Africa and the Blues

By Joyner, Charles | The Journal of Southern History, August 2001 | Go to article overview
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Africa and the Blues


Joyner, Charles, The Journal of Southern History


Africa and the Blues. By Gerhard Kubik. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, c. 1999. Pp. xx, 240. Paper, $18.00, ISBN 1-57806-146-6; cloth, $45.00, ISBN 1-57806-145-8.)

Conceding that the blues as a musical form is an "African-American tradition" that "did not develop as such in Africa," and acknowledging that the African character is "somewhat masked" by being sung in English, using strophic forms more analogous to British ballads, and being accompanied on European musical instruments playing European harmonic sequences, ethno-musicologist Gerhard Kubik nonetheless insists that "it is a phenomenon belonging essentially to the African culture world" (p. 197). Kubik is committed to finding, usually from his own field work, an African source for every element of the blues. He frankly acknowledges that he chooses to focus on the Mississippi Delta because it is "the most important core area for the more African stylistic traits in the blues." In fact, he has "difficulty detecting any significant `European' musical components" in the Delta blues other than the use of factory-made musical instruments (p. 83).

Kubik does not fail to find the African traits he is looking for in the blues' tonal structure, vocal style, and instrumental accompaniment. He emphasizes the influence of the west central Sudanic belt, especially northern Nigeria and northern and central Cameroon, as the site of what he calls a "particularly dense accumulation of blues traits" (p. 70). He dismisses the so-called blues scale as "clearly pentatonic," even when Western diatonic chords are superimposed (p. 126). He believes that west central Sudanic pentatonic scales, based on overtones and originating not in musical instrument but in speech, are reinterpreted in the Deep South and preserved in the blues. Kubik emphasizes that African American musicians in the Deep South, sliding a knife blade or bottle neck along a single-string instrument to change the pitch, developed the slide-guitar style so intrinsic to the blues "based on the remembrance and development of central and west-central African monochord zithers" (p. 16). The author is unperturbed by the paucity of evidence for such "monochord zithers" in central and west-central Africa, explaining that they "have been overlooked or not found worth reporting," but he finds a source in the mouthbow traditions of Mozambique. Kubik maintains that "as so often in New World cultures, the association shifted, in this case from one-type of one-stringed instrument (the monochord zither) to another (the mouthbow)" (p.

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