As American as the blues is, its DNA takes us back to Africa. To Mali, Mauretania, Senegal, Niger, and other countries in what is known as the Sahel, the region of Africa between tropical Africa (Congo, Cameroun) and North Africa. Unfortunately, it was the through the slave trade that the musical and cultural influence spread.
Brazil, which got more Africans than the U.S., got most of its slaves from another Portuguese colony, Angola. The U.S. ports of entry for slaves included Charleston, South Carolina and New Orleans. Senegambian slaves were monotheistic (Islam) and either converted or syncretized their belief system into Christianity. By contrast, Catholic countries such as Haiti, Brazil, and Cuba imported slaves from countries where polytheistic religions and animism prevailed. It was also those polytheistic countries that had polyrhythms in their music. Slaves coming to America came from monotheistic, mono-rhythmic cultures. Just compare Brazilian samba or Cuban music with the blues and you’ll get the picture of the contrasting musical styles.
This is complicated history and if you want to understand it better, read Ned Sublette’s brilliant work Cuba and its Music: From the First Drum to the Mambo.
The Rhythm Planet show this week ping-pongs from Texas and Louisiana back to Mali, Mauretania, and Morocco. We begin with a song that is on the gold record on the Voyager Spacecraft, now in interstellar space, to field hollers from Louisiana and Senegal. We’ll get some early John Lee Hooker, early blues from Texans Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson, along with some big modal grooves from Mali with bands like Terakaft and Ali Farka Toure.
The Bela Fleck cut is interesting as his instrument, the banjo, came from the West African traditional string instrument, the Ngoni. Banjo is an African word, by the way. One of the most interesting parts of the show is Robert Johnson and Dimi Mint Abba from Mauretania. The vocal urgency, the guitar style, each makes you hear and feel the unmistakable connection.
Rhythm Planet Playlist: 10/19/13
- Ry Cooder / Dark Was The Night Cold Was The Ground / Paris Texas OST / Warner Bros.
- Henry Ratcliff and Bakari-Badji / Lousiana & Field Song from Senegal, 1974 / Roots of the Blues / New World
- Robert Johnson / Preaching Blues (Up Jumped The Devil) / Complete Recordings / Columbia
- Khalifa Ould Eide & Dimi Minit Abba / Yar Allahoo/ Moorish Music from Mauuretania / WPRD Circuit
- John Lee Hooker / Weepin’ Willow Boogie / The Ultimate Collection / Rhino
- Ali Farka Toure / Goye Kur / The Source / World Circuit
- Bela Fleck / Throw Down Your Heart / Throw Down Your Heart: Africa Sessions / Rounder
- Blind Willie Johnson / God Moves On Water / The Rough Guide To Blues Legend Blind Willie Johnson / Rough Guides
- Terakaft / Alghalem / Aratan N Azawad / World Village
- Majid Bekkas / Daymallah / Reves D’Oasis Desert Blues 2/ Network