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The West African Roots of Blues

Blues is one of the most distinctive musical genres that emerged in the 20th century, and certainly one of the most famous and popular ones. While its cultural impact in the field of popular music is immense, the significance of blues is not restricted to how it influenced the music that came after its emergence. To understand blues well, one also has to pay close attention to its historical and cultural roots. As one may reasonably expect, these were the extension of the culture of the first African Americans, brought to the New World as slaves. The vast majority of those hailed from West Africa, and tracing the roots of blues to its historical origin would require close attention to the music and culture of this particular region. To understand the influences that eventually manifested in the new musical genre, one has to establish the connections between blues and West African music and culture. A thorough enough inquiry reveals several: the primacy of voice over instruments, hollers and the call-response structure, and Western substitutes for African instruments, all preserved due to social segregation in American society.

The primacy of vocal parties over the instruments is likely the defining feature shared by blues and West African music alike. It is not just any similarity either – rather, it is the central distinguishing feature of blues. When discussing the defining characteristics of the genre, Kubik (2009) notes that blues is, first and foremost, a “solo singing tradition” (p. 82). Wald (2010) seconds this notion and also points out that vocal traditions link blues to its West African roots. While blues often involves the audience and requires it to interact with the signer, which will be discussed later, a solo singer is still at the center of any given performance. There are also specific vocal patterns and techniques that reveal striking similarities between blues and West African music and culture, and these deserve description in more detail.

One particular similarity between the vocal techniques used by West African performers as well as the blues singers is the holler. The holler – or the moan, as it is alternatively known – is a vocal technique often used by the African Americans working in the field. These were mostly improvisations – sometimes even the moaning sounds without any distinguishable words, and, in other cases, the “improvised meditations on the singer’s feelings’ ‘ (Wald, 2009, p. 12). This technique is also widely used on the other side of the Atlantic, where the first African Americans originally came from. Kubik (2009) reports similar holler and hunting shouts used by the native population of Cameroon in their everyday activities. Thus, the holler – even though it originated as a way of keeping oneself entertained while at work rather than “signing” – is one apparent similarity between the use of vocals in blues and West African culture.

Another common practice shared by the blues and West African singing is the call and response pattern used in both traditions. As mentioned above, blues can involve audiences in the performance, and call and response is the primary way of doing so. The pattern is fairly simple: the lead singer sings a line, and then the audience replies. A response may be a simple repetition of the leading vocalist’s words or a separate line in its own right. Evidently enough, such a pattern is well-suited for large groups of people working together, which is why it was fairly common among the plantation workers of ship crews (Wald 2010). Wald (2010) notes that, in the case of blues, call and response is also the legacy of West African culture, as it is a “widespread African practice” in the region (p. 12). Thus, the exchanges between the lead singer and the audience as a characteristic feature of blues also trace their roots to the musical tradition brought to the New World from West Africa.

Even though blues if, first and foremost, about the vocals, the instruments are quite important as well, and the use of those also reveals significant similarities to West African practices. Admittedly, one would be hard-pressed to find a literal correspondence, as African slaves could bring few if any possessions, such as musical instruments, when slave traders shipped them to America (Wald 2010). Unable to find the instruments they were used to in Africa, the black slaves – even when they were lucky enough to acquire some – had to settle for the ones available in America. These belonged to a different musical tradition, but African Americans used them as stand-ins for African instruments. For instance, the use of harmonica in blues reveals techniques quite similar to West African panpipes and whistles (Kubko, 2009). This tendency to use the instruments belonging to the European musical tradition as substitutes for the African ones and with similar techniques is yet another notable commonality between blues and West African culture.

Yet the blues does not merely have the roots that go all the way back to West African musical tradition brought to America by the first black slaves – it also preserves these traditions remarkably well. The primary reason why music and singing, as practiced by African Americans, retained so much of their African legacy was the strict racial segregation practiced in American society for the greater part of its history. Charters (2019) suggests that if African Americans had an opportunity to integrate into the cultural mainstream of North America, they would have certainly done it to secure the social opportunities that came with it. However, the strict racial segregation forced African Americans to stay a separate group from their white counterparts – “forced to remain apart” (Chapters, 2019, p. 2). This separation naturally led to the emergence of two distinctly different cultures in all aspects, including music. Consequently, instead of integrating into the culture of the white majority following the European musical tradition, African Americans had no other option than to tap into their heritage.

As one can see, there are numerous similarities that connect blues as a genre to its West African roots. To begin with, the emphasis on vocals over instruments is characteristic for West African musical tradition as well as for blues. This commonality translates to specific vocal techniques, such as the holler, which the first African Americans brought with them across the Atlantic. The call and response pattern involving the audience in the performance is yet another similarity between singing as practiced in West African musical tradition and blues alike. West African influence is also evident in instrumental techniques – for example, harmonica functions as a substitute for whistles and panpipes. Social segregation that forcefully put blacks apart from the whites ensured that these bits of African musical tradition remained well preserved in African American tradition that eventually led to the emergence of blues.

References

  1. Charters, Samuel. 2019. The Poetry of the Blues. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
  2. Kubik, Gerhard. 2009. Africa and the Blues. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
  3. Wald, Elijah. 2010. The Blues: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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