ASK ALEX: What elements of African music ended up in the blues?

The blues is centered around a strong harmonic progression, that comes directly from traditional European counterpoint. The use of the I (tonic), IV (subdominant) and V (dominant) is directly related to the fact that African musicians would have been exposed to these new sounds.

Wikipedia tells us that ...

There are few characteristics common to all blues, as the genre takes its shape from the distinctive attributes of each individual performance. Some characteristics, however, were present prior to the creation of the modern blues, and are common to most styles of African American music. The earliest blues-like music was a "functional expression, rendered in a call-and-response style without accompaniment or harmony and unbounded by the formality of any particular musical structure".

This pre-blues music was adapted from the field shouts and hollers performed during slave times, expanded into "simple solo songs laden with emotional content".

Many of these blues elements, such as the call-and-response format, can be traced back to the music of Africa. The use of melisma and a wavy, nasal intonation also suggests a connection between the music of West and Central Africa and the blues. The belief that blues is historically derived from the West African music including from Mali is reflected in Martin Scorsese’s often quoted characterization of Ali Farka Touré’s tradition as constituting "the DNA of the blues".

Perhaps the most compelling African instrument that is a predecessor to an African-American instrument is the "Akonting", a folk lute of the Jola tribe of Senegambia. It is a clear predecessor to the American banjo in its playing style, the construction of the instrument itself and in its social role as a folk instrument. The Kora is played by a professional caste of praise singers for the rich and aristocracy (called griots or jalis) and is not considered folk music. Jola music may not have been influenced much by North African/Middle Eastern music, which may point to African American music not being, according to Sam Charters, related to kora music.

The music of the Akonting and that played by on the banjo by elder African-American banjo players, even into the mid 20th century is easily identified as being very similar. The akonting is perhaps the most important and concrete link that exists between African and African-American music.

While the findings of Kubik and others clearly attest to the essential Africanness of many essential aspects of blues expression, studies by Willie Ruff and others have situated the origin of "black" spiritual music inside enslaved peoples' exposure to their masters' Hebridean-originated gospels. African-American economist and historian Thomas Sowell also notes that the southern, black, ex-slave population was acculturated to a considerable degree by and among their Scots-Irish "redneck" neighbors. Additionally, there are theories that the four-beats-per-measure structure of the blues might share its origins with the Native American tradition of pow wow drumming.


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