Muslim Roots of the Blues

Musicologists are discovering similarities between Islamic holy music and early American blues — similarities that go beyond the likelihood of coincidence. Have a listen. The parallel is pretty striking. What’s the connection?

It’s really there because of all the Muslim slaves from West Africa who were taken by force to the United States for three centuries, from the 1600s to the mid-1800s. Upward of 30 percent of the African slaves in the United States were Muslim, and an untold number of them spoke and wrote Arabic, historians say now.

So if most great American music — all of rock history and all of jazz — ultimately grows out of early blues, then by extension, American musical heritage is tied intimately to the music of Islam.

Music: Gary Numan :: Game Called Echo

23 Replies to “Muslim Roots of the Blues”

  1. It’s not hard to make music that sounds similar to existing music. If I write a song in Locrian mode (natural minor altered with a flatted 2nd and flatted 5th), it will sound Middle Eastern. Does that mean I have ties to the Middle East? No, it just means I’ve written something in Locrian mode.

    A lot of Klezmer music is written in Locrian, as Klezmer derives from traditional Jewish music of the Middle East. Locrian mode is widely used in the region. But to follow this train of logic, Klezmer is derived from Muslim music. Clearly untrue, as the Diaspora occured long before Muslim sacred music came into being.

    I’m not saying there is no connection between the blues and music of the Middle East, but to say that, “American musical heritage is tied intimately to the music of Islam,” is, I think, a bit of a stretch. It’s just creative people using different musical modalities. Never underestimate the creative fire of the human spirit.

  2. If 30% of early slaves were Muslim and untold numbers spoke Arabic, I would be surprised if their music *didn’t* reflect those roots. Now we have increasing research that shows that in fact there was a strong connection.

    So where is the stretch in the statement “American musical heritage is tied intimately to the music of Islam?”

  3. The stretch is that your numbers are inaccurate, to say the least.

    “Untold numbers?” Well, “untold numbers” were also animists and pagans.

    “Untold numbers” spoke Yoruba and other dialects.

    “Untold numbers” of slaves sent to America were sold into bondage by their greedy and amoral neighbors. Who were *not* Muslim, as selling another Muslim into bondage is a gross violation of shariya.

    This article makes it sound as if the vast majoirty of African slaves were Muslim. An assertion denied by all current scholarship. To quote current research, “A small but significant proportion of African slaves, some estimate 10 percent, were Muslim.”

    “Slaves obtained from the Muslim dominated North African coast however proved to be too well educated to be trusted and had a tendency to rebellion.”

    Current scholarship asserts that 40.8% of the slaves brought from Africa were from the West Central African region; a region that was not then, nor is not now, predominantly Muslim.

    http://www.nhc.rtp.nc.us/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/islam.htm

    http://www.h-net.org/~africa/threads/muslimslaves.html

    http://africanhistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa080601a.htm

    Again, this article plays fast and loose with facts and scholarship. And it’s noble to want to see the ties that bind us, but let’s not rewrite history to assuage our sense of being members of the world community.

  4. As an aside, current thinking postulates that the majoirty of Muslim slaves came from the Senegambia region; which makes sense, given its proximity to Tombouctou (Timbuktu), the westernmost seat of Islam thought and scholarship.

    Senegambia slaves made up 4.7% of the total slave trade.

  5. *My* numbers aren’t innacurate – I didn’t come up with any numbers. The musicologist quoted in the Chronicle article did. Does that musicologist for some reason have less credibility than others? Do you think that person hasn’t spent years reading and studying the hell out of the subject before publishing?

    The links you provided make it clear that there are wildly different estimates out there of the percentage of Muslim slaves, and that these numbers differ according to the regions they were imported from, and concentrated differently depending on where they ended up in the U.S.

    Nowhere in the article or in my post is it implied that the majority of slaves were Muslim. And one of the links you provided points out that Muslim slaves were likely to have had an influence on slave culture greater than their numbers (presumably because of their comparative education?)

    But all of that is completely beside the point. Some scholars are drawing out (what I think is) a very interesting footnote in the evolution and dispersion of musical styles throughout the world. Their evidence is fairly convincing, and historical facts certainly support the likelihood of stylistic connections between the groups.

    Would you also get contentious on me if I said that humanity evolved from monkeys, or from amoebas? That’s a much greater stretch, but still true. The fact that it’s unintuitive at first blush is exactly what makes it interesting. History (biological, human, etc) winds in crazy beautiful ways.

  6. Do you think that person hasn’t spent years reading and studying the hell out of the subject before publishing?

    Do you think the whacko Christian Right can’t trot our some very educated people to back up their claims of Creationism? Just because you hold a degree doesn’t instantly make you a font of truth.

    Some scholars are drawing out (what I think is) a very interesting footnote in the evolution and dispersion of musical styles throughout the world.

    OK, and since Judaism existed long before Islam, and Jewish music uses the Locrian mode, we may assume that the sacred music of the temple has intimate links with the sacred music of the mosque.

    I rather prefer to think of humans as creative, rather than wholly derivative.

    Would you also get contentious on me if I said that humanity evolved from monkeys, or from amoebas?

    This is nothing but reductio ad absurdum. Being “contentious” about scientifically proven theorems versus sociology/musicology (which is hardly as “hard” a science as genetics) is not at all on the same plane of existence.

    And you know, there’s something slightly racist to me about saying, “Those slaves brought over their Islamic African culture, which they Xeroxed from Arabs,” rather than just thinking “all people having the ability to be creative.”

    African peoples are as creative as anyone else, and equally able to compose in Locrian mode.

  7. > Just because you hold a degree doesn’t instantly make you a font of truth.

    Absolutely right. But I have no reason to be suspicious of the scholar quoted in the article, or to think that that scholar has any more or less credibility than any other.

    > OK, and since Judaism existed long before Islam, and Jewish music uses the Locrian mode, we may assume that the sacred music of the temple has intimate links with the sacred music of the mosque.

    I haven’t read up on ties between ancient Jewish music and Islam musics, but I would be more suspicious of a claim that there was no syncretism than that there is. The idea of musical inheritance from Judaism to Islam sounds feasible and interesting to me, now that you mention it.

    > I rather prefer to think of humans as creative, rather than wholly derivative.

    Did anyone imply “wholly derivative?” There’s a connection. It’s a pretty clear connection. Humans learn from humans. That’s how we’ve gotten where we are, in every field. Creativity that doesn’t lean on previous/other creativity is almost impossible to imagine. The idea that slave music arose spontaneously from out of nowhere, without drawing on cultural roots, is far more absurd than the idea that roots matter, and that we generate new branches on the trees we’re given by fate.

    “Scientifically proven theorems” — we’re in the realm of anthropology here. We have various kinds of evidence and records, and we have theories that attempt to explain the evidence.

    The idea that cultures and rituals merge and form new forms is hardly radical — the history of the world is a long series of creolizations. Would you also say that the merging of Christianity and African religious rituals into Cajun Vodun is a radical idea? Or would you prefer to think that Vodun is a purely spontaneous creation of merged cultures, and does not draw from its own roots?

    > And you know, there’s something slightly racist to me about saying, “Those slaves brought over their Islamic African culture, which they Xeroxed from Arabs,” rather than just thinking “all people having the ability to be creative.”

    Great, now I’m slightly racist. Oops, now I’m saying the slaves were plagiarists. Oops, now I’m saying slaves weren’t creative. Just call me Archie Bunker for thinking that a respected musicologist and scholar has something interesting to say about syncretic cultures.

  8. Would you also say that the merging of Christianity and African religious rituals into Cajun Vodun is a radical idea?

    Not if the majority of scholarship on the issue indicates such a relationship. But that’s not the case here.

    It’s a pretty clear connection.

    Two songs that use Locrian modality and similar intonation doesn’t strike me as a such a clear connection.

    Great, now I’m slightly racist.

    That’s not what I said. I said the notion of Africans needing an Arabic spark struck me as somewhat racist.

    I have no qualms about admitting that there is syncretization, and sometimes outright plagiarism, between cultures. But before I revise the artistic accomplishments of a group of people and attribute a good deal of the creativity to another group, I want to be sure I’m on very solid footing. I don’t think that’s the case here. And if you disagree, that’s fine. Everyone is entitled to read that article in their own way.

  9. mneptok is correct when he says Muslim music is based on Jewish music. Listen to a Rabbi or Cantor sing.

    Here’s an example.

    Listen also to authentic Spanish Flamenco singers (not Gypsy Kings).

  10. All of this folderol and palaver reminds me of Sean O’Riada(a great Irish composer and music theoritician)’s claim that Irish music came from the Himalayas by way of North Africa: “intense,

    provocative, and fascinating” to quote.

  11. mnep, the majority of the scholarship seems to agree that there were Muslim slaves. As with most anthropological studies, scholars disagree on exactly how many (since the actual number cannot of course be verified). And if there were Muslim slaves, then no scholar would disagree that their presence had some influence on slave culture.

    People share music. That’s one of the neat things that we humans do.

    Two songs? Do you really think all of this is about two songs? Would similarity between two songs be enough to base academic careers and books and speaking tours on? Would it be enough to make other academics take the research and conclusions seriously? Read the article again. Here’s an interesting snippet:

    “the vocal style of many blues singers using melisma, wavy intonation, and so forth is a heritage of that large region of West Africa that had been in contact with the Arabic-Islamic world of the Maghreb since the seventh and eighth centuries.” (Melisma is the use of many notes in one syllable; so, instead of a note that produces, say, a single sound of “ah,” you’d get a note that produces something like, “ah-ahhhh-ahhh-ah-ah.” Wavy intonation refers to a series of notes that veer from major to minor scale and back again, something that’s very common in both blues music and in the Muslim call to prayer.

    Clearly he’s talking in broad strokes about characteristics shared by the blues and traditional music of Islam – and drawing out a probable lineage of influence on many levels, not just a shared scale, not just a rare stylistic similarity, and not just in two songs, but on a broad level.

    That’s not xeroxing, that’s not plagiarism, that doesn’t diminish the creativity of the blues, or any of the other ridiculous things you’ve credited me with suggesting. That’s history and the evolution of human cultures at work.

    >> Great, now I’m slightly racist.

    > That’s not what I said. I said the notion of Africans needing an Arabic spark struck me as somewhat racist.

    Did *I* say that Africans needed an Arabic spark? You put words in my mouth, interpolated notions I had not even hinted at, then stated that you found those words slightly racist.

  12. Pulling from a hat three extremely creative and gifted artists of the 20th century: Jimi Hendrix, Captain Beefheart, and John Coltrane. Does one balk when people talk about how deeply rooted their music is in the blues? None of them sound like Leadbelly, but no one would say (I hope) they aren’t all branches on the tree of the blues… which itself is a branch of styles that went before… trace all the way back to banging on a log or blowing into a shell.

  13. I would like to believe there is something greater in music and it’s relationship that transcends connecting points of the present to points in the past.

    maybe the points could be connected but untracable. sorta like a black hole sucking in elements combining them and spiting them out in a seemingly random time and place to surface again.

    nah, i’m much to emperical/logical for that.

    Hey, at first I didn’t like the image thingy on the right. seems like it had no purpose and was done just because it could be. But now i like it. I think because they are so interesting in subject matter.

  14. “Scientifically proven theorems” – nothing but a popular myth. There’s no such thing.

    There are scientifically disproven theorems, and scientifically validated theorems, but no scientifically proven theorems. Never.

  15. Interesting debate. I wonder if you’d posted that link but substituted Swahili for Arabic would there have been such a vociferous reaction? I suspect not

  16. There are scientifically disproven theorems, and scientifically validated theorems, but no scientifically proven theorems. Never.

    Plain water, in Earth’s atmosphere at sea level, boils at 100C.

    Proven.

  17. Agreed.

    But that’s not what Dan said. He said there are no scientifically proven theorems.

    My comment about proven theorems came after you said:

    Would you also get contentious on me if I said that humanity evolved from monkeys, or from amoebas?

    Are you now saying that this is NOT a validated/proven theorem and people should be “contentious” over it? I hope not. ;)

  18. I hate to inform you guys of something, the current research on the influence of Afro-Arabic music on African American music is not new, not to mention the impact of Arabic music on European music, which is much more quantifiable.

    I do believe that the 30% figure is high in terms of the number of slaves who might have been muslim however muslim slaves tended to be treated differently from non-muslim slaves because they had valuable skills that even their owners didn’t have. So they might have been few in number but they had a strong influence.

    By the way, the parts of the south in which blues and jazz developed one will find that the prefered slaves where from the Senegambia an area that was heavily influenced by Islam. Why because the slaves from this part of Africa were planters.

    On another note just before Hendrix passed away he had started working with a mulsim artist by the name of Nurrideen and Coltrane wrote a few songs that had arabic names.

    Now Phil, my name sake, you need to go and do some homework before you say something as off the wall about true flamenco and that is has nothing to do with arabic music or backing up mneptok on his point about muslim music being based on jewish music. Of course arabic music is connected to the judeo christian musical traditions because both jews and christians lived in the middle east and spoke arabic and still do live there and speak arabic.

    Take care,

    Phil

  19. You guys are so entertaining.

    Without going into a ‘who’s right/wrong’ diatribe, I will, however, say this:
    Humans are incredible mimics.
    Doubt me? Go watch a 15 month old baby.
    Better yet, a 4 year old.

    The point is twofold:
    a) who GIVES a crap if this group of people was influenced by that? That’s the way music GOES, folks. Doubt THAT? Listen to a band called Sweet James, and tell me you don’t hear Rush and Led Zeppelin in there.
    b) Opinions are like sphincters. We all have them, and usually nobody cares about anybody else’s but their own.

  20. Wow… this is an old discussion but just thought I’d mention that Dr. Sylviane Diouf is the foremost expert on African Muslim slaves in the Americas (see “Servants of Allah” — required reading for this subject). She is not a “musicologist”. The 30% number comes from her.

    This altmuslim.com article on the International Museum of Muslim Cultures’ exhibit “The Legacy of Timbuktu: Wonders of the Written Word” puts the number of African Muslim Slaves in America at “one-third”. (http://www.altmuslim.com/perm.php?id=1908_0_25_0_C)

    The 10% number seems to be coming from only one page which I can’t find at the moment.

    Additionally, for what’s it worth, this PBS site says “up to 20% of the Africans brought to America were Muslims.” (http://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/journey_1/p_3.html)

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