On the new album Our Native Daughters, featuring Rhiannon Giddens, Amethyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell (above), there is a banjo tune titled “Barbados,” believed to be the first western notation of a slave song in the new world. The melody was transcribed by one D.W. Dickson in Barbados in the 18th century. Giddens writes in the liner notes:
This scrap of melody has of course been through a lens – the man who wrote it down would have had a firm western sense of melody and rhythm, and most likely would have corralled any kind of partial tone to fit the western scale; and if he didn’t write it down on the spot [upon hearing a slave sing or play it], he was then relying on the imperfect human memory . . . that being said, it is still a portal, however imperfect, to a time long ago, and to a people whose lives often passed unmarked and unmourned by the society around them.
The song is bookended by two poems about slavery. The first, “Pity for Poor Africans,” an ironic 1788 anti-slavery verse by the abolitionist English poet William Cowper:
I own I am shocked at the purchase of slaves, And fear those who buy them and sell them are knaves; What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans Is almost enough to draw pity from stones.
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum, For how could we do without sugar and rum? Especially sugar, so needful we see; What, give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea?
Besides, if we do, the French, Dutch, and Danes, Will heartily thank us, no doubt, for our pains: If we do not buy the poor creatures, they will: And tortures and groans will be multiplied still.
The second poem is by the album’s co-producer Dirk Powell, updated for the modern age:
I own I am shocked at prisoners in the mines, And kids sewing clothes for our most famous lines What I hear of their wages seems slavery indeed It’s enough that I fear it’s all rooted in greed
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum For what about nickel, cobalt, lithium The garments we wear, the electronics we own What – give up our tablets, our laptops and phones?
Besides, if we do, the prices will soar And who could afford to pay one dollar more? Sitting her typing, it seems well worth the price And you there, listening on your favorite device
This bargain we’re in – well it’s not quite illict So relax my friend – we’re not all complicit.
What do you think? Are we, in fact, all complicit?
The South African novelist and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) published a short story collection in 2007 entitled Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. The title story is about a multiracial university professor in Johannesburg, thinking back over his life and his identity:
Speculations that Beethoven was of “Moorish” (i.e. African) ancestry date back to the composer’s own lifetime. Nineteenth-century biographers have described his dark complexion, “flat, thick nose,” and “thick, bristly [and] coal-black” hair. J.A. Rogers and others later suggested that Beethoven’s mother had transmitted African ancestry to her son by way of her Flemish forebears; the Low Countries had been under Spanish rule in the sixteenth century, and Spain had been ruled by Muslims (or Moors), originally from North Africa, off and on from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries.
My initial response to the question, “Are Beethoven’s African origins revealed by his music?” that has been asked at the website Africa Is a Country, is a definitive “no.” It is based on questionable premises that lack real historical evidence, at least to the story of Beethoven and his music over the past couple hundred of years.
This is far from a new idea. Here, Nicholas T Rinehart outlines the century-long history of the “Black Beethoven” trope and analyses the cultural and racial politics that have made this such a potent idea. He suggests our attraction to the notion that Beethoven was black is a symptom of classical music’s tortured position on race and music: “This need to paint Beethoven black against all historical likelihood is, I think, a profound signal that the time has finally come to make a single … and robust effort [to reshape] the classical canon.”
In the past few months, classical music institutions have begun to recognize their need to reconceive the widespread impression of classical music as a strictly white and European art form. The #TakeTwoKnees hashtag in the wake of the murder of George Floyd was an effort by Black classical musicians to address this.
The Beethoven-was-black trope raises other questions as well:
Arguments for Beethoven’s “Blackness” are based on hearsay, speculation, and the reading of visual images. Are these reliable sources of evidence? If not, what sources of information would be more reliable?
Is race something essential? Is it something defined by visible markers? Or is it something defined by affinity, that is, by what one loves, desires, or wishes to be?
Who gets to decide the racial identity of another?
Does the fact that Beethoven’s music expresses an ethos of struggle, and of triumph over struggle, make it Black?
Which leads to even thornier philosophical questions:
What is Blackness? What is race?
The piece often used as a marker of Beethoven’s blackness is his last piano sonata, op. 111 in C minor. The second movement is in theme-and-variations form, and the variations become more abstract as the piece continues. Two of the variations are highly syncopated, which has led some to retrospectively credit Beethoven, in this sonata, with “inventing” ragtime, and even jazz.
Babatunde Olatunji demonstrates west African polyrhythms.
Daniel Barenboim demonstrates Beethovenian polyrhythms.
Incidentally, Beethoven had a Black friend and colleague, George Polgreen Bridgetower, who was a famous Afro-European violinist and for whom Beethoven wrote a fiendishly difficult violin sonata. The original dedication to his friend reads, with fond humor:
Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer [Bridgetower], gran pazzo e compositore mulattico
(Mulatto Sonata composed for the mulatto Brischdauer, great madman and mulatto composer)
However, the two fell out while drinking together one evening, after Bridgetower suggested that the woman Beethoven was in love with had loose morals. As was his habit when his friends and idols displeased him, Beethoven scratched out the dedication to Bridgetower on the Violin Sonata no. 9 in A Major and replaced it with a dedication to another violinist, Rodolphe Kreutzer, after which it became commonly known as the “Kreutzer Sonata.”
If you’ve seen the film 12 Years A Slave, you may remember that Solomon Northup (shown in a sketch above), whose memoir was the basis for the movie, was a musician. Northup wrote of his life as a free black violinist in New York State:
In the film, he’s shown playing at such dances, and he later strikes a bargain with two unscrupulous promoters to go on tour to Washington, D.C., which is where his troubles begin.
In his memoir, Northup also describes playing violin for a Christmas party in Louisiana after he’s been enslaved — an occasion at which the slaves were permitted to take off their masters and perform their own exaggerated versions of European high-society dances [this kind of parody would evolve into the Cakewalk]. Afterwards, the slaves
This patting is also known as patting juba, or just juba. It derives from sub-Saharan African music; the word “juba” means “to pat or keep rhythm” in the Bantu language. The patting of one’s own body as an instrument was an adaptation made by the slaves when drums were banned in the American colonies. And why were drums banned? You all remember this, from the 1964 film Zulu: chanting as preparation for war.
On Sunday, September 9, 1739, twenty Congolese slaves (mislabeled by contemporary historians as “Angolan”) gathered on the banks of the Stono River near Charleston (in this period, Sunday was a day off for slaves). They commandeered a guns-and-ammo shop, killed the owners, armed themselves, and headed south, chanting and playing drums as “a call to arms, a preparation for battle.” As a 1740 account of the uprising described it:
By the end of the day, the rebels numbered over a hundred, dozens of whites were dead, and the leaders of the Stono Rebellion would soon be executed.
After the rebellion was put down, the colonies enacted punitive measures against blacks, including the death penalty for any slave who learned to read. Slaves were no longer allowed to congregate, earn money, or grow their own food — and drums were banned. Juba was in some ways a response to the drum ban: the body became a rhythmic instrument.
Juba is usually performed just with the voice and the body. The drummer Sule Greg Wilson says:
Juba was sung and percussed to throw off and discharge the negativity of the institution of chattel slavery. Thus, we find in Juba a vital, sacred act—not to be confused with the good-time community activity of Hambone. Though both use body percussion, they are–functionally–very different.
As Sweet Honey in the Rock say, “You don’t just sing juba, you have to do juba. . . the word is African, but doing juba was made up by our people when we had to express how hard and unfair it was to be slaves . . . maybe some evil person can destroy your drums, but can anyone stop a true drummer from drumming? . . use your body . . . become a drum.”
A children’s call-and-response version which does not shy away from the injustice of slavery.
When juba is done as a social or community activity, it’s often called hambone. Here, Danny “Slapjazz” Barber demonstrates and discusses its origins in the Stono Rebellion:
You can see how juba/hambone mutates over time into other forms. The first black dancer to perform onstage for white audiences in the United States was known as Master Juba (his real name was William Henry Lane). Charles Dickens saw Master Juba dance in New York’s notorious Five Points neighborhood on a trip to America. Dickens described this even in his 1842 book American Notes:
What will we please to call for? A dance? It shall be done directly, sir: “a regular breakdown.” The corpulent black fiddler, and his friend who plays the tambourine, stamp upon the boarding . . . marshalled by a lively young negro, who is the wit of the assembly, and the greatest dancer known.
As you know by now, White Tears is the story (among other things!) of Seth, a young, white, college-educated sound engineer, who accidentally records a line from an old blues song while picking up ambient sounds in Washington Square Park. His business partner Carter, the scion of a wealthy family whose riches come from running private prisons and black ops sites, engineers the recording to make it sound vintage and posts it online, claiming it’s actually a historical recording by Charlie Shaw, a blues musician from the 1920s whose name Carter claims to have randomly made up. Soon, however, a record collector contacts them to tell them that Charlie Shaw was, and perhaps still is, a real person. So the novel is a kind of a ghost story, as well as a commentary on black music and the ways it has historically intersected with the overlapping systems of race, class, privilege, and criminal justice in America.
Hari Kunzru, an Englishman of Pakistani descent, says of his novel, “This is a book about absence,” raising the questions: Why were some black artists from the past recorded, and not others? Why are some black musicians remembered, and others forgotten?
In the video linked above, Kunzru speaks of moving to the United States around the time of Barack Obama’s first election:
The moment of false hope . . . for a post-racial America, the idea that we could just forget all this stuff and consign it to history, and then the realization that actually this history still poisons public life in the U.S. to an unbelievable degree . . . I was quite shocked by that . . . I wanted to bring my own experience, because I am an outsider, but I have a particular history with those questions here [in England]. My history is all about empire and dealing with that . . . There was a moment when . . . this romanticized idea of American history was very big in the hipster culture . . . [White Tears is also] a story about wealth and inheritance, and inherited money, and what . . . rich young people, whose parents have done whatever to make [their] money, come to New York in order to convert [financial] capital into cultural capital.
And read this essay by Rishi Nath in Africa Is A Country, which suggests that the real ghost whose presence hovers over White Tears is . . . that of Biggie Smalls.
The line of the song that Seth inadvertently picks up in the first chapter of White Tears is “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.” Kunzru may be referring to this song, “Furry’s Blues,” by Walter “Furry” Lewis:
And possibly also to this country blues song:
Incidentally, in 1976, Joni Mitchell wrote a song about cultural appropriation in which Furry Lewis features, “Furry Sings the Blues.” Mitchell does not excuse herself from the sin of appropriation:
Old Furry sings the blues
Propped up in his bed
With his dentures and his leg removed . . .
Old Furry sings the blues
You bring him smoke and drink and he’ll play for you
lt’s mostly muttering now and sideshow spiel
But there was one song he played
I could really feel . . .
Old Furry sings the blues
He points a bony finger at you and says
“I don’t like you”
Everybody laughs as if it’s the old man’s standard joke
Why should I expect that old guy to give it to me true
Fallen to hard luck
And time and other thieves
While our limo is shining on his shanty street
Old Furry sings the blues
In White Tears, the B-side of Charlie Shaw’s “Graveyard Blues” is given as “The Laughing Song” (see p. 230). This is a reference to “The Negro Laughing Song,” a popular song from the days of minstrelsy. As Kunzru describes it,
The lyrics of the song, consisting only of “Ha ha ha,” take up almost four entire pages near the end of the novel. The narrator, Seth, describes the sound as “hollow, forced, mechanical . . . the sound of a body undergoing discipline . . . the most terrifying sound I had ever heard.” As Kunzru explains in the interview excerpted above:
. . . Nothing against the ambition, which boils down to the question of authenticity, what it is and the dangers of pursuing it to the utmost level of purity. The vehicle is old-time American music, from poor Southern musicians, mostly black and mostly blues players, recorded in the 1920s on labels like Paramount. The characters who carry this are Seth (the protagonist) and Carter, buddies from college who use Carter’s family money to start a recording studio. They in turn are paralleled by the story of an older record collector and the obsession of one of his colleagues. Both pairs are connected through what is essentially an imaginary song from a pseudonymous musician, Charlie Shaw.
Kunzru is woefully unprepared to execute this task. The self-conscious quality of his research is painfully embarrassing throughout: the author picked up details of audio engineering, musicians’ names, song titles, and serial numbers, without ever picking up any understanding of the subject. He seems to have never heard the music in question, or it seems to have never penetrated his understanding—he comes off as the collectors themselves, obsessed with the completeness and quality of the physical object and not much interested in the art it contains. Seth and Carter somehow find themselves caring only about old acoustic recordings without ever seeming to find anything in the music that matters to them as human beings (that Kunzru name checks some well-known music writers who are features of the upper middle-class white bourgeoisie and can’t hear African-American music past Beyoncé is a tell).
This all turns into an overwrought potboiler of sex and murder, with a heaping condescension of the young white man finding, through violence and tragedy, the authentic feeling of being a young black man deep in the Jim Crow South. This is a terrible kind of slumming, Kunzru arguing that Seth has achieved this experience through writing that is nothing more than gazing at (and never putting the needle down on) the shellac grooves on a 78 side. The prose itself has the earnest, focussed, affectlessness that is everywhere now, spawned from countless MFA programs, and that is professionally smooth, bland, and that allows the author to disavow any specific meaning. That is dishonest, and the foundation of this deeply dishonest book.
Here are some examples of what African music from the earliest days of cross-Atlantic cultural encounters might have sounded like.
When we talk about traditional African folk music, we have to qualify what we mean by “traditional.” We know about certain west African dances, like the Pandulungu, Guandu, or Cubango from Angola, from the writings of 17th-century Portuguese explorers and missionaries, but the dance and musical forms themselves have been lost. Most of the folk music of the Americas that is most directly tied to African traditions can be found in its purest forms in South and Central America and the West Indies, such as this invocation to the ancestors of the Maroon people of Jamaica, the descendants of Africans who escaped from slavery and established free communities in the mountains.
Most of these African musical traditions, however, were inexorably changed by the cross-cultural encounters brought about by the slave trade beginning in the sixteenth century.
The bomba, a traditional musical style of Puerto Rico, owes much to west African drumming, and was first documented in the early sixteenth century. It’s a call-and-response challenge between the dancers and the drummers, with the dancer leading and the drummers responding.
Another Puerto Rican dance form, originally from Angola:
Afro-Colombian traditional music incorporates the marimba, a west African instrument:
More traditional Afro-Colombian music:
Three African-American/Afro-Caribbean fiddle tunes transcribed in the eighteenth century, played on a replica of a homemade slave fiddle.
Even in Congo Square, the music played by enslaved African-Americans had already been changed by its translation from the coast of Africa to the West Indies and to the American mainland.
The history of African music is, in a sense, a history of loss.