African rhythms have influenced world music for generations

By Murphy Browne Wednesday May 30 2012 in Opinion
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Sun is shining, the weather is sweet


Make you want to move your dancing feet


To the rescue, here I am


Want you to know, where I stand


When the morning gathers the rainbow


Want you to know I’m a rainbow too


So, to the rescue here I am


Want you to know just where I stand


We’ll lift our heads and give Jah praises


We’ll lift our heads and give Jah praises, yeah


From the song “Sun is Shining” released in 1971 by Bob Marley and the Wailers on their Soul Revolution album.


Imagine how much poorer the world would be without the melodies and lyrics of Africans like Bob Marley and the Wailers. Africans, whether from the continent or the Diaspora, have greatly influenced world music for generations. However, while the influence of Africa on calypso, reggae, soca and zouk is recognized, music from mostly Latin American countries is not afforded the same recognition.


Regardless of where they were taken during the centuries of enslavement Africans influenced the culture of that society through their music which in turn influenced other art forms including dance. This is the case even in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico where there has been a deliberate effort to Europeanize the population and erase the face of Africa but the influence of Africa is present in the music, dance, religious practices etc.


The samba, the rumba, meringue, salsa all owe their existence to African rhythms and in his 2011 book, Black in Latin America, African American professor Henry Louis Gates writes that he was surprised to learn from a Mexican ethnomusicologist that the fandango in Mexico owes much to African influence.


June has been recognized and celebrated as Black Music Month since 1979 when then U.S. President Jimmy Carter designated the month as Black Music Month at the urging of Black Music Association founders Kenneth Gamble and Ed Wright. Although it was not until June 2000 that the United States government officially recognized Black Music Month after the African American Music Bill (House Resolution 509) was passed.


As part of his motivation speech in support of “House Resolution 509”, William Franklin Goodling, a White Republican from Pennsylvania, reportedly said: “African American music has influenced all aspects of our society in the form of dance, fashion, language, art, literature, cinema, media and advertisements. All in all African American music has made a positive impact on and a broad appeal to diverse groups both nationally and internationally.” Even the then House Speaker concurred with those sentiments when she said: “We want to rightly recognize and celebrate the magnificent contributions that African American music has provided not only in shaping the social and political fabric of our nation but to the global culture as well.”


The impetus to have June officially recognized by the U.S. government came after Dyana Williams, co-founder of the International Association of African American Music Foundation, was informed by the White House that even though President Carter had declared June Black Music Month he had not signed a presidential proclamation in 1979.


Williams explained in an article entitled Does Black Music Month Still Matter? Yes, It Does, which was published in June 2011: “One day, I wrote President Bill Clinton asking him to host a Black Music Month event during June. The White House informed me that while President Carter had declared June Black Music Month, he did not sign a presidential proclamation. I was stunned at this revelation, but even more shocked when the White House suggested that I lobby Congress to get legislation recognizing June as Black Music Month.”


Through her efforts and the support of politicians including Congressman Chaka Fattah and Congressman Goodling each President since 2000 has signed an official proclamation declaring June Black History Month.


Because African American music has been appropriated by non-Africans over the centuries, it is not always recognized that jazz, the blues, spirituals, hip-hop etc., owe their existence to African rhythms. Maybe that is why last year President Barack Obama declared June “African American Music Appreciation Month.”


There are those who have taken issue with renaming the month as exclusively recognizing African American music and not recognizing music from the Diaspora. However, in his declaration the President did recognize Africa and the islands of the Caribbean and part of his proclamation read: “Throughout our history, African-American music has conveyed the hopes and hardships of a people who have struggled, persevered and overcome. Through centuries of injustice, music comforted slaves, fueled a cultural renaissance, and sustained a movement for equality. Today, from the shores of Africa and the islands of the Caribbean to the jazz clubs of New Orleans and the music halls of Detroit, African-American music reflects the rich sounds of many experiences, cultures, and locales”.


The President omitted many African musicians including Africans in Central and South America. It would be very unfortunate if the dearly beloved President Obama’s education, like the recent ex-President, is lacking in the area of knowledge of the history of Africans in the Americas. It has been widely reported that the former U.S. President did not seem to know that there were “Blacks” in Brazil and probably could not fathom that we also have lived in all the countries of the Americas for centuries. Maybe each U.S. President should be compelled to read Ivan Van Sertima’s 1976 book, They Came Before Columbus.


Apart from U.S. Presidents it is important that we all recognize that Black music, which includes music from the continent and the Diaspora, is African music. Since it is important for our children to know their history, one of the recommended children’s books on the subject is the beautifully illustrated The Sound that Jazz Makes written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Eric Velasquez, which was published in 2000. The book traces the history of modern popular music’s indebtedness to Africa, from the ancient African culture through its forced migration to the Americas and following its sometimes painful progress through slavery, Jim Crow oppression to modern day racism that gave rise to jazz, blues, hip-hop etc. It is a must read for educating our children about their history.


Of course, not everyone will be eager to learn about the history and the contributions of Africans to the music we enjoy today but we need to encourage our relatives and friends to enjoy learning about our history. The Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey (one of the greatest influences on Bob Marley’s music) said: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” That should not be us, rootless like tumbleweed blown hither and thither by the slightest breeze.


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