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The African roots of blues music (the blues scale)

15 Sep
The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1893)

I’ve played drums in an all-nonwhite rock band called Sunata for seven years (2013-2020, before the pandemic) and djembe for about five years. Music, especially Black and African-American music, runs in my family and culture. My uncle, a freelance musician who toured throughout the 1970s, told me to study blues and jazz music because, as he put it, blues and jazz are the mother and the father, while R&B and rock-and-roll are the son and the daughter. Without blues and jazz music, American popular music wouldn’t exist. Blues and jazz come from the same parent — Africa.

For this blog post, I will be focusing on the African retention in blues music, specific scales and notes. By looking at the scales and notes, it’s obvious, African-American blues music is African in origin and those scales and notes were retained despite the violence of slavery. Blues is considered an “American” genre of music but it’s still a historical and cultural continuation of African folk music adapted to a new environment. Therefore, African-American blues is both a foundation of American popular music and, stylistically, part of the larger African cultural family because it is fundamentally an African style of music.

What/who is African-American?

Defining Black/African-American music and its African retention necessitates defining what is African-American identity. I, myself, identify as African-American and a proud person of African descent; on both sides of my family, I am a descendant of enslaved Africans brought to the United States whose slave labor was exploited and were the start-up capital for American capitalism. They were victims and survivors of U.S. chattel slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. Despite their suffering, they created their own culture and way of life within the United States.

My ancestors were kidnapped from various regions of Western and Central Africa. Like other descendants of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas, my true ancestral lineage cannot be traced directly to one single African ethnic group, nation of people, or country. We don’t come from one specific ethnicity or nation. The modern nation-state borders in Africa were carved by the Europeans during the 1884 Berlin Conference to mark their colonial spheres of control. So, before and during the transatlantic slave trade, countries like Ghana, Nigeria, or Namibia did not exist. The violence of slavery severed direct communication with our Indigenous African cultures. We lost our names, languages, and long-term communication with previous African civilizations. The transatlantic slave trade snatched and kidnapped 45 African ethnic groups from Western and Central Africa — from the Senegambia region to Ghana, Nigeria, modern-day Congo, Angola, and Mozambique. When those Africans were enslaved in the Americas, wherever they were at, they communed, married each other, and formed their own communities and cultures. My true lineage, the like the lineage of other people of African descent whose ancestors were enslaved in the Americas, is a fusion of different African ethnic groups, including the Temne people of Sierra Leone.

Blues music is ours; it’s an example of our ancestors preserving African music in the United States.

What is music?

When people listen to music, oftentimes it’s passive rather than active listening. This is even more pronounced with the advent of music streaming. Therefore, what I have noticed is that when I ask people about the music they like and why it appeals to them, they point to superficial elements compared to someone who is music geek, aficionado, or musician who actively listens to the music and picks apart certain elements that make the music what it is and are able to detect why they like what they’re listening to. I definitely fall in the latter category. Before I taught myself how to play drums and played in a band, I learned how to play piano in elementary school, learned the basics of reading and writing sheet music (not Mozart level but I can understand it), and, when Garageband came out, I and some of my friends would mess around and produce our own music for fun. So when I’ve listened to music, I was always attuned to the specific elements of music at play and how they worked together because I wanted to know why the songs I liked spoke to me so much, hit me on a deep level, and made me feel certain emotions. The superficial elements of music composition are often the lyrics and language they’re in rather than the singer’s vocal technique, inflections, notes they’re hitting, and key they’re in; it’s similar with rappers, people often ignore a rapper’s flow and how well their unique flow patterns dance around, with, and on top of a beat but still find the 1. Or, if it’s instruments, they like the way the “sound” makes them “feel” rather than understanding the melodies and rhythm at play that make the music “sound” a particular way and, as a result, induce the feeling that they are feeling. I know this well because, as a drummer, one of my main jobs is making people dance and feel the beat.

As a musician, I don’t expect the average listener to have that depth of knowledge of music. They don’t need to in order to enjoy and appreciate music. But I do notice that listeners who are really invested in and passionate about music can pick out certain parts of music that they’re listening to. So the question is…what is music?

Aside from lyrics and language, music, itself, is its own language. Music is, fundamentally, the art of arranging sounds to produce a composition through melody, harmony, rhythm, and timbre. There are some universal aspects of music that cut across all cultures and then there are musical elements and characteristics that are specific to different cultures and, sometimes, are completely unorthodox compared to others. To illustrate this further, in my experience recording in professional studios, the recording process often starts with getting the drums down first, then other instruments, before the singer even goes to the vocal booth. Why is that? Because you need the basic elements of the music down first, especially the drums since the drums determine the tempo and rhythmic foundation of the song and drummers often keep other musicians on track. That process makes it easier for the engineer to mix the song. Sometimes you do have to work with a singer who has no musical backing at all but they still want and need musicians to back them up to complete the actual song versus just sing a cappella. So when listeners are obsessed with singers, they are actually listening to the icing on the cake and forgetting the flour, sugar, and eggs that you need to make the cake. Therefore, for this blog post, I am focusing on the scale and notes in blues music to highlight the African retention and illustrate cultural continuity because scale and notes determine the actual composition of music versus the language the lyrics are in or even the specific instruments being played.

African pentatonic system = blues scale

A blues scale, which is what makes the blues sound like the blues musically (versus just the lyrics or specific instrument), is a pentatonic scale (five-note scale) with a flatted fifth and blue notes; it can also be played in a heptatonic scale. A pentatonic scale is a five-note scale, while heptatonic is seven notes. That specific scale originates from Africa, particularly West Africa. It is not found in the classical Western tradition or other musical traditions around the world, which have their own unique musical systems. It’s similar with blue notes, which are commonly found in blues and jazz music, is a note that is sung or played at a slightly different pitch from standard — usually a lowered/flattened third, fifth, or seventh note. Blue notes are not “standard” in European classical music; they are practically non-existent and “alien.” In the African musical tradition, however, blue notes are not “alien” but rather part of its “standard.” Even the term “blue note,” itself, implies a note that is alien to a specifically defined standard; that standard is European so, to the European standard, these notes are “blue” but these notes are not “blue” in the African tradition.

While drums were banned in North America (in response to the Stono Rebellion), string instruments were not. West Africa, such as the Senegambia region where many enslaved Africans were kidnapped from and brought to the United States, has stringed instruments like the akonting, which is a predecessor to the banjo. For much of its history, before it was co-opted and stolen by white minstrel musicians in the mid-19th century, the banjo was considered a plantation instrument that enslaved Africans played. Uncle John Scruggs, for example, was a banjo player and former slave from Virginia. An Italian friend of Thomas Jefferson who visited the United States during the American Revolution wrote to him in 1788 about his visit. In the letter, the Italian friend and correspondent noted, “We want dancing and raree-shows and ramadans to forget miseries and wretchedness as much as the Africo-americans want the Banjar to digest with their kuskus the hardships of their lives, and the unsafe treatments of their Overseers” (italics added). At the time, the banjo was called a “Banjar” and the “kuskus” he observed was most likely a cereal-like food from West African millet, the origin of African-American dishes like. It is interesting that he associated enslaved Africans playing the banjo with the hardships of their lives and oppression they faced, which shows that enslaved Africans were probably playing something like blues music as far back as the late 1700s. Therefore, enslaved Africans were able to play their pentatonic system on their own instruments in the United States.

Austrian ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik, in his book Africa and the Blues, explains the stylistic traits of African-American blues music, especially Delta Blues, and the African roots of those traits. According to Kubik:

“I am suggesting that many of the rural blues of the Deep South are stylistically an extension and merger of basically two broad accompanied song-style traditions in the west central Sudanic belt: (1) A strongly Arabic-Islamic song style, as found for example among the Hausa. It is characterized by melisma, wavy intonation, pitch instabilities within a pentatonic framework, and a declamatory voice production. All this behavior develops over a central reference tone, sometimes like a bourdon. (2) An ancient west central Sudanic stratum of pentatonic song composition, often associated with simple work rhythms in a regular meter, but with notable off-beat accents. This style reaches back perhaps thousands of years to the early West African sorghum agriculturalists, now scattered through the Sudanic Belt in remote savanna, often mountainous areas. This style has remained unaffected by the Arabic/Islamic musical intrusion which reached West Africa along the trans-Saharan trading routes, and subsequently spread from the early Islamic states, Mali (ca. 1230-1400 A.D.) and Songhai (ca. 1464-1600 A.D.) to the emerging Hausa city states and Fulbe courts.

It is important to understand that across the west central Sudanic belt these two song-style traditions are contrastive. The Arabic-Islamic style from Mauritania to Lake Chad is urban in its genesis, is cosmopolitan, reflects social stratification, incorporates many bardic genres, and is accompanied with instruments that often (but not always) have a North African historical background. The ‘ancient Nigritic’ style, on the other hand, is rural, is a part of the millet-agricultural life cycle, and, if accompanied at all, makes use of percussive devices that have millennia-old history in the savanna.” [pgs. 94-65; bold mine]

This is crucial. Blues music is characterized by a simple work rhythm, in a pentatonic scale, played with syncopation (off-beat accents). This blues characteristic laid the foundation for rock-and-roll (the rhythm and syncopation makes it “rock” and “roll”) and played a crucial role in founding American pop music.

Kubik also points out that the African pentatonic system that roots the blues goes back thousands of years and the Arab vocal melisma was superimposed on that pentatonic scale system. Melisma is singing a single syllable of text while moving between different notes, which gives the vocals a very “wavy” and stretched out sound; melisma in Arab-Islamic vocal tradition stems from Islamic calls to prayer. “Arabic-Islamic musical concepts were imposed on a local pentatonic stratum that had flourished perhaps for several thousand years in the pearl millet-growing savanna cultures of West Africa. The growing of millet was developed there between ca. 5,000 and 1,000 B.C. The Islamic influences spread across the region from the centers of trade and power, such as Timbuktu, and later the Hausa city states,” according to Kubik. He further explains:

“It is important to realize that the Arabic-Islamic song-style as perpetuated by Hausa itinerant musicians, Fulbe and Hausa court music, and other traditions consists of a cluster of traits determining the presentation of a song, i.e., in a declamatory manner directed to some real or imaginary … Blues, which in its genesis drew from a variety of vocal genres including work and cattle-herding songs transformed into field hollers, and string-accompanied minstrel traditions, owes its declamatory, melismatic articulation to the Arabic-Islamic song-style cluster, but its pentatonic scales ultimately to the ‘ancient Nigritic’ song-style traditions. [pg. 95; bold added]

The Arabic vocal influence in blues stems from the spread of Islam in West Africa. When Islam spread in West Africa, indigenous Africans did not give up their traditional spiritual traditions. In fact, Africans adapted Islam and Islamic culture to their existing traditions because that was the best way to accept Islam as a religion without fundamentally changing African culture and society or, worse, causing friction among different Africans. This is why, throughout West Africa, Sufi orders of Islam spread. Sufism allowed for Islam to spread while adapting itself to indigenous African society, while not completely giving up traditional African spiritual systems; this is very similar to how Sufism spread throughout India and made room for respecting Hinduism without sacrificing Islam altogether. But, at the same time, compared to mainstream Sunni Islam, African Sufism may seem unorthodox.

Music professor and prominent scholar of African music J. H. Kwabena Nketia, in his book The Music of Africa, points out that Arab-Islamic influence in Africa was “uneven”; while North Africa and northern Sudan, where Bedouin Arabs interacted with Amazigh people, adopted many Arabic musical traits, south of the Sahara Desert in Africa was different. He explains, “In some parts of west Africa for example, it appears that African converts to Islam did not have to abandon their traditional music completely, even where they learned Islamic cantillation or became familiar with Arabic music. On the contrary, they continued to practice it, making such modifications in resources or refinements in style as contact with the new musical culture suggested” [pg. 10]. Nketia adds,

“…it was generally only the more superficial aspects of Arabic musical style that seemed to have attracted those societies in contact with Islam who did not give up their traditional music. These traits include features of vocal technique identified with Islamic cantillation — such as voice projection and its accompanying mannerism of cupping the ear with the palm of the hand, or a slight degree of ornamentation — and facilitated by the traditional emphasis in Islamized areas of Africa on monodic singing. The more important aspect of Arabic style, the system of melodic and rhythmic modes, does not seem to have been generally adopted, for this would have entirely changed the character of the music of those societies [pgs. 11-12; bold added].

Therefore, Nketia says, “it is not surprising…to find extensions of traditional customs or the use of indigenous resources in the musical practice of Islamic-African communities” [pgs. 12-13]. There is a desert concert in the Sahel region, southern Algeria, where African folk music is played regularly. There is traditional African music, which, if you listen closely, is essentially a predecessor to modern blues and rock music. That’s why the music is often called African desert rock music. In addition, because of the unique cultural make-up of the region, there is also Arab-influenced music, as well, played alongside traditional African music. That shows the unique fabric of the African Sahel and the interplay between traditional African music and Arab influences layered on top of a pre-existing African tradition. So while blues utilizes Arabic melisma in the vocals, the pentatonic scale system is African. That African scale system is the fundamental root of blues music.

Nketia also explains the various melodies, rhythms, scale patterns, and notations of indigenous African music. In the chapter on vocal melodies in The Music of Africa, Nketia shows the pentatonic system, which includes a flatted fifth, in an African vocal melody: C-D-E-G-B [pg. 150]. Nketia explains:

“…instead of a major sixth, a minor seventh is used. That is, instead of C-D-E-G-A, we have C-D-E-G-B… this gives a distinctive character to the music. An important feature of melodic organization associated with pentatonic structures is that of transposition, whereby the melody is shifted from one position of a trichord to another. The shift may be a whole step, or as much as two or three steps, up or down. That is, there could be a shift from a G-A-B or E-G-A-B sequence to an F-G-A or D-F-G-A sequence within the same song, or from A-G-F to D’-C-B in the same song” [pg. 150; bold added].

African-American musician and musicologist Samuel Floyd, Jr. also explained that the pentatonic scale enslaved Africans were playing was from Africa. In his book The Power of Black Music, Floyd writes:

Whatever their African source, early blues melodies were based on a pentatonic arrangement that included blue notes — or the potential for blue notes — on the third and fifth degrees of its scale. As the same neutral intervals are found in the music of some African societies, the blues intonation was not new to African Americans; it was new and strange only to those who were not in tune with the culture. Early blues was as free as the other African-American genres, only later becoming tamed and forced into the eight-, twelve-, and sixteen-bar frameworks that became somewhat common” [pg. 76; bold added].

As he points out, the African pentatonic system either has blue notes or naturally makes room for blue notes. Floyd is correct, the African-based pentatonic system of the blues was later “tamed” into a standard that can appeal to a broader audience, i.e., the 12-bar blues that everyone is familiar with. But when we are talking about the blues and its origin, you can’t start with the 12-bar blues; that came later and “tamed” the actual blues.

Floyd further explains the African traditions that undergird the music of early African-American blues musicians:

“The earliest great southern blues musicians for whom we have good documentation are Blind Lemon Jefferson (1897-1929) of the Texas tradition and Charley Patton of the Delta, both of whom were seminal figures. But there were others, too, of singular influence, of whom Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter [1888-1949]) and Mississippi John Hurt (1893-1966) were among the most versatile and original. They all had in common the vocal quality and variations in timbre that make the genre distinctive: the nasal, foggy, hoarse texture that delivered the elisions, hums, growls, blue notes, and falsetto, and the percussive oral effects of their ancestors. Instrumentally, these bluesmen followed the African tradition of timbral distortion: the guitar players applied bottle necks and knife blades to the strings of their instruments to modify their naturally produced sounds; the mouth-harp players produced variations in timbre and volume by alternately blowing and sucking and, with their cupped fingers and palms, covering and uncovering the air columns of their instruments” [pg. 80; bold added].  

Kubik, in an interview, explains how the integration of the indigenous African pentatonic system was formed by African-American blues guitarists:

Across the West African savanna you often find a characteristic pentatonic system. We discovered that it is generated from the use of harmonics up to the 9th, sometimes the 10th partial. That is this kind of the scale, from top to bottom:

D C Bb G E C

It is a so-called natural scale. It is slightly different from the notes found on European instruments with their tuning temperament. If you can construct the natural harmonic series over a fundamental you call see, the 5th partial will be a somewhat flat major third which we call E-386, and the 7th partial is indeed flat by 31 cents, we call it B-flat-969. It’s not nuclear physics, of course. Now B-flat-969 is the higher blue note. Next, if you transpose this West African savanna scale from the level of C to the level of F, the fifth down, or a fourth up (it doesn’t matter), you get this scale:

G F Eb C A F

Once again with two slightly flat intervals as compared with the notes of the Western tempered total system. And now comes the trick. If you integrate these two pentatonic columns, the basic form and the transposition, you get the common blues tonal scale, showing an interference pattern between the pitches of E-386 over C and E-flat-969 over F. That explains the fluctuating quality of the lower blue note.

It seems this integration was reached by African American musicians in the late 19th century when they were trying to align the tonality of field hollers, many of which are in savanna pentatonic system, with a guitar chord progressions they had learned. It then turned out to be possible to first back a field holler melody with the tonic chord (C) on the guitar, and then switch back to the sub dominant chord (F). But the dominant chord was alien to the new system, and therefore, as I mentioned, blues and jazz history is also the history of many temps to change it or substitute it.”

Essentially, African-American musicians used the pentatonic system they already knew and were familiar with from Africa, played them on string instruments, and matched them with the field hollers on plantations, which were also in an African pentatonic system. That pentatonic system included blue notes or the potential for blue notes. 

There is other evidence showing the African pentatonic system that the African-American blues is rooted in. German musicologist Carl Engel wrote, in his 1870 book The Music of the Most Ancient Nations, a scale from Senegambia and a Congolese scale that turn out to be exactly similar to the modern blues scale, with the flatted fifth included.

Artist and composer MM Coston pointed out that “In an old book written by Carl Engel and titled “The Music of the Most Ancient Nations…” which was published in 1870, among the numerous scales he presents are the following two: The scale on page 12 in the example labeled 4 gives the notes of a zanze (mbira or thumb piano) from Senegambia (now Senegal and Gambia in west Africa) as:   A   D#/Eb   E   D   G   A   C   D. Although given in the book out of order (and the 2nd and 3rd degrees are in a higher octave), these are the exact notes of the Minor Blues Scale in A which is   A   C   D   Eb   E  G   A.” He adds, “Surprisingly, the existence of Engel’s scale challenges the common argument that the b5 was added by theorists in the 1930s.

Coston also examines the Congolese scale, “The scale on page 13 in the example labeled 5 gives the notes of a vissandschi (also a mbira or thumb piano) from Congo in west central Africa as G   B   Bb   A   G   D   F   Eb   Bb   G   D   F   G   F   D   F   D   F   G   A. Omitting repeated notes the scale is G A   Bb   B   D   Eb   F   G.” He further explains,

The first 5 notes, octave and 9th belong to the Major Blues Scale in G, which is G A Bb B   D   E   G.   What is particularly interesting is that the major blues scale has often been understood as created by adding a b3 to a pentatonic scale. This interpretation made sense to scholars because pentatonic scales are found in cultures around the world, so adding a b3 would be a logical next step.  The scale given in the book, however, suggests that the scale may have originated as an heptatonic (7 note) scale which evolved into the modern Major Blues scale by replacing the 6th and 7th degrees (Eb and F) with the note between (E).

Even though the scales given in the book are heptatonic, the blues scale can be both pentatonic and heptatonic with a flatted fifth or third; inclusion of the flatted fifth or flatted third or seventh and blue notes are important and that’s, essentially, what Coston hits on — he’s finding the notes that are “alien” to other cultures but natural to Africa. This is clear evidence of the existence of blue notes in the African scale system without the influence of other cultures.

Engel’s book proves that the African origins of the blues scale were actually noted by music historians as far back as 1870, just five years after the American Civil War ended and without the advent of modern music recording. The reason why these specific notes and scales are important is because they don’t exist in the European standard of music. 

It is also important to note, that when it comes to pentatonic scales, they are used by indigenous peoples across the world — Africa, the Americas, Asia. In fact, pentatonic scales are fairly common around the world since the five-note scale makes it easy for anyone to pick up on. When finding the roots of the blues, people often overlook this and it leads to flawed analyses, as in looking for similarities that don’t exist and ignoring crucial cultural distinctions. The Native American pentatonic system is different from the African pentatonic system, which is what the blues is rooted in; the Native American traditional pentatonic system lacks the blue notes found in the African tradition — essentially, the blue notes that are “standard” in the African pentatonic are not standard in the Native American pentatonic style. The sheet music for Native American style flute music clarifies this. When looking up pentatonic scales for Native American flute, they do include a blues scale but it’s very clear the blues scale is distinct from the Native American standard pentatonic when one is trying to play Native American style flute, which is a dead give-away as to the African origins of the blues pentatonic. To play blues scale on Native American flute, the player has to add an extra note, a blue note, to the Native American standard pentatonic — again, dead give-away. In fact, some sites will include the scales of other ethnic cultures, along with the Native American standard, and the distinctions between Native American style and other traditions becomes clearer. It’s also important to keep in mind that even though Native Americans experienced horrific genocide in the United States and are still dealing with settler colonialism, there are Indigenous communities that manage to preserve their music, hence why outsiders are able to study Native American flute music — they’re resilient enough to preserve their culture despite genocidal violence. So indigenous peoples throughout the world each have a pentatonic system that’s unique to their culture and way of life; African-American blues music is rooted in the African pentatonic system, which, unlike other traditions, makes room for blue notes.

Similarly, Native American drumming doesn’t emphasize polyrhythms and syncopation (off-beat accents) the way the African tradition does nor are heavily syncopated rhythms the driving force of the music, which is different than African music; rather, their rhythms tend to be more straight-forward, to keep dancers on beat for ceremonies (as a djembe player, the difference between the two traditions is pretty obvious but an untrained ear would see both as the same). At the same time, both cultures see a sacred role for drums and dancing. The same applies to string music; a lot of African string music will emphasize repetitive rhythms and syncopation in a way that Native American flute music does not, which is why African string instruments would naturally create blues music. Both African and Native American cultures have pentatonic scales, drums, vocal chants, and rhythms but there are clear distinctions between both when you pay close attention; again, they are specific to their own cultures, environments, and ways of life. It’s only through a Eurocentric view that they are all the same. Just because Native American music utilizes pentatonic doesn’t mean their pentatonic system is the same as the African system. It’s just that both cultures, along with indigenous peoples around the world, use pentatonic scales and drums to preserve their own stories and don’t have to “influence” each other to do so. However, there were some African-American musicians of partial Native American ancestry, such as Charley Patton (not all African-American blues musicians and guitarists, however; people overhype the actual Native American lineage of African-Americans who, on average, have around 1%-2% Native American blood; except for some, that doesn’t give us a rightful claim to Native American heritage).

From a Eurocentric lens, pentatonic scales are often classified as “ancient,” since so many ancient civilizations used them in their music, or “tribal,” “exotic,” or “ethnic” so it is easy for people to conflate different indigenous musical traditions simply because they are playing in a pentatonic scale; it’s the same with drums and rhythm — to Western ears, they are all “tribal” and offer a retreat for people wishing to get away from modernity. The corporate commercialization of “world music” makes this misunderstanding of specific indigenous forms of music even more difficult. Different forms of indigenous music around the world, each with their own specific sacred elements and unique cultures they’re attached to, get lumped together into “world music,” packaged by Western-owned music industry, and sold as a commercial product for people who need to “feel tribal,” escape from Western modernity, get in touch with some mythical long-lost Indigenous ancestor that they have never met or likely only exists in family myths rather than verifiable lineage, or a way for white people to alleviate their white guilt over their ancestors’ role in slavery and genocide. It is a corporatized homogenization of diverse indigenous cultures with their own respective beauty. Even the phrase “world music” is deeply problematic because it assumes “the West” is the norm, while everything outside of the West is “the world” or “Oriental.”

As for “blue notes,” what makes them so distinct is because they are played or sung at a different pitch than standard, when many White Americans initially heard blues music, they felt the “blue note” was a devil’s note (hence why it’s not standard in European music; the note is considered “demonic”) and that Black blues players were, somehow, cursed by the devil. Blue notes, for Western music, adds a lot of tension to the music, along with the emphasis on syncopation. But that demonic folklore added to the mystique of Black blues musicians and made many white fans of blues music even more attracted to the music. Blue notes exist in jazz music and many white people had a similar gaze when listening to early jazz. 

For example, consider the legend of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), an African-American blues guitarist from Mississippi who played at juke joints throughout the Deep South. His 1936 and 1937 recordings made Johnson a legend among blues musicians and he influenced many blues and rock guitarists. I remember a white guitarist I know through open mic circles remarked that if you really want to know guitar, you have to study Robert Johnson; to this day, among guitarists and blues fans, Johnson is an O.G. Bob Dylan, Robert Plant, and Keith Richards all cite Robert Johnson as a major influence and Eric Clapton called him “the most important blues singer that ever lived.” What adds to Johnson’s mystique is that there’s a legend that Johnson desired to become a great blues musician but wasn’t respected in the juke joint circuit. He wasn’t a great singer nor a respected guitar player. Johnson took his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight; there, he met a large Black man (considered “the Devil”) who took his guitar, tuned it, played a few songs, and returned the guitar back to Johnson, which helped him master the instrument. If you apply this folklore to the African spiritual tradition, Johnson prayed to a Yoruba deity (not “the Devil”) that gave him the power to master the guitar; so the Black man who met Johnson was probably a worldly manifestation of an African deity if one is to believe the African tradition. Mainstream white musicians and musicologists bought into the myth that Johnson made a Faustian bargain with Lucifer, selling his soul in return for mastering the instrument, and that’s what made him such an incredible blues guitarist. Because of scant records of Johnson’s life, the legend spread and people often tell it to this day and it adds to Johnson’s mystique as a musician.

However, other music and blues historians have done more research and corrected the myths. What actually happened is that Johnson learned how to play the real blues music (African music) from another Black guitarist who already knew the music; proper tuning of Johnson’s guitar would have allowed him to find the “blue note” or “Devil’s note.” Johnson’s main teacher was another African-American blues guitarist — Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman. The two often practiced together sitting on tombstones at a local cemetery, which added to Johnson’s mystique that he “sold his soul” to the Devil in order to play blues music. Zimmerman practiced at night in local cemeteries where he would not disturb others. According to Zimmerman’s daughter:

He (Robert), far as I know, like I told you, he fitted in our family, and he had to be nice, because my daddy was a strong man and he would’ve had… he’d make everything go smoothly. He was a good man. My daddy was, and so he wouldn’t have taken up no time with someone who wasn’t a good person. That’s the reason that I believe that he (Ike) took him (Robert) under his arm. And so he was just like a family member. I was thinking he was! (laughing) I really was! Robert lived with mama and daddy there. .. He came there and lived in our house. But he came there… he met my daddy in Its. That’s where they first met… Up in Its. The juke joints and stuff. Was all there, but he met him there and Robert Johnson asked my daddy to teach him how to play guitar…Okay, well he came for my daddy to teach, and my daddy taught him. He lived there with my daddy. .. he stayed a long time (because) he was staying to learn how to play the guitar… It seemed like to me he just took him for his family ‘cause… for a long time I thought he was related. (laughs) I really did! For a long time. ‘Cause he was always, protected, look like of the family just be there with us, and he just fitted in. I was used to him. Mmmm Hmmm. I couldn’t even think about how long it was because like I said he lived there. He lived with us. And so by him living there… I had to go to sleep sometime and he had me, daddy had me in his lap and they would be playing, he’d (Robert) be over there and…”

Sadly, Robert Johnson died at the age of 27 in 1938. Again, because of weak records about his life, legend says that Johnson was either murdered by a jealous husband of a woman he flirted with; specifically, that Johnson was given a bottle of whiskey poisoned by the jealous husband and he died later on. Medical professionals, on the other hand, suggest he likely died of syphilis. On his death certificate, there was no official cause of death. So how he died is up in the air. While others have dispelled the myths about his life, he is still considered a legend and a crucial, influential figure in blues and rock music.

That is the blues in a nutshell: a basic work rhythm played in pentatonic scale, regular meter with off-beat accents (syncopation), flatted fifth, and blue notes; that musical foundation comes from Africa. As these notations reveal, blue notes are common throughout indigenous African music — vocals and instruments. African musical tradition (scale and notation system) allows for the existence for “blue notes,” while such notes don’t exist in the European or Indigenous North American musical traditions. The foundation of African-American blues music, based on scale and notes, is African but it later became standardized into the 12-bar blues that is common now but that is a tamed version of the original. Standardizing it made it easier to perform for other audiences and market to a commercial audience. Without that, rock music and so much of American pop music, as we know it, would not exist.

Other African retentions in blues

The African pentatonic system, with its natural blue notes, is not the only African music tradition brought to the United States by enslaved Africans. As mentioned earlier, enslaved Africans brought their string instruments, such as the banjo, with them from Africa to North America. Writer and recording artist Ken Hymes explains, “These were “monophonic” instruments, on which only one note was played at a time. The melodies were mostly pentatonic, based on a five note scale (play the black keys on a piano and you’re playing a version of that scale).” It was through these string instruments that the African pentatonic system was preserved in the United States on plantations during slavery. 

Enslaved Africans also introduced parallelism or parallel harmony to North American music. Hymes also points out that parallelism, the parallel movement of two or more lines in vocal harmony (parallel harmony), is avoided in classical Western composition, “…when multiple lines moved in a piece of music, they were not supposed to move in lockstep…There is a whole field of study called species counterpoint, designed to train budding classical composers to avoid parallel motion. The result was music that was able to exploit a few scales to the nth degree.” However, parallelism is prevalent in African music, especially West African music. 

Hymes notes that the introduction of parallelism to the United States, via slavery, played a major role in the development of modern American popular music:

When West Africans were taken to America, they encountered western instruments like guitars, which were designed to play western chord progressions. At some unknown time, many began to tune them to an open chord. Any slide guitar player, and many folk pickers, know this trick. It makes playing the usual range of chords harder, but it allows a player to treat the whole guitar as if it were one string. The result, at its most basic, is parallel major chords. A big no-no in classical music, but the foundation of a huge amount of modern progressions. In swing, jazz, and classic pop, the parallelism is expressed in a tendency to use parallel seventh chords (G B D F, e.g.). Sometimes the progressions are blues song patterns with different dressing, other times they are more related to classical music (the verse of ‘Hold Me Tight’ by The Beatles is an example of parallel seventh chords without the blues pattern). … But the course of twentieth century music was deeply and pervasively influenced by this break from classical and European folk progressions, and the growth of progressions based indirectly on West African music. 

The clawhammer technique on banjo, as well, comes from West Africa and played on African instruments like the akonting. It is a down-picking technique that is suitable for one-string instruments like the akonting and was preserved on the banjo, oftentimes with the player playing the instrument rhythmically; it’s different than the up-picking motion that is common on guitar and other string instruments. Uncle John Scruggs played banjo in the traditional clawhammer style. Players of African string instruments like the Moroccan sintir (guembri), played by the Gnawa people, or the bolon also use a similar down-picking motion with an emphasis on rhythm. Clawhammer is played by banjo players in bluegrass and country music.

Kubik also points out that African-American blues has other African retentions aside from West African (which he argues is the strongest), particularly Congolese. He writes:

“The so-called ‘Spanish tinge’ with its ‘additive’ rhythms, characteristic of New Orleans, testifies to the proximity of the Caribbean. It is much less ‘Spanish’ than it is a conglomerate of Guinea Coast and west Central African rhythm patterns retained in the Spanish-speaking areas of the Caribbean. Influences upon the Deep South from Louisiana, whose musical cultures were much closer to those of the Caribbean in the nineteenth century and had a large share of Congo/Angola and Guinea Coast west African elements, can also be felt in some idiosyncrasies within the blues tradition of the twentieth century [pgs. 100-101; bold added]. 

Congo Square is crucial to understanding this. Again, while drumming was banned in North America, Congo Square in New Orleans was a place where enslaved Africans were able to play their traditional African music. This is because of French Catholic colonial laws (Code Noir) that observed the sabbath on Sundays, which allowed slaves a break from work on that day. This doesn’t mean that the French colonial laws were particularly friendly to enslaved Africans openly playing their music and freely congregating together. There were constant threats to these congregations, regardless of which European was the colonizer. So Africans often gathered in remote or public spaces — levees, public squares, backyards, or any safe place they could find. At Boyou St. John, various ethnic groups in French Louisiana traded and socialized with each other. In 1817, the mayor of New Orleans issued an ordinance that restricted any gathering of enslaved Africans to Congo Square. They were allowed to gather in that one place to set up markets, sing, dance, and play music. When French sold its Louisiana territory to the United States during the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the city later became part of the United States and the tradition continued, even though African music was suppressed in other parts of the colonies and states.

Charles Burchell, a multi-instrumentalist, producer, composer, educator, and diplomat, explained in Soundfly about the influence of Congo Square on American music, “This sparked the rhythmic catalysts for what would eventually become dance-based musical forms such as ragtime, the boogaloo, the backbeat, and the shuffle.” He adds, “The African thread throughout American music can be most notably traced through rhythm.Syncopation, riffing, blue notes, and call and response are all elements of African music that have permeated the American mainstream, thanks to the ingenuity and ‘kitchen-sink’ musical mentality of African Americans during and after slavery.” 

In fact, the African-American shuffle beat in blues music comes from the African 6/8 rhythm. The 12/8 feel (similar to the shuffle), which is common in blues, rock, pop, R&B, funk, gospel, and other music genres, is also an African-derived rhythmic feel. African polyrhythms, preserved in places like Congo Square and other parts of the Caribbean, are also found in jazz and Afro-Cuban music and those rhythmic feels influence African-American blues music.

So while blues music has strong West African retention, through the West African pentatonic system, it also incorporates other African elements, particularly from the Congo, making its actual cultural synthesis more Pan-African rather than African/European.

The legends remember 

Howard Carroll, the late guitarist for the Dixie Hummingbirds, and pioneer of gospel guitar, definitely understood the African roots of blues and gospel. Shortly before he died, he commented on Dynast Amir’s, a YouTuber and Pan-African philanthropist, video where Amir toured the Kingdom of Sebou in Mali:

“I am Howard Carroll, guitarist for the Dixie Hummingbirds.  I am 93 years old and played guitar professionally for 70 years.  My friends call me the Father of Gospel guitar.  I don’t know about that, but I was one of the first to bring guitar to gospel music. I am in a nursing home now and can no longer travel, but I want to thank you for taking me to Segou, Mali. I come from a musical family, and we can trace back to the slave holder, Charles Carroll, and his plantation in Maryland. The plantation buried our history alive. Took away our name, took away our language, took away our religion, but they did not take away our spirit or our music. Over a hundred years ago my father played banjo, guitar, mandolin and others. He taught me to play when I was 5 years old. My father had a finger style on the banjo not unlike Mali musicians playing the Mali banjo, the n’goni. I believe our family came from Mali and were musicians. Thank you for taking me home after 300 years away.

The video was published on December 10, 2016 and Carroll died in his convalescent home on October 17, 2017. Before he died, he was able to virtually travel to his ancestral home and the roots of his guitar style.

The connection Carroll observed before he passed away was certainly not lost on the late Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure. Toure was a Malian guitarist, born in a village near Timbuktu, Mali in 1939, whose music is best described as blues music before it became blues music. He mostly played traditional Malian music, which is what African-American blues music is rooted in — guitar music from West Africa. His music is like a pre-organized blues or porto-blues but the similarities between his music and African-American blues were obvious to him. He was not influenced by American music when he learned how to play and developed his style. Toure’s music and style are indigenous and rooted in Malian culture, which is where he is from. He first started playing a single-string African guitar but picked up Western guitar in the mid-1950s and adapted it to his style. He told Songlines in 1999, “No one ever taught me to play. I transposed what I knew from our one-string instrument onto a six-string guitar and I tuned it according to my ear. I know all the Western tunings but they are no good to me at all.

Toure was introduced to John Lee Hooker’s music, the influential African-American blues guitarist, and was struck by the similarities between Hooker’s blues music and his own. In an interview with the London Daily Telegraph, he said, “I thought he was Malian because of what I heard. It was 100 per cent our music. The roots are in Africa. There is something there; the trunk of the tree, but there are lots of branches and, on the branches, are the leaves, and certain fruits, and it’s dispersed. Musically, it’s African, but the words are in American.” In another interview, Toure said, “The first time I heard John Lee Hooker, I heard his music but I said, ‘I don’t understand this, where did they come up with this culture? This is something that belongs to us.’” In that same interview, Toure answered his own question, “I will tell you this, there are no Black Americans. There are Blacks in America. No, Black Americans don’t exist. The Blacks left with their culture. And they kept it. But the biography, the ethnicity, the legends they did lose. Still, their music is African.”

While Toure understood the African roots of blues music, he also rejected calling his music “blues” or loose comparisons to African-American blues guitarists. Because Toure’s music was lumped under “world music” and people often compared him to John Lee Hooker, even calling him “the African John Lee Hooker,” Toure made a point to distinguish himself from Hooker. In the Telegraph interview, he said, “When you take music such as John Lee Hooker does, you’re going to find what we have at home: the greenery, the savannah where you have water. It’s poetic, truly poetic, very poetic. All that was missing was for him to speak our language to complete the truth.” This goes back to my earlier point about the commercialization of “world music.” Toure knew blues music’s African roots but didn’t want his music to be packaged in a corporate box.

In 1994, Toure recorded the album Talking Timbuktu with Ry Cooder. That album catapulted Toure to international fame and comparisons to John Lee Hooker. Like Toure, Ry Cooder understood there were differences between Toure’s music and what is often considered “blues music” (i.e., the watered down version). But Ry Cooder also understood that blues music was still African because of the specific scale and noted the similarity between Toure’s playing and the music of Delta blues musicians. Ry Cooder explained in a 1994 interview, “If you go over to Bourbon Street and listen to some bar band, that’s what the blues ends up being. That’s not what he’s doing. Now on the other hand, he’s got the flatted third and seventh notes, which puts it in a blues mode.” He added, “It sounds a little like Lightnin’ Hopkins backwards sometimes. You know, if you take a Lightnin’ Hopkins tune and flip it around and play it back to front, some of these things [Toure’s music] sound that way.”

Toure did want to bring Hooker to Mali to show him where the blues really came from. He said in the 1999 Songlines interview, “I’d love to bring John Lee Hooker to Mali too so he could see where the music comes from. But he’s too old to travel.” He added, when referring to Ry Cooder, “I’m trying to get him [Cooder] to come to Timbuktu for the New Year. I want to stage an African-American concert to see in the millennium, with me and B.B. King and Carlos Santana. That would be something. People call my music the African blues. I just call it the music of the people.” After a long battle with bone cancer, Toure passed away on March 6, 2006 in Bamako, Mali. 

Blues and American popular music

The reason why Delta blues was able to preserve African music retention the strongest is because while drums were banned in North America, string instruments weren’t. So enslaved Africans were able to openly play their string instruments during slavery without any violent repercussion. Plus, slave-masters often did want their slaves to play music and string instruments were considered more “civilized” than drums. In addition, there are parts of the Deep South where Africans lived in relative isolation from the dominant society. Many of those musicians did not want to play music that sounded like the culture of the oppressive dominant white society and consciously rejected their music in their playing, as Kubik mentions in his book. It is there where the African retention was preserved the strongest and formed blues music. That also explains why Ali Farka Toure noticed strong similarities between his music and John Lee Hooker’s.

Delta Blues in the Deep South later evolved into Chicago Blues as African-Americans moved to urban areas in the North during the Great Migration, especially around the 1930s Great Depression. Chicago blues is more urban, while Delta blues is more rural. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf are both Chicago blues musicians. Chicago blues became rhythm and blues and, later, rock-and-roll music. Both Wolf and Waters greatly influenced early rock music. That music evolution, along with the growth of jazz music, formed the basis of American popular music.

I think what makes the African retention in blues misunderstood by some people is that, today, a lot of millennials and Zoomers of all races don’t listen to blues music, let alone rock. It’s the same with jazz. Whenever I have gone to see a local blues or jazz show, the audience is mostly white people with some older Black people. Blues and jazz, to many, are still seen as “old people music.” Most Black millennials and Zoomers listen to rap/hip-hop and R&B, which actually have African retentions through the emphasis on syncopated beats. However, I think because those genres are seen as “modern” and a lot of African culture is still seen as “primitive,” thanks to Europe portraying Africa as the “Dark Continent,” people don’t associate rap with Africa, even though rap is a continuation of African music but in a different form (in fact, rap is heavily influenced by jazz music); in addition, rap music is also a Pan-African form of music because it has built bridges across the African diaspora and African continent with ongoing Pan-African synthesis. When it comes to African music, I have noticed most people’s initial perception is that it is all drums and, to them, drums equal “primitive” or “tribal” and that matches with their assumption of all Africa being “tribal,” “primitive,” “jungle,” “safari,” etc. People of all races, including Black people (even the ones who consider themselves “woke”), are guilty of this. However, those who listen to blues and African folk music can easily detect the difference.

One does not have to look in the distant past for the obvious African retention and roots of blues music. They can listen to contemporary African guitarists for evidence. Tinariwen is a good example. So are Songhoy Blues and Mdou Moctar. Therefore, blues music is not a thing of the past, it is still alive and well. African guitarists and blues/rock bands like Songhoy Blues and Mdou Moctar. There are still African-American blues musicians and African-Americans playing rock music; the organization Punk Black is a good example. 

Black cultural ownership of blues

Even though blues is, undeniably, a key foundation of American popular music, just because it is “American” doesn’t give every single “American” ownership over it. When people call Black music “American music,” it often comes with a caveat — because it’s “American” then that means every single American can claim ownership over it, even if their ancestors did not produce it. This is the conundrum of African-American music. Our music forms the very fabric of American popular music but we have no ownership over it. This is how Black music and culture are so easily appropriated by non-Blacks and why there are endless discussions and complaints about cultural appropriation that go nowhere. One can acknowledge Black music’s vital role in American popular culture while also recognizing who truly produced and can claim rightful cultural ownership over it.

Moving forward, that is something I would invite every single non-Black person to consider as they listen to music that is undeniably ours. You can appreciate our music and support it but your ancestors and culture did not produce it and, therefore, have no legitimate claim of ownership over it. Blues music is a cultural production of Black America and it’s stylistically an African form of music. The fact that blues music has such strong African retention that it remains an African form of music is because of the resilience of enslaved Africans in the United States; blues music should be respected on that basis rather than treated as another way for a gluttonous, white-owned record industry to package and market Black suffering to a commercial audience.

The reason why I wrote this blog in the first place is to do a course correction on our music and where it comes from. If these kinds of narratives and truths are not told and preserved then our culture will truly die.

REFERENCES:

The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History From Africa to the United States by Samuel A. Floyd, Jr.

Africa and the Blues by Gerhard Kubik

The Music of Africa by J.H. Kwabena Nketia

 

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