restricted access 9. The Blues Tonal System
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9 - TheBlues Tonal System Carl Gregor Herzog zu Mecklenburg and Waldemar Scheck (1963: 9) give an overview of the numerous theories by means of which Western musicians and musicologists from the 19205 to the 19605 tried to come to grips with a phenomenon in the blues that seemed to run contrary to all established harmonic rules of Western music: the "blue notes/' Bythis term normally two tones are understood , variously written as Bl> and El> in relation to the Western diatonic scale based on C. These two notes seem to be notoriously unstable and somewhat superimposed on the Western major scale like "aliens." In the literature blue notes have been described as "a microtonal loweringof the 3rd, yth and (to a lesser extent) 5th scale degrees" (Robinson 1980: 812), and various theories for their origin have been proposed by such writers as by Winthrop Sargeant (1938), Ernest Borneman (1959), and Gunther Schuller (1968), all proceeding from the standpoint that the blue notes are "deviations" or "inflections " of thestandard pitches (i.e., European diatonicism). More recently, Jeff Todd Titon (1977*. 161, fig. 64) has suggested an "early downhome blues mode." However, we who have worked in African cultures with the most diverse tonal systems cannot help but see the "inflections" on the other side. This impression is reconfirmed if we experimentally remove the blues' instrumental accompaniment, where it is based on tonic, subdominant, and dominant, or suppress its perception, and examine the singers' vocal lines in isolation, as if they sang without any accompaniment. Titon's (1977) transcriptions in relative notation (on C), omitting the guitar chords, are very useful in this context as a comparative database. If we do this, it becomes clear that each vocal line is an integrated, patterned whole, without anyparticular tones having special status. In spite of their regular 118 use for accompanying the blues and early forms of jazz, the three common Western chords appear to be the real "aliens," although blues and jazz musicians have for two or three generations now internalized them. And yet, musicians in the Deep South and even in many urban areas have never seemed quite comfortable with these chords. Mississippi bluesman Skip James's "Devil Got My Woman" (Paramount 13088, February 1931) is a testimony for a radically different approach, even in the early 1930$. More recently, these chords have often been replaced by bourdon-like recurring tones (e.g., various songs recorded by Jessie Mae Hemphill, Fred McDowell, R. L. Burnside,Junior Kimbrough, and Robert Belfour). Even at the height of these Western chords' fashionable use, in the 1920$ and 19305 when blues had come "to town" (cf. Mississippi Matilda's "Hard Working Woman" discussed earlier), the dominant chord at least was circumvented in some performances. And in the early 1940$, in bebop and thereafter, jazz quickly got rid of the simple chords with substitution chords, clustered chords, the simultaneous sounding of major and minor thirds, and the tritone intervals or flatted fifth chord (C-E-Fl), by which a new tonal ambivalence was introduced while preserving tonality (i.e., a central tonal reference point) as such. In my opinion, bebop brought jazz back closer to tonal concepts that even now prevail in certain African areas where so-called equiheptatonic tuning systems are found, notably in the Lower Zambezi valley(cf. a xylophone recording by Suze, double LP Opeka Nyimbo, Kubik and Malamusi 1989, item A 3), around Benin City, Nigeria, in southern Ghana, and in certain areas of the Cote d'lvoire. The African distribution map of equiheptatonic tonal systems and associated nonmodal concepts of homophonic multipart singing involving "neutral thirds" includes many areas from which people were deported to the Americas(see my recordings from Angola, Mukanda na makisi, double LP, Kubik 1981; or Gilbert Rouget's Pondo Kakou, Musee de 1'Homme, Paris, LP record MC 20141, item 11). Equiheptatonic concepts must therefore have reached the New World AfricanAmerican cultures during their formative periods. But what has remained of them? In Colombia and Ecuador, Lower Zambezi-type xylophones imported with Mozambiquans have survived to the present day in communities of African descent. In Central America, Congo xylophones have migrated into Amerindian cultures. In all these instances equiheptatonic and other tunings were soon adapted to the Western tonal system. Everywhere,factory-manufactured musical The Blues Tonal System 119 instruments tuned to the diatonic Western scale began within a few generations to erase from African-American musical cultures any concepts of equidistance. The same has happened from...


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