PRESERVING AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY
by Lester Allyson Knibbs, Ph.D.
|Paul Whiteman (a white man) was called the King of Jazz. Benny Goodman was anointed the King of Swing. Elvis Pressley was crowned the King of Rock and Roll. And Eminem is becoming the King of Rap. Mmm-hmm.
It was Alain Locke, African American scholar, who in his The Negro and His Music affirmed the African American achievements in jazz and saved the jazz tradition from being co-opted as a "white" musical form.
Rarely, however, do African Americans as a people work to preserve their own heritage. The music of yesterday is forgotten, out-of-style, unless and until white people pick it up. And if white people fail to acknowledge the African American contribution, then it is forgotten.
White people have forgotten that the music of George Gershwin is African American music – assuming (hopefully) that the fact was ever acknowledged.
That white people are forgetful or ungrateful is no excuse for African Americans, who have an obligation to preserve their own history.
Nowadays, jazz and various popular styles are generally acknowledged to be of African American origin. What is not known is how historic and widespread the African American musical contribution is, particularly in the European classical tradition.
The African influence on European music dates, at least, to the Egyptian influence on the ancient Greeks. Pythagoras, the Father of Mathematics and Musical Theory in precisely the same sense that Benny Goodman was the King of Swing (which is to say, not at all), was an Arab (not a Greek) who studied for 22 years at the Royal Academy of Music in Egypt, which at the time (2,500 years ago) was already a thousand years old. (Paul Whiteman's popular music ensemble was not a jazz orchestra, by the way.) The word "music" itself comes from the Egyptian word "muse" which means "messenger".
European classical music did not even begin to evolve until many centuries later. In 711, the African influence on European classical music began in earnest. In that year, the Moors (Black African Muslims) conquered Spain. For several centuries, until the expulsion of the Moors beginning in 1492, Africans were a crucial influence on the development of European music and European life in general. It was the Moors who brought Europe out of its Dark Ages.
The European capture and enslavement of Africans began even before the expulsion of the Moors. By 1450, the Portuguese had begun kidnapping Africans for slavery in Portugal.
Despite the unbearable hardships of the Middle Passage and of slavery itself, Africans in the New World continued to stimulate the advancement of European music. In the 16th century, the musical form known as the "chaconne" was brought by returning Spaniards from Cuba to Spain. The chaconne – originally called "la ciacona" – was an African dance.
As a musical form, the passage of the chaconne through Spain and France before reaching Germany made its African features unrecognizable. A chaconne by Bach hardly sounds like an African American musical form, but that's what it is.
In the nineteenth century, a Latin American dance craze swept Europe. The habanera (from Havana, Cuba) and the tango (from Argentina), among others, penetrated into the inner precincts of European classical music. Astonishingly, it is still necessary to remind people (even African Americans) that Latin American music is African music. When African American diva Leontyne Price sang the Habanera from Bizet's opera Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera House, she was an African American singing an African American musical form. Debussy wrote piano pieces in the style of the habanera. Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra breaks into a tango as it winds up to its conclusion. The second theme in the first movement of Brahms' fourth symphony is a tango.
It is doubtful that Europeans had any idea that these musical expressions had anything to do with Black People.
On the other hand, other nineteenth century developments were well known African American incursions into the musical world of Europe. The Fisk Jubilee Singers toured Europe and acquainted Europeans with the African American spirituals. Antonin Dvorak, the great Czech composer, came to the United States, wrote his New World Symphony (his ninth symphony) based on African American music, advised Americans to use the African American spirituals as the basis for developing an American classical tradition, and took on several African Americans as composition students. The cakewalk (precursor to ragtime) and the minstrels eventually invaded Europe. These divergent influences – spirituals, cakewalk, minstrels -- can be heard in the music of Debussy. Divergent, because the white, black-faced minstrels were a cruel parody of African American musical genius, such cruel mockery reflected in Debussy's piano composition, "Golliwog's cake walk".
By the early twentieth century, ragtime and jazz made their mark on Europe. Such European composers as Stravinsky (Russian), Milhaud (French), and Hindemith (German), among others, were influenced by African American music.
In the United States, the situation is simple: American music is African American music. Popular standards, country and western, jazz, blues, rock, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, rap – you name it, it's African American. Gershwin included.
If you consider the global spread of jazz, rock and rap, then if it can be said that the Europeans (white people) have conquered the world militarily, politically, and economically, then Africans and African Americans have conquered the world musically.
Lester Allyson Knibbs, Ph.D.
Dr. Knibbs Plays Afro-Americana
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