It feels great to jump on board Living Roots magazine, a journalistic freedom train that left the station and seems bound for glory – as in glorious: rich, lustrous and enlightening.
I plan to occupy this space with forays into the mine of one of the world’s richest veins of art, culture and entertainment – black music – an ongoing, vital body of historic work that has flowered for thousands of years and for the last three centuries here in America.
This magazine provides a prime perspective from which to observe, interpret and report on this iconic, aural art form invented and unleashed upon the world by people of color from the beginning of time – from Africa, the birthplace of civilization, then spreading across Asia and Europe and on to the New World, where it continues to be honed and refined as healing melodies, harmonies and rhythms that soothe the soul of people everywhere.
Like no other craft, black music has informed, entertained and uplifted untold numbers of people. It is varied and, because it has so many aspects, it is completely accessible. Black music is an ever-unfolding form, complete with a growing number of styles and genres and offering something for everyone. It runs the gamut from folk to popular to fine art.
Black music has spiritual qualities that are grounded in a real-world, practical base from which it generates its power. A concept in Rastafari sacred and secular philosophy – wordsoundpower – emerged from Jamaica in the last quarter of the 20th century. Its run-on words symbolize and graphically represent the relationship among words, sound and power. Think of it as word + sound = power.
In a musical context, the concept means that words and notes have a sound, separate and in combination, and the uttering of them has meaning – and that meaning has power. Energy comes from it. You can feel it. These ideas were revealed in the black music form called reggae. Think of classic songs by Bob Marley such as “Exodus” and “Jammin’” and you get what I mean.
Wordsoundpower is a foundational element of all black music. It’s a characteristic of an African aesthetic, a worldview that provides the basis for expressions of African culture, such as music.
Just what is black music? Based on a lifetime of consuming black music and about 30 years of exploring its history and legacy as a writer, researcher and producer, I’ve drawn some conclusions.
Black music springs from the experience of black people as a group. It is international in scope, originating in Africa, but it has come to be defined mostly as the African-American music that evolved in North, Central and South America as a result of the Atlantic slave trade.
Enslaved Africans imposed their native worldview and musical concepts onto European instruments and bodies of work, resulting in the continuum of black music in the Western Hemisphere that we’ve all come to know – spirituals, field hollers, works songs and chants, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.
And that’s just North America. There are the Afro-Cuban styles and rhythms as well. The earlier danzon and son forms produced the rhythms we’re more familiar with, such as mambo, rumba, cha cha cha and salsa. There’s bluebeat, ska, rock steady and reggae from Jamaica, while Mexico gave us mariachi, cancion and bolero, similar to Cuban bolero. The styles from South America, almost too numerous to mention, include tango, samba, lambada and bossa nova.
The range of black music obviously is wide and deep. The origins determine for me just what is black music. A simplistic definition is any music played by black people. Unfortunately, this narrow, shortsighted approach is the predominant one, it seems.
It’s not the color of the skin of the player that determines whether black music is being played. That view of things would leave out a number of major contributors to black music. For instance, nobody’s music and message are blacker than those of Bob Marley, the late, great Jamaican singer. He was mixed race; his father was white. He was raised black and chose to be black.
There also are some technical factors to consider. All forms of black music have certain characteristics in common. Call and response comes up all the time – a theme stated literally or musically, usually by a soloist, then a response from another musician or from the rest of the group – what could be called a chorus.
Black music features the bending of notes, slurring the pitch of notes sung or played to create what has come to be known as “blue” notes, sounds that occur somewhere between consecutive whole tones. This effect creates the melancholy feel of the blues.
Improvisation is key to black music. The singer or player is free to veer from the strict structure of a song, allowing into the mix the individual’s stamp on the piece of music. This is most pronounced in the jazz form of black music. That’s what’s going on when you hear a song being played or sung differently from the way you’ve heard it before.
Black music has a swing element, a rhythmic feature that accents certain beats, giving a propulsive feel to the music. It’s the trait that makes you snap your fingers, nod your head or tap your toes to the beat. There are additional aspects of black music, but, for the purposes of this column, the aforementioned will suffice.
Experiencing black music
I feel extremely fortunate to have lived my life immersed in black music; from the womb until now, it has always been around me. I have spent years listening, dancing, studying, researching, documenting and presenting this great art form. I have written articles, short stories, CD liner notes, newspaper stories, reviews, scholarly essays and columns about it. I co-founded a research project, the Charleston Jazz Initiative, based at the College of Charleston, with Dr. Karen Chandler in 2003. I am a founding board member of Jazz Artists of Charleston. I produced and hosted “Wednesday Night Jam Session,” a public radio music show, during the 1980s. I occasionally co-hosted and co-produced Osei Chandler’s “Roots Musik Karamu,” an African-rooted music show on public radio, also during the
1980s. I have produced CDs that include traditional Lowcountry music, blues, jazz and classical music.
I created the Charlton Singleton Orchestra, the prototype for the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, a 20-piece ensemble that has called the Charleston Music Hall home for annual seasons since 2008. I authored a book, “Charleston Jazz,” published in 2007 by Arcadia. I was founding president of the MOJA Arts Festival, which was built around black music, in 1984, as well as a co-founder of Piccolo Spoleto’s Jazz After Hours Series in 1980.
Coastal South Carolina
One of the great sources of black music in the Western Hemisphere is the Gullah coast, particularly the stretch along the waters of South Carolina. The roots of popular American music can be found among a people that has lived and worked the marshes, rivers and fields of this coastal plain for almost 350 years.
Spirituals, the first utterances of enslaved Africans in North America, were born, as far as anyone knows, right here in the Lowcountry. The first transcriptions of that black music were made by Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist Civil War Army officer from New England, in the Hilton Head/Beaufort area.
Black people have not looked back since – except to bring forward their ancestral roots in the process of creating not only survival tools but also artistic expressions that bring hope and promise.
That’s exactly what wordsoundpower will attempt to do.
Jack McCray, author of “Charleston Jazz,” also wrote JazzBeat(s), a column that appeared every other Thursday in the Post and Courier’s “Charleston Scene” section.
Jack Arthur McCray
1947 – 2011
This summer I received a call from Jack McCray, who said he wanted to write for Native Magazine, my prior publication. He watched the magazine develop and decided he wanted to be a part of something new and fresh. “I really dig what you’re doing,” he said. He then signed on to write a regular column for Living Roots. This issue was to include the first of many Jack McCray black music columns. I’m sad to say that this is the only one that will appear. But we included it because, well, it’s Jack’s column and that means it’s great writing and informative content. We honor him in publishing it posthumously as he wanted it displayed. The Living Roots family will miss our friend.
~ Deona Smith