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Musical history: From the plantation to the White House pt.1

GROUNDBREAKING: Former US President Barack Obama speaks at the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC

AT EVERY stage of their arrival on American soil, black people have created the kind of music that reflected their social integration as well as their state of mind.

Author, ESL (English as a second language) trainer and educational scientist Pascal Archimède has used that initial encounter as the starting point of a study, The Young African-American and the Rap Phenomenon.

From work songs on plantations to rap music today, Archimède's research takes a behind-the-scenes look at black American history:

The African slave and the work songs

In August 1619, a Dutch ship landed around twenty 'negroes' in Jamestown, Virginia. They came from western Africa and were employed on the plantations as indentured servants - black American history had begun. The Europeans, satisfied with the cheapness of that workforce, enslaved them very early. By 1640, most Africans in Virginia were slaves.

Singing whilst working has always been part of African traditions. The work songs, sung by the slaves, were born from the transformation of African chants and litanies on American fields. They dated from the second generation of slaves and were used as the link between original African music and the one developed when the slaves forcibly interacted with the Euro-American society.

These songs, essentially sung acapella, were used to put rhythm into the slaves’ work. They were, for the most part, improvised and characterised by the call and response pattern.

The content of these work songs reflected the situation of the blacks as slaves. The songs died out after the breaking of the plantation system, but are said to have persisted in southern penitentiaries until the 1960s.

The evangelised negro and the negro spirituals

Tribal African cultural practices (especially religious rites) were forbidden on plantations. So, very early, the blacks tried officially to be part of their master's religion.

At first, they were rejected as they were not regarded as human beings. But, their evangelisation and consequently their admission into places of worship led them to sing in a western way.

Later on, the apparition of black churches made the evolution of the occidental chants towards the Negro Spirituals possible. Actually, negro spirituals were the occidental hymns revived by the slaves who imposed their own hymns, rhythms and habits.

Born in the 18th century, many spirituals compare the situation of the slaves in the 'New World' to the captive Jews’ one in Egypt in biblical times. The most striking example is the classic Go Down Moses.

The masters regarded them as songs of resignation while they actually conveyed hopeful messages only understandable by the slaves.

Not only did Negro Spirituals reflect the slaves’ evangelisation, but they also marked a significant milestone to emancipation, because that music, in the service of the blacks’ cults, reflected a denial of the mainstream culture.

Then, gospel, (Christian religious songs) created in the shadows of the spirituals, would appear in the 1920s and 1930s.

The sharecropper and the hollers

From 1861 to 1865, the United States were thrown into a civil war with the abolition of slavery at stake.

The end of this war resulted in the disappearing of plantations in one block and in their division into small farms. Thus, a huge majority of ex-slaves became sharecroppers with the duty to cultivate a plot of land in exchange for outrageous rights, that is to say 80 to 90 percent of the crop due to the owner.

Work songs would then turn into hollers or 'hollies', that is to say lonesome shouts that would be echoed by neighbouring workers and the sounds would spread from farm to farm.

That music reflected a new step taken by black people on American soil. Even if they were still exploited, they were no longer slaves and the hollies were there to testify it.

The itinerant African-American and the blues

Blues was the creation of black American people who were rejected in isolation and despair because of slavery and later on, because of segregation.

It is widely assumed, especially among blues singers, that blues existed during slavery. However, according to some musicologists, it would have appeared in the 1880s or 1890s.

It seems likely that the consolidation of this type of music was the outcome of the convergence of the work song, field holler and negro spiritual traditions with European cultural elements such as Anglo-Scottish ballads.

Blues became professionalised thanks to the negro theatres and was promoted through blacks’ migration, at the beginning of the 20th century, from the deep south to the industrialised north. This music was an opportunity to tell their life and experiences in the 'New World'.

The spread of blues in America and in the world was a significant step in black people’s advancement.

For part 2 of this piece, check back tomorrow at 10am GMT.

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