Saturday, June 16, 2007

Mini-lecture: Why blacks have so much rhythm

“[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

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.)


LeaNder said...

My sound was gone, but this is really interesting. Who would have thought, they could have forbidden drums? Mad! And a wonderful story about the uselessness of absurd interdictions.

A friend told me today in Poland they are researching if the Teletubbies could possibly be homosexual. Since than of cause they have to be forbidden.

Greetings from Cologne

Bryan Wilhite said...

What is really a tragedy is the loss of the holistic, esoteric understanding of what rhythm is. Since captivity we have a very literal, physical understanding of rhythm.

The next time you complain about someone not showing up on time, or someone not responding when you expect them to respond, then you know that the loss of rhythm is more prevalent than what the superficial sees.

LeaNder said...

In a class on style, ages ago, I was very fascinated by what felt for me an essential feature of certain black writers: rhythm. And I tried to copy it in my essay. I liked my paper, since I had tried to get as close as possible to what I loved about its essential rhythm and thought it was the best I had ever written (at that time).

But the lady got really mad at me. And I think it was the worst grade I ever got in my studies of English language and literature. She said, if I had only analyzed it, which I did too, she could have given me a much better grade. My analysis she wrote, was very good. But since I had also tried to copy the style, she had to punish me. I found this a very peculiar argument in a class on style.

Anonymous said...

The history of rhythm in black music does not explain black people's feel for rhythm any more than say a hispanic's feel for flamenco.

These cannot be encoded into DNA!

There may be other genuine biological reasons for a racial preference for rhythmic music.

Just because there SHOULDN'T doesn't mean there ISN'T.

It's blatently obvious that wherever there are blacks, there is ONLY rhythmic music -to the point where coincidence must be ruled out. Afer all, the history of Indian, Arabic and Spanish music is very rhythmic, but not wherever you find them in the world!