“Africa is at once the most romantic and the most tragic of continents. Its very names reveal its mystery and wide-reaching influence. It is the ‘Ethiopia’ of the Greek, the ‘Kush’ and ‘Punt’ of the Egyptian, and the Arabian ‘Land of the Blacks.’ To modern Europe it is the ‘Dark Continent’ and ‘land of Contrasts’; in literature it is the seat of the Sphinx, gnomes, and pixies, and the refuge of the gods; in commerce it is the slave mart and the source of ivory, ebony, rubber, gold, and diamonds. What other continent can rival in interest this Ancient of Days? There are those, nevertheless, who would write universal history and leave out Africa”
W.E.B du Bois in Music: Black, White and Blue by Ortiz M.Walton
Whatever people are trying to hide of the African Roots of so many cultural expressions in America, it will be the hardest to do that with the influence of African music. African music did have an immense influence on the musical scene everywhere where the African slaves were transported. Music as a tool most African were able to transport with them, as a tool for cultural expression and as a tool for communication that was heavily suppressed by the slave masters. Today a lot of people would not believe how strong the influence of African music is on contemporary music all over the world. I will just give a short list of music styles with African roots (or developed by African Americans):
Afoxé, Bachata, Bambuco, Bluegrass, Blues, Bomba, Cajun music, Calypso, Candombe, Cueca, Dancehall, Disco, Doo-wop, Dub, Festejo, Funk, Go Go, Gospel, Haitian music, Hip Hop Music, Jazz, Landó, Lovers rock, Maracatu, Mento, Merengue, Neo Soul, Plena, Ragga, Reggae, Rocksteady, Ragtime, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll, Samba, Samba-reggae, Ska, Son, Soul Music, Spirituals, Swing, Zydeco… and so on.
So, if I wanted to go into detail, I’d have to write a book. Thus, I will try to concentrate on only few aspects of the African influence on the music in the Americas. I will concentrate first on traditional African music and its concepts, and in the second part I will focus on the musical bow, its beginnings and its branching throughout the world, starting in Africa, and somewhere landing as Berimbau in Brazil. For all those people who will now say that the Berimbau was not always part of Capoeira. You are all right. The Berimbau seems to be involved only in the late 19th century. But concepts of traditional African music seemed to be present long before, like responsive singing and the usage of drums. And since the Berimbau is now the accepted number one instrument of Capoeira and even more, since the use of the Berimbau spreads all over the world through Capoeiristas playing it, it is important and interesting to know where it comes from, right?
The Soul of African Music
First of all: Africa is big. Really big. With an area of over 30 million square kilometers and more than 900 million inhabitants it is 3 times bigger than Europe and has about 25% more inhabitants (and it is still 20% bigger than North America and has 80% more inhabitants). And much more than the latter two continents Africa is highly diverse in terms of languages and cultures. The exact numbers are not known, but there are well over thousand languages and cultures on the continent. All of them have different rituals, arts, social systems and believes. So talking about “African music” is about as sloppy as talking about “European music” and intermixing Irish stepdance with Bavarian Schuhplattler and the Bulgarian Paidushko horo. So every statement being made here is to be seen in this light. I try to be as general as possible and not to specify on a specific music. And I will concentrate on those facets of “African music” which did have an effect on American music.
The most important thing about African music is its usage as tool for communication. This communication is either with the gods, with spirits, between different villages/tribes/nations or between certain individuals of one group. Words are a means of communication, yes, but by combining it with rhythm and performance multiple layers of communication are achieved, only obvious for those who understand all of them. This came as an advantage of the practice of African music in the diaspora.
There were many different types of music, each having a function in traditional social life. The emphasis is on community and involvement of different partners, not on watching a solo artist show her talent (although, yes, there is also solo music in traditional African societies). And there was different music for about every phase of life and every kind of happening, if it’s the birth of a person, marriage songs, hunting songs, partying songs.
African music was most of the time sacred and secular at the same time. It was not depending on the music, but on the person receiving or participating in the music. Some people were just enjoying the music, the dance and the rhythms, while others saw the spiritual aspects. And most did both! There was no separation of music, spiritual dimensions and the world in traditional African music. Instruments were like persons, they had spirits and were to be taken care of – by specialists sometimes who were the only ones allowed to play it. We have the same in Capoeira, where the Berimbau is treated as “the mestre of the roda” and the Viola “cries” (Chora Viola) and where the falling of a calabash feels to us like a kick into one’s groins.
Traditional African music is often described as rich and colourful. That is, because to Western ears African music does sound complex, polyrhythmic and polyphonic. This is achieved by the use of a large number of diverse instruments and the happening of multiple events within the music. Farspread is the establishement of a relationship between a leader and the chorus. The two parts respond to each other in a rhythmic call-response pattern, with short phrases and a high degree of spontaneity and variation. Together with these elements the element of dance is usually part of African music and adds to the colourful image.
Participation is an important aspect in traditional African music, as they were usually social events. The audience is not bound to only listen, but does take an active role in providing “energy” to the performance.
These attributes of traditional African music did come with the slaves when they were brought to the Americas and they helped the slaves build up codes and the spreading of information and ideas among slaves of the same and of different farms.
An Old instrument
There are thousands of instruments all over the world and also in Africa. And each of them does have a fascinating history – on the other side: there is no way one post could explain the roots of all African instruments which made an impact in American culture. But I will do so with one: The musical bow.
The musical bow is old, reaaaally old. The concept of using a bow to produce sounds is as “instinctive” as using anything hard and resonating as a drum. The history of the musical bow goes back as much as 17 000 years. Cave paintings in southern France do show the use of bows both for hunting and for “fun”. The music bow seems to have originated in Africa, because today the musical bow does have its highest variability and distribution there (there are only few examples of musical bows outside of Africa). In Africa they have thousands of names, like Samuius at the Zulu, Gom-Gom at the Hottentots, Bobre in Mozambique, Zedzi lava in Madagascar, and Hunga or N’ Kungo in Angola. Interesting is that the Hunga does look much like the Brazilian Berimbau, a “bow with a gourd resonator open like a bell tied to its back. The tunes are varied by the amount of opening between the player’s body and the gourd and by moving it over different parts of the stomach. The string is held between the finger and the thumb and beaten with a slender cane.” The Madagassy Zedzi lava is similar, the player has in his “right hand…a small rattle of plam leaf; also a slender stalk of split cane, with which he strikes the string, its note blending with the sound of the rattle.” (both quotes from Geographical Distribution of the musical bow, Otis T. Mason)
On new paths
From Africa the musical bow did start to spread all over the world, most recently through the journeys of Capoeiristas who took the Berimbau with them. Before it was slaves who might not have taken their instruments with them when they were enslaved, but who did know how to build them. And so they did.
All of you (especially those people who know about Capoeira) know that I will come down to the Berimbau at the end of this post. But the Berimbau is not the only contemporary musical bow of the African Diaspora. And the Americas are not the only continent who has experienced a massive influx of Africans and their culture (although the Americas had the strongest influx). Asia was another place where Africans went, via trade, but also sold as slaves.
A side note: slavery always existed in a certain form or another. The Old Egyptians had slaves, the Romans had slaves and there were slaves in the Middle Ages, both in Europe and Asia. Also the Arabians were heavily engaged in the slave trade. And yes, there was slavery in between African nations, too. The difference between slavery in the Colonial era and slavery in the pre-Colonial era were the vast amounts of slaves being transported to the Americas and the the way slaves were treated like animals. In all eras before there were at least several examples of slaves who achieved higher ranks, who could buy themselves free and who became kings or at least high-order functionals of the state.
Anyway, so African slaves, but also African sailors and tradesmen arrived in Asia long before Marco Polo arrived in China. Of course that is first because Africa and Asia are so close together meeting in the Middle East, where there was always intercultural mixing and contact (e.g. between Babylon and the Pharaos, between the Hethits and the Pharaos, between Ethiopians and the Arabs). But Africans did also go as far as India, where commercial contacts were established as early as 1100. Settlers moved from Ethiopia to India and became known as the Siddi, an Afro-Asian population still existent today (although slowly diminishing because of intermarriage). The Siddi are descendants of Bantu speaking nations from East Africa and Ethiopia, but also from South Africa, like Angola. Those came especially in the 17th century, when the Portuguese started to trade in slaves, too.
And of course they also brought their culture and – in this case – also their music bows with them. Here it is called Malunga and is a Berimbau-like bow played with the gourd to the belly and with a rattle enriching the sound of the musical bow. For a sample of the Malunga sound, click here. The Malunga is used in rituals today, e.g. in Ramadan when a responsible person wakes up the people before dawn to eat he walks around the streets calling and playing the Malunga.
An Old Instrument in the “New World”
And finally we come back to the Americas, where, due to the excessive slave trades of four centuries, the African Diaspora is everywhere, in the streets, in the language, in the culture, in the music. And so is the music bow. It is not only present in the Berimbau of Brazil, it is also represented in the Appalachian mouthbow, the gualambau of the Guarani Amerindians in Paraguay and in the burumbumba of Cuba.
And so we come down to the Berimbau, which has become the Capoeiristas instrument since the 19th century. The Berimbau, also called Berimbau-de-Barriga, came to Brazil with the Angolan slaves who called it mbulumbumba (Ngumbi and Handa of Southwestern Angola), humbo (in Luanda), nhungo (Mbunda) or Rucumbo (Congo people). There were a dozen other African musical bows preceeding the Berimbau, the Berimbau itself did evolve into its recent form in Brazil (though the only thing which changed is that it is louder and bigger than most of the African instruments, the concept and details are all African inventions). The African predecessors were also existent in Brazil and only got pushed aside in the 19th century. And in the 19th century Jean Baptiste Depret did paint ‘The Blind Singer’ a picture showing a Berimbau and a Lamellaphone player, that is the picture shown in the beginning of this post. It is either used as a single instrument or in Batuque and/or (who knows how exact the observants were witht their assumptions in the 19th century) Candomblé rituals before, but the usage of the Berimbau in Capoeira though is not mentioned before 1888.
And today? Well, most people who know the Berimbau do automatically connect it with Capoeira. There is also some popular music using the Berimbau (like Max Cavalera) and through Capoeira the Berimbau does spread to places where it was never seen before. And even today people are not used to the sight of the Berimbau in Europe and North America, thinking that it is a kind of alternative proto-instrument, too primitive to be taken serious. Let’s prove otherwise!
Ok, so much for the influence of African music on the Americas, the World and Capoeira 🙂 I definitely know that there is much more to tell, but as usual I tried to keep it streamlined and I hope I managed.
Geographical Distribution of the Musical Bow, Otis T. Mason, American Anthropologist, Vol. 10, No. 11 (Nov., 1897), pp. 377-380
Music: Black, White and Blue, Ortiz M.Walton
Traditional African Music, Karlton E. Hester (editor in chief)
Rhythms of Resistance, African Musical Heritage in Brazil, Peter Fryer
The Natural History of the Musical Bow, Henry Balfour in American Anthropologist, Vol.2, No.1 (Jan. 1900) pp. 164-166
The Drum and its Role in Yoruba Religion, Ademola Adegbite, Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol.18, No.1, 1988, pp. 15-26