entrepreneurs – like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Don Robey, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Duke Reid, Lee Perry, Berry Gordy, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Russell Simmons, and Derick May – are as important as political leaders like Booker T Washington, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jessie Jackson and Elijah Muhammad. Equally the notions of black power, Afro-centricism, black nationalism, Rastafarianism, and civil rights have been central to musical production and consumption in black America (for excellent discussions of these issues see Jones 1966; Kofsky 1970; Clarke 1980; Davis and Simon 1983; George 1988; Lipsitz 1994)

However, as I have indicated the repertoire of African American music culture has been produced as much by the practices of white Americans and Europeans as it has by black Americans themselves. There are many historical examples of both a fear of, and a fascination with, African American music among whites. Southern (1983) catalogues the way that the dancing and music of black slaves was seen as exotic to white observers, and how this led to the development of minstrel shows in which whites blackened their faces and reproduced simplistic versions of African American dance and music for white, mainstream audiences. Equally though, Southern’s history contains many examples of white American’s expressing disquiet about the same activities, fearful of their perceived moral corruption. This range of responses from fear to fascination, often both in the same individual, is not just characteristic of the eighteenth century, but also found throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century. Whether it was the so called ‘Jim Crow’ statutes (named after a minstrel show character) which forbade blacks and whites meeting in public entertainment right through to the 1960s, or the orchestrated attack on first Jazz and then Rock and Roll as ‘nigger music’, or the ‘disco sucks’ campaign waged against black music in the late 1970s , or the Housewives Alliance’s vilification of rap in the 1990s, African American music has been at the centre of many ‘moral panics’ in American and European society (Southern 1983; Lott 1993; Ward 1998; Werner 1999, 117-211)

For another constituency of whites black music and culture was highly prized. Andrew Ross has traced a connection between ‘hipness’ and black culture and the perceived dangers of ‘cross-over’ and ‘commerciality’ (Ross 1989, 65-101). These same themes are addressed by a number of writers but with a different emphasis. Nelson George has attacked the cross-over of African American music into white culture as ‘the death of Rhythm and Blues’ (George 1988). Others have explored those black musical forms which, it is argued, are attempts to repudiate this appropriation. Included in the list are 1940s Bebop and the Free Jazz of the 1960s (see Jones 1966, Kofsky 1970, Litweiler 1990). In Britain the veneration of Soul music and Reggae among whites in the 1960s and 1970s prefigures the Wigger’s (White Nigger) fascination with Hip Hop and black culture of the 1980s and 90s (see Chambers 1985, 139-164; Jones 1988; George 1998, 60-68).

It is also important to note that a high proportion of books which examine the African American tradition are written by white Americans and Europeans who share many of the values of this wider white constituency (see for instance Lomax 1937; Charters 1982; Oliver 1978; Broven 1974; Gillett 1983; Haralambos 1974; Frith 1983; Keil and Feld 1994). We can identify in these book’s subtexts a passion for black musical forms, and the feeling that because of continuing racism among white Americans and Europeans the contributions of black musicians to the shifting history of popular music had not been widely understood or respected. The fascination and veneration of black musical forms and often their associated African American or African Caribbean cultures by white Americans and Europeans is so strong that it is possible to identify a major part of the origins of the majority of mainstream popular musics in black forms. Figure 2.1 lists just some of them.

Figure 2.1 mainstream popular musics and their black music origins 1930 to 2000

Simon Frith has characterised the music of the African American tradition by highlighting its emphasis on performance, its immediate emotional impact on the listener, its spontaneous, often improvised, qualities, and its dual expressiveness through vocal-sounds and its rhythmic properties (Frith 1983, 15-23). Other writers have noted the greater emphasis on certain musical qualities like call and response, syncopation, and the use of blue notes. As I have indicated earlier such claims have been criticised as essentialist (see Negus 1996, 100-107 and Longhurst 1995, 127-33 for a summary). It is also difficult for modern listeners to hear any of these qualities as distinctive to black musicians because the African American tradition has been so influential on the general development of popular musics.

For these reasons Craig Werner’s ideas of the Gospel, Jazz and Blues impulses are perhaps a more productive way forward (Werner 1999). While it may lack the precision of the discussions of the musicological debates, and is somewhat poetic, it gets closer to the idea that the African American tradition — like the other three traditions examined here — is not a narrowly musical one, but one of values and approaches to ways of making and consuming music. For Werner the Gospel impulse emphasises interdependence, communality, and connectedness, by recognising and bearing witness to the burden of oppression, but also by seeking redemption from it; the Blues impulse emphasises reaffirmation in the face of adversity or “fingering the jagged grain of your brutal experience”(Werner 1999, 69); while the Jazz impulse is seen as a continuous process of redefinition, examining what does not fit, challenging us to rethink our assumptions.



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