College Prof Ponders the `Black Music' Question

By Green, Tony | The Florida Times Union, February 26, 1998 | Go to article overview

College Prof Ponders the `Black Music' Question


Green, Tony, The Florida Times Union


Some questions are easy to answer. Others aren't so easy.

Try this one on for size: What is black music?

That's a tough one, said professor Lenard Bowie, the man behind

the University of North Florida's long-running "African American

Musical Heritage" course. After all, you can't talk about

American music without talking about black music, and vice

versa. Hank Williams Sr. learned guitar from a black blues

player, while Howlin' Wolf got his moniker from his attempts to

yodel like Jimmie Rogers.

And, Czech classical composer Antonin Dvorak once said that the

music of black Americans was the best possible starting point

for a truly American musical tradition.

That's why, said Bowie, a lot of the definition of "black"

music, is largely semantic. He hopes that by demonstrating how

central African and African-American music is integral to the

American music tradition, he can encourage folks to stop

breaking music into cubbyholes as they do now.

"No other country looks at their music the way we do," said

Bowie, former chair of the music department at UNF. "In Europe,

for example, if someone of gypsy descent writes a symphony, they

don't call it "a gypsy symphony." They just call it a symphony.

The solution to this dilemma is education, Bowie said, which

is where his three-times a week, 16-week course enters the

discussion. Bowie, who has been at UNF for 17 years, started the

course in 1990. And like most things of this sort, the course

evolved, rather than appeared.

Bowie had been teaching a jazz appreciation course, called "All

That Jazz" since 1983. After stepping down as department chair

(that position is currently filled by Gerson Yessin) he decided

to initiate the African-American music course.

"I felt it was important," he said. "Since African-American

music is the embodiment of American music, I felt that it was

important that we have a course that taught African-American

music."

The current popular music landscape bears out the importance of

the course. The modern rock crowd has been enamored of ska --

essentially Caribbean R&B -- for the past several years. Then

there are the heavy-metal hip-hoppers like Jacksonville's own

Limp Bizkit, retro jazzers like Squirrel Nut Zippers and slacker

rappers like Beck. Electronica? Try Detroit techno and

Chicago-style house.

No one needs to reiterate the roots of rock and roll, at least

not with a movie called The Blues Brothers in theaters, or the

centrality of funk, after the in-print endorsements given by

early '90s rockers like Pearl Jam, Primus and Red Hot Chili

Peppers.

And those are just the black-influenced forms. Once you start

adding people like Puff Daddy, Missy Elliott, the Fugees,

Whitney Houston, Master P and Babyface to the equation, you see

what Yale Professor Robert Farris Thompson means when he calls

America "essentially an African nation," where even avowed

racists listen to the blues and walk around in Timberland boots

and baggy jeans. …

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