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english race

[Comment] Blues people: negro music in white america

Yongho Kim
Telling Labor’s Story through Music
February 10, 2004

Baraka points out in chapter 2 that West African music provided a baseline for the music sung by African-Americans who came to the United States through slavery. Two main tenets of these West African roots are the multilingualism of its lyrics and the narrow albeit continuous range in the melody (24). While traces of an unique West African melodic range is visible in the songs assigned, the heritage of multilingualism becomes slightly problematic.

Baraka explains that West African harmonic system, from which the African-American one develops, unlike European harmonic system, does not follow a scale of tones and half-tones. For ears trained solely around classical/medieval European music, the melodic variations of a West African music may appear either chaotic or static. (The same should be true for the contrary. 25) This is because the West African melody moves subtly between the spaces that a European scale considers discrete. This feature seems prominent in songs that belong to the African-American musical tradition. (Consider, for instance, “O, Lord, I’m waitin’ on You” (CD9, 2) at the instance when te singer sings “Oh Lord” for the third time.)

However, when Baraka’s assertion that Spanish, French, the different languages from West Africa, and Creole, mixed during the experience of slavery to create a multifaceted lyric for the African-American music, seems far stretched. It is true that in early slave work songs, such as “Ouendé, ouendé, macaya!” (21), mixed French and African portions. This split, Baraka goes on, served the purpose of hiding subversive ideologies from the masters. But in listening to early 19th century’s folk, blues, and spirituals, I find no such mixing. On the one hand, there is obviously no further need to hide messages. On the other hand, most of these words have been incorporated into (almost) everyday English. When I hear foreign-derived words in the songs assigned, I can feel no distinct foreign ethos such as those found in Latino speech which may mix Spanish words (which are distinguishably identifiable as “non-english” words) or any other language.

I am not sure if this happens because of the long history of African-Americans in the US, or because of some preferential pattern in which the media portrays certain words as foreign/exotic whereas others become merely slangs. But in either case, I can argue that should many words in contemporary African-American/African-American derived lyrics originally come from other languages, it has reached a distinctive familiarity that sets it apart from other foreign-induced words.

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