Grooving Body Movements through Bass Lines: A Tradition in African American Music

By Breckenridge, Stan L. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Grooving Body Movements through Bass Lines: A Tradition in African American Music


Breckenridge, Stan L., The Western Journal of Black Studies


Introduction

Performances of African American music have enjoyed a long tradition and have been and are continually presented to a broad range of audiences. Beginning with the popularity of Ragtime--America's first international music occurring during the 1890s--and continuing with Hip-Hop a century later, African American music has contributed to the social and cultural milieu of American society. Scholars, musicians, and listeners of different cultures and from different countries continue to probe, and offer reasons as to why there exist a wealth of interest and fascination concerning African American music. Aside from obvious reasons, as is the case of music in general (i.e., its interdependence with nature, the social organization of music within a culture, etc.), it is my opinion that African American music contains a certain heartfelt character: an affective quality that permeates one's spiritual, moral, and physical self. Any music, of course, given the right moment may do this; that is not the focus of this study. But rather, it is the importance of "Grooving Body Movements Through Bass Lines," as discussed here that will help uncover the substance of African American music's inner character. Moreover, it is the rhythmic bass line that will be the specific line of inquiry, as it lies, in this music, at the core of musical processes.

As a point of departure, rhythmic bass lines will be viewed and understood as corporeal substance, articulated here as a continuum of melodic/rhythmic movement, whereupon emotional matter exists in its ambient space and is expressed through performance. The intent of which is to show the seriousness of this practice within the tradition of African American music performance.

Underneath the often heavily orchestrated piece marked by complex melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic gestures lies an enlivening continuum or, in the African American vernacular, "groove." Identifiable by a seemingly simple bass line--i.e., a musical synthesis of certain melodic intervals and a particular rhythm--the groove represents the heart of the piece. It is the bedrock by which specific internal matter eventually becomes embodied in external emotions, which are empowered by a rhythmic bass line. It should be pointed out that groove is generally established only through repetition. Similarly, it is through this condition, as will be discussed, where one experiences euphoria (see Asante, 1996).

A zealous rhythmic bass line is often heard in most styles of African American music--which is unquestionably evident in today's hip-hop/rap music--this paper seeks to investigate its association with emotional exhibitions.

Emotional exhibitions commence as internal matter that eventually surface and become a part of the lexical, as well as the dynamic fabric of, for example, a music performance, and thus promote and advance its textual and musical perception, respectively. Assuming that rhythmic bass lines consist of emotional matter and since, in African American music, they are the kernel of musical processes, a logical conclusion would be then to assert that they too could prove to be useful in furnishing fuller understanding. As this paper suggests, a fuller understanding as to the purpose, textual, and contextual meaning of the performance.

It is well known that emotional exhibitions during a music performance of any culture frequently consist of body movements, pathogenic sounds, and/or a plethora of musical dynamics. These, often fortuitous exhibitions invoke as well as reveal--to the performer and listener respectively--further intensity and passion to the purpose of the performance. Despite the fact that such exhibitions are fundamental to the tradition of African American performance and, therefore, would furnish an abundance of information, a discussion combining all of these (body movements, pathogenic sounds, and musical dynamics), would extend beyond the normal length of a published article. …

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