If you have ever heard a phrase similar to “I like black music” and you don’t know exactly what they meant, this article is for you. Blues, Rhythm and blues, Soul and many other genres of what is often called modern popular music have drawn directly from the African tradition and have given some peculiar and distinctive characteristics to the rhythms and songs that have been created in the last century, at least.
To black music
What is commonly called black music refers to a group of musical styles and genres that derive from or are significantly influenced by distinctive elements of the African-American communities in the United States. Although, to be fairer, it must be said that this phenomenon did not only occur in North America and we should include any musical form that has received this influence from Africa, which is also very important in the rest of the American continent.
When talking about this influence, the rhythmic component is often pointed out as the primary factor that connects these contemporary musics with their African ancestors, but there are also traits such as a certain nonconformist attitude or an intense and explicit sensuality, among others, that can find themselves, sometimes transfigured, in a good part of those musical genres and their interpretive forms.
But, to get an idea of how something like this could come to pass, we have to take a look at history.
Origins: colonization and slavery
Although slavery is by no means a phenomenon of the last centuries, but a circumstance that has been repeated countless times throughout the history of “humanity”, as far as black music is concerned, we will focus on the practice. which, as a consequence of the colonization of the American continent by European nations, consisted of the capture of people from the African continent to transfer them and sell them on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Those African people seemed to have the adequate physical resistance to become cheap labor for the colonizers, which launched the so-called slave trade.
The large-scale agricultural systems that were set up in the American continent, both in the north and south, as well as in the Caribbean, were the fate of those enslaved Africans. Although there are no definitive figures, it is estimated that between the 16th and 20th centuries, millions of Africans arrived in America through this procedure and many others died along the way.
As if that were not enough, very often, slavery was accompanied by an ideological racism and practice that not only subdued enslaved people but also paid for and justified degrading and inhuman treatment of them.
In short, a part of the history of humans that would be worth never forgetting… so that it would not be repeated in any of its forms.
In short, and perhaps ironically, that human trafficking, that disgusting business, in addition to fulfilling an economic purpose, had other consequences, socially, culturally, and also musically.
Those human beings traveled with much more than their bodies in those ships. With them came rhythms, songs, customs and complete ways of living, which, although uprooted, continued to be alive in the places where they ended up developing their lives.
Thus, for example, on a plantation in the southern United States, a few descendants of Europeans lived together, with their own cultural traditions, together with many more Africans and their songs, their dances, and their own vision of the world, from their situation deprived of liberty.
Characterized by African American music
Although this would make for very long books and dissertations, we are going to set out some elements that the African tradition contributed to the music that was created in colonized America.
- The work songs and, especially, the so-called field cries, were short, semi-improvised compositions, sometimes spoken, or sung, or directly howled, during the hard days of work or in the breaks of those slaves.
- The call-response was a musical mechanism that basically consisted of two consecutive musical phrases that gave a musical sensation of dialogue, where the first phrase was the question, more suspensive, and the second, the answer, more conclusive.
- Vocal effects were another characteristic of African musical practice, which he included in his performances were guttural sounds, falsetto, melismas or rhythmic vocalization, among other expressive techniques.
- Improvisation was another of the customs that the musical practice of African slaves brought to America. Leaving spaces for the inclusion of new elements, usually in the context of familiar musical structures, was another way of adding interest to the songs and also of allowing an expressiveness linked to the exact moment of singing or playing.
- Pentatonic musical scales and harmonies also contributed strange or forbidden notes in the European musical tradition. The so-called ” blue note “, for example, appeared as a special tense sound and offered, among other things, the possibility of combining minor scales and major harmonies simultaneously.
- Polyrhythm is another feature widely used in African musical traditions that came to the Americas with slaves and infiltrated some genres . The use of several simultaneous rhythms and rhythmic alterations such as syncopation or the accentuation of weak parts of the percussive patterns, gave that music something completely foreign, but attractive, for ears educated in other musical cultures.
These are some of the musical elements of African origin that have been part of the genesis in the past and of the development in the present, of many musical genres of the so-called modern popular music.
American black music and songs
It is estimated that, approximately, since the beginning of the colonization of the United States, 645,000 enslaved Africans arrived on the southern plantations.
There, new musical forms were taking shape, with some of those distinctive characteristics of the African heritage and also the influence of European music and traditions of immigrants from Central America and the Caribbean.
Blues is a musical genre of rural origin, in the United States, that sang the lives of African-American slaves and was based on the use of ” blue notes ” and a repetitive pattern that often consisted of a twelve-bar structure. .
Jazz is usually explained as a consequence of the confluence, in the New Orleans area, of European musical traditions, mainly Afro-American, and also Mexican. Improvisation and swing were two of its main characteristics.
El Rhythm and Blues
Rhythm and Blues is a genre, or the name of a style of popular music that, from the 1940s, in the United States, brought together elements of Blues, Jazz, and other urban rhythms in its songs and that was characterized by have a clear, powerful and insistent rhythm.
Following in their wake, labels and styles such as Soul, Funk, or even Rock, spread that spirit in the following decades.
Hip hop appeared in the 1970s in the suburbs of New York, as an expression of the most disadvantaged African-American classes, as a cry for freedom, and using the affordable musical technological innovations that were appearing, such as drum machines, for example, to express their frustration and their protest at their living conditions and the null possibilities of progress that they had within their reach.
Let these few examples prove the importance and impact of African sensibility in the music of North America in the last two centuries, at least.
Music, Africa and Latin America
Similarly, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Africans in Latin America caused equivalent effects, a mixture, a fusion between autochthonous traditions and their indigenous musical practices with those of the newcomers.
Although many Europeans, as in the United States, also landed on the shores of Central and South America, and that some of their cultural baggage also influenced the new music, perhaps the African had a more decisive role in the final form than they adopted those new genres.
At the Rumba
Cuba was one of the main points of entry for African slaves for centuries and, as a consequence of this, in Havana and Matanzas the Rumba was born, singing and dancing on the docks, playing complex rhythms on the cajones that arrived from the ships. Over time, those songs and rhythms derived into three dances: Guaguanco, Yambu and Columbia and, later, they could be heard, learned and played in the rest of the world.
In Puerto Rico, an important population of slaves who came from different places and could not communicate, favored music to channel their complaints and be the common expression of their inhuman situation. La bomba arose in this context, an irresistible and strongly percussive style that, in the mid-20th century, Rafael Cortijo transformed into a dance genre and that represents the essence of what we call Salsa today.
The more than four million Africans who arrived on the Brazilian coasts, together with the presence of the Portuguese colonizers and their relations, often with marriages and children involved, caused the African heritage to have a way of expression and diffusion greater than in other slave enclaves.
In 1888 slavery was abolished and, with the internal emigration of those freed and the government’s interest in consolidating such a large and diverse country, at the beginning of the 20th century, Samba was born, a syncopated dance genre that continues to define music. Brazilian to this day. Later, it evolved into other musical styles such as Bossa Nova, Samba Pagode or MPB.
In Colombia, also, of course, the African influence took root and combined with European melodies, in addition to indigenous sensibility.
Thus arose Cumbia, melancholic and joyful at the same time, sensual and impetuous, American, Spanish and African, with flutes, drums and Spanish pesia, combined in a powerful musical form.
We must also mention Afro-Peruvian music, the Tamborito from Panama, the Chiqui Chiqui from Costa Rica, the Bolivian Saya or the Candombe in Uruguay, to realize the presence and variety that African rhythms caused throughout Latin America.
We could go on for pages and pages, but this small sample is worth it to understand the deep mark that African music left on the cultures of all America.
The influence of black music on modern and contemporary popular music is very important.
The demonstration of vitality, daring and interest that he has displayed in so many ways over more than a century now, can give us an idea, on the one hand, of the benefits of the cultural mix and the enrichment that it causes, for not to say how inevitable it is, and, on the other, how poor music would be without those combinations of musical elements from one or more traditions.
Purity, although it has been claimed many times as an aesthetic ideal, has never really existed. Everything that is created comes from something previous, from some kind of combination, everything new is a transfigured hybrid, with more or less elements involved, but in no case a sample that can be described as pure or uncontaminated.
Globalization has brought good and bad things to humans, miscegenation has generated all kinds of music, modern communications have ended up mixing everything with everything and, although nothing is ever perfect, we can be happy to live in the era with the most variety. music and more creative possibilities ever.