African Muslims and American Blues

Sylviane A. Diouf, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

"I am the root and the trunk, all they have is the branches and the leaves" said the late guitarist and singer Ali Farka Touré. The root and the trunk grew in his native Mali; the branches and the leaves in the United States. What he was talking about was music. The music of the Sahel, this vast area of Africa stretching from Senegal in the West to Sudan in the east, just south of the Sahara; and the quintessential African-American music, the blues. What linked one to the other were the people principally from Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, and Mali deported by the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the United States.

About 24 percent of the 400,000 Africans who landed in this country came from that West African area also known as Senegambia. Among them were a large percentage of Muslims. Peoples of the Western Sahel had been in contact with the Arab-Berber Islamic world since the eighth century and Islam had spread in a consistent manner since the first decades of the eleventh century.

Among the cultural exchanges that took place between North Africa and the Middle East on the one hand and the Sahel on the other—through trade, migrations, and pilgrimages— was music. The Arab/Islamic musical style was adapted and transformed by West Africans into something entirely theirs that was at the same time very close but different. Similarly, West Africans deported through the trans-Saharan trade brought their music and rhythms (including those that had already been changed by the Arab/Islamic contact) North to the Maghreb. There was much cross-fertilization on both sides of the desert and it is this complex heritage that West African Muslim captives brought to the United States where it found a fertile ground.

In the American South, Sahelian Muslims had a better chance of preserving their musical style than the more numerous non-Muslims from coastal West Africa and Central Africa who relied heavily on drumming and group singing. The reason is that drums were outlawed in the South—it was feared they could relay messages and calls to revolt—therefore Sahelian musicians who traditionally used string and wind instruments could continue to perform their music while others were prevented from doing so.

Moreover, the Sahelians quickly adapted their skills to European instruments such as the fiddle and the guitar. Out of their traditional lutes, they created the banjo later adopted by white musicians. They also played in the slaveholders’ balls, which enabled them to exert their talents openly and to pass them on as they formed new generations of native-born musicians. With the domestic slave trade that affected more than a million Africans and African-Americans from the Upper South between 1790 and 1865, the Sahelian musical style (and others) migrated to the Deep South, including Mississippi.

Two American specificities can thus explain the emergence of the blues. Of all the countries in the Western hemisphere, the United States received the highest proportion of men and women from Senegal, Gambia, Mali, and Guinea; and it is also the only place where drumming was forbidden. So it is not by chance that the blues evolved only there. What makes this music so different from Caribbean and Afro-South American music is specifically the presence of Sahelian/Arabic/Islamic stylistic elements. They can be found in the instrument playing techniques, the melodies, and the singing style.

The string-playing techniques used by blues guitarists are akin to those developed in the Sahel. The kora, a Mandinka 21 string harp, is “played in a rhythmic-melodic style that uses constantly changing rhythms, often providing a ground bass overlaid with complex treble patterns, while vocal supplies a third rhythmic layer” states musicologist John Storm Roberts who concludes that “similar techniques can be found in hundreds of blues records.” The same holds true for the vocals. The emblematic song coming from the Sahel is a solo—no call and response there—moaning kind of song, done by an individual with a raspy voice, in a declamatory vocal style. Blues expert, Alan Lomax, called it a “high lonesome complaint.”

The typical blues, a high lonesome complaint of its own, is also sung by one individual with a string (guitar) or wind (harmonica) instrument in a throaty style. In addition, the “long, blending and swooping notes” of the blues, explains Roberts are “similar to the Islam-influenced styles of much of West Africa.” And so are producing a note slightly under pitch, breaking into a vibrato or letting the note trail off and finishing it above what is expected.

Even an untrained ear can recognize the similarities between the blues and Islamic-influenced West African music, but parallelisms are also strong between the blues and the chanting of the Qur’an. Melisma—changing the note of a syllable while it is being sung-- and wavy intonations are the basis of these Islamic styles and they became the traditional techniques of blues singers.

The blues also shows strong similitude with the call to prayer, the adhan: same ornamented notes, tortuously elongated sounds, pauses, nasal humming, melisma, and simple melody. Like the adhan, “Levee Camp Holler,” recorded by Lomax in a Mississippi penitentiary in the 1930s, could have floated from a minaret. There is no doubt that enslaved Muslims--whose preservation of their religion as been well studied—called to prayer. Non-Muslims, to whom the adhan repeated time and again would have sounded just like another song, would then have appropriated its style. Because in the end, although the music and the techniques that evolved into the blues were brought by West African Muslims, they were not the only creators of this musical genre. Africans from other areas, and people born in the United States, became familiar with and used those styles adding their own mark. But, as musicologist Gerhard Kubik stresses, “most of the blues tradition in the rural areas of Mississippi has prevailed as a recognizable extension in the New World” of the musical style of the Sahelians. It is one of the most enduring and recognizable contributions of West African Muslims to American culture.

Sylviane A. Diouf, Ph.D., is the author of Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York: New York University Press, 1998.)

Listen in on a comparative example of these two audio experiences, presented here by courtesy of Sylviane A. Diouf:

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For further reading
Kubik, Gerhard. Africa and the Blues (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.)
Lomax, Alan. The Land Where The Blues Began. (New York: Pantheon, 1993.)
Roberts, John Storm. Black Music of Two Worlds (New York: Praeger, 1972.)