Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Blues saga (4) : Africa and the blues

If you're a regular, you probably know I'm both fond of blues and Africa.

But I've always felt a little uneasy about conecting them, especially after seeing Feels Like Going Home, the Martin Scorsese documentary that links the blues to West African contemporary musicians like Ali Farka Touré. I found it really oversimplifying.
So I was really happy to find this wonderful interview of Gerhard Kubik on Afropop Worldwide.

You have to listen to the audio interview as well (that was a pleasure to me, because the interviewer is French and the interwiewed Austrian, so I could understand their accents very easily !!) because you can hear the music.

Pr. Kubik, a music ethnologist from the University of Vienna wrote a book on the subject, which is one of the only scientific studies about African influences on American music.

First thing in this interview, he rejects the concept of "roots" :

As a scientific term, “roots” was tenuous. It is a concept not best suited for historically oriented studies. In African and African-American history as elsewhere in the world we have to operate from sources: written sources, oral sources, recorded sources, if possible, archaeological sources. Where there are no sources, there can be no safe conclusions. “Roots” is too vague to be used beyond casual statements that such and such tradition is based on something, somewhere. For example all the talk about roots of the blues in Mali is just enough to satisfy the public’s need for wild imagination. But we want to know which traditions, by whom in Mali or elsewhere, and in which time period—late 18th century?—were relevant as a background for the rise of blues in the US a century later. Popular formulations such as “From Mali to Mississippi” are anathema to historical studies.
The roots concept also has an ideological undertone. It implies that you can study at one culture without the light of history, while the other cultures is just “roots” to the former, a repository of stagnant, centuries old tradition. The concept insinuates that one continent is a provider of musical raw material to be processed somewhere else. Now to us in Africa, this is not acceptable. We are not roots to anyone.

You'll notice that he spent so much time in the field in Africa that he refers to the continent as "us".

Summing the whole interview is impossible (the audio file lasts one hour), but here are a few decisive points that I picked :

Using a "trait by trait" comparison between various forms of blues and field recordings he made in every part of Africa, Kubik eventually drew a map of blues sources in Africa. The darkest zone is the "core area for the provenance of the rural blues" and covers the best part of the Savanah belt (first legend) : Southeastern Mali, Burkina Faso, Northern Nigeria and Cameroon. Some musical styles there were influenced by Islamic and Mediterranean culture.

Then you have areas showing more blues traits (second legend, in grey), and areas where asymetric timeline patterns are prominent (Guinea Coast and Central Africa), a trait absent from the blues, but present in Brazil for instance (third legend, in light grey). The two remaining legends demarcate areas where specific instruments (slider techniques and mouth harps) are used.

On the other hand, "Delta blues has processed a stronger shot of traits from the West African savanna and sahel zone than other blues styles".

What are those traits ? Declamatory singing, wavy, ornemental intonation and pentatonic tonal systems (e. g., the famous "blue notes" that were absent from European traditions).

In the audio interview, Kubik plays successively a song by Big Joe Williams and a recording of a single-stringed fiddle player in northern Cameroon, and the result is quite amazing.
I don't own the latter (go hear the audio interview for that), but just check the Big Joe Williams tune : it really sounds African.

Big Joe Williams - Stack'o Dollars (buy) (Chicago, 31 oct 1935)

Well, what's the reason for that overlap ? Let me quote Gerhard Kubik :

One explanation would be that African Americans in the Mississippi Delta experienced greater social isolation and deprivation (than in other Americans areas). Segregation was more rigorous than elsewhere. In such a situation, people anywhere in the world tend to create and establish an alternative culture, as different as possible from that of their oppressors. The memory of Islamic values attached to an Arabic Islamized savanna style cluster, probably transmitted within just a few families, would have been eligible to fulfill such a function, and it took over in at least one genre, blues singing and blues guitar.

So, to come back to the Ali Farka Touré subject, the expression "from Mississippi to Mali" is not so wrong, but it is a 2-way link. Let us not forget that at the beginning of his career in France he became a John Lee Hooker fan and then integrated elements of American blues in his own style. All across Africa, in the late 20th century, young musicians took from American and European music : in Congo, from Cuban son and rumba; in West Africa, some singers were influenced by French chanson, in Nigeria and Ghana High Life took from Calypso, etc… So all that marketing thing about Farka Touré being the source, the roots, is nonsense. Of course there were connections between his original culture, his individual style and the blues. That's why his music is so beautiful

Ali Farka Touré – Sidi Gouro (buy) (1988)

Here's another bluesman who sounds very African : Louisiana ex-convict Robert Pete Williams.

Nest post in blues saga will be about another underrated influence of the blues : Native Americans

Sources for this post : thanks to Afropop Worldwide. The map was taken from Kubik's book Africa And The Blues, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1999.


gadaya said...

If you're interested Nicolas, i can post on my blog "Times ain't like they used to be" the disc that goes with the book "Africa and the Blues". It's a very interesting record as it takes side by side examples of Blues and African music that shares the same vocal or instrumental pattern...

Nicolas L said...

So you have it ? Great ! I'm more than interested, as i just received the book yesterday from Amazon, but without the CD.
I've heard some comparisons on the Afropop podcast and it sounded really great !

So, yes, I'm interested ! Merci.