The Birth of the Blues

By Bours, Etienne; Nogueira, Alberto | UNESCO Courier, March 1991 | Go to article overview

The Birth of the Blues


Bours, Etienne, Nogueira, Alberto, UNESCO Courier


How far have African musical traditions survived in rock, jazz and blues, whose origins can be traced back to the slave trade?

IN 1954, Elvis Presley recorded his first single. On one side was his version of "That's All Right Mama" by Big Boy Crudup, a black man, a blues singer and the father of rock 'n' roll, and on the other was "Blue Moon of Kentucky" by the white father of bluegrass country music, Bill Monroe. This was a key moment when black music was transmuted by alchemy into white, and white music into black. Presley turned up in the right place at the right time. All he had to do was pick the ripe fruit from the many branches of trees whose roots had for centuries been drawing sustenance from far away.

Many kinds of music which have since become part of our culture-rock, blues, jazz, soul, rhythm and biues, and spirituals; reggae, calypso and merengue from the Caribbean; samba and capoeira from Brazil-would never have existed if it had not been for the infamous trade in ebony wood". Today musicians who seek their roots as well as new sources of inspiration are creating exciting forms of hybrid music.

From Africa to the Americas How long did Africa remain part of the musical heritage the slaves took with them to the Americas? Does it still provide inspiration for the music we know today? Many writers have gone back to Africa to try to answer these questions. They have tried to discover the origins of the blues and of jazz, revealing the incredible distance that has been covered, always emphasizing the possible links-and the nevitable breaks-between African traditions and Afro-American music. On both sides of the Atlantic, music has developed different idioms. "Any similarity to what is heard in the African countries has disappeared," wrote the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentler penteir in 1977.(1)

These new forms of music were created and developed by black people, but cross-fertilization had diluted African memories to varying degrees, depending on where the black communities were established and the social conditions that existed there.

"We might be called a people of dancers, musicians and poets, since important events such as a triumphant return from war or any other reason for popular rejoicing, are celebrated by dancing accompanied by appropriate music and singing, wrote Olaudah Equiano, an Ibo slave taken to Virginia in 1756.(2) These celebrations were not always tolerated. As a rule, the black slaves in Latin America lived in relatively closed communities and were able to preserve some tribal customs as well as their traditional rites and ceremonies. Catholicism allowed a certain latitude towards African religious practices in a context that was often syncretistic. As a result, ritual music survived in such countries as Brazil, Halti and Cuba, where many cults of African origin are still practised.

In contrast, the slaves who were transported to the United States via the Caribbean, where some features of their African culture were modified or obliterated, had to live in fairly close contact with their white owners. All their ancestral beliefs and means of self-expression were affected from the start. In the despair of captivity they clung to their cults, but practised them in secret. Some of these cults survived, surreptitiously mingling with white Protestantism and receiving a new lease of life through contact with the waves of black slaves imported from Haiti, Martinique and Guadeloupe. …

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