Thursday, April 9, 2009

Africa and the blues (2) : face to face

Dear fellow river men and women,

I have received -and am halfway into- the book by Gerhard Kubik I told you about in a previous post. And Garaya just provided the companion disc on his blog.

That means I can post those fascinating samples given by Kubik when he did that "trait-by-trait" comparison between blues songs and field recordings he made in Central Cameroon in 1964.

Let's start with Big Joe Williams' "Stack-o Dollars", a very rough, one-chord Delta blues accompanied by a one-string fiddle. According to Kubik, an Africanist,"Delta blues has processed a stronger shot of traits from the West African savanna and sahel zone than other blues styles".

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

Now, let's hear Meigogué, a Hausa gogé (one-string fiddle) player recorded by Kubik in 1964. Gogué was a professional trader (like a lot of Hausa) and musical traveler from Cameroon.

Adamou Meigogué - Gogé song(Yoko, Cameroon, feb. 1964)

Meigogué's singing style with its melisma (singing of a single syllable of text while moving between several different notes in succession), alternating voice and fiddle, one-string melody and penthatonic mode is really close to the Big Joe recording. This style of music is influenced by Muslim-Arabic music, especially in the way of singing.

Another (even more) fascinating comparison can be made between :

A grinding song by a Tikar woman from Central Cameroon recorded by Kubik in 1964. Kubik said he had walked for half a day when he came to her village and heard her sing. So he gathered his equipment and recorded her at once. The song is about hard work, children supporting and the fear of death.

Tikar woman - Grinding Song(Monbra, Cameroon, feb. 1964)

... and Mississippi Matilda's "Hard Workin' Woman"

Mississippi Matilda - Hard Workin' Woman(buy)(New Orleans, 1936)

In addition to being simply amazing (and beautiful), those two examples show two distinct African styles that have influenced the blues (I'm quoting Kubik); They both come from the same area, the west central Sudanic belt, i.e. "the region from Mali across northern Ghana and Northern Nigeria into northern and central Cameroon"

(1) A strongly Arabo-Islamic song style, as found for example among the Hausa. It is characterized by melisma, wavy intonation, pitch instabilities within a pentatonic framework, and a declamatory voice production. All this behavior develops over a central reference tone, sometimes like a bourdon

(2) An ancient west central Sudanic stratum of pentatonic song composition, often associated with simple work rhythms in a regular meter, but with notable off-beat accents. This style reaches back perhaps thousands of years to the early West African sorghum agriculturalists, now scattered through the Sudanic belt in remote savanna, often mountainous areas. This style has remained unaffected by the Arabic / Islamic musical intrusion which reached West Africa along the trans-Saharian routes.

Of course, other African styles played a part (see the map on my first post), but those styles from west central Sudanic belt have a lot of common traits with the blues. They are devoid of percussion instruments, and drums were banned in most of the US plantations. they rely on string instruments, and are played by solo artists or small groups, on stringed instruments for the Arabic/muslim styles. That's probably why they survived more than the other styles in Northern America.

If you haven't, please check out the "Africa and the blues" program (interview, podcast) on the Afropop site.

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