A LANGUAGE OF SONG: Journeys in the Musical World of the African Diaspora

By Allen, Ray | American Studies, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

A LANGUAGE OF SONG: Journeys in the Musical World of the African Diaspora


Allen, Ray, American Studies


A LANGUAGE OF SONG: Journeys in the Musical World of the African Diaspora. By Samuel Charters. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2009.

Samuel Charters is well known to serious fans and scholars of blues music. His pioneering book and Folkways LP, both titled The Country Blues and released in 1959, helped ignite the blues revival of the 1960s. But Charter's excursions into black music were never limited to blues or the 1950/60s; over the past half-century he has penned more than a dozen books and produced nearly 100 LP/CDs on a wide range of African American, Afro-Caribbean, and West African music traditions. His latest work, A Language of Song, is a retrospective collection of essays that takes readers on a Transatlantic musical voyage. With eloquent and richly descriptive prose, Charters brings us inside a Fula drumming ceremony in Gambia, a steel pan yard in Port of Spain, a Carnival procession in Bahia, a reggae concert in Kingston, a death-watch ceremony on the Bahaman island of Andros, a Zydeco dance hall in southwest Louisiana, a second line jazz celebration in New Orleans, and a gospel church in Harlem. The musical thread that connects these varied expressions is a deep-seated African voice; one that not only survived but evolved throughout the New World as transplanted Africans melded their musical sensibilities with those of their European oppressors in seemingly endless variations.

Charters does not strive for a thorough historical survey grounded in key genres and seminal figures. Rather he presents his personal impressions based on field observations, conversations with a fascinating cast of musicians/producers/promoters, and readings of select historical sources. Each vignette deftly weaves together ethnography, social history, musical criticism, and travelogue; readers learn what the music sounds like, where it came from, and how it became integrated into the fabric of everyday life. This interdisciplinary approach will be well received by a wide range of music, history, and cultural studies scholars, while the beautifully crafted, evocative writing will appeal to academic and general audiences alike.

These accolades notwithstanding, A Language of Song has its shortcomings. Too often Charters plays loose with his sources-he writes a flowing historical narrative, but the reader is not always sure where the information comes from. …

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