restricted access 1. Sources, Adaptation, and Innovation
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I - Sources, Adaptation, andInnovation Anyone studying the history of the early rural blues and its proclaimed "roots" will be aware of the complexity of such an undertaking. To recall a few basic data of the general history of the United States might therefore help us to avoid the most serious errors, such as suggesting a direct, unilinear descent of the blues from any specific eighteenth- to nineteenth-century ethnic African musical genre. The first British settlement in North America wasJamestown, established in 1607. By the 16405 only a narrow strip along the Atlantic coast had been settled. In 1682 the French under La Salle penetrated the Mississippi River area from the south. Nouvelle Orleans was founded in 1718. Florida was under Spanish administration. Although some British pioneers did reach the Mississippi by the 17705, the area called Louisiana—much larger than today's state—was firmly under Spanish or French control. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the British slave trade brought ever increasing numbers of West Africans, first only from the Gambia/Senegal area, then from all along the Guinea coast, to Jamestown and other Atlantic coastal towns. Contemporaneous sources testify that during that period the African population was particularly concentrated in rural areas of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Dena Epstein (1973: 61) writes: Among the most tantalizing questions about African music in the New World are those concerning its earliest period. What kind of music did the Africans bring with them when they first arrived on the North American mainland?How long did that music persist in its new environment, and how was it transformed into something we now call Afro-American? 5 FIGURE i. The southern United States today. Outline of the broad geographical region under consideration in this book. She deplores the lacunae in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature: Authentic answers to these questions are not at all easy to find, for the published literature on the thirteen colonies says really very little about the black population and still less about its music. Those contemporary documents which have beenexamined barely mention them. (1973: 61) However, her meticulous work has uncovered a few significant sources. Concerning the mode of deportation of Africans to the New World, Epstein cites several eighteenth-century sources to testify that slave traders often encouraged dance and music among the captives on slave ships, to prevent their falling into depression and dying. Dances and songs were practiced on deck to "air" the Out of Africa 6 captives from time to time (Epstein 1973: 66—67). Musical instruments of various provenance were used for that purpose, including African musical instruments purchased on the Guinea coast. Epstein quotes, among other sources, Bryan Edwards (1793:116): "In the intervals between their meals they [the slaves] are encouraged to divert themselves with music and dancing; for which purpose such rude and uncouth instruments as are used in Africa, are collected before their departure" (quoted in Epstein 1973: 67). It is not surprising therefore that the knowledge of several African musical instruments reached North America, including one-stringed West African bowed lutes, two-stringed plucked lutes (cf Kubik 1989^ 80-81, 86-87, 189; Charry 1996 for a historical overview and typology), flutes, and drums. Dena Epstein has even traced a Senegambian "barrafoo " and an eighteenth-century "African drum" from Virginia in the British Museum (Exhibit 1368 of the Sloane bequest of 1753; see Epstein 1977: 47—62). This type of goblet-shaped single-headed drum is only known from the Guinea Coast; it has a characteristic type of attachment of the single skin: the so-called cord-and-peg tension (cf. Wieschhoff 1933) prominent in southern Ghana, Togo, Dahomey, and southwestern Nigeria. It is of secondary importance here whether any of these West African instruments actually reached the New World in the hands of the captives or their captors, or whether they were constructed in the new environment from memory, using local materials. John Michael Vlach compares the eighteenth-century drum from Virginia to the Asante apen~ temrna, and suggests that "the patina of red clay which cakes the surface of the drum indicates that it had been buried, hidden away" (1978: 21—22). The presence of more West African instruments in the New World, especially ones from the savanna and Sahel zones of the so-called Western Sudan, is attested to by Sir Hans Sloane (1707) also from another then British territory: Jamaica. Sloane's famous illustration (reproduced in Epstein 1973...

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