“[A]s soon as [enslaved Africans] were able to do so... they made the drums. And then they began to organize these cults around these drums, and began to have the dances.... And, of course, this was very strange and in many cases intimidating to the white man, so that he outlawed the drums. ...
“But, strangely enough, he could not destroy the great desire and impulse which these Africans had for playing drums. So what happened was this...”
On an individual level, the Internet is a mind-blowing miracle of communications in two ways: call them “output” and “input.”
I can type these words in my bedroom, and one minute later they might be read by somebody in Halswell, New Zealand or Sao Paulo, Brazil. That’s wild.
More important is the vast store of human knowledge at one’s fingertips. Feels like you can learn anything about everything.
My thing is cultural history. Also the intellectual history of black Americans, which most people don’t talk about much. I’m having a ball educating myself.
Let me introduce you to Willis Laurence James, a scholar, folklorist and concert violinist who for many years chaired the music departments at Spelman College and Morehouse College.
In 1970 – a few years after his death – Folkways Records released a lecture-on-wax by Dr. James titled “Afro-American Music: A Demonstration Recording.” You can buy it on CD or download it track-by-track from the Smithsonian Institution. (I downloaded mine from eMusic.com.)
One 8-minute track, “Africanisms in America,” deals with the centrality of rhythm to black folks. It’s a fascinating little lecture unto itself; Dr. James was a gifted pedagogue. Click here to hear “Africanisms in America” streaming on my Vox audio stash.
UPDATE (06/18/07): I’m intrigued by Dr. James’s notion that black Americans kept the African drum alive in their hands and feet. This would certainly explain the art of tap dancing.
It also explains the little-known (perhaps near-dead) art of “rag-popping,” whereby a shoeshine man literally plays his polishing rag as a percussive instrument.
Wanna hear an example? Click here and check out New Orleans street musician Percy Randolph on “Shine.”
This rag-popping demonstration is available on a 1958 Folkways album, “Music of New Orleans, Vol. 1: Music of the Streets: Music of Mardi Gras.” You can purchase it for download from iTunes or eMusic.
(And let’s not forget that the drum was also kept alive by mouth.)