The triumph of Africa in America

In Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began, he spends a great deal of time talking about the fife and drum music of the northern Mississippi hill country, a genre I was completely unfamiliar with. He makes a big deal about how “African” the music is, but his prose alone didn’t quite convince me. (How does one describe completely unheard music, anyway?) I took a look on YouTube found several fascinating clips.

I was instantly enchanted with the unique sound — jazzy flutes and polyrhythms. It reminded me of something, too, but not something I knew in American music. I racked my brain and decided I had heard something like this when I was briefly in Chad in 2006. I looked through my old files and found the following.

I got chills as I watched my 10 year-old videos and realized that this was, in essence, the same music. I compared the audio again and again and found that the drums were all but synced, the phrasing of the woodwind was almost identical, and the vocals at the end of the phrase were quite similar as well. These two groups could easily jam together, with few adjustments.

It’s common to hear music in Latin America and the Caribbean, from Haiti to Colombia to Brazil, that has pretty obvious African antecedents. Although we all know that African music had a huge influence on American music, the links are not always quite as easy to hear. (And sure, Fela Kuti and James Brown may have some similarities, but they were listening to each other.) This is different. I don’t think Mississippian fife and drum players and Chadian flute and drum groups have had any recent interaction, yet they play, in these recordings at least, almost as if they know each other.

Slavery in America was singularly extreme in its repression of cultural heritage. Drums were banned almost everywhere. Ancestral languages were lost. The hinterlands were isolated and the control of the slave state probably more total than in other countries. Yet, through all of that and more, these black Mississippians kept their musical heritage alive. In the notes of their music we hear the voices of West or Central African ancestors who brought a specific musical skill with them and transmitted it to their children, and they to theirs.

Maybe they didn’t think of that transmission of music as a heroic act. Maybe they didn’t consider it “African” — a word that in many contexts was almost a slur for so long in America.  Definitely, it would have been hard for those musical stewards to guess that something called the internet would one day make their sounds so widely available. But they kept the flame of this musical tradition going because it was good and they recognized its power.

I can’t help but feel that those fife and drum players are heroes. Their performance is the telling of a history whose record was forbidden. It’s a triumph of human spirit through generations of unthinkable suffering. It is music as resistance. They kept a flame alive that had gallons of water thrown on it. They didn’t just endure: they overcame.

Bonus video: a short documentary, produced by Lomax, shows more context for the Mississippi music.

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